Democracy: The Destroyer of Free Governments
In Georgia, a hot-button issue that has suddenly surfaced is one concerning whether local governments should be able to determine whether or not alcohol can be sold on Sunday. The media is framing this as you’d expect. On one side you have a bunch of right-wing, Bible-thumping, super-religious zealots intent on imposing their morality of everyone else. On the other hand you have hard-working local restaurant and package store owners looking to earn additional revenue in a tough economy, and at the same time increasing the tax base which would help fund government services.
Now, before I get inundated with nasty e-mails from either side, I should point out that I have absolutely no dog in this fight. Personally, I’ve never consumed a single drop of alcohol in my life, nor do I plan to; and, being a conservative with libertarian leanings, I tend to not care what other people do so long as it does not infringe on the unalienable rights afforded to all people, and as long as I do not have to pay for the consequences of their decisions.
Yet, while there have been many perspectives offered (conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat, religious/secular-business, the one perspective that seems to have been overlooked is the constitutional perspective.
Article III, Section VI, Paragraph VII of the Constitution of the State of Georgia reads “The State of Georgia shall have full and complete authority to regulate alcoholic beverages and to regulate, restrict, or prohibit activities involving alcoholic beverages…This regulatory authority of the state is specifically delegated to the counties and municipalities of the state for the purpose of regulating, restricting , or prohibiting the exhibition of nudity, partial nudity, or depictions of nudity in connection with the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages; and such delegated regulatory authority may be exercised by the adoption and enforcement of regulatory ordinances by the counties and municipalities of this state.”
The Constitution as written, therefore, would seem to indicate the state has sole power to regulate alcohol, with the explicit exception allowing it to delegate to counties and municipalities authority to determine regulations regarding alcohol sales at strip clubs. That appears to be the only authority to delegate such power; otherwise, if all power could be delegated then why bother specifying one circumstance?
I find it amusing that certain proponents of passage of Sunday sales are lamenting the failure of the Senate (to date at least, since it has been returned to the Rules Committee) to allow the people to decide the issue by public referendum, thus denying them the “right” to vote on it. Many of those demanding the right to vote on the matter would be adamantly opposed to a public referendum on other issues…say, school vouchers, for example.
All of this misses a more fundamental point. All too often we determine our desired outcome on a partisan or ideological basis, and then, if our position is not clearly supported by the Constitution, we look for ways to manipulate it through interpretation, even when such interpretation defies original intent. In doing so, we fail to see the danger that lurks when applied to other circumstances.
In his Farewell Address, George Washington admonished “If in the opinion of the people the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates, but let there be no change by usurpation; for though this in one instance may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.” In other words, changing or circumventing the process of government may help you in this instance, but it may bite you in the backside later (remember a few years ago when Republicans were arguing against the filibuster of judicial appointments and threatened to end the practice? Suddenly that changes when you’ve got an opposition president in office making the appointments).
So, how to address this from a constitutional standpoint? First, we must understand that America is not a democracy, it is a constitutional republic. The Founding Fathers abhorred democracy, and constructed the constitution so as to temper the corrosive effects of democracy. Secondly, we must understand that the Constitution grants no one a “right” to vote. It simply lists criteria (race, gender, age, etc.) by which a person otherwise qualified may not be denied the voting privilege. So let us end the nonsensical complaints about democracy denied.
In Federalist No. 10, Madison warned against the dangers of democracy and extolled the virtues of a republic, in which the people would seek out from among themselves men and women of sound wisdom, virtue and integrity to represent them and their values within the legislative body. This is far superior to democracy. As Madison warned, “a pure democracy… can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction…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; 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.”
Public referendums are in essence pure democracy. Many want to see the Sunday alcohol sales issue put to a referendum, but is this truly the way we’d want to run our government? In practical terms, would we make the same demand in other, arguably more important areas? For example, would we want to put the state budget, which is hundreds of pages long and filled with endless amounts of technical language and accounting minutiae, to a public referendum? This surely has far more impact on us than the Sunday sales issue, doesn’t it? Yet to do so would be an absolute nightmare, and I think it is safe to say only a small percentage of the population would easily grasp the details of the budget, much less be inclined to study it paragraph by paragraph and then vote on it.
The other problem I have with the public referendum is this: in a constitutional republic we are supposed to elect men and women of wisdom and integrity to do the hard work of studying the details of these issues and then voting in such a way that best comports with the Constitution and the values of their constituents. Too often, politicians use the public referendum so that they don’t have to take a stand on a divisive issue that may get them voted out in the next election. But populist passions are not conducive with sound judgment, and making decisions in the heat of the moment often leads to regret and ill-considered consequences.
This is a hard thing for many to understand. It’s easy to believe our wisdom justifies ignoring or twisting the Constitution to suit our current needs and desires. Democrats were completely content to undermine clear constitutional doctrine to pass ObamaCare, which they saw as a moral issue. Republicans and conservatives rightly were outraged. Many Democrats have also called for an end to the Electoral College. On the other hand, many Republicans/conservatives/TEA Party members would be tempted to do the same thing to achieve term limits or get the line-item veto.
The bottom line is this: our Constitution has governed this nation for more than two centuries, having been amended just 27 times. It provides for incredible security, stability and the peaceful transfer of power. Around the world these last few months, and even here at home, we’ve seen the destabilizing effects of populist uprisings, and more often than not they are not pretty. Let us therefore not be quick to advocate democracy at home, because if we are not careful, we may just get it and all that comes with it.