Democracy =/= elections

As we watch the successful end of the Libyan revolution unfold, it’s worth noting again the difference between democracy and elections.

American foreign policy has sometimes confused the two, promoting elections as though that meant promoting democracy. Democracy requires much more than just voting to allow the majority to choose the government. Voting isn’t enough. Democracy depends as much on that which cannot be voted on as it does on that which can.

Unless and until certain things are established as beyond the reach of the ballot box, beyond the ability of a majority to overturn, then elections can never be free, fair or democratic in any meaningful way.

What countries like Libya, Egypt and Tunisia need first of all is not elections, but a Bill of Rights. Establish that and legitimate elections will inevitably follow. Fail to establish that and legitimate elections won’t last for long.

I probably should say that a Bill of Rights is of foremost important, not that it is needed “first of all.” The “which comes first” question can be quite tricky. A nation needs a legitimate, established government to conduct elections, but until elections are held it cannot have a legitimate established government. A Bill of Rights is necessary for there to be legitimate elections, but until there are elections, how can such a Bill of Rights be regarded as the will of the people? It seems paradoxical, but history has a way of sorting this out. No national constitution was ever drafted under the rules of that constitution, but nonetheless, those constitutions do exist.

My point here is that democracy cannot be sustained without a guarantee of legal protections for minorities — protections not subject to the whim of electoral defeats or the opinions of a simple majority of the electorate. Democracy will fall apart unless those protections are firmly and reliably in place. I mean the whole panoply of rights and protections that can be found in the U.S. Bill of Rights and in the amendments of the second American revolution. That means freedom of religion, freedom of speech, a free press, freedom of association, the right to petition the government, the right to bear arms, protection from being compelled or coerced to incriminate oneself, protection from unlawful search and seizure, due process, equal protection — the whole shebang.

It is only when such guarantees and protections are in place that free and fair elections can be tolerated. Without such guarantees and protections, the stakes are simply too high.

If your party losing an election means that you could be forced to convert to another religion, or that your union or newspaper may be shut down, or that your rights to privacy or property may be taken away, then you will not be able to risk allowing the ballot to determine your future. You will have to ensure that the outcome of the election does not entail the loss of the inalienable rights you rightly desire. So you will turn to fraud, intimidation and violence. That becomes a rational choice, and an inevitable one.

Without a Bill of Rights — without that not-subject-to-a-vote guarantee of full legal rights for minorities — an election can never be free and fair. Without a Bill of Rights, elections become just a slightly more mannered version of civil war.

  • G127

    Not all rights you mention
    are universally accepted: the right to bear arms for example… And I
    wouldn’t neglect the worth of free elections: Soviet Russia had great
    constitiunal rights (accept for property rights of course) but they
    ignored their human rights documents whenever it suited them. France
    revolutionarys drafted the ‘rights of man’ but thousands died on the
    gluiotine after convictions in kangaroo courts. I’m not
    saying a bill of rights shouldn’t be the first priority of any new
    free nation: it should. But more important is that the people in (and
    out of) power, believe in the value of such rights. Otherwise they’ll
    simply ignore the document…

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Word. The statement of principles on which a government runs is its constitution. Germany, after WW1, transitioned to a democracy after the Weimar Constitution was declared. It wasn’t perfect, but held together well during reasonably stable economic periods.

    I hope nobody tries rushing the new governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya into the appearance of democracy before the mechanism has been properly set up. And the people who live in those countries need to be the ones setting up constitutions and assemblies and all that.

    Mitts off, USA and Europe.

  • Daniel Franklin

    Given the experience of the United Kingdom, which until the 1990s had no such formalised extralegal guarantee of any rights beyond the reach of Parliamentary prerogative, I would have to disagree; the US experience might be the necessity of a Bill of Rights, but the closest the UK has ever come to a written constitution would be a combination of the Magna Carta (about 8 centuries old, and largely rendered irrelevant in various ways) and the Glorious Revolution (rendered almost totally irrelevant as being indelibly linked to the power of monarch over people, power that now is theoretical rather than actual).

    In that sense, a constitution is only necessary for outside imposition of democracy; the UK tended toward democracy over time, and has no constitution.  If you want to impose democracy, then a constitution is necessary… but it can’t be a democratic one.  If democracy is to arise in a natural way, in line with the wants of the society producing it, then a constitution, at most, may or may not be necessary.

  • Anonymous

    US foreign policy equates democracy with the installation of a regime acceptable to the US administration.  It’s not the business of the US administration to decide whether or not the democratically elected government of Gaza is right for Gaza anymore than it is the business of Texas to decide who shall govern Mexico.

