The Meaning of the Right to Vote
By Alex Epstein (November 3, 2008)
Every Election Day, politicians, intellectuals, and activists propagate a seemingly patriotic but utterly un-American idea: the notion that our most important right--and the source of America’s greatness--is the right to vote. According to former President Bill Clinton, the right to vote is “the most fundamental right of citizenship”; it is “the heart and soul of our democracy,” says Senator John McCain.
Such statements are regarded as uncontroversial--but consider their implications. If voting is truly our most fundamental right, then all other rights--including free speech, property, even life--are contingent on and revocable by the whims of the voting public (or their elected officials). America, on this view, is a society based not on individual rights, but on unlimited majority rule--like ancient Athens, where the populace, exercising “the most fundamental right of citizenship,” elected to kill Socrates for voicing unpopular ideas--or modern-day Zimbabwe, where the democratically elected Robert Mugabe has seized the property of the nation’s white farmers and brought the nation to the verge of starvation--or Germany in 1932, when the people democratically elected the Nazi Party, including future Chancellor Adolph Hitler. Would anyone dare claim that America is thus fundamentally similar to these regimes, and that it is perfectly acceptable to kill controversial philosophers or to exterminate six million Jews, so long as it is done by popular vote?
Contrary to popular rhetoric, America was founded, not as a “democracy,” but as a constitutional republic--a political structure under which the government is bound by a written constitution to the task of protecting individual rights. “Democracy” does not mean a system that holds public elections for government officials; it means a system in which a majority vote rules everything and everyone, and in which the individual thus has no rights. In a democracy, observed James Madison in The Federalist Papers, “there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention [and] have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.”
The right to vote derives from the recognition of man as an autonomous, rational being, who is responsible for his own life and who should therefore freely choose the people he authorizes to represent him in the government of his country. That autonomy is contradicted if a majority of voters is allowed to do whatever it wishes to the individual citizen. The right to vote is not a sanction for a gang to deprive other individuals of their freedom. Rather, because a free society requires a certain type of government, it is a means of installing the officials who will safeguard the individual rights of each citizen.
What makes America unique is not that it has elections--even dictatorships hold elections--but that its elections take place in a country limited by the absolute principle of individual freedom. From our Declaration of Independence, which upholds the “unalienable rights” of every individual, among which are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” to our Constitution, whose Bill of Rights protects freedom of speech and the freedom of private property, respect for individual liberty is the essence of America--and the root of her greatness.
Unfortunately, with each passing Election Day, too many Americans view elections less as a means to protect freedom, and more as a means to win some government favor or handout at the expense of the liberty and property of other Americans. Our politicians promise, not to protect the basic rights spelled out in the Declaration and the Constitution, but to violate the rights of some people in order to benefit others. Today’s politicians want capital for failing banks--by forcing non-failing Americans to pay for them; subsidies for farmers--by forcing non-farmers to pay for them; prescription drugs for the elderly--by forcing the non-elderly to pay for them; housing for the homeless--by forcing the non-homeless to pay for it. The more “democratic” our government becomes, the more we cannibalize our liberty, ultimately to the detriment of all.
This Election Day, therefore, we should reject those who wish to reduce our republic to mob rule. Instead, we should vote for those, to whatever extent they can be found, who are defenders of the essence of America: individual freedom.
Alex Epstein was a writer and a fellow on staff
at ARI between 2004 and 2011.