A popular joke of recent years has a policeman parking his car outside a bar
shortly before closing time. He's certain that the exodus of drinkers will
provide him with 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 obviously 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 gleefully
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 even
bans on smoking in privately owned businesses.
"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 whose insights
into American democracy remain fresh today, 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
America remains a democratic country -- increasingly democratic, if the
growing 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
To be honest, the story of modern American democracy isn't just a litany of
rights violations. Voters -- particularly in the West -- have also gone to
the polls to legalize the medical use of marijuana, reform asset-forfeiture
laws and defeat restrictions on firearms ownership. 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
Democracy and liberty are barely on speaking terms in modern America.
This is no isolated phenomenon. In his much-discussed book, "The Future of
Freedom," Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria warns 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
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 stubborn restaurant owners who refuse to enforce local smoking bans.
They're librarians who erase records of borrowed books to keep them out of
police hands. 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.
This column was published September 30, 2003 in the Denver Post.