  • Eamon Knight

    Bit of an Amero-centric view there? There are quite a few countries in Western Europe and the Americas (hint: look north) who didn’t have (and some still don’t have) formal “Bills of Rights”, or even a written constitution until recently. And yet they were and are regarded as democracies and generally free places to live. Indeed, some of them are arguably ahead of the US in that respect — eg. with regard to LGBT rights.

    One can argue the merits of reliance on specific documents vs. jurisprudential tradition (the English approach), and details like the right to bear arms (which many democracies restrict much more than the US does), but the assertion that without a BofR, one must immediately revert to being like Haiti or Somalia, is unfounded.

    Of course, w.r.t. the current “Arab Spring”, it needs to be acknowledged that democracy in the British (including former colonies) tradition evolved gradually, rather than being wrested at gunpoint from a tyrant’s hands as in case of the US, Egypt and Libya. The latter situation probably does require that a stake be put in the ground soonest, saying in effect: we don’t get to screw each other over.

  • Eamon Knight

    Bit of an Amero-centric view there? There are quite a few countries in Western Europe and the Americas who didn’t have (and some still don’t have) formal “Bills of Rights”, or even a written constitution until recently. And yet they were and are regarded as democracies and generally free places to live. Indeed, some of them are arguably ahead of the US in that respect — say, with regard to LGBT rights (hint: look north).

    One can argue the merits of having specific documents vs. reliance on jurisprudential tradition (the English approach), and details like the right to bear arms (which many democracies restrict much more than the US does), but the assertion that without one, one must immediately revert to being like Haiti or Somalia, is unfounded.

  • G127

    Elections might also be a good first step to ensure that a majority agrees with the rights given to people (weather in normal laws or a bill of rights.)

  • Daniel Franklin

    Actually, this is also a very US-centric view of what rights are required for democracy; a second reading leads me to note that, despite a majority of the world’s free-and-democratic states not having “the right to bear arms”, it is apparently a prerequisite for true democracy.

    Now, this isn’t to add that a Bill of Rights didn’t prevent the US abolishing slavery after the UK (1865 compared to 1833), nationally accepting gay rights later (let’s go with legalisation of homosexual sexual activity – 1967 in the UK, though the age of consent was only equalised in 2001; 2003 in a SCotUS case for the US), and didn’t stop it preventing women voting until just as late (although the UK had allowed women to vote until 1835).

    A Bill of Rights, and certainly the American Bill of Rights, is not required to guarantee democracy, nor does it in practice act to protect minorities.

  • Michael Cule

    The first thing they need is a stable interim government. One that most people are at least willing to give a chance.

    If that can be acheived the second thing they need is a constitutional convention.
    Way I’d organise it (if they had the wisdom to ask me, which they won’t) is to make the delegates actual delegates. Allow everyone of age in the country (assuming an electoral roll can be found or compiled quickly) to nominate one of a slate of candidates to hold their proxy for the convention. If there’s enough internet connectivity in the country the best way would be to set up ‘voting stations’ with computers  where the populace can view peoples’ manifestoes and say “I’d like this chap (or lassie) to speak for me.”

    If you get a certain minimum number of supporters you go to the covention and vote with the strength of your total proxies. There would probably be a maximum too so the power isn’t concentrated in a few charismatic hands.

    Probably you’d have them list some alternatives in case the first choice didn’t make the cut or reached their top limit before you registered.

    And at that point you’d have to hope that you could come out with the needed Bill of Rights and also some principles not mentioned in the US Constitution such as an independent Civil Service, equality for women and a few more that I can’t bring to mind just now.

    I think the best thing we in the West could do is to provide encouragement to the Provisional Government to broadcast programmes about how democracies work AND SHOW MORE THAN ONE EXAMPLE! I feel the fact that the Russians listened so much to American Republican advice at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union was one of the chief reasons for the parlous state of Russian  democracy  today.

  • Anonymous

    Before anything else, it’s necessary that all factions agree to the rule of law. Especially in cases where there are armed factions, everyone must agree to abide by existing and future laws without resorting to violence and acknowledging that everyone is equal before the law.

    Otherwise elections and constitutions are pretty useless.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Fred, Australia still doesn’t have a Bill of Rights. We’ve discussed it, but don’t really think we need one.

