Politics about limitation of government

By Tibor Machan

California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who led the effort of the Democrats in Congress to hold up confirmation of the Electoral College vote last week, claimed the absolutely core principle of America is democracy. Because, she claimed, the past two presidential elections had threatened the democratic process, it was necessary to call attention to this fact in both the U.S. House and Senate by this delay.

Leave aside for a moment that every time Democrats lose an important vote, they complain not that people didn’t vote for them but that the vote wasn’t honest. This was true in California back in early 1970s, when Democrats wanted to pass a law burdening the oil companies but lost. Bill Press, who led the effort, claimed widespread deception misled voters. In Florida, in 2000, it was all about a bias based on a technical feature of the voting machines.

According to Mark Danner, a journalism professor at the University of California-Berkeley and Bard College — writing for the Jan. 13, 2005, issue of The New York Review of Books — the 2004 presidential election went as it did not because of the difficulties faced by poor voters in Ohio, which was Boxer’s pitch. But Danner, too, had an excuse: According to this sophisticated analyst, the basic trick the Republicans perpetrated is to put the trumped-up fear of death into too many people. The concerted effort by the Right Wing to portray Bush as a war president and Kerry as a wimp did the trick, said Danner, author of “The Road to Illegitimacy: One Reporter’s Adventures in the 2000 Florida Vote Recount.”

But it was a trick. Danner didn’t discuss that more voters in America agreed with Bush than with Kerry. He didn’t debate the substance. He merely pointed a finger, following the Democrats’ refrain, at the subversion of democracy.

For my money, democracy is a minor political virtue. It is completely derivative — based on the far more important principles associated with the American political tradition of the individual’s right to liberty. Democracy follows this right — one is free, so one is free to take part in politics. But what is far more important is what should be part of politics. And that is where constitutionalism comes into the picture.

Based on the American political tradition, a constitution spells out the limits of politics, of political power, of what governments are permitted to do. This is the revolutionary part of America — curtailment of the scope of politics in a community.

In most of human history before the American Revolution (and in too many countries today), the scope of government — of politics — had been virtually unlimited. There had been efforts to limit it, for instance, via the Magna Carta, but the philosophy that defined the principles why government must be limited in its scope of power had to await the American Founders’ adoption of classical liberal thinking, such as that of John Locke, and the ensuing statement of this in the Declaration of Independence.

Sen. Boxer just doesn’t get it, unfortunately. It is this limitation of the scope of government that is the centerpiece of America’s political system, not democracy.

Strictly speaking, if the government is properly limited by a constitution of individual rights, it doesn’t even make all that much practical difference whether democracy is in effect or, say, monarchy. If the king has no power, there is no threat, but if a democratically elected Congress has unlimited power, democracy is useless — it can become a tyranny as easily as a one-party system can.

I am not one of those who thinks America’s experiment with individual liberty has been a roaring success so far; quite the contrary. Slavery, conscription and innumerable other elements of that history have made freedom only a dream rather than a reality for too many people. But this had been understood by many, and there had been a clear-cut effort to remedy matters. But with the likes of Boxer in the U.S. Senate any further remedies are not likely.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper, on libertarianism. E-mail him at: Machan@chapman.edu