Democracy: The Mandate of Heaven

By Mark Beliles and Stephen McDowell

Ever since the imperial days in China there has been a justification for political power that must be rooted in the morality of the rulers. This moral legitimacy for civil government in China has been termed “the mandate of heaven.” Everyone recognizes that for a civil government to endure it must be right (or righteous) in the eyes of God.

In 1989 millions of Chinese people rallied together in Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities, as well as cities internationally. They were convinced that democracy was necessary to correct the problems in their nation. But many people do not really know what Democracy is or what makes it work. There are certain principles that can be derived from attempts at democracy in world history that we must learn or else suffer from the awful mistakes that others have already experienced in trying to establish a free government.

The cry for democracy is common to many countries in the world today. Millions of people from every race and culture recognize the need for reformation of their society. Almost half of the world’s population (2.1 billion people) live in poverty. Five hundred million live on the edge of starvation. One hundred and ten countries have been documented as violating basic human rights even to the point of torture. The number of people killed by their own totalitarian governments in the 20th century exceeds the number killed by war by almost four to one. The annual number of refugees in the world is about twenty-eight million. Added to these grim statistics are international terrorism, debt, crime, the threat of nuclear war, and escalating military coups.

In the face of such world problems there is a movement all over the world toward democracy. On every continent there are multitudes saying that this is their desire. The term “democracy” has different meanings to different people, and therefore needs definition and explanation.

Many people simply associate the concepts of freedom and democracy as the same. But, in reality, freedom is what democracy exists to protect. Protection of individual rights and liberties is the goal, but democracy is the means. Certain rights are recognized by all people as inalienable – that is, they can never be denied to anyone without injustice. Such rights as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of petition, and freedom of self-defense are of this nature.

All inalienable rights can be summarized in three categories: the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to property. All human beings recognize that to kill, steal or oppress another person is wrong, whether it is done by individual or by governmental force.

The famous American President, Abraham Lincoln said that, “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not mean the same thing;… The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the world denounces him for the same act; … Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon the definition of liberty.” Lincoln said that some believe liberty means, “that each individual in the society may do as he sees fit with himself and the earning from his labors.” while others believe …” That some persons may do as they see fit with other person’s labors.”

True liberty is not unbridled license. Government must provide a system of justice to address grievances while protecting the inalienable rights of individuals in the society. Therefore, the same authority structure that governs the people must also restrain the government itself.

Democracy literally means rule by the people. World history shows that when people rule their government, their rights are safer than when governed by one man or a few men. Centralized power in the hands of a few can be corrupted very easily. But it is also true that power in the hands of many people can also be corrupted.

Pure democracy as attempted by Greece in ancient history and France 200 years ago has proven to be not only impractical but also dangerous. Where people rule directly they tend to favor the will of the majority at the expense of individual rights of minorities. Tyranny, therefore, can be found in pure democracy. It can become “mob rule” and endures only until threatened minorities finally join together against the majority using force to protect themselves. The result is chaos and anarchy such as seen in the “reign of terror” in France after their revolution. The result of this is that order is usually restored only by a totalitarian government, as occurred in France with Napoleon Bonaparte. This cycle was repeated in Greek and Roman attempts at democracy.

The father of the Constitution of the United States, James Madison, noted that democracies “… had been spectacles of turbulence and contention … incompatible with personal security for the rights of property.”

Pure democracy, therefore, is to be avoided. How? By the concepts of representation and fixed higher law, which are associated with the term “republic.” A a free government may better be termed a representative democratic republic. Henceforth, these elements should be kept in mind when we use the general term “democracy.” To say “democratic republic” or “representative democracy” would be better.

We need to define the practical aspects of democracy even further if we want to avoid the mistakes of other democracy movements of history. Now we will examine seven basic governmental structures that are necessary to protect and secure individual rights and liberties. This is the essential framework of a Democratic Republic.

Decentralization of Government

Since power residing in the people is a basic premise of democratic government, the government should be kept as close to the people as possible. This can be accomplished by establishing a small national government and strong local and regional governments.

