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Democracy vs. Constitutionally Limited Government


The world in the latter part of the 20th century is worshiping at the shrine of democracy. And leading the pack are the American politicians. Now that the nations of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and Nicaragua have moved toward democratic elections, the hostile attitude of United States politicians toward these regimes is coming to an end. As long as the political rulers in these countries are popularly elected, they will now find favor with the American rulers.

Contrary to popular opinion, and what American school children are taught in their government schools, democracy and freedom are not the same thing. A democratic system enables people to vote for their public officials. But the real issue involving freedom is not how public officials are put into office but rather the extent of their power, after election, to interfere with the lives and property of the citizenry. A friend of mine from Latin America drew the distinction well when he described to me the situation in his country: “We have the freedom to elect our dictators every four years.”

The great tragedy in our time is that Americans have been taught to believe that they are living under the economic freedom under which their American ancestors lived. Americans constantly proclaim the superiority of the American “capitalist system” over the systems found in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Each Fourth of July, the speeches are filled with oratory about how fortunate Americans are to live under “free enterprise.” And now that the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights is approaching, the platitudes of freedom will inevitably increase.

There are already signs of this in the press. For many weeks, the Philip Morris Company has been running advertisements in national magazines and newspapers to commemorate the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. The ads quote Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy forget in time that men died to win them.” The ad recalls Roosevelt’s designation of Bill of Rights Day as “a day of remembrance of the democratic and peaceful action by which these rights were gained.”

The Philip Morris ads reflect how far Americans have strayed from the original vision of the American Founding Fathers. In order that that vision never be forgotten, it is important for those of us who still believe in it to restate it and re-emphasize it at every opportunity.

Contrary to FDR’s and Philip Morris’ claim, rights such as life, liberty, and property are not privileges which have been bestowed on us by our government officials. They are not even rights which have been “democratically and peacefully gained.” Life, liberty, and property are rights which have been endowed in people by God. They are inherent in the individual. They are inalienable. They pre-exist government. In fact, the only reason government is called into existence is to protect these fundamental, God-given rights.

The problem, of course, is that Americans have been taught by their governmental officials that their rights have been granted by the American Constitution rather than by their Creator. How many times have we heard from our government officials the phrase “your Constitutional rights”? How many times have we heard that if a right is not listed in the Constitution, then the people simply do not have it?

After the disasters associated with the Articles of Confederation, the Founding Fathers recognized the necessity of a national government. The government was brought into existence through the Constitution. The president and members of Congress were to be popularly elected a representative democracy. But the American people at that time did not have the illusions about democracy which Americans today have.

Although American public officials were to be elected, their powers over the American people were severely restricted to those listed in the Constitution.

And even this was not sufficient for most Americans of the late 1700s. Unlike their counterparts in the 20th century, they did not trust politicians, democracies, or governments and especially not their own! They required the passage of the first ten amendments to further expressly restrict the powers of their democratically elected authorities. “Congress shall pass no law … [T]he right of the people … shall not be infringed. . .Me right of the people … shall not be violated….”

The Bill of Rights did not grant rights to the American people. Instead, these amendments prohibited political interference with rights which the people already had before the government came into existence. In fact, it would have been more appropriate to have called the Bill of Rights a “Bill of Prohibitions.”

And lest American politicians get the impression that a right did not exist if it was not listed in the Constitution itself, the American people ensured the passage of the forgotten (until recently) Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

What was the result of these severe restrictions on the powers of democratically elected public officials? The most unusual society in the history of man! No income tax, welfare, social security, licensing, passports, immigration controls, federal reserve system, legal tender laws, or virtually any other law or regulation which interfered with how the American people peacefully lived their lives. Why? Not because the politicians did not want these laws but rather because the American people, through their Constitution, had prohibited the politicians from passing them.

So, what happened? Why is the way of life of 20th-century Americans so radically different? Well, that is what makes the Philip Morris ads so pathetic. After all, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who was directly responsible for the abandonment of most of the principles of economic liberty on which this nation was founded. With the nationalization of gold; the illegality of gold clauses in private contracts; the imposition of legal tender laws; the cartelization of business under the National Recovery Act; the regulation of securities under the Securities Exchange Act; the allocation of crops and the granting of subsidies under the Agriculture Adjustment Act; the redistribution of wealth from young to old under the Social Security Act; and all of the other redistributive and regulatory schemes of the New Deal; capped by Roosevelt’s infamous and disgraceful scheme to pack the U.S. Supreme Court when it was declaring much of his nonsense unconstitutional Franklin D. Roosevelt did more to destroy the liberty and property of Americans than any other individual in American history.

Companies like Philip Morris, as well as many American politicians, would Me Americans to believe that their lives and earnings are mere privileges granted by their democratically elected officials which these officials can monitor and regulate at will. And, further, that the political subsidies given to tobacco and other companies are rights which cannot be taken away from them.

They prefer that Americans continue believing that they are living under the same type of economic system under which Americans have always lived a system of “free enterprise” system of “capitalism.” After all, if Americans begin discovering that such things as tobacco subsidies were not part of the original American heritage, but instead part of the socialist heritage that gripped the world in the 20th century, Americans might begin asking some very uncomfortable questions about the moral legitimacy of such subsidies.

The American Founding Fathers knew and understood that the only real advantage which democracy had over non-democratically elected governments is that it provides for a peaceful transition of power when public opinion changes. But they also knew and understood that, historically, democracies whose officials had unlimited political power over people’s lives and earnings had been among the most tyrannical and oppressive of all governments.

The Founding Fathers recognized that there were certain fundamental rights, such as life, liberty, property, and conscience, with which no government, not even a democratically elected one, could legitimately interfere.

They instituted government to protect the American people from trespassers and marauders, both domestic and foreign. They provided that public officials would be democratically elected. But, at the same time, they shackled these public officials with the Constitution in order to protect themselves and their rights from their democratically elected representatives. They chose constitutionally limited government over democracy. After all, unlike so many today, they worshipped at the shrine of God, not that of Caesar.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.