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Rabbi Ben Hecht Headshot

Why Democracy Does Not Necessarily Equal Freedom

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It is clearly most difficult to challenge any movement towards democracy yet, at the same time, it is also most difficult to not do so, as any value, even one as dear to us as democracy, still demands scrutiny. Values do not exist in vacuums; they are not of absolute worth, importance and benefit regardless of the other factors that co-exist with them. So it is with democracy. The base concept of "one person, one vote" with majority rule clearly is a principle to be promoted. But it must be remembered that this principle has functioned so well within Western democracies because other standards co-existed with this principle to ensure that the value of democracy would not be hijacked to serve another cause.

It was no less a significant individual than Winston Churchill who remarked: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." The principle of majority rules has its limitations if the sole concern of this majority has no consideration for the group as whole, including therein its minorities.

The result in such situations would be the oppression of these minority others. A term has even been developed for just such a possibility: the tyranny of the majority. While the axis of democracy is clearly vital to the establishment of freedom, it cannot function alone. Where democracy has succeeded it is because it co-existed with other values which ensured that it would serve freedom rather than attack it.

It can never be forgotten that Adolf Hitler came to power through the democratic system. While Hitler, of course, never valued democracy and only used it to serve his own megalomaniac desires, the lesson still stands that democracy is open to such misuse.

Hitler came to power through the democratic process and, absent the necessary checks and balances to ensure that he could not use this power to destroy the freedoms at the foundation of this process, he was able to create a horrific force of evil. Democracy indeed is built on a belief in the rights and freedom of the individual yet it is also built on a belief in the individual's capacity to exercise such rights and freedom in a positive manner. Giving power to those without such a conscience will, however, lead to tyranny.

Of course the answer cannot be not to trust, not to encourage those on a path to the democratic ideal. In a certain way, the only way that one may be able to learn to exercise one's rights in a responsible manner is by being given these rights -- a necessary learning by experience.

What must be enunciated, though, is that with the rights that democracy grants also comes responsibilities. We cannot simply cheer in favour of democratic movement if we do not, at the same time, demand recognition of the values that must accompany a movement towards this democracy. The values that must co-exist to ensure that a movement towards democracy does not result in a tyranny of the majority must ever be enunciated -- loudly enunciated.

Democracy is not the rule of the mob. Democracy is not the right to act in any manner one may wish, with a callous disregard of the other. Democracy gives every person one vote because it believes in the value of every individual, even the one with whom you may disagree. Even as the majority rules, one of the significant foundations of democracy is this very belief in the individual, even the individual member of the minority.

We can only ultimately cheer for a movement towards democracy when the majority understands that even as majority rules there is a caveat on this -- the rights of the minority must still be respected. In all true democracies, we are always and continuously balancing these two principles -- and so it must be.

As we continue to promote a movement toward a steady democracy, let us still hold back our cheers until we see these new democracies embrace a commitment to this balance rather than just "one person, one vote" or majority rules. We must see the call for the rights and freedom of all.