The speech that President Biden gave at Pointe du Hoc (Normandie, France) in celebration of D-Day echoed a naïve and widespread conception of democracy. The general theory goes like this: Democracy is a system where the voter is in power. He is well-informed and votes to express his interest in the public goods that the government proposes to produce. The politicians and the government bureaucrats are selfless public servants who faithfully respond to the electorate’s demands. If I may put a summary in Biden’s mouth: the result is freedom, the rule of law, and a government in the service of “the people”; democracy is good; we come together and do great things at great sacrifice.

In reality, to roughly summarize public choice theory, most citizens vote blind because each one’s vote has no impact of the election or referendum result. Many remain apathetic. Politicians and bureaucrats are ordinary self-interested individuals who occupy the public sector to further their own interests. When necessary, they will yield to special-interest groups. The (classical) liberal believes that democracy is a means to individual liberty, not an end, and that the government’s scope and power must be strictly limited to some essential functions in order to restrain its capacity to exploit part of the population.

The naïve conception confuses freedom with democracy and views collective choices as superior to individual choices. The collective is greater than the individual, and the latter must sacrifice for the former. Democracy is collectivism with a human face. Biden declared (see “Against D-Day Backdrop, Biden Puts Democracy at Center of Anti-Trump Pitch,” Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2024; and the C-SPAN video of the speech):

American democracy asks the hardest of things: to believe that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves. So democracy begins with each of us … when one person decides there’s something more important than themselves … when they decide that their country matters more than they do.

Note in passing how the rhetoric goes from “one person” to the politically correct “they”—ostentatiously to avoid saying “him.”  Intriguingly, Biden later eulogizes “the brave men who scaled these cliffs.” The real function of replacing singular pronouns by their plural is, I believe, to erase the individual.

Biden affirms that the American soldiers who took Omaha Beach,

are asking us to care for others in our country more than ourselves … to be part of something bigger than ourselves … to protect freedom in our time, to defend democracy … to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

At least, freedom is mentioned, but it appears to be a mere synonym for democracy, which is the central concept.

A free society is very different. Its government leaves every individual free to make the sacrifices he wants without imposing sacrifices on others such as conscripts in times of war. The incipit of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962) famously said:

In a much quoted passage in his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” …. Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society. The paternalistic “what your country can do for you” implies that the government is the patron, the citizen the ward. … The organismic, [sic] “what you can do for your country” implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary. To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them.

James Buchanan saw stronger relations between the citizen and a government created and limited by a conceptually unanimous social contract. But he stressed (along with his collaborators Gordon Tullock or Geoffrey Brennan, to mention only those) how the whole system was based on the absolute primacy of individual choices. The citizen is not viewed as a sacrificial lamb. There is no social or collective purposes, only private purposes. This liberty is of course worth defending.

Mr. Biden’s concept of democracy is closer to Spartan democracy, which was all about the power of the citizens as a collective, not about individual liberty. In Pointe du Hoc, he preached against the natural instinct “to be selfish, to force our world upon others, to seize power and never give up.” But isn’t forcing the world of some upon others exactly what any sort of collectivism means?


Organicist democracy and the old king, by DALL-E with his gratitude to Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Lemieux

Organicist democracy and the old king, by DALL-E with his gratitude to Thomas Hobbes and your humble blogger