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What’s So Great about Democracy?


In this election season, it might be good to ask, What’s so great about democracy?

There is almost a religious fervor in some people when they talk about the democratic process. I don’t get it.

I do see an advantage in voting over violence in the selection of officeholders. When succession is determined violently, innocent people get caught in the crossfire. But the democratic selection of office holders avoids the real question: What will be the jurisdiction of those officeholders? The fewer the matters left to government, the better. In other words, who rules is less important than what the rules are.

Under democracy, issues are decided by vote totals. How someone conducts his life can be substantially determined by how other people vote. Taxes can be imposed and raised by vote. Decisions about your children’s education can be made by vote. Rules governing how you may use your land can be made by vote. Much of your life can be affected by how your neighbors vote.

Those who vote in the minority are stuck with what those in the majority choose. In other words, democracy is that system of political governance in which the ayes have it and the nays get it.

Some people make a big fuss over the difference between a democracy and a republic. “This is a republic, not a democracy,” the old constitutionalists use to say. In the first system, the people vote on everything directly. In the second, the people vote for representatives who decide specific matters on behalf of the people. There are certainly important differences between a republic and a democracy. But they are not the most important issues. More important is how broad or narrow is the range of things subject to vote by anyone. Broad is bad; narrow is better.

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

The devotion to democracy is most clear in the matter of education. Lots of people like the fact that they vote for school boards and that schools are in the democratic arena. I like to ask them why they don’t then support democratic rule for religion. Why not vote on which places of worship we’ll all go to, or whether we’ll 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, after all.

Strangely, no one wants to apply democracy to religion. I don’t know why. Democratic religion has all the merits of democratic education. If the First Amendment is in the way, we can repeal it. But there’s no support for the reform.

Maybe people intuitively grasp what would happen if we moved religion from the private sector to the democratic arena. A lot would be riding on the votes. We’d all feel threatened: if our preference lost, our consciences would be violated. No one likes that, so people would be prepared to argue vigorously for their positions at public meetings. They would look at their opponents as enemies plotting to force them to accept beliefs against their will. Their opponents would see them the same way. Mistrust and rancor would grow. Social relations would be characterized by increasing animosity. In the name of community solidarity, we would produce destructive fragmentation. Not the fragmentation of people peacefully attending their own places of worship (or none at all), but rather, the violent fragmentation of mutual distrust and conflict of interest.

If you transfer that description to public education, you will find it a faithful representation of reality. School board meetings are often rancorous because parents fear that something they abhor will be forced on them and their children. The issues relate to values in general, sex and health education, multiculturalism, instructional methods (phonics versus whole language), and more. The merits of any particular position in those disputes is not the point. What matters is the parents feel threatened with loss of control over their children’s education. The professional educators also feel threatened by the parents, who seem intent on interfering with the experts in the performance of their duties. Everyone feels threatens. As Thomas Szasz has noted, in the animal kingdom the rule is eat or be eaten. In the human kingdom, it’s define or be defined. Neither is a pretty sight.

One reason people feel so strongly about democracy is that they have been sold the false notion that the only alternative is dictatorship. The choice, they have been led to believe, is between majority rule and rule by a powerful individual or group. Somehow, self-rule is never considered. The original American system largely embodied self-rule. Throughout the 19th century you could pretty much live your life without encountering a government official. Sure, people voted for officeholders, but those officials didn’t do much. Even so, they were generally distrusted by Americans. Politicians were always the butt of ridicule in this country, even when their power and influence were small. If that were not so, Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and H. L. Mencken would not have been so popular.

The situation was not a perfect libertarian paradise. Slavery was the most egregious contradiction because it struck at the heart of the philosophy of self-ownership and self-rule. There were many small contradictions, as well. In his book The Governmental Habit , the late Jonathan Hughes argued that America always had activist government, especially at the local level. He certainly documented his thesis thoroughly. In the end, though, the issue is one of scale. The state was just not that big a factor in the lives of the American people before the Civil War. Lots of rules may have been on the books. The real question is, Did they affect everyday life? Not too much.

During and after the Civil War, the pace of rule-making accelerated considerably. The Lincoln administration and the Republican Congress used the war to put through an activist national program that still plagues us in various ways today. We got the first income tax, conscription, higher tariffs, suppression of civil liberties, and loss of habeas corpus. That program was put through by the people’s representatives. War was indeed the health of the state. Life in the United States after the Civil War was far different from life before. One indication is that “United States” used to be a plural term (“these United States”). It became singular. The fine syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran thinks the more appropriate term is “the United State.”

Where do we go from here? It would be useful if advocates of freedom remind people of what democracy really means. If the discussion comes up, ask how they would like democratic religion, democratic hobby selection, democratic doctor selection, democratic restaurant selection, and on and on. That should sour them on the wonders of democracy.

If they reply that democracy is the American way, tell them that self-rule is the real American way. Self-rule and democracy are incompatible. Either you will make decisions for yourself or you will wait to see what the majority thinks you should do. Either you own your own life or everyone owns a fraction of everyone else, giving each person a claim to the resources of every other person. If that sounds horrendous, that’s the logic of democracy.

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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.