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A July 4th Thought

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

In his July 3 letter on Mary Anastasia O’Grady’s superb “Behind Brazil’s Civil Unrest” (June 24), Mark Adams notes the difficulty of containing “the populist forces of fairness and change once unleashed for political gain….  [E]conomic success overseen by leftist populists intensifies the hard-left passion for absolute social justice and equality.”  He’s correct.

Especially as we Americans celebrate the events of 1776, it’s vital to recall the dangers of majoritarian democracy.  Unless very large swathes of private space and property are kept free of the state’s clutches by a combination of constitutional rules, bourgeois values, and a mature and deep suspicion of everyone who holds political power, populist feeding frenzies are inevitable.

Sir Henry Sumner Maine’s warning from 1885 remains relevant: “Yet nothing is more certain, than that the mental picture which enchains the enthusiasts for benevolent democratic government is altogether false, and that, if the mass of mankind were to make an attempt at redividing the common stock of good things, they would resemble, not a number of claimants insisting on the fair division of a fund, but a mutinous crew, feasting on a ship’s provisions, gorging themselves on the meat and intoxicating themselves with the liquors, but refusing to navigate the vessel to port.”*

“Democracy” is not synonymous with “freedom.”  And being bent to the will of the majority is not the essence of the rule of law.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* Henry Sumner Maine, Popular Government (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1976 [1885]), p. 66.


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