When I was growing up, I heard all the time that democracy was the best form of government out there. The best argument, I think, is that democracy allows people to be their own governors. In theory, this should be all that’s required for people to manage themselves. Certainly it’s better than the many different types of government before it.
But there are times when I hear people talking about it like it’s sacrosanct, like it’s the pinnacle of human achievement. As the best the human imagination can come up with, it is above and beyond reproach. Democracy cannot be criticized because no one can do anything better.
Democracy can only do so much.
Government is a simple idea that has very complicated outcomes. At its core, government is how people make the rules about their society. Those rules can take many different forms over many different expressions. Throughout history, we’ve had governments based on religions, philosophy, and biological inheritance. Sometimes people with money make rules, and sometimes those who are governed make the rules.
As of late, those rules often get expressed as constitutions, charters, laws, and other officially endorsed statements. Or, to put it concisely, the rules are written out in advance. The idea is that writing it out for everyone to read is better than making the rules in secret and then holding everyone to them. Most countries try to implement this in some way, except for maybe North Korea.
People need to think about the best ways these rules can get made, interpreted, and handled. In a real sense, government reaches into your wallet, can take away your freedom, and can even take human life. Often this gets handled in the most abstract way, so people don’t realize that their decisions in the ballot box can get others killed.
I’d also like to note that democracy is not always available to handle this business. In the US, for example, we have non-voter institutions which interpret laws and make new ones. This is necessary because voters can’t be expected to take time out of their day to know about everything they’re voting on. Thus, as a government or society gets bigger, the capacity to vote decreases.
Thus, there’s a critical mass where people are not able to govern themselves, and they’ll have to rely on things which are out of their direct control. Some countries try to control for this by making complicated elections, and others do it by making complicated governments. Despite all of that, it’s attempting to make two different and contrary ideas work.
There are more fundamental flaws in the assumptions of democracy.
The majority isn’t always correct about what it votes for. In many countries, there had to be years of marches and demonstrations to establish equal rights for gay couples who wanted marital rights. Before that, there had to be changes made for interracial couples. Some countries couldn’t elect people to change slavery or segregation laws. All of these countries suffered from majorities that were either ill-informed or had no basis of evaluating decisions.
It can’t be surprising, though. Democracy is about popularity, not capacity to lead. There’s just an assumption that someone who is capable of convincing many people to vote for them must also have some capacity to actually implement good rules. Neither logically has anything to do with the other. Some of the best capable people who could solve real problems have nothing to do with public policy, and many politicians are terrible examples of human intelligence.
Popularity also does nothing for people outside of power. In a democracy, being outside the majority means your voice is mute. Even in countries where minority parties are represented, those minorities often can’t pass laws.
On top of all of this, there’s the issue of how people even get to the ballot. In many countries, this is handled by private parties who make their own decisions. Here in the US, we have a mixture of party endorsement and primary elections. Neither system produces leaders that everyone can be proud of. Too often, they produce people who use their position to stay there until they die.
Nobody’s going to care.
I understand that I’m not writing a scholarly paper or sending this out for everyone to consider. In some places, it might even be illegal to read this blog. Regardless, democracy handles enough basic needs that most people can get by without wondering how it works. People in general seem to go with the flow, and they resist changes unless they have to be made.
Mostly I’m writing this because it is my hope that one day people will care enough to think about it. They’ll ask why their forebears settled for a system that benefits the few instead of the many, that can get manipulated so that it will work against others. If they’re decent enough, they’ll do what a few people in 1787 did and really wrestle with the idea. I want them to know that they’re heroes for having the courage to question, and I wish them more success.