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Is Democracy Freedom?


One of the core tenets of American foreign policy is the encouragement of democracy around the world. The implication is that if a country is democratic, the people within that country are free. But is democracy freedom?

In 1787, the U.S. Constitution called the federal government into existence. The document provided that the president and the members of Congress would be elected. The Founders, however, did not stop there. They proceeded to do something quite unusual – in fact, unique. They used the Constitution itself to expressly limit the powers of their own government officials.

For example, Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution expressly limits Congress to the exercise of only 18 enumerated powers.

Why? Why would the Founders create a democratically elected government whose powers were extremely limited? Why not simply give unlimited power to the elected representatives to do whatever they believed was right for the people?

The reason was twofold. First, the American people in 1787 didn’t trust government officials with political power, not even their own elected representatives. The second reason was more important. The American people knew that democracy did not constitute freedom and that historically democracy was often an enormous threat to freedom.

Thus, in order to bring a national government, even a democratically elected one, into existence, the Framers of the Constitution had to convince the American people that the powers of their government would be extremely limited.

The people asked, How can we be certain that this new government will not infringe upon or even destroy our fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property? For example, what would prevent Congress from enacting a law requiring everyone to attend religious services? Or a law punishing people who criticized the government? What would protect the exercise of such inherent fundamental rights as freedom of religion and freedom of speech from the tyranny of democratic rule?

The defenders of the Constitution responded by pointing to the powers enumerated in Article 1, Section 8. They said that since the powers of the Congress were expressly limited to those enumerated, no one needed to fear that Congress would exercise additional powers that were not enumerated. Since the power to regulate religion and speech, for example, was not enumerated, Congress would not be authorized to pass a law regulating such activities.

The Bill of Rights

The people were still not convinced. They knew that throughout history, governments, even democratically elected ones, had ended up exercising tyrannical powers over the citizenry. Thus, as a condition for approving the Constitution, the people in the respective states required a promise – a promise to enact the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

“Bill of Rights” is actually a misnomer. It would have been more appropriately called the “Bill of Prohibitions” because the amendments do not grant rights to the people but instead expressly prohibit democratically elected government officials from interfering with fundamental (and preexisting) rights of the people. For example, the First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.”

There were those who opposed the express protection of certain enumerated rights because it might imply, they suggested, that government officials would have the power to regulate rights that were not enumerated. Thus, the passage of the Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

A Revolutionary Experiment

Thus began the most revolutionary political experiment in history. Never before had a people called a government into existence whose powers were limited by the very charter that brought it into existence.

The American people recognized that democracy is not freedom. It is simply a convenient and peaceful method by which people can change their government officials. To ensure freedom, it was necessarily to use the Constitution to restrict the powers of their (democratically elected) government officials.

Thus, wouldn’t it be preferable for American policymakers to spend less time extolling the virtues of democracy around the world and more time explaining the principles of a constitutional republic? After all, in many democratic nations, elected public officials have omnipotent power over the lives and fortunes of the citizenry. The only real freedom that people in those countries have is the freedom to elect their dictator every so often. What’s so great about that?

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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.