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Democratic Tyranny

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Hosni Mubarakby Jacob G. Hornberger

No doubt many American statists celebrated the ouster of Hosni Mubarak as dictator of Egypt in the belief that freedom had arrived for the Egyptian people, given that the country was now experiencing the “order and stability” provided by military rule. But the truth is that military dictatorship isn’t freedom at all; it’s as much tyranny as what the Egyptian people experienced under Mubarak for 30 years.

What about democracy? American statists feel that if the Egyptian people are able to achieve democracy, that will mean that they will then be free. That’s in fact why American statists honestly believe that people are now free in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since there are elections (even if a bit fraudulent) in both countries, the argument goes, that means that the Iraqi and Afghan people are now free.

Actually, democracy and freedom are two entirely different things. In fact, as America’s Founding Fathers understood so well, democracy can be one of the gravest threats to freedom. That’s why the Framers placed the federal government within the straitjacket of the Constitution and why our American ancestors demanded passage of the Bill of Rights as a condition for agreeing to call the federal government into existence — to protect people from the grave threat to freedom posed by democracy.

So, what good is democracy? Actually, the only benefit of democracy is that it provides the citizenry of a country with the ability to change political regimes peacefully. As we are seeing in the Middle East, when people desire to change directions in a country ruled by a non-democratic regime, oftentimes the only way to do that is with violence. With elections, people can oust public officials from power without resorting to violence.

But what’s important to keep in mind is that simply because people have the ability to vote people out of office and vote new people into office does not mean that the society is free. Freedom turns on external (i.e., constitutional) limitations on the powers of public officials who are elected to power.

For example, suppose the Egyptian people enact a new constitution that says that the people shall have the right to elect anyone they want to the presidency but that whoever they do elect shall have all the powers that were exercised by Hosni Mubarak or his successor military dictatorship.

Would that be a free society?

Of course not. It would simply be a democratically elected dictatorship.

This raises the notion of fundamental, inherent, natural, God-given rights to which Jefferson referred in the Declaration of Independence. No government, not even a democratically elected government, has the legitimate authority to infringe on such rights. Thus, freedom turns on whether government is restricted from infringing on people’s fundamental, inherent, natural, God-given rights. That’s what constitutional constraints are all about.

Can a democratically elected regime engage in tyrannical acts? Of course. The United States provides two good examples. The first is the drug war, one of the cruelest, most brutal, and tyrannical measures that any government could engage in. Yesterday, I wrote about a young mother of four who was recently sent to prison for 10 years for selling $31 worth of marijuana to a police informant. How’s that for cruelty, brutality, and tyranny? What business of government is it to jail people for buying and consuming marijuana or any other drug? What business of government is it to jail people for providing marijuana or anything else to consumers? The government’s decades-long drug war strikes at the heart of a free society — the fundamental right of people to live their lives any way they choose so long as their conduct is peaceful.

Another example: the extensive anti-terrorist legislation that came into existence 10 years ago after the 9/11 attacks, including the Patriot Act, the NSA spying, the telecom spying, the enemy combatant doctrine, torture, kidnapping, assassination, indefinite detention, denial of due process, denial of trial by jury, denial of speedy trials, and military tribunals. Those are essentially the same measures adopted by the Mubarak dictatorship as a temporary, emergency measure after the president of Egypt was assassinated 30 years ago.

The Egyptian people rightfully view such measures as an attribute of tyranny, which is why they are so insistent that the Egyptian military dictatorship lift the anti-terrorist legislation.

Here in the United States, however, U.S. officials continue to refer to such measures as temporary, emergency pro-freedom devices designed to keep the American people safe. They are wrong. Tyrannical measures are tyrannical measures, whether embraced by unelected Egyptian dictators or elected American presidents.

Did I mention that the Mubarak dictatorship justified its anti-terrorist legislation by both the war on terrorism and the war on drugs?

When it comes to freedom, the world is desperately in need of leadership. Who better to lead the way than the American people, whose heritage of liberty was born in centuries of resistance to tyranny? A good place to start would be by demanding the end of both the war on drugs and the war on terrorism.

Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.


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