Saturday, April 16, 2016

Democracy Is Not Freedom

     [I wrote what follows in 1988, when I was in the process of rejecting conventional political ideas and reaching conclusions of my own. Given the current Sturm und Drang over the presidential primaries, it seemed a good time to post it. -- FWP]

     To many Americans, the names of the two majority parties are words without precise definitions. The original meaning of the word "democracy" has been displaced by a host of implications and a glow of unquestioned sanctity. For "republic," few persons have any feeling at all.

     In the Random House World Atlas, the United States is classified as a "federal republic." Indeed, it was the intent of the Founding Fathers to form precisely that object; and for about a hundred years, the political structure of the United States was in that style. However, with respect for the editors of the World Atlas, it is no longer any such thing.

     Several historians specializing in the Constitutional period have written of the fear of democracy several Founders expressed. A number of historians have inferred that, whatever their gifts might have been, these nation-builders regarded the common man with the contempt typical of oligarchs. It's difficult to verify or falsify such a suspicion at two centuries' remove.

     Concerning the contempt felt for the private citizen by our contemporary political class, there is much that may be observed and analyzed. Despite politicians' endless public importunings for our "participation," it is quite clear that once we favor any one of them with enough votes to install him in office, his desire for citizen "participation" vanishes. A citizen may count himself lucky to get half a minute's attention from a sitting executive, legislator, or judge, until about three months before that executive, legislator or judge is due to stand for re-election, and even then a furious waving of the checkbook is generally required. On the approachability and attentiveness of career bureaucrats, it is unnecessary to comment.

     In the early days of the Republic, the franchise was extremely limited in scope and application. The citizens of a state who were Caucasian, male, over twenty-one years of age, and owned land in that state could vote for the men who would sit in one or both of the two chambers of that state's legislature. The enfranchised citizens of the state were also empowered to choose those who would sit for them in the House of Representatives. Members of the Senate were chosen by the legislatures, not the people, of the states they represented, as required by the Constitution. The President was chosen by a College of Electors, whose members were also chosen by the state legislatures.

     Clearly, the citizen's democratic franchise, if he had it, was much less extended then, and its effects upon the federal government were much less direct than is the case today. The state of affairs described above lasted almost unchanged until 1913, when the Seventeenth Amendment empowered enfranchised citizens to choose federal Senators. The Sixteenth (Income Tax) Amendment and the Federal Reserve Act were also passed in 1913. In 1914, the fraction of the Gross National Product consumed by government at all levels passed 10% for the first time.

     Within five years, the United States had entered a war against a group of nations with which it had no contiguous borders; the federal government had asserted the power to nationalize whole industries; conscription and price controls had been instituted; the federal government had "suspended" redemption-in-gold of federal paper currency; a massive "civil service" bureaucracy, hundreds of thousands strong, had arisen in Washington; nine billion dollars (more than $200 billion in 1988 dollars) had been loaned to the governments of Great Britain and France from the federal treasury, never to be repaid; federal expenditures had exceeded the sum of all state and county expenditures for the first time; and 125,000 Americans had died in the trenches, fields and hospitals of war-ravaged Europe.

     This is not to suggest that the direct election of Senators, or the extension of the franchise to non-Caucasians and women, brought these things about. But it is remarkable that a people living in nearly complete peace and freedom could have been stripped so thoroughly of that peace and freedom for so small a price as the extension of the power to vote.

     Not one of the statist-imperialist trends set in motion during the Wilson Administration has ever been abated. The Republic had been dismantled from within, and a democracy had been erected in its place. A republic is a nation in which the permissible activities of government are limited by a written Constitution which defines them precisely; a democracy is a nation in which the majority makes all decisions, either directly or through its representatives, and imposes them on the minority by force. The doctrine of individual sovereignty had disappeared as government at all levels asserted unlimited power to arrange the lives of Americans and dispose of their fortunes as it pleased.

     Some of the Republic's finest moments were among its last, under one of its least appreciated Presidents, Grover Cleveland. Cleveland was the last of the Democrats of the party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, "the party of hard money and personal liberty." Under rising pressure from his own party, Cleveland maintained to the end that government in America had only a limited sphere; at tremendous cost to his popularity, he vetoed every emission of Congress not consistent with the moral limits on government. Among his achievements against a socialist tide whose strength is hard to appreciate today, Cleveland restrained the federal government's debt and spending, prevented the use of tax revenues for individual or corporate welfarism, blocked all attempts to legislate on personal morality, saved the gold standard, and limited the size of the civil service. The excesses of his successors would not have been possible had Cleveland not preserved the country in such fine condition.

     Old Grover knew what a republic was, and it's plain that he loved ours. He might well weep to see what has taken its place.


Unknown said...

Golly, Fran… if you were aware of all that in ’88, what agony you must have endured since then, observing our plunge from on high. Makes the average concerned American wonder what is still holding it together. But we don’t wonder, do we? Our Founding Fathers weren’t geniuses, they were just individuals willing to risk all to worship, work their own land, and teach their young‘ens the Way. It wasn’t that private property was sacred, it’s that the idea of private property was sacred. That foundation is still there, only a bit tattered now. The flag is frayed, and the colors dim and disowned by the 95% who only seem to chip away at the type of citizen it represents. I wax optimistic. BTW, you will need to double your excellent daily content since Ol’ Remus will be gone an extra week… I flounder, searching for golden oratory…

John said...

I have ready several histories of taxation, including the passage of the 16th amendment, which has funded so much of the expanse of the Federal government. Indeed, it may be argued (and has), that one of the reasons it remained relatively constrained in the 19th century was a lack of large revenue sources. But one connection I had not thought about until recently, was that a large number of very powerful and vocal opponents of the 16th amendment were no longer around to protest: John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Isa Strauss and others were not around to fight the passage because they were all lost on the Titanic. I'm not sure how strong the case can be made that if the Titanic hadn't sunk a century of massive Federal expansion may have been avoided, but it might make an interesting alternative history. Chaotic systems and butterfly wings.

Charlie Mitchell said...

In 1988 I was gulping down gallons of beer every portcall.

The slide was so gradual that I didn't really notice how much things had changed from my childhood in the late 1960s-early 1970s.
We almost live on a different planet than the one I inhabited then.

Col. B. Bunny said...

I read of a certain senator who I think was from Oklahoma. He attempted to vote against measures that were not encompassed in Art. I, Sect. 8 and was resoundingly defeated in the next election. The American voter proved that he would not tolerate obstacles to getting free stuff.

Wish I could remember the senator's name.