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On Democracy

Libertarians, and especially the likes of Neal Boortz, like to short-circuit arguments relying on the tenets of democracy as irrelevant in American politics. The reasoning behind this, according to Boortz, is that the United States is not a democracy, seeing as democracy implies the rule of the majority at the expense of the minority rights. This has become a popular meme among Libertarians and Individualist Anarchists alike. According to Boortz’ own take on President Bush’s State of the Union address in January:

Democracy: Four references to democracy. In one passage he referred to the United States as “a great democracy.” Our founding fathers warned us against the establishment of a democracy They were very clear in their fear of democracy. Historians of that era loudly warned against the creation of a democracy after the Revolutionary War ... but here we are in 2007 listening to the President of the United States referring to us as “a great democracy.” I know that, thanks to government education, not one one hundred people in this country have a clue why our founding fathers abhorred the idea of democracy ... and that is no accident.

This is obviously more of a pet peeve than an intellectual argument, and it’s typical among those who define democracy strictly as “majority rule”. Many Libertarian and anarchist sites, for example, harp on an old U.S. Army document that supposedly listed democratic governments among the enemies of liberty and freedom, describing them as “a government of the masses”. I say ‘supposedly’ because I’ve yet to see a citation to an official source of this document, but we’ll assume for the sake of argument that somebody, at some point in time, actually saw a copy of this document, and the information has been preserved through its numerous retellings. Not to mention the fact that the Army withdrew that document, and in my opinion never should have released such a thing in the first place. The Army should not be in the business of defining American political philosophy, any more than policemen should write the laws they enforce.

This definition of democracy as “a government of the masses” is a redefinition of a) the prefix demo-/dema- to mean ‘masses’, as in demagoguery or demography, when it actually means “the people”; b) the people as “the masses”, which is a rhetorical trick to negatively transform constituencies into monolithic systems; and c) government into law. The problem with using old texts as scripture, especially ones that have been retracted, is that they eventually become anachronistic in their language, their symbols, or both. The fact is that democracy, as a system of government, is not defined as “majority rule” any more, if indeed it ever was. For example, the current Oxford Dictionary[^1] defines democracy thusly:

democracy |di?mäkr?s?| noun ( pl. -cies)

  • a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives : capitalism and democracy are ascendant in the third world.
  • a state governed in such a way : a multiparty democracy
  • control of an organization or group by the majority of its members : the intended extension of industrial democracy.
  • the practice or principles of social equality : demands for greater democracy

America fits snugly into the first definition. By most modern definitions of the word, democracy covers systems such as republics, representative republics, and the bizarre, three-tiered social oligarchy that exists over here in Germany, and also in most Western European governments, in conjunction with the hinky, dysconstitutional spectre of the European Union. As much as I enjoy listening to Neal, his argumentativeness over the word democracy as meaning “mob rule” is intellectually dishonest, because it redefines the agreed terms of discussion in the middle of the debate. He will also slip up every now and then, describing the goal of the Iraq War as the building of a democracy in Iraq, which is supposedly the last thing we’d want to see happen. It reeks of desperation and defeat, distracting as it is from the real point of Libertarianism, that the protection of individual rights and freedoms should be the major role and purpose of government. And that is an argument that doesn’t need to hide itself behind pedantic word-play.

[^1]: As of OS X 10.4.9, which includes the Oxford English Dictionary.


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