We often confuse democracy with freedom. The greatest good of government is liberty -- that is what our Declaration of Independence emphatically states. Simply implementing the "Will of the People" is no more noble, true, or decent than the will of a kind and wise autocrat: Democracy has no value at all, except to help keep us free.
The world today shows the tension between freedom and democracy. Canada is a well-functioning democracy. Yet, as Ann Coulter and Mark Steyn and other conservatives can attest, it is an intolerant and censorious democracy which denies its intellectual critics the right to speak. The United Kingdom is democratic. Yet Geert Wilders and Michael Savage have been kept out of the country, at different times, for "hate speech."
Speech and expression are not free in these democracies, so close to America in origin and in custom. The Netherlands is another land which shares our traditional values of free expression, and yet Geert Wilders is on trial for making statements disrespectful to Islam. The United Provinces of the Netherlands are every bit as democratic as Britain, Canada, or America -- but something odd and awful is happening. What?
Expression was never utterly free and unrestrained. Government has always had a role in regulating the integrity of speech. So the man who cries "Fire!" in a crowded theater commits a crime if he knows that there is no fire. The person who steals intellectual property and publishes it himself commits theft, just like any other thief. The regulation of speech in these free democracies never meant that arguing was illegal or that people were legally obliged to either hold certain opinions or to keep those opinions quiet.
When government regulates expression beyond these simple police-keeping functions, then democracy can become more dangerous than dictatorship. In Maoist China, as in Stalinist Russia, it did not really matter whether the regimes were democratic -- tens of millions of Soviet slaves truly loved their Vodz, and countless millions more in China adored Mao. As Albert Speer noted in his memoirs, the very real popularity of Hitler prevented generals from overthrowing him.
When opposing views, theories, and facts are suppressed -- and that is just what is happening in Britain, Holland, and Canada -- then democracy becomes a curse and not a blessing. The idea of democracy as a guardian of freedom rests on this: If we all fear government rule, then we all have a more or less equal interest in keeping government modest, tame, and neutral.
When large percentages of the people view government as the goal and not the means, then these people have no interest at all in keeping government modest, tame, and neutral. Instead, government becomes the Cossack of their lusts. The sabers and whips are rightly (they think) used to punish and to intimidate all voices and all groups which oppose them. The endgame is predictably atrocious: Ask the Jews of Germany, the Sudras of India, or the blacks of the Reconstruction South. Democracy was the enemy of each of these tortured souls of humanity.
The Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the protections afforded everyone -- especially the despised minority in a democracy -- these are the true fruits of democracy. So in Canada, when Ann Coulter cannot speak without potential state oppression, it does not matter if the country is more or less democratic than America: It is not, and never has been, democracy that matters.
The shadows of enslavement are spreading across the democratic world. Once, some of us thought, if people were free, then they would naturally choose freedom. That presumed a desire to assume the burdens of freedom: a willingness to defend it, a restraint from using government for one's own ends even in the majority, a vigilance against those little Hitlers who lurk everywhere, and a sense of honor above advantage.
The question now -- and it is a monumental question -- is whether in this land, which first offered complete toleration and almost boundless freedom and which has protected it for over two centuries, those zombies of the night which seem to have overwhelmed each bastion of liberty around the globe can be stopped. It is a question not unlike what the British faced seventy years ago, when all that Hitler (echoed by Stalin) asked was to give up their principles and moral values, and thereby live unoccupied in peace. The easiest course, the one which almost prevailed in cabinet, was to give up a hopeless cause and make the best of things. If Churchill and his few had, our world would be horribly different today. We are now in Churchill's 1940. How will we choose? Democracy or freedom?
Bruce Walker is the author of two books: Sinisterism: Secular Religion of the Lie and The Swastika against the Cross: The Nazi War on Christianity.