    Do you really want to tell me Australia isn’t a democracy?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000030681868 Ben E. Hexapodiaasthekeyinsigh

    Fred is definitely going a little far by saying a BILL of rights is required for democracy.  What you need, really, is just the RIGHTS part of the bill of rights.  Personally, I agree with Eamon; a bill of rights is probably the best approach if you want the full government right now, but it is almost irrelevant, in a process sense, if your democracy is emergent, rather than established.  

    That said, I personally think a bill of rights is great idea to have at some point because I feel it’s just good sense to have everything written down in one place.

  • Scott P.

    The Bill of Rights is not immune from democratic alteration. Even omitting changing legal interpretation of the law, the Bill of Rights is just as subject to democratic amendment or repeal as any other law. It is true that it requires a supermajority, but that only means you need a somewhat bigger majority willing to oppress the minority. That’s usually not the hard part. And it’s worth pointing out that the Soviet Union’s constitution had a list of protected rights that was little different from the U.S. Bill of Rights. Far more important than legal text is the civil institutions that support it. Building those institutions takes time. No constitution can substitute.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I think, on reflection, my agreement with Fred was a bit overenthusiastic and needs qualification.

  • Anonymous

    I’m personally torn.  As has been said already, the actual rights are the important part whether there’s a bill or not.  While what we in the US have has served us well, any enumeration is going to be incomplete.  Far too many people in politics and among the general populace have started acting like like we the people are limited to the rights as written.  “Healthcare isn’t in the bill of rights” is a chorus I’ve heard all too often, even though the big three on which this country was founded are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  You can’t have the latter two without the former, and health is intrinsic to life.  I don’t know of a better formulation for guaranteeing rights, but I also don’t want to see such a bill used against the very people it was meant to protect.

  • http://www.facebook.com/LoneWolf343 Derek Laughlin

    Isn’t that the country that makes the USA look like a boy scout when it comes to immigration, was at least considering a national internet filter, and bans violent video games? I wouldn’t be quick to hold up Australia as an example of good government.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    What, you think I was saying “Australia doesn’t have a BOR, and yet it’s perfect! ALL HAIL AUSTRALIA!”?

    Australia’s government is not ideal, by any means. But it’s certainly a democracy.

    Please respond to what I actually say, rather than imaginary strawmen.

  • http://twitter.com/2house2fly Andrew PG

    I agree with what others have said about the right to bear arms not being as necessary for democracy as Fred makes out, but I think in the case of the Arab Spring countries it’d probably be valid.  These are places who have suffered under tyrants for decades, and like it or not, they’ve won their freedom thanks to weapons.  The main worry’s got to be that whoever comes next will try to go the dictator route as well; if the citizens are guaranteed a right to bear arms then that’s an extra incentive for the new rulers to behave.  I’m not well-versed enough in the Middle East to know quite what kind of climate allowed so many dictators to seize power in the region, but I don’t think that climate will vanish along with Gaddafi.  Until it does vanish I think the right to bear arms makes sense, certainly more so than in modern-day America.

  • MaryKaye

    The fundamental thing that allows democracy to work is an acceptance, however grudging, that the elected government is your government and is valid even if you don’t like it.  Everything else flows from that.  If the people in general don’t regard the government as valid, no amount of rights or laws or elections will help much.

    Frankly, the US is not in a great position to lecture others over the necessity for this, given how many of us seem hazy on the point lately.  

    I have to disagree almost completely with Fred here.  If you lack buy-in it doesn’t, in my opinion, matter in the least what your Bill of Rights says.  Why should I believe that an illegitimate government, imposed on me by force, will give more than lip service to my rights?  If my mindset is still tribal rather than national, why should I expect that another tribe’s rulership will be anything but a disaster to oppose at all costs?

    I don’t know how best to obtain that buy-in, but I’m not sanguine about doing it through bills of rights.  Trying to obtain strong representatives from as many stakeholder groups as possible seems to have worked in some places.

    I don’t think the US is a great model here, because we were a colony of a rule-of-law nation before we were a nation.  People rebelled against their current government but they were not attempting to overthrow law, only externally imposed law.  Overthrowing a dictator who has never *had* rule of law, only rule of force, is a really different situation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    “Healthcare isn’t in the bill of rights” is a chorus I’ve heard all too
    often, even though the big three on which this country was founded are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

    Plus that whole “provide for the common welfare” business listed as one of the fundamental purposes of the US Constitution.

  • Donalbain

    So, America is the only democracy on Earth? Interesting.

