Liberty and democracy: Many people believe that these two ideas are synonymous. Related yes, but far from synonymous. Liberty is the exercise of those fundamental rights we have as individual human beings. These inalienable individual rights are the ones so wonderfully defined, among others, in our Declaration of Independence, as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Democracy, on the other hand, is simply a form of government where collective decisions are made and the majority opinion is what generally wins the day and provides the framework within which we exercise our individual liberties.
The conflict between our individual liberties and the laws created through the democratic process arises when a majority acts to take liberties away from the polity in general. This happens when the majority leadership begins to nibble away at those individual liberties in the name of taking care of the individual’s needs.
Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit), in his new book, defines these individual liberties as a sphere of “self-governance” that must be safeguarded from periodic redefinition by the collective, e.g., a contemporary or a future majority that sees self-governance as different from what was intended by the Declaration and as illuminated by the Constitution. Today’s majority will inevitably become tomorrow’s minority. The only safeguard against wide swings of right and wrong is that the majority’s decisions must be tempered by the basic principles in our constituting documents.
We must return to those first principles embodied in our founding documents. This does not require rejection of all things new, but it does demand rigorous discipline to keep from overreaching into the individual’s sphere of self-governance. We must be careful to avoid the erosion of those individual liberties. This is best done through adherence to the principle that government does not confer rights: Government exists to safeguard those preexisting rights.
Remember this as our elections draw near. Politicians swear to uphold the Constitution: Let’s make them do that.