On Democracy

This article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Globe Asia.

In the aftermath of World War I, President Woodrow Wilsonset out to make the world safe for democracy. Since then,US Presidents have marched to the drumbeat of Wilsonianidealism. Indeed, most US foreign policy is carried out underthe pretext—and in some cases perhaps the genuine belief—that America is delivering democracy to the rest of the world.Therefore, President George W. Bush's use of that rationalefor foreign engagements is not new or unusual, and it is logical thatone of the recently stated missions of US intelligence agencies, includingthe Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is to "bolster thegrowth of democracy and sustain peaceful democratic states."

Most people, including most Americans, would be surprisedto learn that the word "democracy" does not appear in the Declarationof Independence (1776), the Constitution of the UnitedStates of America (1789), or its first ten amendments, known asthe Bill of Rights (1791). They would also be shocked to learnthe reason for the absence of the word democracyin the founding documents of theUSA. Contrary to what propaganda hasled the public to believe, America's FoundingFathers were skeptical and anxious aboutdemocracy. They were aware of the evils thataccompany tyranny—in that case, the tyrannyof the majority. The Framers of the Constitutionwent to great lengths to insure thatthe federal government was not based on thewill of the majority and was not, therefore,democratic.

The original Constitution establishedthe rule of law and the limits of government. About 20% of theConstitution itemizes things that the federal and state governmentsmay not do. Another 10% of the Constitution is concerned withpositive grants of power. The bulk of the Constitution—about70%—addresses the Framers' conception of their main task: tobring the United States and its government under the rule of law.

The Constitution is primarily a structural and procedural documentthat itemizes who is to exercise power and how they are toexercise it. The Constitution divided the federal government intolegislative, executive and judicial branches. Each branch was designedto check the power of the others because the Founders didnot want to rely only on the voters to check government power.

As a result, citizens were given little power to select federal officials.Neither the President, members of the judiciary nor theSenate were elected by direct popular vote. Only members of theHouse of Representatives were directly elected by popular vote.The Constitution was not a Cartesian construct or formula aimedat social engineering, but something to protect individual citizensfrom the government. In short, the Constitution was designed togovern the government, not the people.

The Bill of Rights further establishes the rights of the peopleagainst infringements by the State. The only claim citizens have onthe State, under the Bill of Rights, is for a trial by a jury. The rest ofthe citizen's rights are protections from the State.

If the Framers of the Constitution did not embrace democracy,what did they adhere to? To a man, the Framers agreed that thepurpose of government was to secure citizens in John Locke's trilogyof the rights to life, liberty and property. The Framers wrote extensivelyand eloquently on liberty. John Adams, for example, wrotethat "the moment the idea is admitted into society, that property isnot as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of lawand public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence."

The Founders' actions often spoke even louder than their words.Alexander Hamilton, a distinguished lawyer,took on many famous cases out of principle.For example, after the Revolutionary Waragainst the colonial power, Great Britain, thestate of New York enacted harsh measuresagainst Loyalists and British subjects. Theseincluded the Confiscation Act (1779), theCitation Act (1782) and the Trespass Act(1783). All involved the taking of property.

In Hamilton's view, these Acts illustratedthe inherent difference between democracyand the law. Even though the Acts werewidely popular, they flouted fundamentalprinciples of property law. Hamilton carried his views into actionby having the rule of law thoroughly applied. He successfully defended—in the face of enormous public hostility—those who hadproperty taken under the three New York state statutes.

The Constitution was designed to further the cause of liberty,not democracy. To do that, the Constitution protected individuals'rights from the government, as well as from their fellow citizens.To that end, the Constitution laid down clear, unequivocal and enforceablerules to protect individuals' rights.

In consequence, the government's scope and scale were strictlylimited. Economic liberty, which is a precondition for growth andprosperity, was enshrined in the Constitution, and that's how thingsremained for America's first century of extraordinary developmentand growth.