An old joke has a policeman parking his car outside a bar shortly before closing time. He's certain he'll bag a tipsy driver or two toward his arrest quota. Immediately, an obvious drunk stumbles from the bar. The drunk drops and retrieves his car keys repeatedly as people leave the bar, enter their vehicles and head home. Convinced that he's found an easy target, the officer ignores the departing crowd. Finally, the drunk reaches the last remaining car, enters and starts the engine. The officer flips on his lights, pulls his cruiser next to the drunk's car—and receives a shock. Grinning and stone-cold sober, the man says, "How's it going officer? I'm tonight's designated decoy."
You don't have to approve of drunk driving to enjoy the joke's rebellious spirit. The idea of people working together to defeat enforcement of a law they dislike draws from a deep-rooted tradition of healthy disrespect for authority in a country founded in revolution.
Of course, some folks take exception to such a spirit of rebellion. They insist that in a democracy like ours, laws are expressions, through our representatives, of the will of the people, and should be obeyed. That will has expressed itself recently through regulations that make pat-down searches a matter of course in airports, demands that property owners get government permission before building on their own land, and bans on smoking in privately owned businesses or drinking large soft drinks. "The people" have apparently become a bunch of busybodies.
Troubling though that is, it's not unexpected. In the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political and cultural journalist, observed, "The French under the old monarchy held it for a maxim that the king could do no wrong. The Americans entertain the same opinion with respect to the majority."
De Tocqueville went on to warn, "If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the omnipotence of the majority."
America is an enthusiastically democratic country, if the taste for referenda and recall elections is any indicator. But Americans increasingly demand that majority preferences be enforced in areas of life that were previously left to individual choice.
Directly or through elected representatives, voters call on government to abridge civil liberties to combat terrorism, restrict the use of private property so non-owners can enjoy pretty views, order Americans to buckle their seatbelts, and saddle even the smallest businesses with crippling regulations intended to make people healthier, happier, or less inconvenienced.
The story of modern American democracy isn't just a litany of rights violations. Voters also go to the polls to legalize the medical and recreational use of marijuana, reform asset-forfeiture laws, legalize same-sex marriage, and unseat gun-restricting politicians. But the fact that people who want to be left alone have to win their victories at the ballot box demonstrates that individual rights—on which even a democratic government can't legitimately trample—have taken a back seat to the "will of the people."
Democracy and liberty are barely on speaking terms in modern America.
In his 2003 book, The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria warned that democracy is spreading to countries with no tradition of limited government, personal freedom, or the rule of law. Contrary to classroom fairytales about democracy going hand-in-hand with freedom, the result has been a plague of "illiberal democracies" in which elections lead to intrusive laws and repressive regimes. Zakaria echoed the historian J.L. Talmon who cautioned decades earlier that "totalitarian democracy" stood in stark contrast to the individualistic liberal variety, and used elections to enforce "a sole and exclusive truth in politics."
America, with its growing web of laws, regulations, licenses and inspectors imposed by elected officials or by referenda, is abandoning its own traditions of limited government in favor of this unfortunate trend toward democratically imposed intolerance and conformity.
Fortunately, not all of us feel bound to obey the illiberal will of the majority; some people remain wedded to the idea that they have a right to run their own lives no matter what happens at the ballot box. These people are Edward Snowden. They're stubborn restaurant owners who ignore foie gras bans. They're tech company owners who shut their doors rather than collaborate with the surveillance state. They're jurors who free defendants who violated laws that shouldn't exist. Separately and together, these dissenters do their best to thwart democratic tyranny.
This minority of free-thinking and free-acting people have effectively chosen to be our "designated decoys." We owe them our thanks—and we need a lot more like them.
A version of this column appeared in newspapers including the Denver Post.