The U.S. presidential election of 2016 may still be well over a year away, but those who dream of sitting at the desk in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. are busy scrambling for campaign supporters, financial contributions and potential voters in the party primaries that will influence who will run in the general election.
As the months pass by leading up to the election, Americans will be reminded that they are expected to participate in the democratic process, the experience of political self-government. Self-government in the political sense means that the members of society are supposed to decide through the electoral process those who will hold office in the government.
The people shall choose those who will enable and enforce the laws of the land. The role of political self-government is to assure that those who administer the state are made accountable to those they represent. Elections are meant to allow the people to judge the continuing fitness and integrity of the elected officials, and to help prevent abuses of power.
Political self-government also is meant to be a means of changing both the men and the policies that rule society without recourse to violent revolution or civil war. Democracy introduces civil peace into the political process by eliminating the necessity of taking up arms to remove those in high office. Death and destruction are no longer the price for political change.
Liberty and Individual Self-Government
But there is a second definition of self-government. This refers to the self-governing individual. The great ideal of the classical liberal thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was that the ultimate goal of political reform away from monarchy and autocracy was to liberate the individual from the tyranny of the one or the few over the many.
But they also warned of the equal and perhaps even greater danger of the tyranny of the majority over the minority or even over the one. Their ideal was not unrestricted democracy but individual liberty under a constitutional order limiting the powers of the government.
When the classical liberal thinkers spoke of the sovereignty of the people, they meant that each individual should be sovereign over the affairs of his own life. This was the idea behind the American Revolution of 1776, when the signers of the Declaration of Independence declared all men equal in possessing certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that the government should secure and protect these individual rights. Any meaningful conception of "human rights" must refer to the individual rights of distinct human beings. There is no "collective" man. There are only separate individuals who think, value, hope, dream and have goals and purposes that guide their lives.
The classical liberals of the past also emphasized that freedom is never secure if people do not have the means of living their lives independently and sometimes in opposition to the political authority. That is one reason they considered the right to private property essential and crucial.
Private Property, Free Markets and Personal Liberty
Private property gives an individual ownership and control over a portion of the means of production through which he may choose how and for what purposes he will live his life. Private property gives him a "territory" that is under his own jurisdiction, a degree of self-rule, in his home and on his property. In the free classical liberal society he can design his personal "country" to fit his values, ideals and desires on his private property.
It is true, however, that no man is an island. Man is a social animal who needs the assistance and companionship of his fellow men. In that free classical liberal society human association is brought about through the market and its social system of division of labor. The advantage of the market economy is that an individual can choose and find his niche in the nexus of voluntary exchange to acquire those things that will enable him to fulfill his own vision of the good life and its purposes.