A Republic, Not a Democracy
Inspired by an OTB comment thread, Steven Taylor has written two essays questioning the use of the phrase “A Republic, Not a Democracy.” In Part I: Looking at Terms, he cites the political science literature to show that the terms are interchangable. Part II: Madison, Republican Government and Federalism, he argues that even the founders wanted democratic institutions — i.e., a nascent form of representative democracy — despite the use of the term Republic throughout the Constitution and other founding documents.
He’s right, of course, on the merits. I’ve used the phrase myself in casual conversation to mean that we have a limited government rather than one in which the majority has the right to do whatever it wishes. That’s an important theoretical concept that many Americans seem not to fathom.
Walter Williams, amidst a lot of drivel, captured the essence of that distinction:
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essence of the difference when he said, “You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.”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.
John Adams said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Chief Justice John Marshall observed, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.” In a word or two, the founders knew that a democracy would lead to the same kind of tyranny the colonies suffered under King George III.
As a matter of political science, however, all polities that empower popular sovereignty employ representative democracy, which filters the passions of the people through elected politicians, with some restrictions on what those leaders can do with their power. Some, like the United States, put more obstacles in the way of the majority than others, such as the UK. But there are no “pure” democracies.