Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Are we a republic or a democracy?

Walter Williams asks this question in his World Net Daily column. It gets to the heart of my dissertation, and Williams stresses, as do I, that we are a republic.
The word democracy appears nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution – two most fundamental documents of our nation. Instead of a democracy, the Constitution's Article IV, Section 4, guarantees "to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government." Moreover, let's ask ourselves: Does our pledge of allegiance to the flag say to "the democracy for which it stands," or does it say to "the republic for which it stands"? Or do we sing "The Battle Hymn of the Democracy" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"?

So what's the difference between republican and democratic forms of government? John Adams captured the essence of the difference when he said, "You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe." Nothing in our Constitution suggests that government is a grantor of rights. Instead, government is a protector of rights.

In recognition that it's Congress that poses the greatest threat to our liberties, the framers used negative phrases against Congress throughout the Constitution such as: shall not abridge, infringe, deny, disparage, and shall not be violated, nor be denied. In a republican form of government, there is rule of law. All citizens, including government officials, are accountable to the same laws. Government power is limited and decentralized through a system of checks and balances. Government intervenes in civil society to protect its citizens against force and fraud but does not intervene in the cases of peaceable, voluntary exchange.

Contrast the framers' vision of a republic with that of a democracy. In a democracy, the majority rules either directly or through its elected representatives. As in a monarchy, the law is whatever the government determines it to be. Laws do not represent reason. They represent power. The restraint is upon the individual instead of government. Unlike that envisioned under a republican form of government, rights are seen as privileges and permissions that are granted by government and can be rescinded by government.

True, true. As Williams points out, our Constitution contains all sorts of checks on majoritarian democracy, such as the electoral college, the Senate, federalism. But it seems we have lost our way. He concludes thusly:
Here's my question: Do Americans share the republican values laid out by our founders, and is it simply a matter of our being unschooled about the differences between a republic and a democracy? Or is it a matter of preference and we now want the kind of tyranny feared by the founders where Congress can do anything it can muster a majority vote to do? I fear it's the latter.

In arguing what seems to be a semantical point, people have gotten frustrated with me for noting that America is not a democracy. People have rolled their eyes and stated that most people accept that we are a democracy, it's just a technicality, so deal with it. But it is so much more than a technical argument. As Williams writes, republican governments emphasize the rule of law, and are therefore more deeply wedded to tradition and constitutionalism. Democracies, on the other hand, cater to the masses and too easily follow the whims of the people. It is less tied to the "permanent things," as Kirk might call them.

At any rate, it's good to be blogging while technically doing dissertation research at the same time. Read the whole article.


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