Democracy: Is It Over-hyped? Or Overdone?

I noticed a poll taken the other day in connection with Fox News (unfortunately I did not catch the purveyor of that poll, perhaps Fox itself).  Whether the methodology was right or not, I don’t know but it found that 50% of people polled opposed the elimination of the Obamacare insurance mandate, while 48% supported its elimination.  If that reflects the public opinion generally, then we may have reached Alexis de Tocqueville’s “tipping point” in relation to democracy.  In a democracy, he (and others) argued, at some point tyranny by majority would produce a more or less permanent group of “takers.”  Someone said when the majority finally realize they can consistently take from the better off and redistribute the resources to themselves, democracy is effectively dead.  

Is our own democracy on the way to its own self-destruction?  That is the question.  Let’s take a look at this quite controversial form of government.  We know that in Greece from the late 5th into the 4th century BC, a form of pure democracy existed, in which all male citizens voted on virtually every decision common to all (that included many decisions) and majority vote won.  We also know this form didn’t last long, failing, from what we know, because it turned into mob rule by the majority.  For a very long time, democracy was distrusted after that–and even in its own day–and was not seriously resurrected as a viable form until the eighteenth century, and only grudgingly at that.  Popular rule really didn’t begin until the early twentieth century, and was even then, as previously, it was looked upon skeptically.  We can see some of it in late nineteenth century Europe, certainly a movement demanding it embodied in Social Democracy.  We can also see it in the American Progressive Movement, which advocated ballot issue votes, more popular elections and at the Federal level, the popular election of Senators.  As of the post-World war II era, democracy was either the common practice or the ideal form among intellectuals.  In most cases, this demand for democracy was some variation of what I call “raw” democracy, that is, few or no checks and balances and either no or weak constitutions that were unenforceable.  “The people” were the final arbiter-or so we thought.  The result, we also thought, would be peace and prosperity for all everywhere, no matter what vote resulted, no matter who was in power and no matter what the state was empowered to do.

The results have proven to be rather less than expected, at least depending one’s ideology.  Has mass democracy brought us universal peace? Universal prosperity?  Has it even been able to sustain itself or has it undermined its own masses who voted in some pretty bad characters and then couldn’t get rid of them (sometimes these rulers got rid of the democratic advocates).  In nearly every case, the democratic mantra has been “everybody votes, simple majority wins.”  Exceptions have been few, for example, to some extent, but less so now, the United States.

What then can we say about democracy?  Is it good, bad or somewhere in the middle?  Our Founding Fathers distrusted pure and unchecked democracy, as witnessed by our own Constitution which heavily restricted every possible decision-maker’s power, even that of the masses.  Today some writers have been so bold as to call democracy into question as an institutional arrangement.  See for example, Jason Brennan, Against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2016), who writes an extended and compelling work exposing democracy’s faults.  He isn’t the only one.  Christians too have every reason to stop and consider both the good and bad aspects of this governmental form.

First, let’s not be too utopian here.  No form is perfect.  There are only better and worse. Is democracy better than one man rule?  Probably, especially as long as the one man isn’t perfect–which of course he never is.  That doesn’t mean that a decision by one person is always bad, so long as we don’t have consistent one man rule in everything.  As James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock showed in their famous Calculus of Consent (1962), some kinds of decisions, those requiring “speed and dispatch” are often better made by one or a few individuals, while decisions involving necessary deliberation and that affect a large group with potentially high costs, may be better made by some majority, perhaps even a super-majority.  So no form is always and everywhere perfect.  

This is especially true when we consider the possible expressions of the sin nature in every person.  At the least, we have to reckon with self-interest, and in some, outright selfishness.  Since we can’t know ahead of time who will actually be in positions of power over us, we might be well advised to be careful to give all power to one man, or to rule by “experts” in large bureaucracies.

However, could we have a similar situation if we gave all power to an undefined simple majority?  Yes, we certainly could, especially if the “people”  had absolute and unchecked power to decide all issues by simply majority vote–the currently most popular notion out there.  We might make things better by requiring a super-majority, like ⅔ or ¾ majorities.  Even then we risk harming some proportion of the voting population, at least subjectively, and especially if we had no overarching fundamental law that set the objective parameters for voting outcome possibilities.

In short, democracy is not sacred. Nor is the simple majority version of democracy.  There is no magic percentage of voters that make any given decision perfect or even good.  Certainly, the simple majority makes it even less likely that more than  that majority are satisfied, or even safe from the machinations of the majority.

What then can we possibly do to salvage a democracy?  First, don’t have a pure democracy as the overall form of government, whether in a nation or in other organizations.  That is just the start.  Then, and possibly even more important, do have a fundamental law, called often a constitution or a charter, or whatever, that “governs the governors” (including the majority). Establishes the objective parameters for any decisions that can be made, forecloses the decisions that should not be made at all by the majority (or any rulers) and is enforceable through some mechanism of checks that involve independent entities.  The content of the constitution establishes the rule of law, which stands above every person, including authorities and majorities.  This content includes standard rights such as life, liberty and property, but also freedom of speech and religion, all belonging to every individual and not to be violated even by the majority.

Therefore even if some or many institutions of a nation operate on the basis of some sort of democratic rule, the decisions emanating from the majority cannot (hopefully) transgress the boundaries established by the constitution, and if they do, the individuals who are harmed can have enforceable redress to a body like an independent court to vindicate their rights as against the government-majority.

There are, as I said, arguments rejecting any kind of majority, but I have not gone that far.  My admonition was to reject a pure democracy as the overall type of government for a nation.  However, within the framework of a republic, and a constitutional republic, we can have majority voting in selected institutional arrangements.  There is nothing sacred about simple majority rule however, and we could require–and in some or many decisions, we should–some level of super-majority, say ⅔. ¾, ⅘, 60%, even unanimity in some cases, depending on the type of decision, its potential costs to the “recipients” of the decision, as compared to the costs of reaching agreement in voting.

Finally, all this is a matter of prudence.  The Bible nowhere commands one particular form or forbids another.  But it does give us ample data about human nature.  If we give careful consideration to that, as well as to the nature of the good and the right, we may be able to construct the best “artifact” in terms of institution that is possible given the Fall and its effects.  Christians above others, ought to be sensitive to the issues presented in designing decision-making arrangements and forms of government, though sometimes we can be as naive as anyone else.  Even democracy, rule by the people, poses a real danger, of which we should take note.