Such a division of powers will be a safeguard against the tyranny of centralization since it will allow the people to most fully participate in government and to keep watch over the flow of power through the governing officials.

History has shown that centralization of governmental power destroys the liberty and the rights of man. The way to have good and safe government is to divide the power among the people and the localities, instead of entrusting it to one body.

Civil government in a country should be subdivided into many levels (local, regional, national). The power of each level should be clearly defined and sovereign in those defined areas. No level of government should be able to usurp the jurisdiction of another. A great majority of the power should rest on the local level.

The limited powers of the national government should be clearly defined in a constitution, and involve those things which affect the country as a whole, such as defense, foreign policy, regulation of inter-regional and foreign commerce, citizenship laws, coining money, and copyrights. All other powers should remain with the people, or with the local, and regional governments. The powers of local and regional government can be written in a regional constitution and include such things as traffic regulations, business regulations, public works, voting procedures, and law and order.

A constitution will enable the people to be able to see if the national government oversteps its authority. This usurpation of power can be resisted by the local and regional governments rallying together.

In a decentralized government a constitution, and not the national ruling party, is supreme. It should only be amended with the consent of the local and/or regional governments.


A government of liberty will be a government of laws, not of rulers or of the majority. In a pure democracy, and simple majority (just over 50%) of the people rule. The rights of the minority could be in jeopardy under such a government. Therefore, the best form or democracy will be a constitutional democracy. Here, the law is supreme, and protects the rights of all people.

Throughout most of history people have been governed by laws imposed by their rulers. In this they had no choice. In a democracy the people will form their own constitution and consent to it. Hence, the establish a government of people’s law, not of ruler’s law. Both the people and the rulers are subject to the law. This is essential for protecting the individual’s rights to life, liberty, and property. Citizens must not only be protected from harmful acts of other citizens, but also from abuses by their own government. Since the law is supreme and not the rulers, the people will be protected from ruler’s tyranny.

A constitution will define and limit the power of government. It acts as a chain to bind down rulers from misusing power. It is written so that it will not be forgotten.

Any government is free to the people under it, no matter what structure it has, where the laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws. Any government opposed to this will be one of tyranny.

A constitution formed by the people should not deny the rights of others. The laws will apply to all people equally, regardless of political position, religion, race, wealth, social status, or creed. Everyone is equal before the law in relation to protection of their life, liberty, and acquisition of property.

The source of the law of a nation will determine the degree of freedom and prosperity the people of that nation possess. The most democratic nations in history have had a law based in moral absolutes, which, in turn, have had their origin in religion. In a reality, a people’s religion is the source of their law.

Separation of Powers

A difficulty in forming any government where men are over men is that you must first enable the government to control the governed and then insure that the government controls itself. Men tend to abuse power, especially if they are given too much. It has been said that all power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Due to this tendency of abuse, power must be limited in our civil rulers.

We have seen that prescribing specific powers in a constitution is one way to accomplish this. Another way is to separate governmental powers into different branches with different personnel running each branch. Every government (whether a monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, etc.) exercises these three functions: legislative – lawmaking, executive – enforcing and carrying out laws, and judicial – interpreting laws.

Separation of powers is a division of functions and personnel between the legislative, executive, and judicial departments. It is setting up three separate branches with prescribed separate functions (in a constitution), where no person should serve in any two branches at the same time. This serves as an internal control of abuse of governmental power. Since men are not angels and tend to lack self-control, separation of powers will guard against tyranny.

The French political writer, Montesquieu, write in The Spirit of Laws (1748): “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner. Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.”

Tyranny will result when legislative, executive, and judicial powers are all accumulated in the same hands, of one, a few, or many. This is also true of all rulers, whether hereditary, self-appointed, or even elected. Simply giving power to the people and allowing them to elect their leaders is not an assurance of securing liberty for all. One thousand despots would be as oppressive as one. We do not want to establish and elective despotism. Separating governmental powers into three branches is one of many controls on the government needed to keep the people’s rights and liberties from being endangered.

