Lord Acton and Hayek on democracy

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December 18, 2011 by galudwig

Nowadays, many seem to confuse democracy and liberty. If a society is democratic, it is commonly thought and argued, then its laws are just and its system is good. The polar opposite of the totalitarian dictatorship is the pluralistic democracy. However, such reasoning completely misses the point of democracy which is to be a means to an end and not an end in itself. What is important is not that we put total control in the hands of the majority, but that the rights of individuals are protected against intrusion, be it from a single infringer or from a bureaucrat who represents 99% of the population. Many great books on this subject exist, and I have collected a large amount of quotes on democracy alone, of which I surely will post many over the coming weeks or months. To begin, Hayek writes in The Constitution of Liberty:

Liberalism is a doctrine about what the law ought to be, democracy a doctrine about the manner of determining what will be the law.

(note that Hayek uses “liberalism” as shorthand for what today is called classical liberalism or libertarianism)

Those who argue that democracy is an end in itself and the only safeguard for  liberty forget that a democratic state can very easily devolve into oppression and arbitrary rule. In fact, there are good reasons why, if one is to be oppressed, it would be better to be oppressed by a minority, rather than by the majority. As Lord Acton wrote in Freedom and Power:

It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason.

What we must keep in mind, and now more than ever, is that we need liberty, not democracy. From the same work by Acton:

Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.

More on the subject soon.

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