Democracy Does Not Equal Freedom

by Dick Puddlecote

Note: I agree with every word of this. England was a much freer country when it was ruled by a committee of hereditary landlords. The old ruling class would turn nasty about protection of their game, and were perhaps overly protective of the Church of England. They never tried telling us what to smoke or drink, and only interfered in what we did so far as they could be prodded by middle class busybodies who had to collect their own funds and never got control of the enforcement agencies. Letting everyone vote has allowed the emergence of a new ruling class of totalitarian puritans. Since we can’t go back to the good old days, I suppose the only answer is radical decentralisation and appointment of all representatives and most officials by sortition – oh, and possibly frequent referenda for the actual making of laws. SIG

While I was away in an oven posing as a country, I read an article on the BBC which briefly threatened to be the most enlightened they have ever featured.

Detailing the childhood experience of Isaiah Berlin in post-revolution Russia as a preamble, it hinted that equating democracy with freedom might be a flawed way of thinking.

We believe that freedom and democracy are inseparable, so that when a dictator is toppled the result is not only a more accountable type of government but also greater liberty throughout society.

This belief forms the justification of the repeated attempts by Western governments to export their own political model to countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. In this simple and seemingly compelling story, freedom and democracy are a package that can be delivered anywhere in the world.

At this point, many will be nodding their heads in agreement – it is, after all, what we are told by western politicians on a regular basis – but it’s quite wrong to believe that.

An older generation of thinkers recognised that freedom and democracy don’t always go hand in hand. The 19th Century liberal John Stuart Mill was a life-long campaigner for greater democracy, but he also worried that personal liberty would shrink once governments could claim to express the will of the majority.

Born in 1872 and dying in 1970 at the age of 98, Mill’s godson Bertrand Russell agreed and shocked many people when he observed that while Britain after World War II was a more democratic society than the one he’d grown up in, it was also in some ways less free. For Russell, as for Mill, liberty was one thing, democracy another. It’s a deeply unfashionable view, but I think essentially correct.

The article meanders after that and fails to nail the fact that democracy has made us less free in our own country, instead focussing on other countries where tyranny is more easily recognisable to BBC readers.

It’s a theme which had already been discussed at length in Democracy and the Fall of The West by Craig Smith and Tom Miers (who you can read regularly on the blogroll to your right).

In their book, they describe how democracy actively works against freedom by its very nature. Instead of government working for the interests of the entire nation, the system of democracy encourages – or, you could say, nudges – politicians into working only for a section of society which will deliver them 51% (or often less) of any particular vote.

Democracy destroys altruism in governance and replaces it with naked self-interest backed up by a tyranny of the majority. Rooted in this flawed system is the huge machine of lobbyists, vested interest groups and emotional rabble-rousing which is inflicting the illiberal policy we rail against here by turning that tyranny into one of a minority arrogantly posing as a majority.

It leads to the most heavily-funded being listened to, and those who have no understanding of politics – or power to get involved – being completely excluded. It’s why working classes in the UK are routinely ignored by forensic party machines who often don’t even bother leafletting where turnout is low, and therefore why Westminster has no interest in framing policy to protect their meagre enjoyments.

The bullying of lifestyles detailed on these pages branches directly from a democratic system which is geared towards those who have the ability to shout loudest, often funded by the government itself because of their snobbish prejudices.

As Smith and Miers note:

“The power of the state has re-grown at the expense of the liberty of the individual. Far from underpinning our freedoms, Democracy is in fact undermining them. It has unshackled the coercive power of the state …”

A perfect example of this is described in Chris Snowdon’s book The Art of Suppression. Myron T Herrick was Governor of Ohio when targeted by alcohol prohibitionists in 1906.

Herrick was a successful and popular Republican politician with a majority of 113,000 and ample campaign funds. His only mistake was to have trampled on a local option bill proposed by the Anti-Saloon League.

[The Anti-Saloon League] held hundreds of dry rallies in favour of his opponent – the Democrats had sensibly nominated a bone dry candidate – and scurrilously accused Herrick of being in the pocket of the drinks industry.

