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What’s So Great About Democracy?


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At the recent Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, President Biden refused to permit Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to attend because they aren’t democracies. As everyone knows, for the past several decades, the US government has made democracy its shibboleth. It’s as if democracy is something sacred.

Yet, what’s so great about democracy? It’s really nothing more than people selecting their rulers by votes rather than rulers selecting themselves. What’s so sacred about voters? US officials promote the notion that voters select the best people to public office, as if they always elect saints.

Given that this is the 50th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, why not apply the democracy test to Richard Nixon, a president who was forced to leave office because of his criminal activity?

And then there was Lyndon Johnson, the president that Nixon succeeded. Many years after he had died, it was determined that LBJ cheated his way to victory in his 1948 race for US Senate. If he hadn’t had his political cronies illegally stuff the ballot box in a county in South Texas, he would have lost that race and undoubtedly would never have become president. 

Supporters of Donald Trump point to Biden as another example of how voters can make serious mistakes in who they elect to office. Biden supporters say the same thing about Donald Trump. In fact, Biden supporters are doing everything they can to use legislation to ban Trump from running again so that voters won’t have the chance to vote him back into office. 

Democracy is often confused with the concept of freedom. If a system is democratic, the argument goes, that shows that people are free. 

That’s ludicrous. Freedom has nothing to do with how people elect their rulers. Consider Latin America, for example, the part of the world that was the focus of that recent Summit of the Americas. It’s often said, with validity, that people in Latin America have the freedom to elect their dictators every four or six years. That’s because their rulers wield and exercise dictatorial powers. So, whoever gets the most votes is the one who gets to be the dictator. 

Democracy is not even mentioned in the Constitution. That’s because the Framers knew better. They understood that democracy was not only not freedom, it actually poses a grave threat to freedom. That’s why they severely limited the powers of the federal government. It’s also why our ancestors demanded the enactment of the Bill of Rights — to protect the people from democracy. 

For the first hundred years of American history, the US had a mixed record with respect to liberty. There were the bad things, such as slavery and women’s rights. But there was also the good things, such as: No Social Security, income taxation, Medicare, public schooling, drug war, immigration controls, Pentagon, CIA, NSA, FBI, foreign wars, coups, and interventions, and the countless bureaucratic agencies and departments that now pervade the federal government. 

With the conversion of the federal government to a welfare state, with the adoption of a paper-money system, which replaced the nation’s gold-coin, silver-coin system, and with the enactment of a federal income tax, everything changed. Democratically elected public officials now wielded and exercised the power to destroy the economic prosperity of the nation.

The conversion of the federal government to a national-security state changed everything in a much more dramatic way. The national-security branch of the government — i.e., the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA — was given omnipotent powers — the same types of powers that are wielded and exercised by totalitarian, dictatorial regimes, such as Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, the three Latin Americans countries excluded from the recent Summit of the Americas. Such powers include assassination, torture, and indefinite detention. 

Thus, America ended up with a system in which the powers of some public officials are still fairly limited but where an entire section of the federal government wields omnipotent, totalitarian-like, dark-side powers. And that section of the government — the national-security section — consists entirely of people who have not been voted into office. 

Finally, there is something else to note about America’s democratic system: the power of the president to rule by executive decree. Consider President Biden, for example. He wields the power to send US taxpayer money and US-funded weaponry to Ukraine on his own initiative. For his part, President Trump used executive decrees to start a destructive trade war with China, without congressional authorization. 

As Ludwig von Mises pointed out, the only real advantage of democracy is that it enables people to change their rulers and even their systems without a violent revolution. But it certainly does not guarantee freedom and, in fact, oftentimes ends up destroying freedom. Genuine freedom turns on the limitation of power of those in public office, not on how people end up in public office. 

Reprinted with permission from Future of Freedom Foundation.
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