Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Republic - not a Democracy - Is the Key to Liberty

Alexander Hamilton remarked before the New York Convention that ratified the Constitution:

“It has been observed, by an honorable gentleman, that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position in politics is more false than this. The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity. When they assembled, the field of debate presented an ungovernable mob, not only incapable of deliberation, but prepared for every enormity. In these assemblies, the enemies of the people brought forward their plans of ambition systematically. They were opposed by their enemies of another party; and it became a matter of contingency, whether the people subjected themselves to be led blindly by one tyrant or by another.” 

Today, most political commentators and media sloppily refer to America as a "democracy."  Nothing is farther from the truth.  We elect representatives to Congress, and a President (indirectly through the electoral college) to pass and enforce the laws.  

This is a republican form of government, and it was purposefully made so to protect our freedom.  Although most states have introduced a bit of democracy through the initiative and referendum procedures, these are rarely invoked - and they often have unintended consequences.  

Likewise, essential to our system are checks and balances and separation of powers, both of which check the passions of the people.  Our Senate represents the Senates (albeit in a diluted form with the passage of the 17th Amendment), and the Bill of Rights and other constitutional protections simply remove from the political debate our unalienable rights. 

Words, of course, have meaning.  The mischaracterization of America as a democracy undermines the public's and politicians' understanding of our government, and it inappropriately sets expectations.  Next time someone refers to our democracy - correct them.  This is not a quibble - our republic is at stake.

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