  • muteKi

    If I am to take Wikipedia at its word, as I barely recall my high school history classes, the (admittedly weak) Articles of Confederation lasted about 8 years before being replaced with the US Constitution. Perhaps because I think about these things in terms of US government terms and sessions, 8 years feels (to me at least) like a very long time politically.

    It’s not technically a rebuttal to any point made here, just food for thought.

  • http://twitter.com/SDGlyph Simon Southey-Davis

    I am not a student of political history, so feel free to correct me: I’m wondering whether it’s even possible for democracy to be instituted, rather than to arise organically within a nation. The idea, after all, is government by consent of the governed. As many others upthread have noted, the existence of any given document seems much less crucial than universal (for practical purposes) agreement among the people on its substance. Thus the example of numerous countries, including my own, who manage without the former because they have the latter.*

    Some things, it seems, can only be nurtured and allowed to grow.

    *Whether they _ought_ to also have the former is a separate discussion.

  • Kogo

    Yeah but no: Britain gets no particular credit for having abolished slavery in 1833, because quite frankly Britain had simply found it easier to ‘outsource’ it’s slaveholding needs to the U.S. (1865) and to the Empire of Brazil (~1884). Why bother owning slaves yourself when you can get all the economic benefit of having them via slave-cheap cotton and sugar imports?

  • Kogo

    Yeah but no: Britain gets no particular credit for having abolished slavery in 1833, because quite frankly Britain had simply found it easier to ‘outsource’ it’s slaveholding needs to the U.S. (1865) and to the Empire of Brazil (~1884). Why bother owning slaves yourself when you can get all the economic benefit of having them via slave-cheap cotton and sugar imports?

  • Kogo

    *The fundamental thing that allows democracy to work is an acceptance,
    however grudging, that the elected government is your government and is
    valid even if you don’t like it.  Everything else flows from that.  If
    the people in general don’t regard the government as valid, no amount of
    rights or laws or elections will help much.*

    Um, no. Totally wrong. Fred got this right: Why would you give ‘acceptance, however grudging’ to a government that gives you no rights?

    So no: The fundamental thing that allows democracy to work is a Bill of Rights, not b.s. like ‘acceptance’. I can’t really think of democracies with actually-protected rights that failed because of a dearth of ‘acceptance’.

  • Kogo

    Man, I just KNEW there was going to be sneering at the whole armsbearing thing from the Euro contingent here.

    We in the America–and the rest of the colonized world later–know well the non-value of non-armsbearing protest versus colonial powers like Europe. So no, we’ll keep our guns thanks.

    No, DON’T lecture me about how the right to bear small arms is outmoded. We’re basically being chased out of Afghanistan by guys with *hand made* rifles and spare-part bombs right now.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    He’s hardly a political scientist, but Tony Campolo once expressed something similar: democracy doesn’t mean simply majority rules; it means it’s safe to be in the minority.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Fred, Australia still doesn’t have a Bill of Rights. We’ve discussed it, but don’t really think we need one.

    Ahem. SOME of us don’t think we need one.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    So, Kogo:

    1) “Britain gets no credit for abolishing slavery! Their slavery didn’t really stop until AMERICA stopped theirs too!”
    2) “Bills of Rights are essential to democracy! Those governments without them are just stupid!”
    3) “Hurrah for America! We have guns! WOO AMERICA!”

    …I’m sensing a theme here.

    Also, there’s the general way you’re talking. Like this:
    Yeah but no:
    And this:
    Um, no. Totally wrong.
    And then this:
    Man, I just KNEW there was going to be sneering at the whole armsbearing thing from the Euro contingent here.

    You, sir, are condescending, Ameri-centric, rude, and up yourself.

  • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com Philboyd Studge

    Uh, Kogo, having a Bill of Rights doesn’t necessarily mean those rights are observed. Is your position really that Australia and Canada are non-working democracies?

    (And, oh lord, the ‘non-value of non-armsbearing protest’.  Seems to be working out alright for, say, the French.)

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    True. I wasn’t being as accurate as I could have been.

    (Hey, does the Ballarat Reform League Charter from the Eureka Stockade count as a BOR?)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Isn’t that the country that makes the USA look like a boy scout when it comes to immigration, was at least considering a national internet filter, and bans violent video games? I wouldn’t be quick to hold up Australia as an example of good government.

     
    So our governments disagree on rights to instant pornography and realistic gore in entertainment vs possession of assault weapons by civilians. I guess we’ll have to call it even.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Man, I just KNEW there was going to be sneering at the whole armsbearing thing from the Euro contingent here.

    Not just Europe, but thanks for ignoring us. Doesn’t smack of arrogant Americanism at all.

