19 February 2010

Voting as a tool

PLF Liberty Blog | Timothy Sandefur | This American Life on Citizens United

After my comments [on This American Life], a law professor is quoted saying that "conservatives" have "turned the First Amendment into democracy's foe." I think this is a very revealing comment, for two reasons.

First, the view that the government should censor the speech of people who do business in the form of corporations is rooted in the idea that free speech is an instrumental good that serves "democracy." That is the Progressivist interpretation that sees "democracy" as the central value of the Constitution, and sees individual liberty as a privilege that is created by the government in order to promote "democracy." This is the opposite of the view of the Constitution's authors: they believed that the fundamental constitutional value was liberty, and that democracy existed only to serve liberty. That's why the first sentence of the Constitution declares that liberty is a "Blessing," and why the Constitution goes on to impose serious limits on democracy. In their view, speech is protected because individuals have the right to express themselves--not because speech has a relationship to democracy. Obviously they understood that free expression was good for democratic decision-making, but their primary concern was protecting the rights of individuals, not with preserving some vague conception of "democratic society."
Hrrrm.   I need to think about this, but my inclination is to agree. That distinction between democracy as a goal and democracy as a method is an interesting one.

It always gets me when people start saying around Election Day that voting is the most important freedom we have have, or the highest duty of a citizen or things like that.  Ditto around Memorial Day when people make comments about servicemen making sacrifices so we have the right to vote.

Voting, and by extension democracy, is a mechanism, not a goal. There is nothing especially Good about the act of casting a vote (especially if you feel like you're choosing between "the lesser of two evils."). Voting is only an instrument to help keep the ship of state on the right course.

If there was some magic potion which could be relied upon to keep a leader moral and honest and wise and just I would have no problem with turning over the reins of government to a king and letting him provide for Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. But we don't have that philosopher-king juju juice and never will, so we rely on democracy and voting as a tool.

(Via Damon Root.  For more on the over-valuation of voting, see Coyote Blog classic "I Don't Necessarily Treasure the Right to Vote.")

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