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Give Me Liberty

Twenty-one years ago, I went to the Colorado Libertarian convention to promote the then-nascent Alpine Valley School. Libertarians, I figured, would greatly appreciate the freedom of our school, and so I proudly displayed my cleverly titled flier, Democracy in Your Bones. Of the 50 fliers I made, however, exactly none was taken. Eventually, I began to understand why.

Democracy is confused with various things—freedom, cooperation, collaboration, influence, sunshine, and all things good. This happens, I think, when people feeling disenfranchised by our representational republic seek more influence over it. If they really knew what democracy was, they might stop focusing on democracy and start focusing on freedom instead. Democracy in and of itself is neither pro- or anti-freedom. (Consider Kim Jong Un’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for example.)

While freedom is the right of the individual to live unfettered by arbitrary authority, democracy simply means that power rests with the governed—and without checks and balances, this is an invitation to the tyranny of the majority. Consider the definition of democracy as two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Early in our country’s history, many opposed the new constitution because there were no specific limits on governmental power: this is the context for the opening words of the First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law.” The Bill of Rights is not an explicit listing of rights so much as an explicit limitation on the power of the majority.

At our school the smallest minority is one, and proposed School Meeting laws are debated with this in mind. We strive to restrict the arbitrary authority of School Meeting and school officials by circumscribing their powers. The students and staff, the daily residents of the school, are the sovereign power: they must balance the general welfare of the school against the personal freedom so central to its existence. For us, democratic processes are a means to an end—the end of self-governance.

One of our sister schools (The Circle School in Harrisburg, PA) describes succinctly the role of self-governance in an educational context (notice that nowhere in this eloquent statement does the word democracy appear):

The daily school program is self-governing, with authority and responsibility shared among the governed, students and staff alike.

  • Voice. All members of the daily school program—students and staff—enjoy equal rights of voice and vote in matters of governance and the common good.
  • Rule of law. All members of the daily school program are subject to the authority of school government according to duly adopted laws that are publicly disclosed in writing.
  • Responsibility. All members of the daily school program share responsibility for the common welfare.
  • Protection: All members of the daily school program enjoy equal protection and due process under school law.

In schools like ours, democracy is simply the principle that sovereignty over a day-to-day society rests with those who participate on a day-to-day basis. And this philosophical principle has crucial, practical implications. If our children are to develop into self-directed, responsible adults—if they are to realize their innate, unique potential—what they need isn’t so much democracy as freedom.

Democracy-is-two-wolves-and-a-sheep-voting-on-whats-for-dinner

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