Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Like the weather, everybody talks about democracy, but they seem to have no clear idea what to do about it. Or even what it is.

Some regular commenters here of the libertarian persuasion argue that democracy is actually an enemy of liberty. In their view--and I'll be told if I'm not fairly summarizing--democracy is simply majority rule.

If that were the case, democracy is obviously something to be avoided at all costs. Both Hitler's Germany and arguably Stalin's Russia enjoyed majority support, at least at certain periods. Neither, however, could conceivably be called democracies.

I think it's important to go to the root of the concept. "Democracy" means "rule by the people." Not "a majority of the people." The latter is rightly called "ochlocracy"--mob rule.

So how do "the people" rule?

Majorities continually shift. On one issue you might be supported in your views by a majority of citizens; on another, you might well find yourself on the fringe. You might be in a political majority today, but tomorrow you might be in the minority. Majoritarianism might lift you up one day--and grind you under its heel the next.

Majoritarianism is tyranny. It's just a collective form of Hobbes' "warre of all against all":

[T]he state of men without civill society (which state we may properly call the state of nature) is nothing else but a meere warre of all against all; and in that warre all men have equall right unto all things; Next, that all men as soone as they arrive to understanding of this hatefull condition, doe desire (even nature it selfe compelling them) to be freed from this misery. But that this cannot be done except by compact, they all quitt that right which they have unto all things.

It's a matter of both collective interest and self-interest, it seems to me, to defend the social contract that Hobbes describes as a democratic optimum. The rule of law, and codified rights, permit everyone, whether in a minority or a majority, to enjoy equal protection and to be afforded equal opportunity to participate in the political life of their society. Consensus and dissensus are both aspects of a functioning democracy, and both should have ample scope for expression.

By democracy, however, I do not mean the empty formalism of constitutional or parliamentary democracy. I think we've seen recently in Canada how illusory such "democracy" is, how fragile. Genuine rule "by the people" does not merely consist of the election of representatives, even with improved mechanisms for making those representatives accountable. It must also include control over the immediate decisions that govern their daily lives. That entails a subsidiarist position, but I would go further, to the likely horror of libertarians: it includes democratic control of the means of production.

I'm going to leave it there. I hope we might have, in the comments, a good discussion/exploration of the concept of democracy, from all sectors of the political spectrum.

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