“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” C. S. Lewis
There are two political systems that are often confused and assumed to mean the same thing; Democracy and Republic. To compound that problem in the US, the two main political parties have adopted these words as their political labels.
There have been many Republics and Democracies in history, and while they share some similarities, it is the differences that matter more. In a Republic, there are immutable rights established meant to assure liberty. In a Democracy the majority has limitless power over the minority. This is the essential and existential difference wherein one political system protects rights, and the other subjects them to political mandate.
In The Declaration of Independence man’s rights are stated first, and then that a government is created to secure those rights. Jefferson based much of what he wrote on the political treatises of John Locke regarding the equality of all men and their fundamental and inalienable natural rights of life, liberty, and property. Locke also stated that while these are the natural rights of man, nature did not provide the means to create laws to establish and secure those rights, nor to protect them or to adjudicate disputes among men arising from them; Locke stated that this was the purpose of government.
We are all familiar with the process through which we arrived at our constitution, starting with the Articles of Confederation, which proved inadequate to the task; it only provided for a Congress consisting of State representatives, which exercised all functions of the national government, empowered to pass, execute and adjudicate laws; there was no separation of powers or checks-and-balances, not a very good system for the preservation of liberty.
The Constitutional Convention was called to amend the Articles of Confederation to address these problems; however, the delegates choose instead to create what we know as the US Constitution. The concept of three branches of government and their separation of powers was derived from the French political philosopher Montesquieu, and used by John Adams in composing the Massachusetts state constitution, which formed the basis for the same in the US Constitution.
As John Adams wrote “The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every blessing of society depend so much upon an upright and skillful administration of justice, that the judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that.” This is another essential element of a Republic, providing not only a separation of powers but a system of checks-and-balances.
The proposed new Constitution was eventually ratified by the required majority of nine of the thirteen states in 1788 but only after the Massachusetts Compromise was adopted which required the inclusion of expressed rights, which were eventually adopted in 1791 as the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights.
Now having said all this, what is not always appreciated is that the US Constitution is not what governs the people of the United States of America. The US is not a Democracy but a Republic, and its constitution is a document intended to preserve the rights of the people by creating a government to do so. The US Constitution is not what governs the people, but what governs those who govern the people.
In a Democracy, one’s liberties can be mandated out of existence as happened to Socrates in Athens. Deemed a threat for his moral positions that might doesn’t make right, he was sentenced to death. On the other hand, even in an oligarchy as the ancient Rome Republic was, outspoken critics such as Cato and Cicero were not subject to the mob as was Socrates, although both eventually fell in harm’s way when that Republic fell with them; lessons learned….maybe.
What the Founders understood and wanted was to assure that liberty is not something government can exercise power over, but something it has no power to control. Much is often said about what the Founders intended, which at best is assumptive even though they left ample writings regarding this, but what is definitive is what the constitution says. There will always be interpretations, but the meaning of the words in the constitution is that of the time in which it was written, just as the meaning of the words of an amendment to the constitution is that of the time in which it was written.
The failure of the constitution to address slavery, a word that it didn’t even contain until 1865, was not only a moral failure on the part of the Founders, but created circumstances that nearly destroyed the Republic. That failure does not diminish its value as a protection of liberty, as it was for the Civil Rights Movement and remains so today.
Proposals that rights need to be “regulated” are presented as safeguards, when in fact they are a subterfuge to diminish rights; to propose such things is to expand power, but acceptance is an admission that the burden of liberty is too much to bear, the ultimate surrender of self. Such proposals are often incremental or peripheral, eroding liberty away over time and at the edges; unfortunately there are those that seem content to accept them like poisons that make them least sick, seldom questioning why they should take poison at all.
We often hear that in life we need to be prepared to compromise, to negotiate for an outcome that enables a mutually beneficial result. This is a valid practice in a transactional process such as business and in the settlement of civil disputes, but not regarding the rights of individuals, no matter how small a minority, and there’s no smaller a minority than the individual.
There is no guarantee in a Republic, no matter how clear and strong its constitutional foundation, against corruption. Often in political science we see comparative analyses between the US Republic and the Roman Republic. In some respects this is a valid thesis as the Roman Republic was also formed by a revolt against monarchy, had a written constitution, and a representative system of government. Unfortunately the US Republic has shown that it also has, like the Roman Republic, tendencies to oligarchy and ochlocracy, which have also led to a warfare and welfare state. We can only hope that the process will redirect away from the ultimate decent to totalitarianism as was the case with Rome.
There is another less known political phenomenon, not actually a system in the same sense as discussed above, but accurately descriptive called Kleptocracy, which is a government of corrupt leaders that use their power to exploit a nation’s people and resources for their personal wealth and political power. It’s closely allied with Democracy in that it can manipulate majority rule to this purpose. To do so with a Republic, you first need to insinuate Democracy into the fabric of a Republic’s institutions.
This corruption must come from within as this method is not overt as that would appear treasonous as if supporting a foreign agenda. It must also be incremental so as not to appear radical, and evolutionary as if it were a natural progression of development, replacing what is now deemed no longer valid or applicable to current circumstances.
In reality it is not that circumstances have changed so much as people’s perceptions, and they are easier to influence than the immutable principles of liberty. The slogans used to do so have varied over time, the current one being social justice, best described by Fredric Hayek as “The idea of social justice is that the state should treat different people unequally in order to make them equal.” Contrary to that is the idea of liberty in which true justice does not allow some people to have rights that are created by denying other people their rights, in essence the rule of law.
The US Judicial Branch of government as John Adams stated is a separate and independent institution, the guardians of liberty against any acts of the other branches contrary to the constitution; members take an oath, similar to all those in government to “…support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;…” It is not an ambiguous oath, and it does not allow for interpretations as to what the constitution is but as it is. Regarding rights, thankfully the first ten amendments were added despite early objections as to their need based on the Constitution’s expressed powers. There was a sense of foresight in that based on the Founders’ experience with power and its tendency to corrupt, and their aversion to democracy’s tendency for mob rule over the rule of law.
It is clear from the construction of government under the constitution that the Founders did not find democracy accommodative to liberty, but a corruption to rule by the will of the people as a threat to liberty. Therefore, the government created was constrained or limited in its powers in order to best protect against violations of the rights of individuals.
With the growing emphasis on the popular vote, elections today appear more as a poll taken on policy than a process of representative selection. The principle of democracy suggests that collective decisions according to the will of the majority are now more relevant than the principles of liberty found in the constitution, which is the basis of our Republic.
The two major political parties in the US have abandoned the principles of our constitution in a dangerous polarization war for power. What we have as a choice in the upcoming election is Allende ala Biden versus Peron ala Trump, two versions of the same disease putting our Republic on life support, and providing the prognosis for a future with the lesser of two evils; essentially, pick your poison.