What words mean is important. The ability to speak, to transfer complex and symbolic knowledge from one person to another is one of the hallmarks of humanity. When words lose their meaning communication loses its ability to transmit thoughts. Obviously words can change their meanings over time. One example is the word prevent. This word now means to stop something from happening. Hundreds of years ago it meant for one thing to happen before another: pre-event.
This is natural and is the organic outgrowth of how people speak. All languages change over time. What isn’t natural is when, for ideological reasons, groups work to change the meanings of words to either confuse the discussion or to attract support from people who normally would not lend them their support.
Leaving aside the natural organic change of meanings and looking instead at the contrived control of meaning for political purposes we recognize the need to establish precise meanings to convey precise thoughts.
A perfect example is how the words liberty and democracy have become intertwined and confounded. Knowing that equality before the law is a necessary bridge on the road to liberty advocates of liberty rightfully believe that all citizens should have a share in making the law. This is where the advocates of liberty and the proponents of the democracy movement share a preference for a means while they do not necessarily share a preference for the ends.
The advocates of liberty standing on the foundation of the enlightenment thinking of the 18th century and the classical liberal traditions of the 19th see democracy as a means for limiting the coercive power of government no matter what form that government may take. Conversely to the dogmatic democrat the only legitimate limit on government power is the current majority opinion.
The difference between these two positions is starkly revealed if we understand what each side sees as the opposite of their idea. To the dogmatic democrat it is authoritarianism and to the classical liberal it is totalitarianism. Neither of these two opposites excludes the other. It is possible for a democracy to use totalitarian methods, and an authoritarian government might implement the principles of liberty.
Both of these terms democracy and liberty are used in vague and wide references by those who seek to lead our people. Their precise meanings have been blurred by this usage to the point where many people confound them and believe if they can vote they have liberty. However if we can return the meaning to these words we will find that it is possible to separate the two and find clarity.
The doctrine of liberty deals with what laws ought to be. The doctrine of democracy deals with the manner of determining what will be the law.
The advocates of liberty agree that it is best if only what the majority accepts should be law however they do not agree that all majority driven law is always good law. They seek to persuade the majority that the principles of liberty should be the hallmark of all laws. They accept that majority rule is the fairest method of deciding what the laws are. They do not agree that this gives the majority the unlimited authority to decide what the laws ought to be.
The doctrinaire democrat holds that majority opinion not only decides what the law should be and that this majority opinion is also the measure of what is good law.
Therefore when we confound the concept of liberty with the use of democratic action it is natural to accept that everything democratically decided upon is an advance for liberty. One has only to look at the fact that the German people voted to give Hitler dictatorial powers to see that this is an illusion.
For while the principles of liberty are one of the paths which may be chosen through democratic action the use of democratic action does not preclude other choices and it says nothing about what is the proper role of government. While the spread of democracy, especially the idea of one-man-one-vote, has advanced the cause of liberty in many nations there is nothing that demands that it do so. In America today many popular policies are advanced on the merit that they are the democratic desire of a majority. This does not necessarily mean that they will advance the cause of liberty. To require a citizen to purchase certain products such as health care and to use the coercive power of the state to enforce it may have passed as part of a democratic procedure; however, this does not advance the cause of liberty.
Giving someone the power to vote does not magically give them the knowledge or the information as to how to vote. When the franchise is extended to more and more low information voters this may advance the cause of democracy; however, it does not advance the cause of liberty. Low information voters are easily manipulated by demagogues who exploit the desires of the day to build their own kingdoms and enhance their own power without regard to our constitutional limits.
We have a growing mass of low information voters, a progressive government who makes it their business to shape the majority opinion, and a media that is dedicated to the government party. This is the prescription for a totalitarian democracy. The constraining hand of the constitution and tradition has fallen away and the manipulated voice of the majority calls for more entitlements, more regulation, more government to solve the problems caused by entitlements, regulations and government.
We have come full circle. In our revolution the advocates of liberty rose up against an autocrat to demand freedom. They then used that freedom to craft a government limited in power so that people could live their lives and build their fortunes without oppression. Today we have elected leaders who have progressed past these limits. Leaders who seek to control every aspect of life. We may have reached the dreams of the democratic fathers however these dreams are turning into the nightmares of our Founders: advocates of liberty one and all.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion. He is the Historian of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com © 2014 Contact Dr. Owens [email protected] Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook or Twitter @ Drrobertowens / Edited by Dr. Rosalie Owens