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Why do Americans confuse democracy with freedom?


“America is a democracy!” “We have to preserve our democracy!” These are perhaps the two most heard phrases said by famous people whether they are politicians, Hollywood celebrities, academics…etc. Today, the average American believes that America is free because it is a democracy. They correlate democracy with freedom and pride themselves in being the world’s most powerful “democracy.” What is interesting is that the word “democracy” was never written once in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the Founding Fathers hated democracy. They believed that democracy was one of the worst types of government. The Founding Fathers did not make America a democracy. They made America a constitutional republic.

What’s the difference between a democracy and a constitutional republic? The word “democracy” comes from Ancient Greece; demos kratos. Demos means people, and Kratos stands for rule. Democracy, thus, means rule by the people. It is a form of government in which the people have the authority to deliberate and decide legislation (direct democracy), or to choose governing officials to do so on their behalf (representative democracy). The cornerstone of democracy is that the majority is the one that governs. A constitutional republic, on the other hand, is a form of government in which individual liberty is protected by the rule of law. In such a political system, the liberties of the minority are protected against the majority.

Thus, the substantive difference between a democracy and a constitutional republic is that in a democracy, the majority shall always retain power over the minority. This retention of power could be wielded tyrannically. In a democracy, people cannot be treated equally because if the majority has power over the minority, then the majority can inflict upon the minority all kinds of unjust laws. Hence, there is no fairness. This is why the Founding Fathers despised democracy. In a constitutional republic, the individual is sovereign and his freedom is the highest aim that ought to be protected by the rule of law. Hence, in a constitutional republic, everyone is equal before the law. There is no majority prevailing over a minority. A constitutional republic promotes a free society while a democracy promotes a majority rule.

If the distinction between a democracy and a constitutional republic is so obvious, then why do Americans confuse the two? This is because the U.S. Constitution contains some democratic elements, but this does not make the United States a democracy. Some of these democratic elements are the ability to hold fair elections, having a pluralistic system of political parties and organizations, the separation of powers…etc. Democracy enables people to elect public officials. That’s pretty much all. That’s why American politicians love to use the word “democracy.”

But the right to elect one’s government officials does not guarantee a free society. Freedom is determined by the powers wielded by the government. If government’s powers are limited to their legitimate function, then people in that society will be free. And this is exactly why the Founding Fathers created a Constitution that would substantively limit the powers of government. And that’s true whether government officials are democratically elected or not. In other words, theoretically, an unelected regime could result in a freer country than a democratically elected one.

An unelected regime, for example, could implement a free-market economic system while a democratic one could implement a welfare-state planned-economy system, as has been the case in many European countries. Hitler was elected democratically and yet, the policies he implemented deprived people of their liberties. Germany under his leadership was not a free society, and then it became undemocratic. The only real benefit of a democratic system is that people can peacefully change public officials. That’s it. But it does not ensure in any way, shape, or form that people will be free.

Politicians love using the word “democracy” because they need votes to either gain political power or retain that power. So when politicians like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, in their speech, talk about “preserving our democracy,” what they imply is preserving their own power. Politicians use the word “democracy” to present themselves as the defenders of “freedom” and inculcate in the voters’ minds that democracy is freedom. They make the voters believe that their ability to vote demonstrates that they are free. The ordinary American falls for that kind of rhetoric because American voters are generally ill-informed. They usually do not dig deep into the issues at stake. They put their faith in another person (the government official) to do the right thing while that person is simply pursuing his self-interest using political power. So, using semantics that rotates around democratic notions serves no one but only the one pursuing political power.

True freedom is when the policies implemented pertain toward the liberalization of markets, meaning the enlargement of the private sector. Because the private sector is where individuals have the real ability to wield their freedom to its full extent. A democratic government that imposes laws that restrict markets and prevents people’s ability to exercise their freedom, isn’t a government that promotes freedom.

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