Why the U.S. is not a democracy

In this previous post, I promised to write about the insights that moved me away from the fence sitting position of ‘fiscal conservative, social liberal’ toward libertarian thinking.  Walter Williams helps me start that discussion.

This week, Williams writes about why the U.S. is not a democracy, even though many people think it is or should be.

The word “democracy” appears nowhere in the two most fundamental documents of our nation — the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Our Constitution’s Article IV, Section 4, guarantees “to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”

But why?

James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 10, said that in a pure democracy, “there is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual.”

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.”

Alexander Hamilton said, “We are now forming a Republican form of government. Real Liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments. If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship.

So, what’s the difference between a democracy and a Republican form of government?

John Adams captured the essence when he said, “You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.” That means Congress does not grant us rights; their job is to protect our natural or God-given rights.

I don’t know about you, but that’s still fuzzy to me.

To John Adams, I’d ask, how do democracies commit suicide?

I think the answer is that 51% of the people end up using government to force their will on the other 49% and that chokes off the productivity of the evolved patterns of interactions that spawned a society that could afford to form a democracy in the first place.

The simple image of why democracies fail is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.  I think a more accurate picture is Cinderella and her two step sisters taking a vote on whether Cinderella would get to go out for the evening.  Think of the missed opportunity for Cinderella if her step sisters had that kind of power over her.

I believe the founders wanted two things from government:

1) Protect individual liberty.

2) Limit itself from encroaching on individual liberty, to keep the wolves from using government to eat the sheep.

The U.S. has functioned more like a democracy than a limited republic for a better part of century because many folks don’t appreciate the value of #2.   I didn’t appreciate it when I was a ‘fiscal conservative, social liberal” or a conservative.

When I came to appreciate it, I started to think more like a libertarian or a classical liberal, even though I didn’t know it at the time.  It took me awhile to discover that.

I think ‘fiscal conservatives, social liberals’ have a vague notion of #1 and an even vaguer idea about #2.  Conservatives tend to be stronger on #1, but soft on #2.

I will write more about how I came to appreciate #2 in the future.

2 thoughts on “Why the U.S. is not a democracy

    • Thanks. Your post is good too.

      A good extreme example that most people will discount and say democracy couldn’t get that bad. To which a good response is, how would you prevent it? A republic is one way to at least slow it down.


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