Democracy or Republic?

The title of this blog is also the title of an essay by Walter E. Williams that was published in the June 2007 edition of magazine The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.

I am about a third of the way through a book by Walter Williams entitled American Contempt for Liberty. It is a compilation of many of his essays. Each essay is only about a couple of pages long. The book is hard to put down. I find myself underlining something on almost every page.

Separately, while organizing my office today I found about 10 photocopies of the essay referred to in the first paragraph. I just reread the essay and understand why I made copies to give out to people who I thought might be interested. It is a concise essay that explains the difference between a democracy and a republic and how clearly our founding fathers wanted to establish a republic and not a democracy. So, below is a link to the relatively short essay. I expect that you will enjoy reading it.

https://fee.org/articles/democracy-or-republic/

Can’t our federal government spend money on anything that promotes the general welfare of citizens?

Here is what one of our founding fathers, James Madison, said about our Constitution and the ‘general welfare’ clause:

“With respect to the two words ‘general welfare’, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected to them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

We have gone far outside the Constitution with respect to both corporate/business welfare and social welfare.

As Walter Williams might say, most Americans and politicians have contempt for our Constitution. They very much have violated its clearly written provisions and think that is best. They think we should have a pure democracy where the majority gets whatever they want. (We have a republic with a constitution that protects the rights of minorities.)

If they really think the Constitution is wrong, the proper way to amend it is by getting three-fourths of the State Legislatures to agree. That may be hard. It is intended to limit the power of the federal government and leave other powers to the states or the people. As it should be.

Living in a pluralistic country.

The United States of America is a pluralistic, heterogeneous country. Liberals, conservatives, libertarians. Muslims, Christians, atheists. Asians, Blacks, Latinos, Whites. And on and on. It seems that we are getting more tribal – my tribe is good and other tribes are bad. Many media outlets reinforce the idea that those who disagree with us are evil and have bad intentions. We are righteous and our intentions are honorable. We want to save our Country and our opponents want to destroy it. There doesn’t appear to be a path to peace and agreement about how to go forward.

Every group seems to go to our government to lobby for laws and regulations that support their position and/or outlaw contrary positions. Very few seem to care about fundamental, first principles. They just want their side to win. It would be nice if we could agree on fundamental principles and then go forward with laws and regulations that are consistent with those principles.

Living in a free country doesn’t just mean that others should tolerate the things you do that they don’t like. If you truly believe in individual liberty and want to support diversity, equity, and inclusion, then you need to tolerate people who do things you don’t like.

Our republic is not a pure democracy!

I disagree with the letter to the editor in The Des Moines Register written by Ivan T. Webber that, “The United States Senate is an outdated relic that can no longer be justified in the modern world.”  He noted that none of the upper houses of the other G-7  nations can block ordinary legislation.   (“The US Senate is unacceptably undemocratic” published 11/11/2021)


We elect our representatives democratically, but our founding fathers and our Constitution created a Republic that protects certain fundamental rights of minorities against the will of majorities.  The Senate was specifically designed to protect smaller states from being abused by larger states.  If a minority in the Senate blocks the majority from achieving their goals, it is a feature, not a bug.

  
Important decisions made by our government that affect the lives of everyone should require more than a simple majority vote.  As we’ve seen, when the party in power has passed laws by a slim majority, whether Democrat or Republican, it has created a very divided populace.  We have an increasingly diverse population in the U.S., so our laws should, as much as possible, allow people to pursue happiness in their own way, not forced by government policy, if we want to maintain a civil society.

Science recommends, individuals or politics decide.

The editorial team at The Des Moines Register, (as well as many liberals), seem to think that anyone who does not follow the recommendations of our government’s scientists is a “science denier.”    That’s not true.  People can believe the science but disagree about how to respond politically.  Science can give us a pretty good idea of what will happen when we take certain actions, but science does not tell us what risks are acceptable or what trade-offs we are willing to make to achieve any specific level of safety.  Those are either individual or political decisions.  We could stop COVID-19 completely if everyone was required to stay in their home for the next 30 days.   But even then, some would die in their homes. There is no perfect answer.  It is a proper role of government to use its force to stop or slow the spread of a communicable disease.   But as we can clearly see there are wide differences of opinion regarding what trade-offs we are willing to make and what level of safety should be our goal.  To the extent that those who are not willing to take a risk can protect themselves, others should be free to take risks.

Living has risks. Government should not prohibit things that are not proven safe.

The Des Moines Register recently published a report about Madison County Boar of Supervisors considering a requirement that wind turbines be setback 1.5 miles from the nearest home.  Ben Johnson, a cardiologist who lives in Madison County was quoted as saying, “Industrial wind turbines have never been proven to be safe, nor free of adverse health effects,”

It is difficult, if not impossible, to prove that anything is safe or free of adverse health effects.   For example, driving or riding in a car at any speed has never been proven to be safe. No amount of second-hand barbeque smoke has been proven safe.  Eating chocolate has never been proven free of adverse health effects. We live in a risky world. It would be impossible to live our lives if we were prohibited from doing anything that was not proven safe or free from adverse health effects.

