The recent elections in the Palestinian territories, in which the terrorist group Hamas was voted into official political leadership, bring into focus a crucial intellectual issue undermining the Western world, especially in its fight with Islamic terrorist-supporting nations. Specifically, people throughout the world mistakenly think that "democracy" is the equivalent of political freedom.
However, this belief is a deadly misidentification of the true meaning of political liberty. "Democracy" is antithetical to liberty. Rather, as I will argue below, it is the recognition of individual rights that results in political freedom.
"Individual rights" are entitlements to freedom of action. Human beings are entitled to certain freedoms (i.e., rights) by virtue of their nature as sovereign thinking individuals. Examples of individual rights include: the rights to life, liberty, free speech, freedom of religion, and the freedom to earn and own property.
To put it simply, freedom means you can do what you want with your own life, so long as you do not interfere with the lives of others. Jefferson eloquently wrote of freedom in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Within these few carefully written sentences, Jefferson suggests the relationship between individual rights and democracy; he implies that upon a foundation of individual rights, a proper government may be elected by popular vote. Moreover, he explicitly states that the purpose of such a popularly elected government is to protect those rights. Thus, this is how democracy - or more correctly, elections - relate to freedom: individuals possess certain unalienable rights, and to secure those rights, individuals elect a government for protection of their rights.
However, having political elections without the foundation of individual rights, i.e., "democracy", is nothing more than mob rule, i.e., collectivist dictatorship. Instead of a single dictator infringing upon his subject's freedoms, as in a monarchy, democracy substitutes several million voting dictators to infringe upon their subject's freedoms. But increasing the number of people who decide to violate your rights does not make the violation any more legitimate. To quote the philosopher Ayn Rand, "Under a system of Collectivism, a million men (or anyone claiming to represent them) can pass a law to kill one man (or any minority), whenever they think they would benefit by his death. His right to live is not recognized. Under Individualism, it is illegal to kill the man and it is legal for him to defend himself. The law is on the side of a right. Under Collectivism, it is legal for the majority to kill a man and it is illegal for him to defend himself. The law is on the side of a number."
For example, it was in a democracy that Socrates was put to death for supposedly corrupting the youth of Athens; it was in a democracy that the dictator, Adolf Hitler, was brought to power; it was in a democratic election that last week, the terrorist group, Hamas, was elected to rule the Palestinians and launch attacks against Israel.
In this context, it is important to note that within a truly free society, individuals cannot delegate to their government rights they do not possess themselves to begin with. In other words, if you, as an individual, cannot murder your neighbor and steal his money, then likewise, it does not matter how many of your neighbors you get together to vote to commit these same acts. To do so is to grant to the mob the right to take away the rights of anyone at any time simply by majority vote.
No, democracies are not free societies. Individual rights define and delimit what issues may properly be voted upon. Outside the context of individual rights, there is no limit to the power of the majority: anything goes. In a free society, we elect our government representatives, but we cannot rightfully elect leaders or vote to approve measures whose avowed purpose violates individual rights.
And yet, because we elect our leaders within constitutional republics, people in the Western world mistakenly call their countries "democracies", and sloppily mix together in their heads the concept of individual liberty with the act of voting as such, voting without regard to what is being voted upon. Thereby, as a result of intellectual laziness and imprecision, people allow their freedom to be slowly degraded without ever identifying exactly what that freedom actually consists of. Loss of freedom is the result of a fuzzy understanding of liberty.
The intellectual package deal of equating democracy with individual liberty is not simply a matter of semantics, it is not simply a word game. By referring to a constitutional republic as a democracy, people are allowing the enemies of freedom to justify the election of the most heinous of dictatorships (e.g., Hamas). In other words, by the simple act of calling America a democracy, people give the Palestinian mob's choice of Hamas to lead their government the aura of legitimacy since these terrorists were "democratically" elected. And the Hamas leadership knows as much; in a Feb 14, 2005 New York Times article, Hamas official Farhat Asaad is quoted as saying, "First, I thank the United States that they have given us this weapon of democracy. But there is no way to retreat now. It's not possible for the US and the world to turn its back on an elected democracy."
Such governments are neither legitimate nor sovereign. They are simply dictatorships in which everyone infringes on everyone's else's rights, and the group with the most power wins. In other words, they are societies where "might makes right", in contrast to an individualist society, where "right makes right".