[The AntiSaloon League] directed tens of thousands of floating voters from the church pews to the polling station and the unfortunate Governor was overwhelmed.

Herrick’s defeat […] was a bleak warning to wet politicians that it was safest to drink in private and support prohibition in public.

This unprincipled, if practical, fudging culminated in the disastrous farce of wet politicians lining up to vote for national Prohibition.

A more modern illustration can be seen in the unceremonial – and orchestrated – destruction of John Reid prior to the UK smoking ban. ASH still gloat about it.

In Spring 2004, following publication of the Wanless review the DH began a public health white paper consultation on action to improve people’s health. March 2004 had seen the extremely successful implementation of comprehensive smokefree legislation in the Republic of Ireland, but the Minister for Health John Reid made very clear at the launch of the consultation that he was against the introduction of smokefree legislation in England and still favoured the voluntary approach. Legislation had been in the Wanless review so it had to be discussed as part of the consultation process, but it looked like Reid would ensure that it was not in the final recommendations. Fortunately, he overreached himself. At a public meeting with journalists present he said, “I just do not think that the worst problem on our sink estates by any means is smoking but that it is an obsession of the middle classes. What enjoyment does a 21 year old mother of three living in a council sink estate get? The only enjoyment sometimes they have is to have a cigarette.”

This led to a media firestorm, dominating the news agenda for days, in which Reid came under attack by the media as much as by the health lobby. In the middle of it we launched our MORI poll results showing that 80% of the public supported a law to make
all enclosed workplaces smokefree. John Reid, who had refused to meet us until then, finally agreed to meet. The group that went to see him included all the major medical and public health organisations and health charities, making clear that the whole of the health community was as one on this issue. It was clear when we met him that he had been forced to concede that legislation had to be on the agenda, the issue was now what the legislation would contain.

Despite valiantly defending those who couldn’t speak for themselves, Reid – just like Merrick before him – was browbeaten into submission by the system created by democracy, and freedoms were lost in favour of tyranny fostered by a highly-paid, intensely vocal minority.

This is the problem we face in the UK, and elsewhere, in the 21st century. Talk to any reasonable man or woman in the street and they will tell you they have no objection to smoking and non-smoking bars; that minimum alcohol pricing is a pretty lame idea; and that McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are benign products over which there has been far too much fuss.

And if you can find anyone, but anyone, in a supermarket queue who doesn’t think hiding tobacco displays is truly laughable you’ll be doing very well.

Yet democracy has created these disconnects between what the public want and what over-thinking – and sometimes bullied – politicians end up promoting.

Yes, I know it’s depressing, but just wait till I tell you how this system has now led to government intentionally attempting to bypass your conscious mind to implement policy. Since democracy now means they don’t really need to consult you anymore, why the need to even let you mull over what they are doing ‘for your own good’, eh?

Tune in again soon, why don’t you?

17 responses to “Democracy Does Not Equal Freedom

  1. The astonishing thing is that anyone would make the mistake of confusing a form of government (democracy – direct or representative) with government does or does not do (i.e. with freedom).

    If 51% (or 99%) of a group of human beings decide to burn alive everyone with red hair (or their elected representatives to do this) it is indeed an act of democracy – but it is (just as clearly) an act of tyranny.

    It makes no difference if an Emperor or Sultan decides to engage in murder, robbery (or some other crime – and I mean crime in the true sense, not in the absurd legal positivist sense) or if a majority of people (or their elected representatives) decide to do so.

    Yet people confuse freedom and democracy – it is a common error.

    Why such a crass error is so often made is an interesting question.

  2. Will Wolverhampton

    See A. J. P. Taylor’s The Effects and Origins of the Great War (1965):

    Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent. of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since 1 January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of 70. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.

    • I can never read that passage without wanting to cry. But for the Great War, the growth of the State would have been much slower, and unattended by recollections of collective effort for victory. There wouldn’t have been the dysgenic effects of the Somme etc, and the Old Order in Europe wouldn’t have been swept away. Who knows what reaction against statism might not have begun after about 1920?

