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Restoring the Constitutional republic

Mark Poyar | Wednesday, December 5, 2007

In today’s political discourse, it is popular to treat the concept of “democracy” with a degree of reverence befitting six-pound, eight-ounce baby Jesus. It is as if the ballot box has taken on a supernatural mystique usually reserved for duct tape, big-screen HD TVs and Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. Every few years, millions of Americans pay homage at the democratic altar while casting their ballot for the seemingly less moronic politician of their choice. It is an American tradition, on par with the great Catholic traditions of old.

Our president is certainly not one to break tradition. No one really knows for certain whether the real reason the U.S. invaded Iraq was to get rid of Saddam Hussein’s apparent stockpile of WMDs as originally claimed, but the president knows one thing for sure: We’re “spreading democracy” in Iraq, and that’s something the U.S. should be darn proud of.

Lest the American public forget this point, the president decided to name our little overseas excursion “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Apparently, he sees absolutely no difference between democracy and freedom. In his 2004 State of the Union Address, the president said, “we also hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare” and, “as democracy takes hold in Iraq, the enemies of freedom will do all in their power to spread violence and fear.”

But is democracy freedom, as many maintain without giving it a second thought? What did the founding fathers think about democracy? Does democracy deserve as much praise at it receives?

The founders viewed democracy with outright distrust. President John Adams said, “[r]emember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Similarly, James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers that in a pure democracy, “there is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual.” Edmund Randolph said at the Constitutional Convention that “in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.” The word “democracy” is notoriously absent in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the Pledge of Allegiance.

There were a number of reasons why the founders feared democracy. Most importantly, the founders viewed freedom and individual rights as the most important political ends. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in the Declaration of Independence that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Similarly, John Adams said that individuals have “rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.”

People should be free to act as long as they don’t harm others or their property. They believed that it was the job of government to secure these rights. They knew that individual rights, and therefore freedom, would not be safe within a democracy.

In a democracy, the rights of individuals were not protected but were subject to the whims of the majority, or as Madison said, “there is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual.” If the majority felt like seizing an individual’s property or violating his other rights, there was nothing to stop the majority. Without protections in place securing the rights of the people, a democracy would almost certainly end up violating the rights of individuals and destroying their freedom. It was with this thought in mind that they created a Constitutional republic.

They knew that democratic majorities acting through the government were likely to try to violate the rights of minorities. Consequently, the founders wrote the Constitution to place well-defined limits on what the newly created federal government could and couldn’t do. It guaranteed certain fundamental rights from infringement from the government such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to bear arms.

Although the people democratically elected representatives to act on their behalf, they were unable to act on certain subject matters and had to respect the rights outlined in the Constitution. Checks and balances further limited the power of majorities. As a wise man once said, in a democracy, two wolves and a sheep take a majority vote on what’s for supper, but in a constitutional republic, the wolves are forbidden on voting on what’s for supper, and the sheep are well armed.

Unfortunately, the United States is, for all intents and purposes, no longer a Constitutional republic. Congress routinely exceeds its defined and enumerated powers listed in the Constitution. It can do nearly anything it wants, from spending money on Social Security or health care (neither of which the Constitution gives Congress the power to do) to spying on people without warrants.

When the government can do anything it wants by majority vote, including taxing everything under the sun, it’s hardly a wonder that people are much less free to do as they please. Restoring the Constitutional republic by actually enforcing the Constitution as written would go a long way in restoring freedom once again.

Mark Poyar is a junior finance major and vice president of the College Libertarians. Their Web site is http://ndlibertarians.blogspot.com. He can be contacted at mpoyar@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

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