This speech was originally delivered to an online meeting of Libertarian Party members on 20 June 2020.
Do we live in a democracy? Yes, we live in a political system that has borrowed certain elements of democracy – but does not embody all. No, we do not live in a political system that resembles a true democracy. Despite its assumedly long history, democracy is a relatively new concept. The earliest recognisable examples originate in the fifth century BC. Democracy recognised within academia only dates to the early nineteenth century from the writings of Thomas Paine and George Grote, roughly coinciding with the first ‘democratic’ American President in Andrew Jackson and Britain’s legislated abolition of slavery in 1833.
It was the stranglehold of the religious dominance of the Roman Catholic church one thousand years ago that brought the horrors of Christian supremacy; significant loss of life, the raping of women, the butchering of Jews and Muslims, and the plundering of jewels, precious metals and arts for the profit of the Church at the order of Pope Urban II who deceived those of faith that they would be absolved of their sins and be granted eternal glory in the eyes of God for committing acts of atrocity; demonstrating remarkable parallels to renaissance era European colonialism. British colonialism aimed to spread Christianity, capitalism and democracy to the world, but only in the latter half of its existence did it value such a political system.
It was the feudalism and empire-building of five hundred years ago, again mostly European and stemming from the blueprint of the Holy Roman Empire, that helped re-establish democratic principles and a form of recognisable democracy. Here in Britain, it was the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the overthrowing of James II by William III that entrenched the primacy of the parliament over the monarchy, and with it, the shift from oppression rooted by religion to freedom rooted by politics. The following year in 1689, perhaps the most important of all the documents that compose our unwritten constitution was formed; the Bill of Rights, which limited the power of the Crown, and established a rudimentary system of parliaments and elections. It also affirmed the rights of the individual citizen to freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, upholding the rule of law, and the notion of no taxation without representation; mainstream at the time, these ideas are now depicted as fringe concepts, yet each one is a libertarian principle of today.
It follows that we as libertarians are not asking for new rights to be granted to us, we are simply asking for our inherent rights to be given back to us and affirmed in a single untouchable law – in a formally recognised written constitution. It stands that not a single person both dead or alive has ever given express consent to be governed, by representative or otherwise. Democracy, in its variety of forms, has failed to reverse the oppressive tide of statism that has been ingrained in world affairs for millennia. The democracy has endured only through the tacit approval of the people in countries within which it has been tried – not a single nation state has ever put it to the test. This highlights two important questions – what is the quality of our democracy, and are democracies better than alternative systems?
The etymology of the word ‘democracy’ is Greek; demos (meaning people) and kratos (meaning power), therefore translating as ‘people power’, yet we the people do not truly have power. To take the experience of the coronavirus as a prime example of the erosion of this principle from the state downwards, we have all over the world governments that have operated from above by jettisoning civil rights and liberties for the sake of an untried, untested, anti-scientific and anti-human lockdown to combat a virus the deadliness of which is no greater than that of flu on a seasonally adjusted basis. The decisions of our government have gone completely unchecked by the traditional democratic system, yet it is we the people who have stood against the lockdown, stood against social distancing and have challenged our representatives over the handling of the pandemic. At the election in December, both to of the two major political parties stood on a platform of high taxation and high spending. For nearly eighty per cent of those who voted, there was little to no real choice. Contrary to the etymology of the word, the people do not have power but politicians – now a group of their own as opposed to the citizens.
Why does the state act in this way? It hasn’t always been so. Up until the mid-1800s, Britain and many other democracies were distinctly libertarian in nature. In the year 1900, the public sector stood at just ten per cent of gross domestic product. Now, it is above forty per cent. Over this period, the state has assumed a mass of illegitimate functions. It has bolstered the power of the state at the expense of the power of the people. This has deluded the state into the false belief that its actions are always good, always right, always for the benefit of the greater majority. This is not true. The state does not consider the nuances, the differences, the diversity from one person to another. It assumes the common good is the good of all, but it fails to recognise that the value of what is good is not a universal one. It assumes moral absolutism, yet moral relativism would be far more appropriate and beneficial to a wider number.
One of the reasons for the state acting in this way is due to the changing characteristics of democracy itself. Early versions of ‘democracy’ were not democratic by modern standards. Athenian democracy was restricted to native men only precluding an accurate representation of the people. Some elements have endured; there were no property qualifications for political rights or eligibility. However, there were democratic elements that have now been lost, for example, the Athenian democracy had no separation between executive and judiciary. The Encyclopaedia Britannica gives a definition of what could constitute an ideal democracy; effective participation, equality in voting, an informed electorate, citizens control of the agenda, inclusivity, fundamental rights, free/fair/frequent elections, freedom of expression, independent sources of information and freedom of association. It took centuries for women and in some cases minority ethnicities to be given the vote and be granted the potential for representation. Do we have effective participation when governments of all colours have from time to time pursued similar aims? Do we have an informed electorate in the era of misinformation and fake news? How do we measure ‘effective’ participation when turnout levels and constituency boundaries change? Do we truly have freedom of expression when social media giants are handing out bans for users they don’t like the sound of? Are our sources of information truly independent when British tabloid newspapers are owned by just four media conglomerates offering only nuanced perspectives on the same issues? The answer to these questions is no.
We must also consider whether these standards are practically achievable; I for one acknowledge that we as individuals live subjectively, and not objectively, so while it is always a great idea to pursue these ideals, we must also understand that we are never likely to achieve them for the simple fact that one person’s values are innately different to another’s. These thoughts point to the fact that our democracy is better now than it has been before but is by no means the best it can be. A republic is not better than a democracy. A republic would not guarantee against corrupt or dynastic individuals from coming to the fore, thus perpetuating the notion of a political class, potentially doing very little to restore people power. A republic would give us no better chance for direct democracy and proportional representation should the public wish to adopt such measures. A republic did not manage to avoid or buffer against the economic devastation wrought by statist governments as in the 1930s in the United States which came very shortly after the Harding and Coolidge administrations of pronounced limited government, free markets and low taxation; libertarian in all but name. This serves as a case and point that our freedoms, once won back from the state, must be defended at all costs. Our present democracy can really be summed up in the words of Sir Winston Churchill in 1947, ‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’