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The conflict between liberty and democracy

Posted by Chance on November 6, 2006

In Woodland Park, a small community in Colorado, there was a debate on whether Wal-Mart should be allowed to build in the community. I think that the most current news states that Wal-Mart is indeed allowed to build. Now, let’s put aside whatever our feelings on Wal-Mart may be. In fact, let’s pretend it is a Target or Big Lots, or whatever – I don’t want this to be a pro-Wal-Mart or anti-Wal-Mart post. The point is this: we see a conflict between liberty (Wal-Mart’s, oops, I mean, Big Lots right to build wherever they please) and democracy (the right of the people of Woodland Park to shape their community however they wish).

This struggle between democracy and liberty happens in many other places as well. Consider speech that is indecent, like an adult video store. Should free speech be protected (the liberty side), or should the community be able to control standards of decency within the town (the democracy side)? I can see the merits of both.

Well, how do we resolve these issues? One thing that helps is the Constitution. Now, the Constitution primarily concerns state and federal governments. Should it even address local governments, or should local governments have more flexibility based on the will of the people?

Carl Milsted touches on these issues in the Free Liberal.

Consider a small city with 36,000 eligible voters. In a grueling 10 hour town meeting, each voter gets one second to speak on average. Obviously, we cannot allow equal speaking rights and still have meaningful debates.

If we are to have all governmental decisions (and many economic decisions as these Rolling Thunder activists advocated), we can expect many such grueling meetings. We can kiss our weekends goodbye. We can expect tempers to flare. Eventually, we can expect many absences, with government falling back into the hands of special interests.

These problems grow worse if we consider a large city.

Democracy does not scale up.

A better solution is to scale government down. If we are to have true democracy, then the term “local government” should be at a level much smaller than a city. For example, instead of having citywide zoning, each neighborhood could have its own zoning meetings. Let those who pay the price of having a busy store next door decide the zoning.

So, it seems that Milsted supports local governments having a say in the community, provided that these local governments stay small.

This also seems to fit well with the Constitution. Federal and state governments are limited in what they can do by the Constitution itself, but local governments have more flexibility.

I’m not advocating anything here. I still think local governments should be limited to some extent, because local governments can still do tyrannical things. But with smaller local governments, even if they pass oppressive laws, people have more flexibility in determining what type of community in which they want to live if these communities are smaller. And if a city passes a dumb law, it can affect hundreds of thousands of people, whereas smaller local governments affect fewer people. Should local communities be able to pass laws against certain types of speech? Should they be able to spend money on anything they please? I don’t know. But in any case, Milsted and I would agree. Smaller is better.


7 Responses to “The conflict between liberty and democracy”

  1. The Prophet said

    I’ll have to tell my wife that… smaller is better… Lol!

    You know, it all goes down to where government’s power should lie, in the hands of the people or in the hands of the government.

    These days, I’m moving more toward each individual municipality having their own constitution (as long as it coincides with the national constitution). And the laws of that city being upheld.

    If someone isn’t allowed to build within that city, then they can build elsewhere. Kind of like the whole, if you want to spend less at Wal*Mart & face the crowds, then you’re free to do so. If you want to spend a little more for a convenience store, then you’re free to do that as well. Unless you’re Wal*Mart and there aren’t many options left to build.

  2. preacherman said

    The Prophet should be The Comdian! 🙂

    Tomorrow…..Tomorrow…Were only a day…..A…….Way……..!

  3. Michael Westmoreland-White said

    Well, the confusion is this: There is no “right” for any company to build “whereever they choose.” All communities always have the right to decide which company to allow in or not.

    Corporations are fictional entities. They don’t really have rights like people do. Communities, being made of people, have rights. If they decide that particular fictional entity (corporation) is a good enough boon to the community, they can let it build there. If it is a bane, rather than a boon, they can forbid it.

    Certain late 19th C. Supreme Court decisions by rightwing activist judges have obscured these basic facts and caused this confusion.

  4. Wasp Jerky said

    Unfortunately corporations are legally considered people. And that’s a big part of the problem.

  5. Michael Westmoreland-White said

    Yeah, Wasp Jerky, corporations are legal persons–but that is still a fiction. Unfortunately, given the current makeup of the Supreme Court and the federal benches, it is a fiction that won’t be erased quickly.

  6. Dan Trabue said

    “it all goes down to where government’s power should lie, in the hands of the people or in the hands of the government.”

    Ummm, the gov’t IS the people, right?

    So, that being the case, I side with the gov’t (ie, the people) having the liberty to shape their community. I gladly make exceptions when the local gov’t is making decisions that interfere with civil liberties, such as saying that blacks or gays can’t settle in their town.

    Actual civil liberties, that is, not civil liberties for corporations.

  7. Lee said

    “Certain late 19th C. Supreme Court decisions by rightwing activist judges have obscured these basic facts and caused this confusion.”

    Michael, some of those abuses were remedied when later courts took an originalist approach to the 14th Amendment.

    You are, accidently, agreeing with Scalia here.

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