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Understanding Democracy
Publication date: 2003-11-22

What is Democracy?   -----   to top

The word "democracy" has been a fashionable political slogan during much of the 20th Century: as in "Our Democracy" or "People's Democracy" or "Social Democracy", etc. And we still hear it being used in different contexts. President Bush sees promotion of democracy as the main aim of the American Foreign Policy. But what does the word "democracy" mean?

The literal meaning of the word "democracy" is "power of the people". In practice it usually means a method of decision making by a majority vote, and specifically of appointing a government by elections. Thus, if Jack and Jill are two prospective candidates for the Presidency, and 10 people take part in the elections, then, if 4 people vote for Jack and 6 for Jill, Jill will be elected President.

Democracy as an Anti-Theory   -----   to top

The idea of democracy was advanced as an anti-theory to "autocracy" and "aristocracy", which respectively mean "power of a single ruler" or "power of a superior group". And like all anti-theories it accepts the basic assumptions of the theories it seeks to oppose. In this case, it is the idea of "power" of government being a privilege of the ruler, which the ruler exercises for his own benefit, usually at the expense of and to the detriment to those ruled by him. Thus in an autocracy an all powerful king rules his kingdom for his own pleasure, and in an aristocracy a privileged group rules over the lower classes, again for the benefits of the ruling group. In a democracy it is the will of the majority of the people that is supreme, but above whose will? Above the will of various minorities.

This is the theory. We shall proceed to examine how this theory works in practice, as a method of electing a government and of decision making.

Democracy as a Method of Appointing a Government   -----   to top

Since all the people cannot in any meaningful sense govern a country, in practice a "democratic government" means a government where the person or group of people at the top of the government are elected by some form of a voting system. Such "representative" government is usually elected for a limited period, typically, 5 years, after which another election is held.

At the elections, people have opportunity to select a candidate from a small pre-selected group. The candidates usually represent "political" parties, which, in their turn, represent a group of population united by a common set of prejudices1 or vested interests2. If one of the parties gets the majority of votes, it forms the government of the country and will be able to enact laws and govern the country in the interests of the group which it represents, usually at the expense of the other groups.

While such method makes it possible to replace the government at regular intervals, it does not guarantee that the elected government will be composed of honest and competent individuals capable of performing satisfactorily the task of government. As a result, such democratic governments stagger from scandal to scandal, until they become so unpopular that they are replaced by candidates from an opposing party, who continue to behave in the same way.

The only substantive (and important) advantage of appointment of government officials by elections, over hereditary governments, or the ones usurped by violent means, is that it allows for "bloodless" changes of government.

Democracy as a way of appointing a government is an instance of democracy as a method of decision making.

Democracy as a Method of Decision Making   -----   to top

Democracy as a method of decision making is deciding an issue by a majority vote. Thus, if among a group of 10 people 6 people vote that the next time they will meet on Tuesday and 4 people vote for meeting on Wednesday, it will be decided that the meeting will be held on Tuesday.

If the difference between Tuesday and Wednesday in the above example was merely that of convenience, then the above method is a perfectly sensible and practically workable way of decision making. But, if, unlike the above example, the issues to be decided by vote involve issues of fact, issues of right and wrong, issues which can affect freedom and property of others, as is often happens in issues confronting governments, can such issues be successfully decided by vote?

What Can and What Cannot be Done Democratically   -----   to top

It is impossible to reliably arrive at a correct decision by a majority vote on issues of fact, because facts exist independently of anybody's will, desire or opinion. The only way to establish facts is by investigation.

Often, however, people confuse facts with frivolous speculations and deliberately false assertions. Such assertions are accepted on trust. Assertions by a greater number of people are given greater credibility. This often leads to wrong decisions. Many miscarriages of justice are due to trials by jury, where decisions on matters of fact are decided by vote.

It is impossible to reliably arrive at a correct decision by a majority vote on issues of justice or morality (right and wrong), because justice or morality do not depend on anybody's will, desire or opinion.

Issues of justice and morality can be only decided by objective and impartial application to a case of basic principles of Natural Justice and Natural Morality. Thus, if nine people decide to take over the house of one person who is against such decision, then such decision would be unjust, because it would violate the property rights of that single person, but it would be democratic, because it will be implementation of the will of the majority.

Attempts to resolve matters of truth and justice by vote usually lead to unjust decisions, which in their turn lead to conflicts, wars and terrorism. The history of the 20th century has plenty of evidence of the truth of that statement.

Can Democratic Governance be Imposed?   -----   to top

The reason that in some European countries and the USA people have greater freedom and live more prosperous lives than in other parts of the world is not because of the electoral system, but because of the tradition of respect for law above government and a measure of respect for private property. All this was inherited from previous centuries and a mere electoral system would not have achieved that. Also much of the European wealth was created as a result of colonial exploitation of Asian and African countries.

Attempts to "implant democracy" in countries without a tradition of rule of law above government, without a wide-spread ownership of private property, and without the culture of business ethics does not lead to instant emergence of free and prosperous nations. The common result of attempts to establish "multi-party democracies" is corrupt governments staggering from one 'crisis' to another only to be replaced by a military ruler. This was the pattern of "democratic governance" in much of Asia, Africa and South America in the second half of the 20th century.

Can one expect better results in the 21st century?

Making Government Work   -----   to top

All "ocracies", be they "democracy", "autocracy", or "aristocracy", have one common assumption about government power. It is the assumption that government power is a privilege to be exercised for the benefit of those in power. But government power means licence to commit acts of interference with freedom and property of others which, if committed by those without such licence would have been crimes or civil wrongs. And the only reason that government powers can be justified is for the purpose of performance of the duties of government. Use of government powers for any other purpose is abuse of government powers.

Not only "ocratic" governments abuse their powers, they also fail in performance of their duties. And without a clear definition of the duties of government and effective means of control over the exercise of these powers and performance of these duties, there is no way to ensure that governments achieve the purpose for which they exist.

"Government by the People" is a meaningless demagogical slogan. "The People" as a single entity capable of performing duties of government does not exist. It is not the American people who govern America, it is the President of the USA and a group of government officials who do that. The same is true of any other country. It is always a small group of people who govern any country - never "The People" as a whole.

But the issue is not "who governs a country", but "how the duties of government are performed". Only strict definition of the duties and powers of government and provision of effective means of monitoring and controlling the performance of the government duties can ensure that the powers of government are not abused and the duties of government are performed.


Notes:   -----   to top

1) In Europe and America the political rivalry was mostly driven by 'class' prejudices, although racial and nationalistic prejudices have been used by politicians from time to time.

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2) Vested interests are groups of people who obtain or hope to obtain some advantage from election of a political party to government. Examples of such groups are trade unions or some large businesses who have influence on some political parties. If a party associated with such vested interest groups comes to power, the vested interest groups expect such government to pass laws which would put them in a privileged position.

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