The democracy that was founded in the United States had moral assumptions. Citizens were entitled to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Of course the black population was denied “liberty and pursuit of happiness”, but that contradiction was resolved in a very bloody civil war (in which one of my ancestors fought).
The founders of the U.S. following the ideas of John Locke (image to the right), regarded the protection of property rights as the central goal of the civil society. But even at the time of the founders, there were those who believed material equality was more important than protecting private property – Thomas Paine being a good example.
Not everybody agrees with the previous paragraph, for instance Jed Babbin, a former undersecretary of Defense says that “There’s no constitutional right to property any more than there is a constitutional right to smoke pot.”, – but on the other hand see a powerful
contrary argument (in sources) where one of the American founders – James Madison – says that the his concept of property includes a man’s personal safety, conscience, and personal liberty and sums up his attitude as: “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”).
The founders’ attitude was a moral attitude. It was an attitude of leaving people alone as much as possible. It is the opposite of a criminal attitude – the attitude of a person who wants to deprive you of your property. It was the opposite of an envious attitude – the attitude that you must be pulled down if you have risen above your neighbor in status or wealth. It was a tolerant attitude – different people pursue happiness in their own way, and should have the freedom to do so.
All men were said to be “created equal”, which, I assume, did not mean that we all are equally good at basketball or nuclear physics, but that we have the same rights to pursue our abilities.
Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman who became a philosopher and author, said of America that its history “was made largely by people who wanted to be left alone. Those who could not thrive when left to themselves never felt at ease in America.”
But there were various dangers in the system that the founders created, some of which they foresaw and some which they did not.
One was the “tyranny of the majority” – a phrase that originated with the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America (1835, 1840). And that raises a question. What happens when the majority votes for a government that deprives not only a minority, but everyone of their freedoms. Germany, for example, voted in a government (the Nazi one) that did not believe in Democracy. Venezuelans voted in a leader (Hugo Chavez) that did not believe in democracy either. The Iranians enthusiastically brought in a theocracy that some of them now realize was a mistake.
Currently in the United States, we have many voters who want the government to pay for Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security and so forth. These programs are to help the old and the sick, and they, more than most programs, have gotten us trillions into debt. There is a significant proportion of the population who believe that government must be Santa Claus – that it must be the provider of education, health care, and money and food for the poor, and all good things. Presumably these needs can be funded by taking from “the rich”.
In 1974, Conservative President Gerald R. Ford said to Congress that “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”
And the problem is not just medical entitlements – there are entire industries that depend on the government for subsidies – such as the ‘ethanol’ industry and even Agribusiness in general.
In 1835, French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville warned in his book “Democracy in America” that
The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money
I am affected by governments that get themselves trillions of dollars in debt on various programs to gain votes from their constituents. What good is a government that promises to pay some of my health care bills, if its currency becomes worthless, and its debts become all-consuming? Can such a government defend me from enemies – foreign or domestic?
And do I really want my government making health decisions for me?
And speaking of private property, there are moral issues to be considered when taking money from person A to help out person B.
Conservative President Ronald Reagan said “We have so many people who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without coming to the conclusion that the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one!” I could add that their solution is to take food away from the fat man, and give it to the thin one.
And then there is the question of who makes up the Democracy. Polls in some countries show large anti-American majorities, for instance. In other words, “the people” can be wrong.
And then there is the issue of freedom of religion. Some Moslems say their religion is incompatible with Democracy, and they seem to be proud of it. If it were up to me, I would restrict Moslem immigration to those who believe in a separation of mosque and state. Moslem immigration is increasing rapidly, and one reason I worry about it is because of the large number of Jews who have fled France and Holland (because of Moslem violence). Christians in Iraq, Lebanon, and the West Bank of the Jordan are also exiting quietly, and the Christian Copts are trying to get out of Egypt. But in our democracy, we seem to be unable to shut the door to an influx of people who come with beliefs that are incompatible with tolerance.
The idea of America was moral, but its a fair question to ask – does Democracy work? We have an interesting development in America right now – a president who circumvents the constitution, and who believes in redistribution of the wealth. Being the president who believes in big government, any of the many factions that benefit from government (the public unions, the public employees, the welfare recipients, the many non-profits etc.) have a passionate interest in his victories. Likewise, he has the support of most of the racial minorities, (in California the minorities are the majority). It is almost an impregnable position. The opposition, which controls the Senate and House of Representatives, in theory has the “power of the purse”, which means they can defund any dubious scheme that the president comes up with. But the first and only time they tried; Obama threatened to shut down the government, and when it happened, the Republicans were blamed for it, and sank dramatically in the polls. This was so traumatic, that they never tried it again. After all, they want to win the White House. But what this means is that the system is not working as it was envisioned to work.
The large bureaucracy that we have developed was also not foreseen by the founders. Take a look at: http://yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/washingtons-political-class-is-blinging-out/ for a retired Business Week journalist’s depressing summary of what goes on there.
Sir Winston Churchill said that “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
About 2300 years before Churchill, a Greek philosopher named Aristotle said this:
For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all.
I don’t completely agree with Aristotle since we have seen other types of government. For instance ideological governments, such as in North Korea or Cuba. Religious governments, such as in Iran. You can have a middle class that a democracy is for as well – (in my view the best situation).
But Aristotle did see various experiments in government in the city states of Greece, and Churchill had a front-row seat on British democracy, and the question remains valid: “Will Democracy self-destruct?”
“The property rights issue:” http://lexrex.com/enlightened/AmericanIdeal/honor_to_founders/not_just_material.htm