Rod simply sat at his desk looking at us, the clear recognition on his face that Craig and I had just used a democratic majority to steal his freedom.

Rod simply sat at his desk looking at us, the clear recognition on his face that Craig and I had just used a democratic majority to steal his freedom.

Many people believe democracy and freedom are the same thing. Actually, they’re not. Democracy refers to a decision-making process that involves three or more people, maybe even millions. Freedom has to do with the ability an individual has to make a choice, and then act upon that choice. (Often, although not always, the expression of freedom is reflected in our economic choices. Freedom also implies the right to not be discriminated against.)

The idea that Canadians, and Albertans, should use a democratic process to decide our own fate on key political issues is certainly more favorable towards promoting freedom than if we had some tyrant or dictator telling us all what to do. But it is nevertheless still possible for democratic structures to establish policies that stand against freedom, explaining why the rights of an individual have to be protected from the tyranny of the majority.

Not many years ago, 13 Alberta farmers went to jail, were kept behind bars, dressed in prison garb, and fed prison food, all because they sold small quantities of wheat or barley they had grown on their own farms. It was a crime because a democratically elected Legislature, or Parliament, had used its majority to take away their economic rights and civil liberties. The 13 have since been pardoned; the government itself acknowledging that the law was unjust.

Several years ago, I got into a chat with a couple of co-workers on the subject of individual freedom and majority rule. Their names were Craig and Rod.

Rod held to the idea that in a democracy, anything the majority decided had to be right. As far as he was concerned, the policy being voted upon didn’t even matter all that much. Craig and I disagreed. We said the government has little to do beyond enforcing basic rules protecting public safety and the environment, enforcing laws and establishing courts that among other things outlaw discrimination, and protect the property rights of individuals and businesses. We insisted that beyond that, individual freedom had to trump anything a majority wanted an individual to do.

It quickly became apparent that we were in a friendly, though deadlocked, argument. Rod would not believe there were times when a democratic majority should not be trusted. Nor would he accept the idea that in a democracy, there were things the majority had no business sticking its nose into.

It was about seven at night. The three of us were working late. We’d missed supper, so I phoned to get a pizza delivered. After hanging up the phone, I turned to Rod, and said, “Rod, you believe the majority should always rule, and that what the majority wants is always right. Let’s practice what you preach. I move we vote on who pays for the pizza, and I nominate you!” Craig immediately picked up on what I was doing, chimed in, then said, “All in favour, raise your hand!”

Craig and I immediately raised our hands. Rod simply sat at his desk looking at us, the clear recognition on his face that Craig and I had just used a democratic majority to steal his freedom. When the pizza came, Rod got two things: the bill, and a better understanding of the difference between democracy and individual freedom.

© by the author, 2012-2016. All rights reserved.

Rod simply sat at his desk looking at us, the clear recognition on his face that Craig and I had just used a democratic majority to steal his freedom.

Rod simply sat at his desk looking at us, the clear recognition on his face that Craig and I had just used a democratic majority to steal his freedom.

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