Democracy makes for a fearsome tyrant. This should come as no surprise, since we each of us bear a tyrant inside ourselves and democracy – colloquially known as mob rule – is nothing more or less than the imposition of the will of a group of collective selves over a slightly smaller group. From schoolyard to sorority house to workplace to the Place de la Révolution, we see the human impulse to rule other humans played out in every petty and terrible way.
Happily for us, even before they had witnessed French monarchical tyranny deposed by French democratic tyranny in a bloody paroxysm of retributive horror, our Founders knew that democracy was a dangerous and unreliable guardian of liberty. This was precisely why they rejected any such regime for their new nation, and settled instead on a Constitutional Republic, a system not only different from a democracy but, blessedly, antithetical to it.*
Of course, the blessings of liberty which the Founders sought to secure for themselves andtheir posterity were never meant to include the unfettered right to do anything one pleased, at any time, in any place, to any effect. Liberty does not equal lawlessness. If your college buddy turns out to be an amateur terrorist, and you decide after the fact to give him a hand by getting rid of some of that pesky incriminating evidence, then -- even in the freest society on Earth -- you ought to expect to be arrested for obstruction of justice.
But in truth it’s not the lawbreakers nor the bombers – nor even the terrorists – whom we ought really to fear. Their potential for tyranny is limited to the blast radius of whatever device they can assemble once Williams and Sonoma lifts the pressure cooker ban. Instead, the existential threat to liberty comes from those unreconstructed statist thugs who never learned to “work and play well others” in kindergarten, those “great men” whom Bastiat says desire to rule over others.**
By way of sterling example, New York Mayor and anti-Mountain Dew® activist Michael Bloomberg recently suggested that while:
. . .the people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry, . . . we live in a complex world where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.
Bloomberg’s chief enforcer, police commissioner Ray Kelly, on the other hand, is not about to follow his Bloomberg's lead and go all squishy in the middle where terrorists are concerned. Officer Stop and Frisk, without actually invoking the Latin legal aphorism of privacy schmivacy, Kelley made it clear that he thinks his boss needs to stiffen his spine:
The privacy issue has really been taken off the table. I don’t think people are concerned about it. I think people accept it in a post-9/11 world. . . . The people who complain about it, I would say, are a relatively small number of folks, because the genie is out of the bottle.Give that a moment to sink in. The contention is that the bombs detonated in Boston were so powerful as to shake the very foundations upon which the Republic has rested lo these two and a third centuries. Usually it takes a civil war*** or a world war**** for statists so comfortably and brazenly to reveal themselves. Now all that's needed to drag them into the light and before a bank of microphones is weaponized kitchen utensils.
Most of the time, most of what these sorts of villains do to advance their tyranny is done as subtlety and deceptively as they are able, and as quietly as they can. Every now and then, though, we get the chance to hear what’s really on their minds. When that happens, we really do need to pay attention. Thomas Jefferson, when he observed that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” had in mind an entirely different sort of vigilance than do Bloomberg and Kelly and their ilk.
Jefferson understood, as we should, that men like these are not meant to be the practitioners of that vigilance, but its objects. *****
* Because I hold my few and gentle readers in such high esteem, I can only presume that the broad distinctions between the two systems are known full well to you. If, however, you are called on to explain the concepts to others, less-well-informed than you – as anyone must be if not among my few and gentle readers – I recommend this essay, “An Important Distinction: Democracy versus Republic,” which thoroughly and succinctly explains the issue.**
This must be said: There are too many "great" men in the world — legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of the people, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on. Too many persons place themselves above mankind; they make a career of organizing it, patronizing it, and ruling it. . . .My attitude toward [such] persons is well illustrated by this story from a celebrated traveler: He arrived one day in the midst of a tribe of savages, where a child had just been born. A crowd of soothsayers, magicians, and quacks — armed with rings, hooks, and cords — surrounded it. One said: "This child will never smell the perfume of a peace-pipe unless I stretch his nostrils." Another said: "He will never be able to hear unless I draw his ear-lobes down to his shoulders." A third said: "He will never see the sunshine unless I slant his eyes." Another said: "He will never stand upright unless I bend his legs." A fifth said: "He will never learn to think unless I flatten his skull.""Stop," cried the traveler. "What God does is well done. Do not claim to know more than He. God has given organs to this frail creature; let them develop and grow strong by exercise, use, experience, and liberty."
Frédéric Bastiat, The Law
*** President Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus and wholesale sedition arrests mean he is hardly regarded in unalloyed reverence.
**** Executive action to intern Japanese-American citizens evidently being insufficiently shameful, the Supreme Court got in on the act in Korematsu.
***** The provenance of this quote is well-documented and fascinating and some of it can be found here. So when I suggest what Jefferson meant by it, and what he’d mean if had the chance to say it today, I do so with good reason.