Can you tell me the difference between freedom and democracy? I’ve tried this with dozens of people over the years. They almost always look at me blankly, because they’ve been taught the words mean exactly the same thing. They were taught a lie.
I’m reminded of this because of a great article my friend Zachary Caceres published Wednesday that centers around mainstream intellectual ignorance on this subject. (If you’d like to know more about where Zach is coming from, check out his TED talk last spring about free cities.) If you’re already familiar with the difference between freedom and democracy, you’ll find his article a treat. I urge you to read it.
If you’re not already familiar with the differences between freedom and democracy, everything in the article is going to sound perplexing, so let’s take a look at what the words mean. Here’s what my dictionary says about the two:
Freedom — the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.
Democracy — a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
In other words, freedom is about the individual. It’s about what he has the right to do. You can argue about where rights come from, but the concept of freedom is purely about the rights of the individual to be unrestrained by others. Democracy, on the other hand, is about the collective “people,“ not about individuals. A democracy is the dictatorship of the majority.
The United States was founded as a republic based on ideas of individual liberty. I don’t believe it went nearly far enough toward liberty, because even the powers granted to the governments (state and federal) in the beginning were certain to be abused in the long run. (I’m not going to go into the moral reasons for opposing the state here.) The original idea was that governments were the enemies of people’s rights and that government power should be severely restricted to protect individuals. But subsequent generations forgot all about the evils the people had suffered at the hands of government — and they started turning to government to fix things they didn’t like in the world.
As the 19th century went on and the progressive movement started rolling, the idea picked up steam that the coercive power of government could be used to force people to behave according to the ways that right-thinking people believed they should behave. It’s a first cousin to both socialism and fascism, because it combines features of each. It led to alcohol Prohibition, drug Prohibition and a wide variety of new coercive regulations prohibiting people from living their lives as they pleased. Along with the progressive movement came the idea that democracy — the naked will of the majority — trumped the individual rights of people in most cases (and certainly in economic matters).
The majority in a democracy can decide that you should pay for their health care. They can decide you should give them food or housing or pretty much anything they want. That majority can tell you what you’re allowed to do with your property and even what color you’re allowed to paint your own home. It can even tell you what you’re allowed to put into your own body. Because in a democracy, the collective “people” own you. You are not a free man or woman.
The founders of the United States didn’t believe this. Here’s an example that John Adams wrote in 1814 about democracy:
“I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.”
— John Adams, letter to John Taylor, April 15, 1814
Many modern scholars — and almost all modern civics and history teachers — have completely missed the point of explaining the difference between freedom and democracy. As a result, most people assume they’re the same thing. It doesn’t help when politicians regularly use the words synonymously. In his arrogant 1992 book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that the current form of democratic government seen in the United States is the ultimate evolution of human society. In other words, “we’ve been moving away from barbarism for centuries, and what we have now is the best it can possibly be.” Fukuyama wrote at the end of the Cold War, and it was basically a statement of triumph for the democratic system. He wrote:
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
It’s hard for me to imagine anything more arrogant, ignorant and self-centered from a scholar.
There is a future beyond blindly accepting the dictatorship of a majority. It’s called individual freedom. It has nothing to do with democracy or a coercive state. If you want freedom just because you want to own and control your own life, you have every right to do that. If you want to keep every penny of everything you make for yourself, that’s your right. But even if you don’t believe in being selfish, working toward freedom changes everything about the future — for your children and grandchildren and generations to come. When you find ways to free your mind and then escape state slavery, you’re creating the early stages of a precious gift to make their lives better on this Earth.
If you continue to support a majoritarian system that hands power over to other people, you’re supporting a continuation of a form of slavery that holds all of us under control of the whim of the passions of the majority. I don’t intend to keep living under that system. I can’t change the entire world. I probably can’t even change much of this country anytime soon. But I started by changing my mind — and that’s the start of changing the future.
I’m still a slave here, but I’ve been awakened to our plight. I’ve said before that I intend to escape. I don’t know how long it will take, but the escape is coming. If you’re willing, I want to take you with me.