We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with
certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights,
governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers
from the consent of the governed.
In these memorable words of the American Declaration of
Independence, Thomas Jefferson set forth a
fundamental principle upon which democratic government is
founded. Governments in a democracy do not
grant the fundamental freedoms enumerated by Jefferson;
governments are created to protect those freedoms that
every individual possesses by virtue of his or her existence.
In their formulation by the Enlightenment philosophers of
the 17th and 18th centuries, inalienable rights are
God-given natural rights. These rights are not destroyed when
civil society is created, and neither society nor
government can remove or "alienate" them.
Inalienable rights include freedom of speech and expression,
freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of
assembly, and the right to equal protection before the law. This
is by no means an exhaustive list of the rights
that citizens enjoy in a democracy--democratic societies also
assert such civil rights as the right to a fair trial--but
it does constitute the core rights that any democratic government
must uphold. Since they exist independently of
government, these rights cannot be legislated away, nor are they
subject to the momentary whim of an electoral
majority. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for
example, does not give freedom of religion or of
the press to the people; it prohibits the Congress from passing
any law interfering with freedom of speech,
religion, and peaceful assembly. A historian, Leonard Levy, has
said, "Individuals may be free when their
government is not."
The detailed formulation of laws and procedures concerning
these basic human rights will necessarily vary
from society to society, but every democracy is charged with the
task of building the constitutional, legal, and
social structures that will ensure their protection.
Freedom of speech and expression is the lifeblood of any
democracy. To debate and vote, to assemble and
protest, to worship, to ensure justice for all--these all rely
upon the unrestricted flow of speech and information.
Canadian Patrick Wilson, creator of the television series The
Struggle for Democracy, observes:
"Democracy is communication: people talking to one another about
their common problems and forging a
common destiny. Before people can govern themselves, they must
be free to express themselves."
Citizens of a democracy live with the conviction that
through the open exchange of ideas and opinions, truth
will eventually win out over falsehood, the values of others will
be better understood, areas of compromise more
clearly defined, and the path of progress opened. The greater
the volume of such exchanges, the better.
American essayist E.B. White put it this way: "The press in our
free country is reliable and useful not because of
its good character but because of its great diversity. As long
as there are many owners, each pursuing his own
brand of truth, we the people have the opportunity to arrive at
the truth and dwell in the light....There is safety in
In contrast to authoritarian states, democratic governments
do not control, dictate, or judge the content of
written and verbal speech. Democracy depends upon a literate,
knowledgeable citizenry whose access to the
broadest possible range of information enables them to
participate as fully as possible in the public life of their
society. Ignorance breeds apathy. Democracy thrives upon the
energy of citizens who are sustained by the
unimpeded flow of ideas, data, opinions, and speculation.
But what should the government do in cases where the news
media or other organizations abuse freedom of
speech with information that, in the opinion of the majority, is
false, repugnant, irresponsible, or simply in bad
taste? The answer, by and large, is nothing. It is simply not
the business of government to judge such matters.
In general, the cure for free speech is more free speech. It may
seem a paradox, but in the name of free speech, a
democracy must sometimes defend the rights of individuals and
groups who themselves advocate such non-
democratic policies as repressing free speech. Citizens in a
democratic society defend this right out of the
conviction that, in the end, open debate will lead to greater
truth and wiser public actions than if speech and
dissent are stifled.
Furthermore, the advocate of free speech argues, the
suppression of speech that I find offensive today is
potentially a threat to my exercise of free speech
tomorrow--which perhaps you or someone else might find
offensive. One of the classic defenses of this view is that of
English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who argued in
his 1859 essay "On Liberty" that all people are harmed when
speech is repressed. "If the opinion is right, they
are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth,"
Mill wrote, "if wrong, they lose...the clearer
perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its
collision with error."
The corollary to freedom of speech is the right of the
people to assemble and peacefully demand that the
government hear their grievances. Without this right to gather
and be heard, freedom of speech would be
devalued. For this reason, freedom of speech is considered
closely linked to, if not inseparable from, the right to
gather, protest, and demand change. Democratic governments can
legitimately regulate the time and place of
political rallies and marches to maintain the peace, but they
cannot use that authority to suppress protest or to
prevent dissident groups from making their voices heard.
Freedom and Faith
Freedom of religion, or more broadly freedom of conscience,
means that no person should be required to
profess any religion or other belief against his or her desires.
Additionally, no one should be punished or
penalized in any way because he or she chooses one religion over
another or, indeed, opts for no religion at all.
The democratic state recognizes that a person's religious faith
is a profoundly personal matter.
In a related sense, freedom of religion means that no one
can be compelled by government to recognize an
official church or faith. Children cannot be compelled to go to
a particular religious school, and no one can be
required to attend religious services, to pray, or to participate
in religious activities against his or her will. By
reason of long history or tradition, many democratic nations have
officially established churches or religions that
receive state support. This fact, however, does not relieve the
government of the responsibility for protecting the
freedom of individuals whose beliefs differ from that of the
officially sanctioned religion.
Citizenship: Rights and Responsibilities
Democracies rest upon the principle that government exists
to serve the people; the people do not exist to
serve the government. In other words, the people are citizens of
the democratic state, not its subjects. While the
state protects the rights of its citizens, in return, the
citizens give the state their loyalty. Under an authoritarian
system, on the other hand, the state, as an entity separate from
the society, demands loyalty and service from its
people without any reciprocal obligation to secure their consent
for its actions.
When citizens in a democracy vote, for example, they are
exercising their right and responsibility to
determine who shall rule in their name. In an authoritarian
state, by contrast, the act of voting serves only to
legitimize selections already made by the regime. Voting in such
a society involves neither rights nor
responsibilities exercised by citizens--only a coerced show of
public support for the government.
