Is democracy the least evil?

The old saying goes:

“Democracy is the worst system of government… except for all the others.”

Is that really true?

We haven’t really come up with all that many systems of government to choose from: tribalism, feudalism, despotism, and the twin brothers we hold dear: democracy and republicanism.  But are democracy and republicanism really that much better than the others?  I contend that they aren’t.  They are better in a way, because a plurality of people in a democracy will probably end up getting something close to what they want, but they can still act despotically towards a large minority.

I contend that what has protected our society and others that are generally free and prosperous are not the democratic tendencies but rather constitutional and institutional guarantees.  The bill of rights, separation of powers, checks and balances and a culture of freedom have been the bulwark against despotism in America, and our republican system has very little to do with it.

This is what makes me worried.  All of these good institutional measures are deteriorating.  Of the all the amendments in the bill of rights, the first is the only one which has maintained its health.  The 9th and 10th amendments, which are supposed to guarantee all the rights that didn’t end up enshrined in the constitution, are no longer even considered by courts.  Our due process rights, guaranteed in anendments 4, 5, and 6, are being eroded by the goings-on in Guantanamo and the shady tactics of the drug war.

But it isn’t only the bill of rights that is coughing and sputtering, the executive branch over the years has continually claimed more and more power.  Checks and balances are falling by the wayside and the powers aren’t all that separated.  The culture of the people in this country is becoming polarized into big-government Republicans and big-government Democrats.  We may yet discover a despotic democracy.

So, is there something better than democracy?  I would say yes: voluntarism.  Each person selects their rulers, and is able to change their mind on a fairly regular basis.  If you and I select different rulers, we have to follow different rules.  I’ve expanded on this in some old posts and might do so some more, but there is no chance of being ruled by a despot under this system, as there is in all the others.

That wasn’t the point I was necessarily trying to make here, though. The important point is that it takes strong institutions and a fair set of ground rules to guarantee freedom, and the system of government is secondary.  We need to make sure we maintain and nourish our institutions of freedom so that our society will remain healthy.  I’d rather live under a dictatorship that guarantees my rights than a democracy that guarantees none.

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3 Responses

  1. I agree with you completely. The reasons I am so upset by this administration is the overhaul of Executive Power that is ignoring our Constitution.

    Historians say the most efficient form of government is actually a Benevolent Dictatorship where the leader does have the best interests of the people in mind.

  2. True Democracy goes hand in hand with Christianity. As Christianity is ailing in the west so is democracy.

  3. Amisk,

    Your comment is both absurd and a non sequitur. I assume you are a fan of Christianity? My post is not complaining about ailing democracy, it’s pointing out that democracy can be despotic; I am actually arguing that a stronger, freer society might result from *less* democracy, and that we should consider implementing that trade-off. It may be that we have too much democracy!

    That said, I have no idea how democracy goes hand in hand with Christianity. Christ didn’t speak a word about democracy, or any system of government, but his organization certainly wasn’t democratic. When did the apostles take a vote? Have you ever attended a church where votes are taken?

    The first democratic republics were pagan: in Greece and Rome. The onset of Christianity brought about the least democratic society imaginable: the feudalism of the dark ages, which lasted hundreds and hundreds of years.

    “True Democracy” (where every person in the society has an equal vote on each issue) has never been tried on a national scale, and only recently have we come into the technology where it would even be possible.

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