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Democracy Isn't Enough

Freedom is more than majority rule.

David Harsanyi
February 16, 2011

Though one hates to nitpick, it seems that Middle East coverage on cable TV has been only almostperfect. You see, for some reason, a number of anchors and talking heads have made a careless habit of using the words "democracy" and "freedom" as if they were interchangeable ideas.

George W. Bush once famously claimed that all of humanity is hard-wired to strive for freedom. At the very least, this notion makes emotive sense. Hey, why on earth wouldn't everyone want to be just like us? But simply because democracy is the best way to self-determination does not mean everyone is determined to have liberty.

In fact, in his most recent book, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, Kenneth Minogue argues that the history of both "traditional societies and totalitarian states of the twentieth century suggested that many people are, in most circumstances, happy to sink themselves in some collective enterprise that guides their lives and guarantees them security."

Sounds a bit unsympathetic to me. Yet both the right and left regularly accuse each other of surrendering to the temptation of chasing safety over freedom—usually when they're out of power. And who knows, maybe liberty is less intrinsic to the human experience than we would like to believe. Maybe freedom just means a range of things to different people.

How many times, after all, are we asked to surrender personal freedom for the collective good here at home? Alas, it only takes 51 percent of you to ban a stiff energy drink or a decent light bulb—a crime against not only liberty but also decent luminosity. When liberals crusade to end electoral colleges or scoff at states' rights, they are fighting for a more direct, centralized democracy in which liberty becomes susceptible to the temporary whims, ideological currents, and fears (rational and sometimes not) of the majority.

When the tea party members talk about returning "power to the people"—as they're apt to do on occasion—they're missing the point, as well. We already defer too much power to other people. If you knew the people I do, you'd be chanting "power from the people."

Now, despite our political disagreements, we have, historically and culturally speaking, a pretty common understanding of what independence means. If we struggle with democracy, can you imagine what it means for others?

Take Egypt, where 10 brutal plagues couldn't get the minority vote heard. Not much has changed, apparently. If we're to believe a recent Pew poll, 54 percent of Egyptians believe that women and men should be segregated in the workplace; 82 percent believe that adulterers should be stoned; 84 percent believe that apostates of Islam should face the death penalty; and 77 percent believe thieves should be flogged or have their hands cut off.

And 99 percent of Americans—just a guess—wouldn't want to live under that kind of democracy, even if it meant a popular national vote for president.

Don't get me wrong; democracy is clearly a vast improvement over an autocracy. (Though, now that you bring it up, how many of you would choose to reside in one of those despotic Persian Gulf states with stipends, film festivals, and casinos rather than in a democratic Haiti?) Democracy without a moral foundation, economic freedom, or a respect for individual and human rights, though, has the potential not to be any kind of freedom at all.

We all wish the Muslim world the best in shedding its dictatorships and theocracies and finding true liberty. But let's not confuse two distinct ideas. At the very least, not on television, a place Americans can typically rely on for pinpoint accuracy and untainted reporting. Not there.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter at davidharsanyi. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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