The three branches should be independent of each other with no one branch having total control of another. As an example, the legislative branch should not be able to remove the executive or judiciary very easily; and the executive should not be able to dissolve the legislative or judiciary. While independent, these branches should not be completely separate, but should band together through a system of checks and balances. This will permit each branch to guard against one department encroaching into another, which would result in tyranny.

An example of checks and balances is the executive having the right to veto laws passed by the legislature, and the legislature being able to override the veto with a larger percentage vote by their members.

A well-defined system of checks and balances will help maintain the separation of powers in all three branches. While a separation of powers will produce some conflict between the branches of government, this will assist in preserving the three branches of government and the system of checks and balances. To preserve them is as necessary as to institute them.

Trial By Jury

In a nation under law, any violation of the law requires a judge. Wrongdoers must be punished and required to make restitution to deter crime, yet, there must be an orderly process of justice where the guilty and innocent are distinguished. Judges should not only be knowledgeable of the law, but also honest, refuse bribes, and not show favoritism.

History is replete with examples of judges manipulated by government authorities to further their political agenda. An independent judiciary is essential to ensure that the written boundaries established by a constitution are maintained. The judicial system should be made up of un-elected individuals who will not be swayed by political pressures. The courts are the ones who keep an eye on the legislative and executive branches of government and determine their faithfulness to constitutional standards.

Individual judges, even if un-elected, may at times be manipulated by other government leaders to render unjust decisions, against political opponents of the government. Therefore, in order to protect individual liberty, and guarantee a fair trial, there needs to be a judicial system that uses a jury drawn at random from society. These jury members should generally be on the same social level as the defendant. They also should be from the same city or geographical area as the defendant, yet should not know any facts about the case in advance that might color their perspective. The jury must be protected against government reprisals themselves in order to be independent. A jury of peers should be effective because it can judge of the defendant’s character and the credibility of the witnesses.

There is freedom in a society that guarantees that neither life, liberty, nor property can be taken from the possessor, until a dozen or so of his countrymen shall pass their sentence upon oath against him. Government becomes arbitrary without such a system of justice. The legislature could pass oppressive laws or a judge could deliberately misinterpret the law.

The jury system was first found in British law over 1000 years ago. Governments, both fascist and communist, have forbidden trial by jury. The United States, in contrast, conducts about 120,000 jury trials each year.

Civilian Control of Police and Military Forces

Military and police power is a necessity in society to protect citizens from criminals and enemies, both foreign and domestic. A wise and prudent people will always have a watchful and jealous eye over this power. The American statesman, Thomas Jefferson, said that “the supremacy of the civil over the military authority” is an “essential principal” of democracy. His draft of the Declaration of Independence condemned the British King for rendering “the Military independent of and superior to the Civil” authorities, and also for keeping “standing Armies without the consent of our people.”

World history has proven repeatedly that armies that are supposedly the “people’s” – i.e. there to protect the people’s interests as a whole, are in reality being used by powerful government leaders to further their goals. Many nations experience military coups regularly and the generals of the armies run the nation rather than “presidents” and constitutions.”

In order to ensure civilian control of the military, a constitution should establish an elected head of state (“president”) as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in war time. However, rules for the military should be established by elected representatives of the people other than the head of state. These elected representatives should not be able to spend money for armies for more than the period of time until they race re-election. This keeps the support of the military power by the representatives subject to the approval of the people.

The officers of the armies should not be appointed by the head-of-state, but by elected representatives from their own geographical area. The majority of a nation’s army should simply be working citizens who have their own weapons and can be called together quickly. By doing this, no permanent army can exist that can be taken control of by a political leader. This system allows any citizen to own his own weapon, which will give everyone the ability to defend himself, and will also give a geographic area of people the ability to defend themselves from armies that do become pawns of the government.

The police force should be locally and regionally controlled and completely separate from military power. The head of the police forces should be elected and governed by local government. The rest of the police should be hired by the government as normal employment.

A Free Market Economy

The components of a free market economy are a basic necessity for any country that desires to secure individual liberty and economic productivity. In fact, a free market economy is the natural result of ideals of liberty.

Components of a free market economy include private property rights, individual enterprise, and a free market.

