From one dictator to another by John Sandler

Those who are cheering the clamor for democracy in Eastern Europe and proposing massive subsidies for the new regimes there should reflect on the death of Socrates and what it illustrates about government by majority rule.

When the philosopher's fellow Athenians took umbrage at what he was teaching, the question of whether he should live or die was put to a vote; a majority decided he should die and served him a hemlock cocktail. This electoral execution shows that Socrates lived in a society where men had no right, but only a revocable license, to their lives. All such societies are based on the moral code of collectivism.

Collectivism holds that the proper, social unit of value is a group, or collective. Individuals are held to be insignificant except to the extent they serve, and are required to make sacrifices for this group. When seen from this perspective, collectivist societies differ from one another in only two respects - the identity of their exalted group (e.g. whites in South Africa, Shiite Muslims in Iran) and the barbarity of the sacrifices demanded in their name.

The discredited regimes in Eastern Europe were all collectivist. Their rulers purported to act in the interest of "the proletariat" and demanded each citizen sacrifice the pursuit of his chosen values to it.

In practice, government officials claimed this group as the standard on which they based their decisions about what people did for a living, and where or whether they would be permitted to live. (The standard these thugs applied can only be inferred from the luxuries they enjoyed while the ordinary citizens queued up for toilet paper).

Originally, the term "democracy" referred to the social system based on unlimited majority rule. Under such a system, what is true or false, just or unjust, depends solely on how many people are willing to vote for it. A majority of voters in a democracy can therefore deal with individual lives as capriciously as any dictatorship. Their justification would be different - the interest of "society" instead of "the proletariat" - but the underlying collectivist belief, that individuals may be used as sacrificial fodder to achieve group ends, would be the same.

Since democracy and communism are both based on the same, malignant moral code, the degree of cannibalism practiced under each will depend solely upon quirk, tradition or the exigencies of the moment. Whatever cannibalism is practiced, though, will seem just as odious to its victims.

It should make no difference to a woman, for example, whether she is denied an abortion, and must sacrifice her life to rear an unwanted child, because a majority has voted for a law to prohibit this procedure, or because a dictator has decided he needs more slaves. It should make no difference to a philosopher whether he must drink hemlock at a dictator's whim, or as a result of a plebiscite.

There is only one alternative to collectivism - individualism. This is the moral code which holds that each man possesses inalienable, individual rights. These are the right to his own life, and the consequent rights to peaceably pursue his personal values without interference (liberty and the pursuit of happiness) and to exercise complete dominion over what he produces (property). There is only one type of government consonant with this moral code - a constitutional republic.

The citizens of a constitutional republic may do anything except infringe the individual rights of their fellows. The government's powers, by contrast, are strictly circumscribed by a written constitution and limited to those necessary for the protection of the citizens' individual rights. The ballot box cannot be used to augment these powers, only to elect those who will exercise them.

This, and not democracy, was the American system of government at its founding. Individualism, and not collectivism, was the operative principle at the birth of our Constitution. If Socrates' neighbors tried to poison him here as they did in democratic Athens, they would be dealt with as a lynch mob deserves.

Today, Eastern Europeans are trying to restructure their governments to assure themselves a free, peaceful and prosperous future. The remedy they propose for a "dictatorship of the proletariat" however, is a dictatorship of the majority. They have forgotten poor Socrates, and their amnesia even extends to more recent events.

It was Hitler's democratic election as chancellor of Germany which set in motion Eastern Europe's occupation first by murderers and slave masters acting for "the Aryan race," and next by murderers acting for "the proletariat."

In the midst of Eastern Europe's rush to substitute a new form of tyranny for the old, the leaders of the only nation ever explicitly founded on the moral code of individualism, the United States, applaud the "triumph of democracy" and propose to help the new, collectivist regimes by depriving Americans of the freedom to decide what to do with the money that will be taken from them in taxes and used as foreign aid.

This spectacle is disheartening, but not surprising. In the 203 years since the American Constitution was drafted, the collectivist morality has infected and spread throughout our culture with predictable results.

Now, in a nation founded on the sanctity of individual rights, their constitutional protection is being chipped away as legislators pass unconstitutional laws, which judges uphold, citing the need for a proper balance between the rights of individuals and the rights of a group - society.

Now, in a nation founded on the sanctity of individual rights, we have a dominant group - "society," "the public" or "the people" - which holds referendums to decide what private businesses may charge for their goods or services (for instance, Proposition 103 on insurance) or whether they should be shut down completely (as in several attempts to close the Maine-Yankee power plant with ballot initiatives); and now, in a nation founded on the sanctity of individual rights, bureaucrats who claim to act in "society's" interests are empowered to grant or withhold their approval of everything from where (zoning) and how (licensing) one makes his living, to what color he may paint "his" house.

If we truly wish the people in Eastern Europe well, the cheerleaders for democracy and subsidies should be silent. The best foreign aid we can provide freedom-hungry people everywhere is the knowledge that the liberty, peace and prosperity they seek, which were once the hallmarks of America's greatness, can be theirs.

They (and we) must learn though that this greatness was neither causeless, nor attributable to climate, geography, natural resources, the alignment of the stars or democracy.

It rests on the moral code of individualism and its political corollary, a constitutional republic.

[John Sandler is a San Rafael businessman. He wrote this article for the Mercury News. Anyone interested in issue of individual rights may contact him at P. O. Box 4189, San Rafael, CA 94913]