The Ethics of Democracy

“Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”  That quotation, often (but probably incorrectly) attributed to Benjamin Franklin, sums up the ethics of democracy.  Democratic outcomes are used to justify a majority claiming the right to impose their will on the minority.

To prevent the unethical exploitation of the few by the many, the American Founders designed a government with strictly limited powers.  Government was not designed to further the will of the majority, but to protect the rights of individuals.  Democracy’s role was limited to choosing who held political power, and providing a non-violent method for replacing them.

Over the centuries since the nation’s founding, the fundamental principle underlying American government has evolved from “liberty” to “democracy.”  At one time Americans thought the purpose of their government was to protect their rights.  Now the common opinion is that government should carry out the will of the majority.  If the many want to take from the few, the ethics of this view of government justifies it.

After the election President Obama claimed that his re-election was a mandate to tax the rich.  Whether the presidential election was a referendum on taxes could be debated, but if the president is right on this, and the majority voted to re-elect the president so that two percent of the population would pay more in taxes to benefit the majority, the president appears to be claiming that the wolves won the election, and now it is dinnertime.

The two percent who would pay more are “the rich,” who can afford to pay more to help out everybody.  The message in Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, is at least as relevant today as when it was written more than half a century ago.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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