Sunday, October 5, 2008

Thoughts On Liberty, Freedom and Democracy

What a pretentious title! I've been thinking about this post for a week or so and I couldn't think of anything else to call it. It was brought on by a combination of inflated, often outrageous campaign rhetoric combined with being prodded to think about what book had the most profound impact on my life.

My parents were always involved in the community on issues of free speech and minority rights. The "McCarthy era" came about during my formative years. And somehow, I was eventually led to graduate work in political science from experiences in politics and political campaigning. With my background, I always cared deeply about freedom and the human condition.

About 50 years ago, I took a college course in political philosophy. One of the assigned readings was John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (originally written in 1859). I still have the copy I bought way back when. It was a used copy, edited by Alburey Castell that had been published in 1947.

Inside this small (118 page) volume, I found a passage that spoke to me and succinctly summarized my deepest beliefs: "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of contrary opinion, mankind would no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."

One sentence! And I have quoted it to students over and over again for nearly half a century. It seems to me to that this summarizes one of the basic tenets of representative democracy. (Mill followed up on this essay in 1861 with his Considerations on Representative Government.)

Whenever politicians and demagogues talk about democracy, they are always quick to point out that it entails majority rule. But they generally forget that representative democracy also is based on minority rights. The framers of the U.S. Constitution created checks and balances to prevent tyranny. They added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution to protect the rights of individuals. And the Supreme Court has, for the most part, been the guardian of those rights, preventing elected officials and popular majorities from "silencing that one person" or oppressing minorities.

Obviously, American history is not perfect in this regard. There were infringements on "unalienable rights" from the beginning and they have continued through to the present. But I thank the friends whose suggestion sent me scurrying for my copy of On Liberty. It's an important reminder of basic democratic values as we listen to half truths and attacks on those who are willing to listen to all points of view, no matter how unpopular. For me, Mill still provides a guide to what ought to be!


Charles Gramlich said...

It is a great pamphlet. I should revisit it myself.

Bill Cohen said...

I loved this post

Leon said...

CHARLES - Thanks! I always think about it whenever majoritarians run wild trying to squelch the rights of minorities in the name of democracy.

BILL - Thank you! Kind words from one's offspring are always welcome and cherished.

Sidney said...

That is a great quote. Very worthy today as ever.

Leon said...

It has served me well for many decades SIDNEY.