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Realism about democracy

| Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

What's the point of democracy? Is it an end in itself? Or is democracy a means to a higher end, such as preserving individual liberty?

America's history seems unequivocal that the Founders did not promote democracy because they had a fetish for group decision-making or distrusted markets. Instead, they believed in democracy as the form of government least likely to lead to tyranny.

The Declaration of Independence famously observes that governments are instituted “to secure rights.” The Framers believed individuals naturally possess these rights, which are not created by government; they are only protected — made more “secure” — by government. But the Framers understood also that even democratically elected governments pose a constant threat to individual freedom. This led them to craft the Constitution to empower the national government to carry out the relatively few tasks they believed are best done nationally, to carefully delegate to the national government only those few powers, and to explicitly reserve other powers to state governments or the people — one way it ensures federalism.

Of course, the Constitution grounds government in democratic rule. Senators, House members, the president and vice president are elected. But as every U.S. schoolchild learns, what the Framers created was far from unlimited majoritarian rule. Most obviously, presidential-election voters elect only Electoral College representatives, not the president directly. Also, until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, U.S. senators were chosen by state governments, not directly by voters. (And amending the Constitution itself is far more complicated than simple majority rule.) In addition, the president has power, within limits, to veto the will of the people as expressed in bills passed by both House and Senate majorities.

The Constitution is clear about powers that the government is never allowed to exercise, such as shutting down newspapers because it disapproves of what they write. Standing guard to ensure government doesn't violate the Constitution are the courts — staffed at the national level by appointed (not elected) officials. Finally, the Constitution separates powers, weaving abundant checks and balances throughout its text.

Even passing familiarity with U.S. history and the Constitution makes crystal-clear that the Framers were no gung-ho enthusiasts for majoritarian rule. They feared it because they feared government. Democracy — checked, balanced and limited — simply supplied the least-perilous ground upon which to erect a government able to perform what few tasks the Framers believed it should.

This historical reality is lost on many modern-day fans of democracy. They talk and write — and sometimes scream — as if it is criminal even to suggest that today's majority ought not be allowed to do whatever it votes to do. For these naïve democrats, democracy — or, worse, majoritarian rule — is not a means of enabling government to do what it should and keeping it from doing what it shouldn't. Instead, democracy is an end in itself, individual freedom be damned. This attitude is dangerous.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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