We often talk about freedom and democracy
as if they were the same thing. But actually it’s not obvious that democracy always produces
the most freedom- friendly outcomes. Sometimes it does. The idea that we should all be in
charge of deciding our own fate certainly is more conducive to promoting freedom than
if we had a tyrant to tell everybody what to do. But it’s also possible for democratic
structures to be against freedom. Democratic structures can marginalize minorities.
Democratic structures can make the majority rule seem to be the correct thing even if
it’s not the correct thing. After all just because most people agree that something is
true doesn’t make it true. So there’s also no reason to think that just because
most people agree that something is a just policy that that’s necessarily the most
just policy. There was a time when the vast majority of Americans thought that women should
not be permitted to vote. Or that black’s shouldn’t have the same rights as white
people. Nowadays we think those things are false, but surely it’s not the number of
people who thinks that they’re false that makes them false. The fact of the matter is a democratic voting
system is a way to figure out what most people think. But that’s not the same thing as
figuring out what’s right. So when majorities in a democratic process pass legislation that
removes or restricts individual freedom, that’s not necessarily valuable. If the goal is liberty,
then democratic structures have to be themselves bounded by bordering conditions that keep
people safe from what John Stuart Mill calls the Ttyranny of the Mmajority. Majorities can be just as tyrannical as kings.
In fact the Greek philosopher Plato argues that in addition to this concern about tyranny
of the majority there’s also a structural problem. The democratic structures can become
tyrannical. That is, through the people’s discussion and argument and lack of direction,
they will clamormer for new leadership and demand that a tyrant be brought into power.
This is how historically many tyrants have actually come into existence through a democratic
process. This is true with Napoleon. This is true for Hitler. This is true for Julius
Caesar. These are all examples of historical tyrants who came into power because of, not
in spite of, democratic structures. So if we’re concerned about protecting freedom,
democracy might be something that helps us. But it’s really important to make sure that
there are boundary conditions on the democratic process that protect the rights of the individual.