As Americans we pride ourselves on our commitment to upholding democracy. In a period of heightened political division, we often hear commentators of the left and right proclaim how democracy is being threatened, undermined, and is under attack. Out of all Americans, democracy is arguably valued the greatest by libertarians. To libertarians, democracy is more than a vote on election day to decide who will govern. It is also a free society and market economy where people vote with their wallets and their feet. Out of these infinite democratic choices made by millions of people a spontaneous order emerges.
Democracy however has its limitations which are too often overlooked and ignored. The “wisdom of the crowd” unmoored from guidance lacks true wisdom. There is no better day to reflect and recognize the limits of democracy than on Good Friday, the day Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
In the Biblical account of the passion, Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, and questioned if he is in fact a king. Jesus responds, “You say I am king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37, NAB). Pilate then offers his infamous retort—“What is Truth?”—and then extends to the people a democratic choice, Jesus or Barabbas. The crowd chooses the violent revolutionary Barabbas over the fullness and embodiment of Truth in Jesus.
Democracy at work.
Pilate’s retort to Jesus is a rejection of the recognition that objective moral certainty exists even as the fullness of truth stands before him. If a society sees all values as subjective and the democratic process as the sole authority of what is currently good and true, we will reject truth time and time again. Democracy requires guideposts to inform individuals as we make choices within communities, associations, and society. Democracy alone cannot reveal what is good, true, and beautiful.
Recognition of the limits of democracy does not mean that democracy and individual liberty to vote with your wallet and feet should be cast aside for authoritarianism. Authoritarians often justify their need for power by pointing towards all the mistakes free people make and therefore the people need someone to impose “truth” upon them. Truth requires liberty because truth is not always known and must be discovered. To discover truth we need the freedom to search for it, and if need be, to correct our errors in the pursuit of truth. When “truth” becomes something arbitrarily forced upon us, whether by the single dictator or by the 51 percent in the democratic process, it will be redefined as much as the “collective good” requires.
Democracy is a system which properly ordered can help navigate the ever-growing complexity of the world we all live in, but its limits need to be recognized. America’s founding fathers recognized this reality by enshrining certain inalienable rights into the constitution which cannot be subject to the vote of the masses. If we recognize the existence of objective truth and that truth can be revealed, properly ordered and limited democratic processes can help us move society to be better aligned with truth. Democracy without proper limits or recognition of knowable truths will lead us to choose Barabbas over Jesus again and again.
The task at hand is to recognize the good democracy can provide but also its limitations. The pursuit and the desire to know what is true must be held in highest regard. We need to recognize the need of guideposts to inform us of what is true so we can best act upon the choices before us. To discover truth not yet revealed, liberty is required, and liberty properly ordered is being free to choose what we ought. We want a democracy properly informed, so we do not choose Barabbas when we are offered Jesus.