Opposite Editorials

ON DEMOCRACY

I don’t know how to put this, and I am certain to be vilified for saying it, but I think we have a real problem with democracy. It has not turned out well. We need to take it down a peg or two. And generally have less of it.

 

That might sound shocking. But I am by no means the first person to say this. Plato and Aristotle, back in Ancient Greece, worried that rule by the people would turn into rule by the mob — a mob swayed by artful demagogues. Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues too thought that nobody could sleep soundly if ‘the people’ could do rob or imprison them on a mere whim and a majority vote. That is why the Founders did not create a democracy in America but a republic — where there are detailed constitutional rules to protect individuals’ lives, liberties and properties from exploitation by the majority. And the wisdom of that restraint remained the prevailing view for centuries after. “Democracy used to be a bad word,” wrote the Canadian political scientist

C. B. Macpherson in 1966. “Everybody who was anybody knew that democracy, in its original sense of rule by the people or government in accord with the will of the bulk of the people, would be a bad thing — fatal to individual freedom.... Then, within fifty years, democracy became a good thing.”

 

What caused the change, perhaps, was the extension of the franchise. When voting was restricted to landowning adult males, electors were perhaps more aware of the limits to their authority. Then in Britain in early 19th  Century, parliamentary reforms extended the franchise to men in general; and in the early 20th  Century it was extended to women as well, as it was in other countries. All this gave ‘democracy’ a new legitimacy.

It began to be assumed that ‘the people’ had a perfect every authority to decide whatever they liked, and to subsume the rights and freedoms of individuals to (their particular conception of) the ‘good’ of the collective.

 

But as Joseph Schumpeter observed, most people would reject a democracy in which the majority were empowered to burn witches (or today, perhaps, gays, transsexuals or blasphemers). The fact is that democracy is not  our highest value. Things like toleration and respect for the lives of others stand above it. We may struggle to define these limits, and those with strong opinions about how people should live will stretch them to breaking point. But we need to ensure such values do not succumb. 

 

I write this on the day that the UK’s Chief Medical Officer has issued a report saying that people should be banned from eating on buses and trains in order to tackle childhood obesity. Yes, there is always some sham justification, and usually it is ‘think of the children’ but such assaults on our freedom have become commonplace. And the reason is that, with a good PR campaign and a majority of parliamentarians in search of a quiet life, the full coercive power of the state can be deployed to enforce them.

 

Democracy is only one element of good government, along with the rule of law, individual rights, toleration, free speech, robust institutions and an independent judiciary. It is hardly good government if the majority can undermine those things; but this is exactly the world we live in. And to a large extent, all that has already happened. Personal freedom requires no justification: you suffer the consequences of anything you do. Democracy, however, does requires justification, because others  suffer the consequences of what you do. Should we hail democracy as justified? It is still an experiment in progress. E. M. Forster famously wrote a book entitled

Two Cheers For Democracy. Given how it has worked out, I would say it deserves no more than one.


Dr. Eamonn Butler is Director and co-founder of Britain’s leading free-market policy think tank, the Adam Smith Institute.