Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Democracy and the Right to Vote

From claims that we’ve won the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq simply because locals there can now vote, to recent “Get Out the Vote” campaigns, our leaders -- democrats and republicans alike -- consistently imply that the most fundamental American political idea is that of democracy.

But is it really? Is the form of government we advocate really best denoted by the term “democracy” and is the freedom to vote truly a citizen’s most important right?

Our Founding Fathers certainly didn’t think so.

In its root sense, democracy refers to a form of government in which the majority rules. There are no limits placed on the issues which fall under the voters’ control, so if the majority wishes something done, it is done, regardless of who is sacrificed along the way. (The most famous illustration of this is Socrates’ execution at the hands of Athenian democracy.)

Since democracy offers no legal protection to individuals or minorities, the Founding Fathers rejected it, and in its place chose a form of government which could do so: a constitutional republic. In such a system, the government’s role is clearly defined and delimited by a written constitution -- a document which cannot be trumped by the momentary whims of any emotional majority.

Moreover, in their genius, the Founding Fathers recognized that it is not enough to simply have a constitution -- rather, to fulfill its purpose, a valid constitution must be based on a respect for, and a defense of, every individual citizen’s rights. Only when it is so based is each man protected, and only then does the role of the government become strictly limited (e.g. to such functions as military, police and judiciary).

To properly implement such a constitutional system, it is essential to understand the hierarchy of man’s rights. As Locke and others helped show, man’s most fundamental right is to his own life and freedom, with all other rights flowing from it. Thus it is no accident that in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson identifies only three rights, those of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, because these are the most basic of rights, from which all others are derived.

Yet it is precisely this hierarchical view that our leaders have lost. And while it is true that the rights they so often cite, most notably the right to vote, are valid, they are only so when subordinate to the fundamental right of each man to his own life.

Thus freedom of association is an important right, but it cannot be used to justify gathering in a lynch mob; freedom of speech is vital to a free society, but it cannot justify libel or defamation. Similarly, the right to vote is important, but no vote can override any individual’s rights. In a proper representative form of a constitutional republic, voting is used to decide who fills certain positions in government, but the power of those positions is restricted by written law protecting every individual -- regardless of anyone’s vote to the contrary.

Now clearly our politicians and intellectuals do not advocate something so crass as unlimited mob rule. But by continuing to hold democracy as the end-all be-all of national policy, they obfuscate and undermine the proper goal of protecting individual rights.

For instance, their pointing to free elections and democratically-adopted constitutions in Iraq and Afghanistan is of itself meaningless. After all, Hitler rose to power largely through democratic and constitutional processes.

Rather, the only valid standard for American policy is whether or not Americans’ rights are being protected. As such, foreign nations must be judged by their respect for rights and freedom, since only nations which do so can be peaceful. Yet our leaders, by their misplaced emphasis on democracy, imply that even if a foreign nation is explicitly and violently hostile to the US, it’s fine as long as their government is duly elected!

To avoid such potentially catastrophic errors, both in foreign and domestic policies, we must dispense with our focus on democracy and voting -- to instead champion the proper form of government: a constitutional republic; and its guiding principle: the defense of each individual’s right to life.

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