Friday, August 13, 2010

Democracy: a Threat to Freedom?

One of the biggest threats to freedom that is emerging in today’s society is democracy. That is not to say that democracy is in some way fundamentally illiberal – rather, the fact that democracy, which is a means rather than an end, has become an unchallenged synonym for freedom is a key problem. Democracy may play a part in a free society, but democracy itself is not freedom, and can be detrimental to freedom in some respects.

Democracy gives power to the people to choose their leaders; it does not, however, guarantee that the leaders chosen will respect freedom. Democracy, at least in the modern sense of a political system based on open elections, gives people the freedom to choose, but it does not follow that people will automatically choose to be free. The 2004 US Presidential election illustrates this contradiction; in a free election, the people choose to re-elect George W Bush – a President who brought in the deeply illiberal Patriot Act and who backed state torture of terror suspects. In this case, democracy worked against freedom; it allowed the re-election of a man who eroded the civil liberties that are so essential to a free society.

Furthermore, the term democracy has also been abused to such an extent that it has become almost meaningless. The Iraq war illustrates this: the invasion was meant to bring democracy to Iraq, and in doing so, bring freedom. Yet the concept of forcing democracy – which is fundamentally about the will of the people – on a nation without consulting the people is as completely contradictory as it is undemocratic. There was nothing democratic or free about how democracy was brought to Iraq; in a truly free and democratic society the people would have chosen what political system they wished to have, rather than having that system chosen for them by an occupying power. Here, “democracy” was neither about freedom or genuine democratic choice.

Finally, democracy itself has become detrimental to political life in many Western societies. Because democracy has become synonymous with freedom, it is assumed that if the people get the chance to vote every four to five years then they live in a free society. Inbetween those elections, politicians are simply not challenged as they should be, and the notion that freedom requires constant vigilance is lost as long as the people get to give the nod to one party or another at regular intervals. As the recent Labour administration in the UK shows, a government can do a great deal inbetween elections to corrode civil liberties in a nation without provoking uproar from the people losing their freedoms. The modern ideal of democracy seems to require only that people vote when they get the chance. Freedom, however, requires a lot more from its people.

Ultimately, democracy has a part to play in freedom, but the modern day reverence for democracy and the constant, incorrect conflation of democracy with freedom represent at the very least challenges, if not direct threats, to freedom.

This post is an entry in the blog contest responding to the new book, New Threats to Freedom edited by Adam Bellow. The contest is open to all and further information can be found here.

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At 11:42 am , Blogger Obnoxio The Clown said...

Cracking piece, sir!

At 11:51 am , Blogger Bobski said...

Have to agree with the Clown!

At 12:00 pm , Blogger Bucko said...

Me too.
I've never beleived democracy to ba a good thing, simply the best bad thing.
A society where 51% of the people can vote to enslave the remaining 49% is not free.

At 12:05 pm , Blogger Guthrum said...

There are few more dangerous errors in political thinking than to equate democracy with liberty.

James Bovard 2006 ‘The Freeman‘

Read more:

At 12:11 pm , Anonymous David Chiverton said...

The Clown (and everyone else) is right. Great piece of writing.

At 12:17 pm , Anonymous The Jaunt said...

An excellent and well written piece, TNL. In fact, I was just thinking about how our politicians and third ate political commentators call our society a "free society", just on the basis that we're bribed with a so-called vote every five or so years.

With Democracy also opens the gate for populism and cheap tabloid sentiments, in which politicians pander to, passing a lot of very illiberal laws.

At 12:17 pm , Anonymous The Jaunt said...

*third rate

At 1:00 pm , Blogger Vladimir said...

I differ only regarding the implicit suggestion that democracy is a new threat to freedom. Democracy and freedom are mutually exclusive.

More than the tyranny of the majority, democracy means permanent decline. The democratic government must always become larger, more costly, more corrupt, and less effective at governance, because the actors within it gain power by promising new things to the people.

The result is not liberty. It is the tyranny of a million minor bureaucrats, each looking after their own tiny slice of power and tax money, combined with constant pro-democratic propaganda from the established media. Because of democracy itself, no politician can ever make the sort of reforms necessary to bring the system back under control. May I recommend Unqualified Reservations to interested readers, as he says it far better than I.

At 1:26 pm , Blogger Caedmon's Cat said...

The problem with democracy is inbuilt, like a defective gene in an organism. It creates and promotes an open society in which it takes great pride, but has no successful mechanisms to enable it to deal with fascist, Marxist, Fabian, and various other Utopian ideolologies that worm their way in. It therefore contains the seeds of its own destruction - which is taking place before our very eyes..

At 9:40 am , Blogger deadaccount. said...

Democracy is complete bullshit.

I liken voting to signing a contract with the government which says that it is ok for you not to be free, ok to have your property rights violated via taxation, ok to have these utterly illiberal laws passed.

It is not enough to simply pay more attention to politics. Under democracy, there will always be people who are oppressed. Whether they are smokers, gays, rich people, or everybody except civil servants, doesn't matter.

Fuck democracy.

At 8:18 pm , Blogger Indyanhat said...

I'm with the angry teen, fuck democracy sounds about right.

good piece, well written with a nice slant on the thinking. Good luck in the Competition!

At 11:37 am , Blogger Unknown said...

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote"

I'd love to claim it for my own, but credity has to go to Benjamin Franklin.


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