We should not have policies that prohibit things until they are proven safe or free of adverse health effects. Unless something is proven to be unreasonably dangerous, it should be allowed.

Benefits of civil society should not be called “Rights”.

Thanks to The Des Moines Register for publishing the essay by Peter Funt about the misuse of the term “rights” by Democratic candidates for President.  (See link to Register essay below.)  The term “right”, without qualification, should be reserved for natural or fundamental rights that are also called “negative rights” – rights that place no burder or obligation on others.  The most notable of these negative rights are those included in the Bill of Rights of our Constitution.  They include freedom of the press and of speech (You can print or say anything but I don’t have to read or listen it or pay for it.); and freedom of association (You can associate or not associate with whomever you please, but you can’t force me to associate with you.); among others.
On the other hand, we also have “civil rights” or “government granted rights”.  These are called “positive rights” since they do impose a burden or obligation on others.  These rights are granted by governments through our legislative processes, and may be taken away in the same manner.  They are often granted based on the wealth of a society and its ability to pay the cost.  Common examples of these government created rights include basic education, medical care, and food.  In order for a person to receive these benefits, the force of government is used to make others pay the cost.
I would prefer that these government created positive rights be instead called “benefits” of a civil society.  Positive rights can be granted by government only if and when society has the ability to pay, and society’s ability to pay is not unlimited.  For example, I don’t think any reasonable person believes they have a right to unlimited health care paid for by taxpayers, So if our Democratic candidates for President want to be completely honest, they should talk about the benefits they believe should paid for by a civil society, not simply about rights that should be conferred without regard to cost or limits.

Abortion should be allowed if fetus is not viable

Joel Kurtinitis had an opinion printed in the Des Moines Register on 3/25/18 (see link below) wherein he wrote that a fetus should be protected against abortion as soon as a heartbeat can be detected (around 6 weeks into pregnancy).   He and other millennials may not have been exposed to the philosophical argument in favor of a woman’s right to choose abortion up to the time that a fetus is viable.  A fetus is viable when it is able to live outside of the mother’s womb, either with or without assistance (usually around 24 week into pregnancy).  A classical libertarian philosophical position is that every person has the right to use and control his or her own body as they wish as long as they don’t infringe on other people’s right to do the same.  In the case of abortion, this means that neither the fetus nor anyone else, has the right to force the mother to carry the fetus inside her body.  If the fetus is not viable, then the mother should be free to abort it.  If the fetus is viable, then the mother should take reasonable care to not harm the fetus during delivery.

Link to Kurtinitis’ opinion in The Des Moines Register:  https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2018/03/22/heartbeat-bill-abortion-millennials-iowa-legislature/449965002/

 

Some discrimination should be allowed.

The Des Moines Register recently published a nice essay by a gay couple who got married in Iowa without any discrimination issues to deal with. (See link to Register essay below.) It is fair and reasonable for government to prohibit discrimination against gay couples and others in the selling of standard goods and services that are offered to the public, like most products retail stores, rooms at hotels and motels, and meals at restaurants. But when the product or services needs to be customized or personalized by the seller, then discrimination by the seller should be allowed, and the buyer should not be able to enlist the force of government to require the seller to provide the product or service. So, for example, cake bakers should required to sell what is what is on their shelves and available for sale without discrimination, but they should not be required to create custom cakes against their will.  At the same time buyers are free to choose other sellers and to organize peaceful protests and boycotts against such discriminating sellers.  This way, everyone’s liberty is preserved, and no force needs to be used, by government or anyone else.
As readers of this blog may know, I am and atheist libertarian and support gay marriage.

Churches should not be allowed to advocate for or against candidates

I agree with The Des Moines Register editorial that the law that bans churches from endorsing specific candidates, (the Johnson Amendment), should not be repealed.  (See link below.)

Once again though, you did not make clear the difference between all tax-exempt organizations and special 501c3 organizations.  Virtually all political parties, candidate campaign committees, and special interest organizations are tax exempt – they don’t pay income taxes.  But, people who donate money to these various political organizations do not get to deduct their contributions as a “charitable” deduction on their income taxes.
On the other hand, charities, churches and educational organizations are tax exempt under a special tax code section: 501c3.  People who donate money to 501c3 organizations get a charitable tax deduction for the amount of their contribution when computing their income taxes .
Churches, and church officials can advocate all they want about issues without violating the rules for 501c3 organizations.  What they cannot do is advocate for or against any specific candidate.  If they do advocate for or against specific candidates then they should be treated just like any other political organization: their donors should not get a charitable tax deduction for their contributions.  That is what the Johnson Amendment is all about, and it should not be repealed.

Link: http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/editorials/2017/02/10/editorial-dont-eliminate-ban-politically-active-churches/97750512/