Constitutional Republic

Re: Member’s post 52106 of 3/9/24

Member wrote:

  The difference between a constitutional republic and a democracy is in the charter or constitution that protects the individual’s right to life and liberty against the whims of a majority. Some claim that the U.S. is a Representative Democracy in that the government is elected by citizens.

From my myopic point of view, it seems that we have a little bit of both, but we can’t seem to get the concept correct.


That’s because one needs to use the right method of concept formation. The right method allows one to validate one’s concepts, rather than merely picking one term from those available.

A proper concept classifies by fundamental similarities and differences. Fundamentals cut through the tangle. In this case, the surface topic is whether the U.S. is a democracy or a constitutional republic. But we are classifying political systems, so let’s ask: what is the fundamental in political philosophy?

Answer: individual rights. Such issues as the manner of voting, the parts of government, and the function of a constitution are details and derivatives. They concern how to best implement some end. The end is fundamental to the means. Things become means because they help get the end.

So the poles are rights-protecting and rights-negating political systems. The term for the former is “capitalism” and for the latter “statism.” The political spectrum must be divided between capitalism and statism, because that is the division between rights and rightlessness, hence between the mind-respecting and the mind-negating. Since man’s mind is his basic equipment for surviving, the capitalism-statism division is also the life-death division. And that is the existence-nonexistence division. You can’t get more fundamental than that—systems permitting your continued existence and systems geared to wiping you out of existence.

All of that deeper background is what makes capitalism vs. statism the fundamental issue—the right Conceptual Common Denominator—for classifying political systems.

Where on the capitalism-statism spectrum does “democracy” fall?

That depends on what you mean by “democracy.” Okay, suppose someone says that by “democracy,” he means “a system in which the leaders and the laws are selected by a vote of the people”? Where does that fall?

In the trash. That is not a valid distinguishing characteristic. It ignores the fundamental: what does the government do to or for the individual; and substitutes the superficial: how do things happen?

Linguistically, in Ancient Greek, “demos” meant “the people” and “kratos” meant “rule.” So “democracy” meant (and still is taught as) “rule by the people,” as opposed to “aristocracy” and “oligarchy,” which are rule by the excellent and rule by the few.

But the issue is not how many or how wonderful are the rulers; it is whether the citizens are to function as order-takers or free agents.

Ancient Athens, the paradigm case of a “pure” democracy, killed Socrates following the majority vote of the Athenian General Assembly. Socrates’ crime? “Impiety” and “corrupting the youth” (by getting them to think). The murder of Socrates should make one want to distance oneself from the name of the system that carried it out: democracy.

Instead, people love the term and bask in its warm rays. Why?

Metaphysically, the cause is the social version of the primacy of consciousness, which is Kant’s baby. The People, when they get together, are superior to any mere fact of external reality.

Epistemologically, Kant’s effect was to socialize consciousness; “objective knowledge” no longer meant reality-based knowledge, something he argued could not be achieved, but only shared delusions.

In ethics, one’s primary focus became: how are my relations to others? Am I doing my duty toward them? Am I being a good neighbor, a valued member of the community, a good citizen?

Politically, “rule by the people” is collectivism. “Vox populi, vox Dei.”

Psychologically, collectivism is the theory of, by, and for social metaphysicians. A social-metaphysical clinger seeks the warmth of the herd. He dreads the prospect of facing reality alone, unbuffered.

Thus the paeans to “the democratic process” and the endless calls to “get out and vote,” no matter which way and no matter how confused one is. Only if we can get vast numbers of people to participate, will the election tap into the General Will, a free-floating consciousness powerful enough to constitute “social reality.” Ordinary reality, they assume, has no chance against social reality.

Democracy accepts no limits on majority rule, which means it rejects the very concept of individual rights. The will of the majority is supreme.

A particularly surprising manifestation of that premise is the Supreme Court’s doctrine of “deference to the legislature.” From the head of the judicial branch of the goverment, in defiance of the system of checks and balances, we get the doctrine that the courts must bow before the Will of the People.

Ayn Rand characterized democracy as “unlimited majority rule.” I taught it as “dictatorship by the majority.” Actually, democracy is thinly disguised mob rule.

Could we keep the word “democracy” but define it in a way that would make it compatible with capitalism? No. The term “rule” implies statism, not capitalism. Capitalism is freedom, not the “rule” of anyone. Rights are moral principles forbidding any man or group to rule over others.

Limited Government

The essence of any government, good or bad, is the use of physical force. What distinguishes government from other social institutions—from schools, churches, and bowling leagues—is that a government uses physical force. In fact, it maintains a monopoly on the use of force within its borders.

Under capitalism, the sphere of government action must be limited to using force in retaliation, to protect us from force. Protecting rights includes protecting them from government. Rights are precisely the barrier that stands between governmental force and the freedom of the citizen.

Force used in retaliation protects individual rights; force not used in retaliation is necessarily force initiated. Being subject to initiated force means being treated as rightless. So the government under capitalism may never reach beyond retaliatory force. That is what “limited government” means.