Saturday, September 18, 2010

Deceptive Democracy

You tell me it's the institution
Well you know
You better free your mind instead
--The Beatles

The United States was founded as a federal republic. 'Federal' refers to a form of government in which a group of states or regions defers some power to a central authority while maintaining a measure of autonomy. 'Republic' refers to a form of government in which power is explicitly vested in the people, who in turn exercise their power through elected representatives.

Today many refer to our form of government as a democracy. Among the modern definitions of 'democracy' is this one: a system of government where the power is vested in the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives. This meaning of democracy overlaps considerably with the definition of a republic, which seems to justify interchanging the two terms.

However, democracy has another meaning--one that has been held for a much longer period of time. Democracy also refers to a decision-making process where decisions are made by majority rule.

Decision by majority rule was not the intention of the Founders. We know this for a number of reasons. The word 'democracy' does not appear in any of the nation's founding documents, including both federal and state constitutions--although the concept of decision by majority rule was alive and well back then. Indeed, many Founders were on the record for their distaste of democracy. The republic design reflects this distaste. If democratic decision-making was intended, then why designate representatives when majority vote directly by the people would determine the outcome of an issue?

A primary problem with majority rule is that it discriminates against minority interests. If all decisions are to be decided by democratic vote, then any dominant coalition can, well, dominate. Essentially, majority rule does not facilitate equal treatment under the law. It is more likely to foster both predatory wealth and predatory poverty.

The Founders knew that equal treatment under the law required decisions grounded in the rule of law. Borrowing ideas expressed nearly one hundred years earlier, John Adams in 1774 wrote about 'a government of laws and not of men.' Decisions guided by principled law are likely to endure fashions of the day, emotions that distort perspective, and self-interest that drives human behavior.

Today, it seems clear that people have substituted democratic process in place of the rule of law. Obvious 'proof' in this regard is the size and intensity of the lobbying industry and the affiliated special interest groups. There would be very little market for SIGs in a system grounded in a principled rule of law.

Migration toward demcracy and its consequences as been discussed by many over the yrs (e.g., here, here, here). Toqueville and Hayek suggested that democratic societies had capacity to destroy themselves.

There is an argument to be made that democratic process is being misapplied in this country--perhaps because many people are condoning a process that they mistakenly identify with the country's founding.

Escalating debate of such a proposition seems a good thing--even if only to raise civic awareness.

1 comment:

dgeorge12358 said...

And for well over a hundred years our politicians, statesmen, and people remembered that this was a republic, not a democracy, and knew what they meant when they made that distinction.

And it was under Wilson that the first great propaganda slogan was coined and emblazoned everywhere, to make Americans start thinking favorably of democracies and forget that we had a republic.

~Robert Welch