  3. A better alternative to sortition is contractual representation, whereby individuals choose, from amongst those willing to act, the representative most nearly suiting their preferences. The representative casts the number of votes which correspond to the number of electors he or she represents. Only reactionaries could suggest that we have a fine future in our past.


  4. Agree with Sean but not Tony.As Evelyn Waugh put it,the trouble with the Conservative Party is that it has never put the clock back.

  5. Contractual representation sounds rather like Union block votes. I don’t think sortition would be any worse than what we have now, and at least representatives wouldn’t be able to claim a “democratic mandate” for their actions!

  6. It seems to me unlikely that any “reaction against statism” could have occurred in the 1920s. The English mind had already been changed by the successful cultural revolution which had occurred in the previous century. The State had already been growing for some time, and the Great Leap Forward in its powers enabled by WWI was simply one particular stage in that.

    The Cultural Revolution itself had, as I am prone to saying, been enacted by a collection of religious cranks. That nasty piece of work Lloyd George was merely a typical example of them, with his Methodist origins. The English people had been, by that point, already transformed into a people who would tolerate, and even welcome, a State that watered down their beer. As such, liberty was already doomed.

    I’m very fond of DIck’s writing and it’s a good article, but I have to say it’s a bit confused. John Reid was not ousted by democracy, but by a lack of it. Unlike in prohibition era America, there was no threat that the voters would oust an insufficiently puritan minister. There is no corresponding ability of the Puritans to mobilise churchgoers in that way. Hardly anyone would have changed their vote if the smoking ban had not occurred; voters vote on a few “big” issues- NHS, schools, etc. If the Temperance Movement were actually required to gain democratic support for their machinations, they would fail. It is because our “democracy” isn’t really a democracy at all that they can achieve goals such as the smoking ban.

    Imagine, as a thought experiment, that every law had to be passed in a referendum with a requirement that it must achieve more than 50% of the electorate (not just of those who vote). How many people would have bothered to haul themselves down to a polling station to vote for the smoking ban? Not half the population, I would wager.

    The clever achievement of the radicals was to ensure that we had a parliametary system which is democratic in name only. It has been machined so that it consults “the public will” as minimally as possible, thus allowing its domination by minorities of crankish campaigners who circulate in the same class as the politicians and thus gain a much louder voice than “the young single mother on a sink estate who likes a cigarette”.

    It’s hard to blame democracy, when there is no democracy to speak of.

  7. In this our Universe, Time elapses uniformly forwards. You cannot step into the same river twice!


  8. What do you call your view, Tony? Hegelian fatalism? Do not resist the ever-onward march to that Omega Point in the sky! Eschatological masochism?

    I feel that way every other day myself. Paul Gottfried is persuasive:

    “As long as public administration is viewed as a material provider, its subjects may contine to acquiesce in its control of social matters. One should not mistake intellectual arrogance or a vulnerable ideology for political weakness.”

  9. “As long as public administration is viewed as a material provider, its subjects may contine to acquiesce in its control of social matters.

    This kind of point is often made. The problem I have with it is that historically, social controls generally preceded economic controls in both Britain and the USA. Roosevelt’s Great Leap Forward in economic statism came after the Progressive Era, for instance. Britain’s welfare state was initiated in 1945, long after a web of social interventions by new institutions was already in place. Thus GK Chesterton could write in the immediate post-WWI period

    It simply destroyed such individual liberties as remained among its victims. It did not enable any man to build a better house; it only limited the houses he might live in — or how he might manage to live there, forbidding him to keep pigs or poultry or to sell beer or cider. It did not even add anything to a man’s wages; it only took away something from a man’s wages and locked it up, whether he liked it or not, in a sort of money-box which was regarded as a medicine-chest. It does not send food into the house to feed the children; it only sends an inspector into the house to punish the parents for having no food to feed them. It does not see that they have got a fire; it only punishes them for not having a fireguard. It does not even occur to it to provide the fireguard.

