David Sharp’s last article for Laissez Faire


David Sharp – Barrister at Law

Democracy is widely regarded as the epitome of good government. Its virtues are lauded by politicians and prelates, journalists and judges, academics and scholars of many and varied backgrounds. As Winston Churchill, with typical wit, observed, “Democracy is the worst form of government, save for all the others”. Not everyone however would agree. Democracy and the critics thereof have existed since earliest times. Plato wrote unfavourably of democracy and foresaw the eventual fate of all democracies as tyranny or mob rule. Hans Herman Hoppe, whilst not advocating monarchy, suggests in his book, “Democracy the God that Failed”, that it was superior to democracy, against which he directs much criticism. The definition of democracy as two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner, is sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin, clearly suggesting that he did not favour it. Perhaps Franklin had in mind the threat of democracy when, on leaving the American Constitutional Convention he was asked what form of government the new USA was to have, he responded, “a republic, if you can keep it”.

In his preference for a republic and his opposition to democracy, Franklin was not alone amongst the American Founding Fathers. The second President, John Adams, asserted “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide”. James Madison, the fourth President wrote in similar vein, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths…”.

The American Founding Fathers did not make the mistake of equating freedom with democracy. In creating the USA they established what they considered to be a Republic, where the voting power of the majority was constrained by a superior law, the Constitution, and where the Rule of Law prevailed. By such means they hoped to avoid what they saw as the shortcomings of unlimited democracy. Such concept is sometimes referred to as Constitutionalism. Similar sentiments applied in the setting up the Commonwealth of Australia.

With the passage of time it has become clear to many that those who put their faith in Constitutionalism as a safeguard against the shortcomings of democracy were wrong, and that the critics of democracy have been proven right. Constitutionalism has shown itself to be a feeble shield both in America and Australia. In Australia such limited successes as the Bank Nationalisation Case and the Communist Party Case of the 1940s and 50s are long gone, and have not looked likely to recur. In both countries, the Constitutions, as protectors of liberty and constraints on the power of government, are effectively dead.

The critics of democracy have suggested a variety of possible causes as to its likely demise. Perhaps the most convincing is the determination of the 18th century Scottish lawyer and theorist Alexander Tyler, who wrote that “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury”. It would appear that such stage has well and truly now been reached.

DBS – LF 118 Feb 2017