For most of the last three centuries, the ideas of liberty and democracy have been intertwined in the minds of both friends and foes of a free society. The substitution of absolute monarchies with governments representative of the voting choices of a nation’s population has been considered part and parcel with the advancement of freedom of speech and the press, the right of voluntary and peaceful association for political and numerous social, economic and cultural reasons, and the guarding of the individual from arbitrary and unrestrained power. But what happens when an appeal to democracy becomes a smokescreen for majoritarian tyranny and coalition politicking by special interest groups pursuing privilege and plunder?
Friends of freedom, including many of those who strongly believed in and fought for representative and democratically elected government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often expressed fearful concerns that “democracy” could itself become a threat to the liberty of many of the very people that democratic government was supposed to protect.
The Tyrannies of Minorities and Majorities
In his famous essay “On Liberty” (1859), the British social philosopher John Stuart Mill warned that tyranny could take three forms: the tyranny of the minority, the tyranny of the majority, and the tyranny of custom and tradition. The tyranny of the minority was represented by absolute monarchy (a tyranny of the one) or an oligarchy (a tyranny of the few). The tyranny of custom and tradition could take the form of social and psychological pressures on individuals or small groups of individuals to conform to the prejudices and narrow-mindedness of wider communities who intimidate and stifle individual thought, creativity, or (peaceful) behavioral eccentricity.
Mill also was insistent that while democracy historically was part of the great movement for human liberty, majorities potentially could be as dictatorial and dangerous as the most ruthless and oppressive kings and princes of the past. At moments of great collective passions and prejudices, individual freedoms of speech, the press, religion, of association, and of private property could be voted away, reducing the isolated person to the coerced pawn and prisoner of the political system due to sheer numbers in an electoral process. (See my articles, “John Stuart Mill and the Three Dangers to Liberty” and “John Stuart Mill and the Dangers of Unrestrained Government”.)
For this reason, many of the great social philosophers and reformers of the 1700s and 1800s were often strongly insistent that because of democracy’s double-edged sword of liberty or tyranny, it was necessary to restrain the powers and reach of governments through written and unwritten constitutions that limited what majorities could do through their elected representatives. Hence, the role and importance, in the American case, of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment states clearly and categorically, “Congress shall make no law” that might abridge some of an individual’s freedoms, including speech, the press, religion, peaceful assembly, and submission of grievances against the actions of government. Indeed, every one of those first ten amendments was designed to place some restriction on the use of political power to infringe upon or deny different aspects of an individual’s rights to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property.
Ambiguities of language, nuances of interpretation, and changing attitudes have often resulted in debates and disagreements as to what and how such personal freedoms were to be understood and secured. But the underlying meaning and message should be considered beyond any doubt: there are aspects to the life and rights of the individual human being that government, even majoritarian government, should not and could not abridge, violate, or deny.
Both monarchs of the past and dictators more in the present have denied such limits on their power to command and coerce those under their control, including prohibiting words and deeds by those over whom they have asserted their rule. They have rationalized their claim to unrestrained authority by appeal to a “divine right of kings” or a higher meaning of “freedom” that expresses the “will of the people” as a whole through the tyrant’s supreme power.
“Negative” Freedom = Liberty, “Positive” Freedom = Coercion
One of the great linguistic tricks of the communists and many of the socialists of the twentieth century was to try to distinguish between false, or “bourgeois” freedoms in contrast to real, or “social,” freedoms. The former were those individual freedoms expressed in the Bill of Rights, which were labeled “negative” freedoms in that they “merely” protected a person against the aggression and coercion of others. “Positive,” or “social” freedoms required government planning, regulation, and redistributive control to assure that “need” rather than “profit” guided production and that the shares of income and wealth among the members of society were more equalized according to a prior notion of “distributive justice.”
Individual freedom only requires that each person respect the life, liberty and honestly acquired property of others and that he follows the rule of peaceful and voluntary association in all human interactions. Beyond this “negative” restraint on each of us, we are all at liberty to live our individual lives as we choose, guided by our own personal conceptions of value, meaning, and purpose in ordering and following our private affairs and dealings with others.