Similarly, citizens in a democracy enjoy the right to join
organizations of their choosing that are independent
of government and to participate freely in the public life of
their society. At the same time, citizens must accept
the responsibility that such participation entails: educating
themselves about the issues, demonstrating tolerance
in dealing with those holding opposing views, and compromising
when necessary to reach agreement.
In an authoritarian state, however, private voluntary groups
are few or nonexistent. They do not serve as
vehicles for individuals to debate issues or run their own
affairs, but only as another arm of the state that holds
its subjects in positions of obedience.
Military service provides a different but equally
contrasting example of rights and responsibilities in
democratic and non-democratic societies. Two different nations
may both require a period of peacetime military
service by their young men. In the authoritarian state, this
obligation is imposed unilaterally. In the democratic
state, such a period of military service is a duty that the
citizens of the society have undertaken through laws
passed by a government they themselves have elected. In each
society, peacetime military service may be
unwelcome for individuals. But the citizen-soldier in a
democracy serves with the knowledge that he is
discharging an obligation that his society has freely undertaken.
The members of a democratic society,
moreover, have it within their power to act collectively and
change this obligation: to eliminate mandatory
military service and create an all-volunteer army, as the United
States and other countries have done; change the
period of military service, as happened in Germany; or, as in the
case of Switzerland, maintain reserve military
service for men as an essential part of citizenship.
Citizenship in these examples entails a broad definition of
rights and responsibilities, since they are opposite
sides of the same coin. An individual's exercise of his rights
is also his responsibility to protect and enhance
those rights--for himself and for others. Even citizens of
well-established democracies often misunderstand this
equation, and too often take advantage of rights while ignoring
responsibilities. As political scientist Benjamin
Barber notes, "Democracy is often understood as the rule of the
majority, and rights are understood more and
more as the private possessions of individuals and thus as
necessarily antagonistic to majoritarian democracy.
But this is to misunderstand both rights and democracy."
It is certainly true that individuals exercise basic, or
inalienable, rights--such as freedom of speech, assembly,
and religion--which thereby constitute limits on any
democratically based government. In this sense, individual
rights are a bulwark against abuses of power by the government or
a momentary political majority.
But in another sense, rights, like individuals, do not
function in isolation. Rights are not the private
possession of individuals but exist only insofar as they are
recognized by other citizens of the society. The
electorate, as the American philosopher Sidney Hook expressed it,
is "the ultimate custodian of its own
freedom." From this perspective, democratic government, which is
elected by and accountable to its citizens, is
not the antagonist of individual rights, but their protector. It
is to enhance their rights that citizens in a
democracy undertake their civic obligations and
Broadly speaking, these responsibilities entail
participating in the democratic process to ensure its
functioning. At a minimum, citizens should educate themselves
about the critical issues confronting their
society--if only to vote intelligently for candidates running for
high office. Other obligations, such as serving
juries in civil or criminal trials, may be required by law, but
most are voluntary.
The essence of democratic action is the active, freely
chosen participation of its citizens in the public life of
their community and nation. Without this broad, sustaining
participation, democracy will begin to wither and
become the preserve of a small, select number of groups and
organizations. But with the active engagement of
individuals across the spectrum of society, democracies can
weather the inevitable economic and political storms
that sweep over every society, without sacrificing the freedoms
and rights that they are sworn to uphold.
Active involvement in public life is often narrowly defined
as the struggle for political office. But citizen
participation in a democratic society is much broader than just
taking part in election contests. At the
neighborhood or municipal level, citizens may serve on school
committees or form community groups, as well as
run for local office. At the state, provincial, or national
level, citizens can add their voices and pens to the
continuing debate over public issues, or they can join political
parties, labor unions, or other voluntary
organizations. Whatever the level of their contribution, a
healthy democracy depends upon the continuing,
informed participation of the broad range of its citizens.
Democracy, Diane Ravitch writes, "is a process, a way of
living and working together. It is evolutionary, not
static. It requires cooperation, compromise, and tolerance among
all citizens. Making it work is hard, not easy.
Freedom means responsibility, not freedom from
Democracy embodies ideals of freedom and self-expression,
but it is also clear-eyed about human nature. It
does not demand that citizens be universally virtuous, only that
they will be responsible. As American
theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said: "Man's capacity for justice
makes democracy possible, but man's inclination
to injustice makes democracy necessary."
Human Rights and Political Goals
As a principle, the protection of basic human rights is
accepted widely: It is embodied in written constitutions
throughout the world as well as in the Charter of the United
Nations and in such international agreements as the
Helsinki Final Act (the Conference on Security and Co-operation
Distinguishing among different categories of rights is
another matter. In recent times, there has been a
tendency, especially among international organizations, to expand
the list of basic human rights. To fundamental
freedoms of speech and equal treatment before the law, these
groups have added rights to employment, to
education, to one's own culture or nationality, and to adequate
standards of living.
These are all worthwhile undertakings, but when such
entitlements proliferate as rights, they tend to devalue
the meaning of basic civic and human rights. Furthermore, they
blur the distinction between rights that all
individuals possess and goals toward which individuals,
organizations, and governments may reasonably be
expected to strive.
Governments protect inalienable rights, such as freedom of
speech, through restraint, by limiting their own
actions. Funding education, providing health care, or
guaranteeing employment demand the opposite: the active
involvement of government in promoting certain policies and
programs. Adequate health care and educational
opportunities should be the birthright of every child. The sad
fact is that they are not, and the ability of societies
to achieve such goals will vary widely from country to country.
By transforming every human aspiration into a
right, however, governments run the risk of increasing cynicism
and inviting a disregard of all human rights.