Liberty in Peril


I finished reading Prof. Randall Holcombe’s book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in US History during the 2020 election. I have yet to hear any candidate say the word “liberty” and would be shocked if I did.

We are bombarded with messages for candidates and messages merely imploring us to vote. Some Americans relish what they think they’ll get as a result of the election; others dread what they fear will happen. In any case, we accept that, for all its flaws, democracy is the way the United States is supposed to work. We almost never think about whether the policies the candidates favor are consonant with the freedom Americans were supposed to have — freedom to live their lives as they choose.

In his book, Holcombe (professor of economics at Florida State) argues that democracy was not the way the country was supposed to work. Our founding philosophy was not that democracy should prevail, but instead that liberty should prevail — that the reason for government was to protect the individual’s freedom, not to subject him to the will of the majority. Over time, the philosophy of liberty has been shoved aside and today democracy rules to the point where, as the author puts it, liberty has an almost quaint air about it.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, this is a work of history, looking at the shift from the ideology of liberty to the ideology of democracy. Holcombe observes that there is a tension between the two. Under the ideology of liberty, the important question is how to put limits on government so that it can protect individual rights, while under the ideology of democracy, the question is who will hold power to do what the public wants. Where the former prevails, the people tend to have a healthy wariness about government and desire to keep it in check; where the latter does, the people eagerly listen to politicians who promise them benefits from the government.


Holcombe begins his history not with the Constitution or even with the colonists, but with the Iroquois, the largest confederation of Indians that European settlers had to deal with. The Iroquois had an unwritten constitution and its key principle was unanimity. Colonists who became familiar with the Iroquois system commented on its “absolute notion of liberty.” The Iroquois had a “Great Council” composed of tribal chiefs, but it did not act like we expect legislatures to act — imposing decisions on the people.

Instead, the Great Council facilitated the building of consensus among the tribes. Questions were debated and then the chiefs would return to their tribes to assess the sense of their members. Not until a proposal (and I wish Holcombe had said what kinds of issues the Iroquois dealt with) was acceptable to all the tribes was it adopted. That “debate it until we have consensus” mode meant that little was done, but that was, to the Iroquois, preferable to forcing people to abide by rules they had not agreed to.

The British colonists found it frustrating to deal with the Iroquois because their representatives always said, “We must take this proposal back to our Great Council for consideration,” but they incorporated the unanimity principle into their own Albany Plan of Union, drafted in 1754. That Plan was never put into effect, but it called for unanimous consent among the colonies for any action to be taken. Consensus was required, not majority rule.

The first government formed in the United States was the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781. Most historians brush right on past the Articles, but Holcombe thinks them worth analysis. Under the Articles, we had a unicameral legislature without any federal executive or judiciary. Proposed amendments required unanimous consent. The central government had little power, as you would expect from a people who had just waged a long war to be rid of a government with, most thought, too much power to violate individual liberties. The central government could not levy taxes directly, but had to request funds from the states. Holcombe finds virtue in that arrangement, since each state could decide whether the expected benefit of turning funds over to the central government was worth giving up the best use of those funds within its own borders.


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