Monday, September 22, 2008

Wither Democracy

An interesting article about the pulling back from democracy across the world. According to the article, after a period where many countries instituted various democrat reforms, many of these reforms have failed or are being dismantled. The author blames the middle class; arguing that while at first the middle class was the significant factor in bringing about democracy (by demanding the protection of their rights); the middle class has turned its back on democracy.

This may be true, but the author misses the point. It's not the middle class that is to blame--it's democracy itself. Most of these reforms were, as far as I can tell, about being able to duly elect government officials. This is after all the hallmark of democracy. And also routinely its worst and most dangerous feature.

We often confuse democracy with a free society. Democracy as a means, combined with other institutional and cultural features, is a good check on government power. The process of electing officials and routinely subjecting them to re-election can protect freedom when these officials cross the line. But when democracy itself becomes the goal, the rights of individuals are often sacrificed to the mob. If the 20th Century taught us anything its that the tyranny of the majority is no better than the tyranny of the few.

People often forget that the United States was not set up as as democracy but as a republic. (Historian and constitutional scholar David Mayer) Many features of the government are anti-democratic and are so on purpose: the President is not directly elected, the courts can overturn the legislature. These anti-democratic features are there to protect the minority of the individual from the tyranny of the majority: to protect the rights and liberties of individuals from being curtailed or stripped at the whim of 51% of the population.

It appears that as many of the countries discussed in this article shifted towards democracy, people have become disillusioned with democracy because it has not brought the protection of rights and liberties. It has brought in populist demagogues who undermine the rights and liberties for which the democratic movements fought. It is no wonder, then, that these folks are turning their backs on democracy.

1 comment:

Patrick Stephens said...

"I've said it before and I'll say it again, Democracy just doesn't work."

-- Kent Brockman.

The real problem is how we constrain power, not what structures we use to prop power up.

If we're looking for real reform and real constraints on power, I think we need to seriously consider placing restrictions on the electorate. Those restrictions could be geographic (repealing the 17th amendment) or means tested (receipt of entitlements as a disqualification).