    Now this anomalous situation will probably ultimately evolve into the Servile State of Mr. Belloc’s thesis. The poor will sink into slavery; it might as correctly be said that the poor will rise into slavery. That is to say, sooner or later, it is very probable that the rich will take over the philanthropic as well as the tyrannic side of the bargain; and will feed men like slaves as well as hunting them like outlaws.

    …which came to pass with Attlee.

  10. My position is democratic liberalism, with an emphasis on Human Rights.


  11. IanB
    It is a material provider to those who receive the loot, no? For everyone else, Bastiat’s seen&unseen explains a lot. Increasing productivity of labour and ever more efficient technology masks the overall depreciation. The detailed history of enslavement doesn’t mean much to an average person concerned with just getting by. Hoodwink him now, and who cares about the future or the past? Maybe humanity is destined to eat itself alive. An amazing technical capacity keeps the species going for as long as it can, the rest is just a beautiful delusion.

    Hoppe advocates bourgeois class consciousness. Wake up! We are the tax payers, we fund this bloody racket! The problem with this is that tax-payers are materially well-off and once certain needs and wants are satisfied, most people care not a jot for anything abstract beyond that, including their own property and (especially?) liberty. Once mass democracy gets going, the “disadvantaged” (the relatively poorer) will always vote for a downward distribution of wealth, no? Mass democracy is destructive of freedom by definition. The individual must eventually become public property.

    Do you think there is any way of stopping this? Political capitalism seems a remarkably robust system. It has answers for everything. Self-contradictory voodoo to you and me, but perfectly adapted to the world. Despair. Horror….


  12. Carl, you haven’t read your Bastiat properly :) Statism doesn’t produce a condition of the plunder of one class by another, it produces a state where all plunder all. “The taxpayers” are at it too. Everyone is. This is advanced State-socialist-capitalism (or whatever you want to call it) we live under.

    The most visible (and thus easily criticised) money transfer occurs from the “taxpayer” to the welfare recipient. But then consider the subsidies by artificial property price inflation. The transfers due to State cartelisation of “professions”. The jobs for the well-off-taxpaying-boys-and-girls as consultants, as State contractors, and consider the ratchet effect identified by no less than Von Mises where State money supply inflation ratchets wealth from the poor to the rich, resulting in an “excluded middle” of the ruined free-market middle class. If I were an evil autocrat, I would ruin the productive classes, and then keep them at subsistence via welfare, so that the society would be riddled with anger and envy and fear, and people would cleave to my government. That, one can argue, is what has been done.

    The truth is, in my view, we cannot fix anything until we fix the money system. But the very wealthiest and most powerful people in our society, who grow fat from its injustice, will never let us do that. What the answer is, I do not know. But at least Libertarians, uniquely, have the right *questions*. It’s a start. Not much of a start. But still a start.

  13. I know, the “social welfare” distributions are the most obvious target. It’s low down on my pet abolition list, because the dependencies it creates are real. Unlike the dependencies of the political/managerial/corporate class. Still, it all has to go if people are to regain their self-respect.

    I was going to mention the interesting phenomenon of unscrupulous people using the political apparatus to secure riches: they’ll get their license or their favours or what have you and end up paying huge amounts of tax! I almost forgive conservatives for defending these people from the tax-payer/tax-receiver angle. Almost. But it’s too much of an entrenched enormity now for that stuff to apply without a thousand caveats, as you point out.

    I think you’re spot on with the money thing. I have a solution. Electronically tag all the money. All the physical money, that is. Each note can be scanned to show who the previous owners of the note were. You don’t need to change government, just let people see with their own eyes where their money comes from and where their money goes. The bastards would be out on their ear in minutes!

    As for democracy, can you recall any example of anti-democratic sentiment in the media? The o.p mentions this BBC article. I’m in Ireland and I can honestly say I have never once heard or read any criticism of democracy per se. Which is both shocking and totally expected, if you know what I mean. Not even a single “nut” !

