24 February 2011

Why democracy?

Over the last month or so, people have been throwing off, or trying to throw off, the shackles of their oppressive governments. It started in Tunsia, spread to Egypt, then Yemen, Bahrain, and now Libya. In every instance, though, the protestors have been calling for democracy. I suppose that's understandable; the grass on democracy's side of the fence probably looks and probably is a lot greener than that on the dictatorial side. I'm probably underselling democracy with that statement. After all, democracy is often held out as the gold standard for (good) government. Winston Churchill endorsed it, saying, "democracy is the worst form of government except all the others". Despite the actual wording, when reading or hearing Churchill's statement, people often "hear" that democracy is the best form of government. In reality, we can rightly infer from the statement that all forms of government are terrible. In Churchill's opinion, democracy is just the least terrible.

Democracy is often referred to as "tyranny of the majority" and Lysander Spooner explained, very eloquently, why:
[O]ther men practise this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further, that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two.
Democracy is a very seductive mistress because it promises the people control of the government. It gives the illusion of self-governance and individual rights. It implies that no injustice can be done so long as the "will of the people" is done. It provides nothing of the sort, though. As explained, when the people vote, a majority may and does impose its will upon the minority. "Will of the people" is rightly replaced with "will of the majority". This can be seen most prominently in the struggle in the U.S. for gay rights, and more specifically, gay marriage. In California, in 2008, 52% of the population denied gay people the right to marry. Proposition 19 last year, also in California, is another example where barely more than half of the population (53.5%) used their majority position to deny the use of marijuana -- the actual use of which affects no one other than the user -- to the rest.

There is also the problem that democracy doesn't scale. The founders knew this when they set up the U.S. House of Representatives. That is, it is not practical to hold a vote among the entire population for every matter to come before the U.S. federal government, so instead the population elects representatives to act in their stead. These representatives then practice democracy amongst themselves. This is even worse, though. Each representative currently represents just under 700,000 people. How can one person adequately represent the diverse views of almost three quarters of a million people?
Choosing between two candidates is analogous [to] going to Walmart and being presented with two shopping carts already filled with items. Everyone will leave the store with the same cart of goods. Each cart contains products that a person may want and products that one wouldn't choose to have, but the voter is not able to take anything out of either cart.
Not only that, but:
[E]ven though the voters are promised a particular set of goods in the shopping cart that won the election, that doesn't mean that the voters will receive that set of goods. The candidate could promise to deliver a specific set of policies, but after the election, the office holder is free to deliver a different set of policies to the voters, either because the candidate changed his position on some issues or because he was being deceitful during the campaign in order to gain political support.
The same can be said at other levels of government, even down to the city level, where a handful of elected officials make decisions on behalf of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. So, the question should not be "why democracy", but "why government". At the federal level, we have things like  TSA body scanners, highway checkpoints, the PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretaps, extra-judicial assassinations, and indefinite detentions. At the state level, we have the aforementioned denial of gay rights and marijuana use, prohibitive gun laws, and smoking bans. At the city level, we've got Happy Meal "bans" and watering limits and landscaping restrictions. And at all levels, we have taxes and police. You may be inclined to agree with some or all of these items, but that's not the point. The point is that some person or group who you may or may not have voted for or even heard of is, in one way or another controlling you. So, perhaps the question should really be, "why do people choose to be ruled".

Whether they know it or not, most people are Hobbesians, by which I mean that they believe or are fearful that the natural state of humanity is "war of all against all". They may very well be right, and in order to protect themselves from this "war", people institute governments and cede the use of force to said government, presumably to prevent the use of force amongst the people themselves. Locke argued that people do not even have the ability to cede this power in the first place, but nevertheless, ceding this power to a government presents a clear contradiction. If all people by their very nature would war with all others, why would anyone cede to anyone else the legal use of violence? James Madison touched on this idea in The Federalist, No. 51 when he said that if men were angels, there would be no need for government. He argued further that because men are not angels, pitting them against each other within government was the best that we could do. Men, competing with each other, from different branches of government, would restrain each other.

But what kind of person runs for public office? Madison failed to foresee that even the so-called "separation of powers" could not restrain men forever. Entry into politics does not require any particular skill or morality. It simply requires some combination of money, connections, personality, and a desire to rule others, particularly the last one. In fact, that last reason is probably the main reason that anyone runs for office. The idea that the world would be a better place if <insert your name here> was in charge is probably not foreign to anyone. To succeed in government, however, involves backroom deals and "compromises" ensuring that only the least moral and most willing to deal away their principles will rise to the top. Thus, government will ultimately be populated with the worst people in society, and it is only a matter of time before they decide to work together to turn their legal authority to use force on the people themselves. It turns out that government is really a sort of Faustian bargain. Government is instituted to protect people from those in society who would do harm, but how much worse is it when those who would do harm wield the power of the state?

The people of the revolting Middle Eastern and African nations now have a rare opportunity to truly be free. I fear, though, that like many before them, they will make the mistake of putting in place a government that will ultimately betray them and once again oppress them. If they are lucky, it will be to a lesser degree.


  1. I tend to agree with you, but can you suggest any good alternatives? Do you think our system is the least flawed out of all the flawed options?

  2. Did you know, sir, that Churchill uttered those words in defense of the legislative rights of a largely hereditary House of Lords?

  3. A good balance to the power of lobbyists in our Republic is to select one additional congress person from each district for a two year term. The person would be selected, by random drawing, from someone who served on jury duty in the past two years.

  4. @February 25, 2011: What makes a "good" alternative, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I'm not sure that what the founders envisioned was really a bad idea. Government was supposed to be decentralized and much closer to the people. Over time (and the Civil War, to a great extent, cemented this idea in people's minds) people have come to regard the federal government as supreme. They forget that the states created the federal government, not the other way 'round. And now 535 people in Washington, D.C. exercise a significant amount of control and power over 300 million.

    Even a seemingly good idea, the original design of the U.S. government, is subject to the idea that power corrupts. I'm not sure that any government is workable over the long term. Someone even suggested to me once that revolt was a necessary component of government, that government could not be controlled over a long period of time, so it simply must be abolished and re-instituted every so often. It's an interesting idea, but it's messy and deprives a large number of people of freedom in the later times of each successive government.

    In short, I would be satisfied with what (I believe) the founders envisioned if the people were able to restrain it to that level. The nature of government, though, is always to grow and become tyrannical. My goal is to help people understand that latter problem.

    For a solution/alternative, I suggest reading the works of Murray Rothbard. Here is a good place to start:


  5. @J.K. Baltzersen: I did not. I think, though, that that tidbit only strengthens the idea that democracy is not necessarily ideal.

  6. @Charles Tolleson: If this would really work, may I suggest instead that we adhere to Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution which says, "The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand"?

  7. Great post. Ever read 1 Samuel 8? Sums up government pretty well, IMO.

  8. amazing how protests toppled governments and the U.S. has been bogged down in a war with the same outcome.

    mark thuesen

  9. I think majority rule is better than a dictatorship (minority rule to the extreme).
    In a democracy ultimately it is the elite that actually rule.
    The problem with democracy is all votes are equal. The vote of the uneducated sloth carries as much weight as the vote of an industrious genius.


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