    We in the Australia know well the value of going about your life with a vanishingly small chance of being shot in the face by our neighbour/schoolmate/colleague/child/random stranger/self. So we’ll go on feeling superior about gun control thanks.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    (Hey, does the Ballarat Reform League Charter from the Eureka Stockade count as a BOR?)

    Prolly not.

    Although we do try to claim the Eureka Stockade as the closest thing we’ve had to a revolution…

  • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com Philboyd Studge

    Immediately followed by Ned Kelly.

  • Anonymous

    Well, we’d do that over on the right-hand side of the pond simply because grudging acceptance is more English than protesting. :-)

  • Donalbain

    Man, I just KNEW there was going to be sneering at the whole armsbearing thing from the Euro contingent here.

    Keep guns if you want to. I don’t really have a strong opinion on the matter either way. But what is silly is to claim that a legal right to own guns is a NECESSARY part of a democracy. Indeed, it is not just silly, it is demonstrably untrue.


    We in the America–and the rest of the colonized world later–know
    well the non-value of non-armsbearing protest versus colonial powers
    like Europe. So no, we’ll keep our guns thanks.

    Yes, because Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand etc all have a constitutional right to own guns, don’t they. No? They don’t? How odd…

    No, DON’T lecture me about how the right to bear small arms is outmoded.
    We’re basically being chased out of Afghanistan by guys with *hand
    made* rifles and spare-part bombs right now.

    And they had those same guns before the Americans arrived, and they were not a functioning democracy then, were they? So, it seems that the ownership of guns is neither necessary nor sufficient for the existence of democracy.

  • G127

    So Americans had the right to bear arms before the revolution? Interesting; why did you need to put them in a document then?

    Of course there are no examples of non-violent revolutions. (accept for India of course, now the biggest democracy in the world.) And Canada and Australia, also colonies of big bad Europe, needed ‘second amendment rights’ to gain a sense of freedom.

    As for Afghanistan; an Afghan bill of rights is not the reason the Taliban is still active… Just because you don’t have the right to bear arms, doesn’t mean a well funded revolutionary or terrorist group of people cannot get a hold of them.  Besides; the Taliban started as the ‘government’ and already had weapons. And they are not winning… they are stalling. They might win if the US stop funding the occupation forces… not because they could ever hope to win a military victory.

    A better example would be Libya; they needed weapons for their revolution when non-violent protest was crushed with guns. You know how they got them? They purchased them illegaly, got them from army-depots and gadaffi-deserters. The reason they won? The help of the best Airforce in the world…

    Look; I undestand the appeal of the second amendment. But do you really think a bunch of guys with handguns can outwit the best funded army in the world if someone could convince them to follow their lead? The reason the US army doesn’t take over isn’t some fear of the armed public. It’s the knowledge that their troups, soldiers believe in democracy and civil rights. They would refuse to fire when send into American cities.. Just like the (far less democratic) Egyption army soldiers wouldn’t fire on civilians during the Arab spring.

  • Hawker40

    $.02
    A ‘bill of rights’ is essential, but doesn’t need to be actually written.  A set of traditions/customs (like the UKs) can cover for it.  It can be useful to have it written down if you don’t have a evolving tradition of increasing rights over time.  After all, Libya doesn’t have a long tradition of democracy and individual freedoms, having it written in advance would be helpful.

  • Izzy

    Who’s this “we” we’re talking about?

    You can fap to NRA propaganda all you want, but kindly don’t speak for all Americans. 

  • Izzy

    Yeah.

    I mean, I’m not thrilled about the censorship stuff, from what I hear–though we don’t do too much better with the MPAA and FTC, at least–but on balance, I think “not selling automatic weapons to Joe Random” wins. 

    And frankly, with what I’ve heard about your wildlife, you guys probably have more legitimate need for weapons. (Discovery Channel may have been exaggerating, but AAAAH SPIDERS AAAAH and the things don’t even scare me most of the time. If I lived in a country with funnelwebs, I would want a handgun. And a flamethrower. And possibly a suitcase nuke.)

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    Oddly, we were having a discussion on what makes a society free earlier today on h2g2. I hold that personal privacy is a very important component of freedom, which makes the USA, with it’s US PATRIOT Act, far less free than any EU country, where the EU Data Protection Act affords us a good deal of protection from government and industry snoops.

    In a fledgling democracy, that might seem somewhat besides the point, but I do think this sort of thing is important.

    TRiG.