  14. And yet a lot of the support for democracy is lip service. In Ireland – and just about everywhere else.

    After all “vote early and vote often” and “the graveyard vote” are Irish expressions (taken to the United States).

    Democracy is not really regarded as a Holy Principle – with people content if their rivals win an election. And they should be content if “the honest expression of the will of the majority” is what matters.

    On the contrary – people do all they can (see above) to win the election – because winning (not “the honest expression of the will of the majority”) is what matters.

    Actually that is not all bad – as it shows that democracy is not treated as a sort of new God. But rather as just a different version of “The Game of Thrones” (to steal a title from Mr Martin).

    Of couse elections in the Irish Republic are now a lot more honest than they once were – but that may well indicate that elections do not MATTER as much as they once did (with whoever is elected taking orders from the European Union).

  15. On the matter of welfare….

    There are two points.

    Numbers – and the degree someone is dependent.

    Numbers are normally the point that is dicussed.

    A small number of rich people getting “corporate welfare” (although the name is misleading as actual corporations may not be involved) can be shrugged off by civil society. it is an economic burden – but not a huge one.

    The real problem with welfare for the rich is not economic – it is POLITICAL, It sets a bad EXAMPLE and it undercuts the moral position of anyone resisting welfare for millions or tens of millions.

    “How can you oppose government support for all these starving people – when you looked the other way when Mr….. got a subsidy?”

    As Frederick Bastiat pointed out a century and half ago – this political argument is deadly.

    But it also links in to the second point – how dependent someone really is.

    For example, big bankers do not really need subsidies – not to live.

    I am not talking about the vast orgy of subsides that the banks got in 2008 – I mean the everyday subsidies (from the Central Bank) that go on all the time in the form of “cheap money” (low interest rates) and the government debt.

    What would happen if these things went away?

    Well the existing banks might well all go bankrupt (including banks such as Barclays that boast of not being part of the 2008 orgy), but woud the bankers starve?

    Of course not.

    People like Bob Diamond in Britain and Jamie Dimon in the United States are well educated and intelligent. They also have all the habits of work – they know how to get up in the morning and so on.

    If all the hidden subsidies went away they would get by – they would more than get by, they would still find a way to be rich.

    Perhaps they would not be quite as rich as they are now – but they and their families would be fine (as would the top people in banks like Anglo Irish – if these banks had been alllowed to go bankrupt).

    But what of the welfare millions and tens of millions?

    What of the ever growing welfare underclass often BORN into a position of being dependent upon the state.

    Would they be fine if it suddenly all went way?

    Would the very old (who have been told all their lives that the state would pay them a “pension” in return for their “contributions”) be fine?

    And on and on.

    This is the problem – that all major Western nations face.

    By the way…..

    The people never asked for the Welfare State – it was not really a matter of democracy.

    The old never staged demonstrations (before the existence of government “pendions”) saying “give us pensions”.

    The sick never made protests demanding government fiance for health care.

    Parents never demanded “free” education for their children.

    In each case it was “intellectuals” (such as E. Mann in the United States in relation to education) who campaigned for this stuff to be paid for by govenrment.

    Just as it was “intellectuals” (such as the Fabian writers of the “Minority Report” – MINORITY how democratic is that? Even most welfare professianals thought their ideas were insane) who pushed for the copying of Prussia in Britain.

    Even President Johnson in the 1960s never got elected on his plans to build an American Welfare State (indeed he denied any such intention) – he got elected via a smear campaign (he-wants-to-blow-up-the-world) against Goldwater.

    The bankrupcty of the West is not really the result of democracy.

    Because, whilst the people may have been taught to support these schemes now (and it is easy to get used them – free stuff is easy to get used to), they never asked for it.

    In a truly democratic system (say where Parliament and Congress were just made up of a few hundred RANDOMLLY selected people every year) I very much doubt that any of this would have happened.

    A professional political class (the politicians of a “representative” democracy) are easy for a professional “intellectual” class to influence.

    After all this professional “intellectual” likely to control the elite school and universities where the politicians are likely to have been – and to control the Civil Service and other administrative structures.