Private property includes all things that belong to an individual through his own labors or which had been freely given to him. This includes land, homes, personal possessions, inventions, wages, writings. Man does not only have a right to material property, but he also has a right to what we could call “internal property” – that is, he has a right to freedom in his religious beliefs, his opinions, his speech, and his writings.

Life and liberty are of great value to preserve, but without property rights they will soon be lost. If the people have property, they will have power to secure their rights to trial by jury, liberty of the press, freedom of worship, and others. Therefore, a primary object of civil government is the security of property (both internal and external) for its citizens.

The basic idea of individual enterprise is that citizens should be free to keep the rewards of their individual labor. When people are free to acquire and own property, produce what they want, choose their occupation, live and work where they wish, acquire whatever goods and services they desire, and have access to free markets they will prosper, and consequently, cause their nation to prosper. Government should allow the people these freedoms.

In a free market people offer quality goods or services that are produced by their special talents and that they feel will be a benefit to the community. Each person is free to sell or not to sell at whatever price they want to offer, but they cannot force anyone to buy. Exchange of goods and services is voluntary and will occur as all involved believe they benefit from the exchange.

The prices of goods and services will be determined by “supply and demand.” In a free market the supply of goods and services will balance out the demand for those goods and services at a price buyers are willing to buy and sellers are willing to sell. The greater the supply of any particular kind of good or service, the more the price will tend to go down. The greater the demand for any kind of good or service, the more the price will tend to go up. The government must refrain from interfering in the free market by setting prices and wages, but must protect the free market by punishing theft and fraud, and by enforcing contracts that were entered into freely.

A government must protect the people’s property from unprincipled citizens, but must also constrain itself from taking the people’s property or prohibiting individual enterprise and the free market. Following are a few ways the government can be constrained:

1. The constitution should guarantee private property rights, individual enterprise, and protect the free market. Ways of doing this include setting a fixed standard of weights and measures (to keep the market fair), having copyright and patent laws (which encourage initiative and inventiveness), depriving no person of property without due process of law, and taking no private property for public use without just compensation.

2. Limited taxes, that are fair and equitable, should only be imposed by elected representatives who serve a short term in office before facing reelection. Taxing power of the government should be restricted for uses specifically enumerated in the constitution.

3. An hones money and honest banking system should be established, and deficit spending should only be allowed in emergencies. These are all inflationary and is a subtle way that government “steals” money from the citizenry.

Elections of Representatives

Besides all the other safeguards against tyranny – decentralizing and separating government powers, establishing trial by jury, a civilian-controlled military, etc. – there is till one crucial part left in the framework of democracy. Although those governmental powers and offices are severely limited and checked, the men who are to fill those positions must be elected by the people and forced to face those same people frequently in order to be re-elected. This establishes accountability.

Frequent elections are essential, but also it is vital that the elections be free. This means that those who run for office can do so without restriction of being from one party. One party may possibly dominate elections but it must come through winning the battle in the free marketplace of ideas. The right of any citizen to form a party and offer candidates for election in essential.

The vote in a nation must not be compulsory if it is to be free. It must be voluntary, plus it must be available to all citizens equally, regardless of race, color, social status, religion or gender. The vote must also be by secret ballot so that no pressure nor fear of reprisal can influence the outcome.

Once the election determines the winner there must be a commitment to the peaceful transition and relinquishing of power by the previous office-holders. It is essential also that all competing candidates and parties work to be unified for the common good of the nation.

It is important, however, that not all government offices be filled by popular choice. In order to prevent the politicalization of the judiciary, for example, it would be best that judges remain appointed by elected representatives.

Another safety necessary to prevent majority tyranny and ensure more healthy gradual change in a nation would be for different portions of the legislative and executive branches, on both the national and regional levels, to be up for elections on different years. This would prevent radical changes from taking place without time for the electorate to fully weigh the potential consequences.

Mark Beliles and Stephen McDowell are the founders of The Providence Foundation and publishers of the Providential Perspective. For more information on how to receive this publication, contact: The Providence Foundation, P.O. Box 6759, Charlottesville, VA 22906.

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