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What’s So Great about Democracy?


In this election season, the time might be right for a heretical question: what’s so great about democracy?

To be sure, voting is better than violence for picking officeholders. But the real issue is what power those officeholders will have. Who rules is less important than which rules.

In today’s America, too much is left to the vote. How someone conducts his life can be substantially determined by other people’s votes both on issues and for political candidates. Taxes can be imposed and raised by vote. Decisions about your children’s education can be made by vote. Rules on how you may use your land can be made by vote.

In any vote, the losers are stuck with what the winners choose. Democracy is the political system in which the ayes have it and the nays get it.

Why would we want to leave important matters to a vote? We don’t vote on what jobs each of us seeks, or which breakfast cereals will be produced, or what kind of automobiles we drive. (The marketplace is not analogous to the voting booth; majorities in the market do not dictate to minorities. Niche markets prove that.) Isn’t it better to let people choose for themselves?

Perhaps the devotion to democracy is most peculiar in education. Almost everyone is pleased that the schools are in the democratic arena. I wonder why they don’t support democratic rule for religion? Let’s vote on which places of worship we will all go to, or whether we will go at all. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the community spoke with one voice in that important matter? If the democratic process is good enough for education, it’s surely good enough for religion, which is closely related. Strangely, no one wants to apply democracy to religion. If the First Amendment is in the way, we could repeal it. But there’s little support for the reform.

Maybe people intuitively gr what would happen if we moved religion from the private sector to the democratic arena. Much would ride on every vote. We would all feel threatened because if our preferences were defeated at the polls, our consciences would be violated. No one would like that. We would look on our opponents as enemies. Mistrust and rancor would grow. Social relations would fray. In the name of community solidarity, we would produce destructive fragmentation–not the benign diversity of people going their own peaceful way in religious matters, but the fragmentation of mutual distrust and conflict of interest.

If you transfer that description to public (meaning government) education, you’ll find it a faithful description of our circumstances. School board meetings are often rancorous because parents fear that something they abhor will be forced on them and their children. They feel threatened with loss of control over their children’s education.

One reason people feel so strongly about democracy is that they have been sold the false notion that the only alternative is dictatorship. Churchill said democracy is the worst system except for all the rest. Did he consider self-rule? The original American system largely embodied self-rule. Through the first several decades of the nation’s history, people lived almost without encountering a government official. They voted for officeholders, but those officials didn’t do much. Even so, they were generally distrusted by Americans. Politicians have always been the butt of ridicule in this country, even when their power and influence were small.

Remember this as Bill Clinton and Bob Dole clash in the coming campaign: self-rule is the real American way, and it is incompatible with the expansive democracy we live under. Either you make decisions for yourself or you let the majority decide what you may do. Either you own your own life or everyone owns a fraction of everyone else’s. Is the choice so tough?

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.