Is Democracy Moral?
Any exposure to Ayn Rand will make it very clear that she did not think highly of democratic rule:
“Democratic” in its original meaning [refers to] unlimited majority rule . . . a social system in which one’s work, one’s property, one’s mind, and one’s life are at the mercy of any gang that may muster the vote of a majority at any moment for any purpose.
~ Ayn Rand, “How to Read (and Not to Write),” The Ayn Rand Letter
Leonard Peikoff has expanded on this issue as well:
A democracy, if you attach meaning to terms, is a system of unlimited majority rule; the classic example is ancient Athens. And the symbol of it is the fate of Socrates, who was put to death legally, because the majority didn’t like what he was saying, although he had initiated no force and had violated no one’s rights.
~ Leonard Peikoff, “The Philosophy of Objectivism”
On the face of it, this kind of talk seems very un-American. After all, even if you acknowledge that our country is a republic and not a democracy, you may feel that voting is an important element of what makes this country great and what allows it to operate as best it can. Where the confusion comes in is the function of democratic voting, and its proper place. A full understanding of that proper place and function makes it clear that, contrary to one’s initial reaction, the position of Rand and Peikoff is quite American after all.
Last night while reading through The Voice of Reason (as I often do), I came across the following bit that summed things up perfectly:
The number of its adherents is irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of an idea. A majority is as fallible as a minority or as an individual man. A majority vote is not an epistemological validation of an idea. Voting is merely a proper political device — within a strictly, constitutionally delimited sphere of action — for choosing the practical means of implementing a society’s basic principles. But those principles are not determined by vote. By whom, then, are they determined? By the facts of reality.
~ Ayn Rand, “Who is the Final Authority in Ethics?”
Like most of Ayn Rand’s profound statements, this excerpt is rather densely-packed and requires some analysis to fully grasp its implications and logic. I will now go through this quote step-by-step to unpack its full meaning, so that we may circle back around to my assertion that democracy in the popularly-accepted sense is un-American, but democratic voting in Ayn Rand’s sense is both rational and very American.
The number of its adherents is irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of an idea. A majority is as fallible as a minority or as an individual man. A majority vote is not an epistemological validation of an idea. The essential point here is that votes cannot and should not determine morality. No one would argue that murder is okay simply because a majority vote makes it legal. Murder is objectively wrong, as it violates the right to life of human beings. However, with other objectively-moral principles such as the immorality of theft, we seem to accept democratic rule on a daily basis.
So while theft is wrong in the case of a burglar breaking into your home, holding a knife to your throat, and taking your money to pay for his medical bills, it is accepted as proper when a democratic vote delegates such criminal action to the government. This is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of voting, which Ayn Rand addresses next.
Voting is merely a proper political device — within a strictly, constitutionally delimited sphere of action — for choosing the practical means of implementing a society’s basic principles. The proper role of voting and democracy is not to determine the principles of a society, nor to decide codes of morality or socially-imposed obligations. Democracy is proper in implementing basic principles — e.g. we need a police force to defend the individual rights of citizens, so we can vote on the best method of implementing that police force and providing the best coverage for the city.
But those principles are not determined by vote. By whom, then, are they determined? By the facts of reality. Individual rights stem from reality and an objective look at what human life requires. No human can think in place of another human’s brain, nor digest food for another person’s stomach, nor can a human survive without effort. Human life requires rationality to put one’s values in order and to judge what actions need to be taken to support those values (including one’s own continued life); individual rights acknowledge that unless a person can claim and control the fruits of their labors entirely by their own individual judgment, that person is a slave.
Murder, theft, violence, coercion, and the initiation of force against individuals — these things are all objectively wrong, because they violate the moral actions necessary for a human being to survive and thrive. These are the principles that society cannot vote on; it is ludicrous to think that a vote can remove one of these objective principles from reality, or to think that a vote can add arbitrarily to them. As we’ve seen recently in America, a vote can declare that health care is a right, and that to achieve this right other rights (such as the right to the fruits of one’s labor, and the right to be protected from initiation of force or coercion) must be violated; but that does not make it moral or proper. Certainly an alleged “right” that violates other essential rights cannot be valid, except in the murky depths of subjectivism and doublethink.
To re-frame Ayn Rand’s argument:
- The principles of a rational society are objectively evident and determined by reality, not by whims, wishes, or votes.
- Voting is a strictly-limited device allowing individuals to voice their opinion as to the proper implementation of those objective principles.
- Deriving from the propriety of voting on how to implement principles, voting to elect representatives who will do so would also be proper. [I offer this point as an extension of Ayn Rand's original argument.]
- Voting has no place in determining principles or morality, nor in defining arbitrary faux-rights and social values that will be imposed on individuals.
In summary, democratic voting has its place. The truly American function for it is for people to voice their rational opinions of how best to promote the values and principles of society — but not to determine what those values are. That is taken care of by reality in general and by the nature of human life in particular. America was founded on individual rights, and all government action should be strictly limited to implementing defense of those rights.
If values, principles, and morality are allowed to be defined by majority vote (as they often are in America today), then our system of governance is fundamentally no different from that of present day North Korea and Iran, or Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and the like. Tyranny is tyranny, whether one is ruled by a single tyrant in a marble palace or by 150 million tyrants at the ballot boxes.
It does not matter, in this context, whether a nation was enslaved by force, like Soviet Russia, or by vote, like Nazi Germany. Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).
~ Ayn Rand, “Collectivized Rights”