  • Rikalous

    And frankly, with what I’ve heard about your wildlife, you guys probably
    have more legitimate need for weapons. (Discovery Channel may have been
    exaggerating, but AAAAH SPIDERS AAAAH and the things don’t even scare
    me most of the time. If I lived in a country with funnelwebs, I would
    want a handgun. And a flamethrower. And possibly a suitcase nuke.)

    Australia sounds like some sci-fi death planet. It’s mostly desert, it’s a place to send convicts, and it’s got fatally poisonous critters ranging from spiders to jellyfish to freaking trees. The “cute” Australian animals include platypy (poisonous), kangaroos (can disembowl you), and koalas (leave no one alive who knows what they’re capable of). I’m pretty sure they field a decorated legion of Guardsmen for the Imperium of Man.

  • Mackrimin

    My point here is that democracy cannot be sustained without a guarantee
    of legal protections for minorities — protections not subject to the
    whim of electoral defeats or the opinions of a simple majority of the
    electorate. Democracy will fall apart unless those protections are
    firmly and reliably in place. I mean the whole panoply of rights and
    protections that can be found in the U.S. Bill of Rights and in the
    amendments of the second American revolution.

    Could you clarify a bit here? What minorities are you talking about? The natives, who USA proceeded to exterminate to steal their land? Or the African slaves imported to work it at gunpoint? Or the Chinese and other Asian immigrants, affectionately called the “Yellow Peril” and denied citizenship and other rights?

  • http://www.facebook.com/LoneWolf343 Derek Laughlin

    I think you shouldn’t be quick to burn mine either. My point is that Australia is a good argument for a “Bill of Rights” for the reasons I listed, examples of how a democracy can go bad without one.

    If you want to question the need of a BOR, try “What happens when those in power simply ignore it?” That actually has and does happen, and undercuts the value of the device.

  • Anonymous

    My point is that Australia is a good argument for a “Bill of Rights” for the reasons I listed, examples of how a democracy can go bad without one.
    If Australia’s “a democracy gone bad” what the hell does a good one look like? Seriously, Australians are happier, healthier, and more equal than the US with its bill of rights. Australia has fairer elections, and the proportion of its population incarcerated is more than 5 times smaller. As far as I can see a democracy can go just as bad with a bill of rights as without one.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm… England (not Britain, because the Union with Scotland hadn’t happened yet) adopted a Bill of Rights in 1692. About that:

    - It was one of the key sources for the American Bill of Rights a hundred years later, because the American founders were educated people who weren’t working in a political vacuum;
    - It included the right to bear arms. It went further and forbade the maintenance of a standing army in peace time;
    - It also specifically excluded Catholics from a number of its key provisions, including the right to bear arms.

    So, not as simple as it looks, I think. Also, at the time it was adopted, the government of England had included a Parliament with elections, for certain values of “elections”, for over four hundred years. Crucially, it had been established since the 15th century that the king could not levy taxes without the agreement of the (elected) House of Commons. When the king in the 17th century tried to do an end run around this provision, it led to a civil war and, briefly, the establishment of a republic.

    Chicken or egg, anybody?

  • http://twitter.com/GettoPhilosophr Aaron Bailey

    Automatic weapons are heavily regulated and almost impossible for a normal citizen to buy, sell, or possess in the US. Only weapons previously registered before 1986 are legal, they cost $5,000-$50,000 each, and require extensive Federal approval to transport, let alone to buy.

    Y’know, just for the record.

  • http://twitter.com/GettoPhilosophr Aaron Bailey

    Long time lurker, first time poster.

    I think Fred’s post was fairly American-centric, but the main points can still be learned from.  For a democracy to survive, it needs to protect the rights of all people. There are different ways to do this, each with their own pros and cons. America has chosen a formulated Bill of Rights.  This does well in that it takes options off the table, but it is weak in that those rights can be nullified by the Courts.  The 2nd Amendment (which, ironically enough, everyone here seems to be up in arms about, har har) was not finally recognized to protect an individual right to firearms possession until District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008.  We have a horrible history of rights being “explained” to not apply to minorities, or to not mean what they plainly mean. (see the corruption of the 14th Amendment, or some of the famous abominable SCOTUS rulings like Dred Scott, etc).

    The UK has protected these rights by tradition, as many of you have pointed out.  This has worked in some ways and failed to work in other ways that I am not qualified to comment on. Other democracies have other methods.  The US model was created by Americans who looked at their situation and circumstances and made something that worked for them.  That doesn’t mean every democracy need copy us exactly, though I would argue the basic principles are time-tested and should be considered.


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