Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Limits of Democratic Government

Democracy is the key component of the American ethos. Since the founding of the American colonies, it has been a precept of all citizens that they have an equal say in the make up and conduct of the government. A government democratically elected by the majority of its citizens appears to have a greater claim to legitimacy to rule over the people than any other form of government. I love our democracy as much as any other citizen, which is a point I ask the reader to keep in mind. A strange request? Yes, but for most readers, this will be a strange project, as we need to take a critical eye towards democracy to define its limits and its perils. Democracy has the potential to be the most beautiful form of governments, but is also has the ability to be among the worst horrors of the world when abused.

I am by no means the first to make this distinction between a good and bad version of the same form of government. Aristotle was among the first, creating three divisions of government (monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy) with a good and bad version of each, leading to six potential types of government. The particular types of government is not relevant here; there are enough variations and mixtures in modern governments of these three types as to make them obsolete in discussing our world today. That any particular form could be good or bad, however, is an idea citizens need to understand today. Monarchy and aristocracies can be better for their people than some democracies have turned out to be; democracies can, indeed, be bad. The different types of governments have different virtues and drawbacks, but all of them can be good or bad. I believe that all governments, regardless of form, can be viewed as good or bad depending on their scope and involvement in the lives of their people. Governments that protect and respect the lives, liberties, and properties of their respective people's are good forms; governments that fail to do this or become a threat to those rights are bad.

It is my intention to disabuse my readers of a number of preconceptions about democracy that are dangerous to our society. When we are finished, I honestly believe my reader will have a stronger love for the good form of democracy and an unwillingness to accept the corrupting influences, either in their own political philosophy or on that of others with whom they discuss such subjects.

"Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one." ~Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

"But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." ~James Madison, Federalist #51

Government is the institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Were there no government, each and every one of us would be the simultaneous judge, juror, and executioner in all instances in which we perceive wrong to have been done. Maybe a very few individuals reading this would honestly use that power well and never for selfish advancement, but I believe most would be like me and know in their hearts they would steal or maybe even kill for self advancement if there was not a superior force to stop us. We create the government specifically to be that superior force to stop each of us from abusing the lives of each other; the problem is, such a superior force itself is now free to abuse others because there is no superior force to keep them in check. We institute democracy to keep the government in line with the will of the people, but how will we keep the people from abusing certain factions of the people?

A tyranny is a government which does not respect the rights of its own people. While the anarchy of places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and post invasion Iraq have captured the imagination of many for their horrors, anarchy is not the worst situation imaginable. Anarchy is a situation where everyone may declare war on anyone else, Hobbes famous State of Nature, but tyranny is worse still in that it sets up a situation where everyone is at war against you. As bad as a war of all against all may be, it is preferable to a war of everyone teamed up against you.

Democracies are by no means immune from such a problem; indeed, they may be more prone to them as elections clearly define an "us vs. you" situation where the majority take power and the minority are left with few chances of defending themselves. Monarchies and aristocracies rarely capture so many people within their fold, whereas the leaders in a democracy by definition have the most supporters of any particular faction. Though democracies tend to avoid threats to life and limb, they are far more likely to abuse property rights, as elections often bring about new governments that know they will exist only for a short time and must extract as many of the rewards of having power as possible in that short time frame, usually at the expense of the minority groups or future generations. Ultimately, democracies are governments, and all governments are evil for the very reason that they force people to take actions they otherwise would not do.

Far too often, supporters of expanding the role of government in a democracy claim legitimacy for their power grabs by hiding behind the claim that they represent "the people." I ask my reader to cover this section very carefully and if I err in any respect please politely let me know, because "the people" is among the most dangerous phrases ever spoken by politicos. We are, as Lincoln put is, a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people", but what is "the people?" The most incorrect and dangerous assumption is to believe the government actually represents the will of all the citizens of a particular state. While the government does legitimately govern all of the people by their tacit consent, its actions are very likely in diametrical opposition to the will of many of its citizens. Government is indeed instituted for the good of all of the citizens, but in every circumstance the government will take actions that unjustly harm certain elements of that society.

Since nearly all democracies today are representative in nature, we need to note that elections are only brief snapshots of the political leanings of society. Elections are also not particularly precise instruments; we vote for a candidate who most closely represents our current views, almost always disagreeing on some issues with those candidates. Moreover, we do not know specifics concerning the bills that will come before those legislators. While a majority may put a legislator into office, there is no certainty that legislator will actually vote along with the majority of his or her constituents on any particular piece of legislation. After a few months or years, a legislator may not even have a majority approval of his or her own constituents, but will still be considered a representative of "the majority" because of a snapshot election some time earlier.

All of this should not be seen as me wishing to do away with elections. I cannot think of a better method of holding officials accountable to the individuals whose lives will be impacted by government action; I merely wish to show such methods are cumbersome and very imperfect. The claim of supporting particular government actions in the name of "the people" is tenuous at best.

Even in a democracy, then, with the people as close to in charge as possible, we will have situations where the government treats its own people unjustly. In most circumstances, this will come about by a majority faction in government seeking to reward its voters at the expense of those who supported others, mainly by punishing or withholding rewards from large segments of the society that generally tended not to support the current government. Ironically, members of those segments that did support the government will be punished because the government cannot act precisely enough to actually identify individual supporters.

So long as there is government, the people in those governments will be tempted to use their powers to aggrandize themselves and their supporters at the expense of others. Even in the legitimate actions of government (protecting life, liberty, property, and enforcing contracts), there will be disagreement over policies. The best solution to this problem is to limit the opportunities for government to act to those legitimate actions and little else. As I just said, this is not a perfect solution, but it will reduce the abuses of government. It is a very simple maxim of politics: the more the government can do, the more it can abuse its powers. Regardless of the form of government, the citizens of all nations best protect their liberties by denying the authority of government to take actions beyond a very small subset already mentioned. To expand beyond these realms is to open up doors of opportunity for abuse in areas government was not instituted to act in and in which it is not capable of making improvements.

I have done my best to keep this explanation simple. It is my sincere hope that those who have read this will recognize that democracy is not in and of itself a good thing. Within certain bounds, no government can be considered more just, but once those bounds are left democracy becomes a nightmare of exploitation by temporary majorities. Within those bounds, citizens will have a wary respect for the institutions and a love of the office holders; outside of those bounds, government will be an object of contempt even by the majority faction. We, as citizens, are caretakers of the government when in the majority and are honor bound to keep that government within its proper role. Those who fail to do so cannot claim to love democracy, no matter how much they may use it in their demagoguery.

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