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Don't Exaggerate the Benefits of Democracy 

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By Tuesday, 02 June 2020 11:20 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Americans rightly consider democracy the best form of government. But we shouldn't get too carried away by this idea.

Democracies are led by fallible humans. As James Madison put it, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." 

Winston Churchill considered democracy "the worst form of government" except for all the others that have been tried. And E.M. Forster called for "two cheers for democracy, one since it admits variety, and two, because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough. There is no occasion to give three."

What people like about democracy may be, not so much democracy itself, but the social conditions necessary before it can exist:

  • Freedom of speech and press
  • Considerable  individual freedom
  • Freedom to enter into voluntary associations by mutual consent except when the actions creating these associations are prohibited by genuine laws

Voters don't always elect the best people. Elections are just procedures for selecting and conferring legitimacy upon officials.

If substantial numbers of people believe that elections are "rigged" they cannot serve these functions. Donald Trump's rigging claims could, if taken seriously, make American democracy impossible.

Of course every country should have the best possible government. But democracy's prerequisites don't exist everywhere. Countries may lack a free press. Their people may be unwilling to abide by elections where their favored candidates lose. They may lack procedures guaranteeing that votes are tabulated accurately. 

In such countries, the best one can hope for is a government which respects the rule of law and refrains from inflicting sanctions (deprivations of life, liberty or property) on anyone not duly convicted of violating a general rule of action. Many countries are still far from this condition, but moving towards it does not pose an immediate threat to those who rule. 

Any government — a military dictatorship, religious dictatorship, one-party dictatorship or absolute monarchy — that observes the rule of law isn't all bad. Any government which doesn't observe the rule of law isn't all good, even if democratic.

Alexander Pope went too far when he proclaimed that "For forms of government let fools contest. What'er is best administered is best." Forms of government do influence how those who govern act, thus making good "administration" more or less likely. 

But a democratic form of government is no substitute for civic engagement by the population, which in turn requires general understanding of how the political system works.

Recently, American schools have been neglecting civic education, but such education was never adequate. Schools often forced students to memorize boring facts about our government without showing them the interesting implications of those facts. They gave students a sugar-coated vision, ignoring the messy details about how democracies work.

Misleading slogans have aggravated misunderstanding. For many years the best-selling college textbook had such a slogan as its title: "Government By The People."  But government by the people, taken literally, is impossible. 

Government requires organization, and organizations are inherently oligarchical in the sense that their day-to-day decisions gravitate into the hands of a small number of people. The "iron law of oligarchy" applies to democracies as much as to any other form of government. "The people" can't possibly make every decision. 

The basic difference in a democracy is that the governing few can be removed by the electorate and must therefore consider public reactions to how they govern. And the general social freedoms that make democracy possible allow people to lobby, criticize, petition, and in some situations recall those who govern. Ultimately, though, "the people" do not govern, but they do box in those who govern and narrow their options. 

Anybody expecting more than this from democracy will be disappointed. "Two cheers" are indeed plenty! That, however, is more cheers than any other government form deserves. 

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan oregon, and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.

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Democracies are led by fallible humans. As James Madison put it, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." 
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2020-20-02
Tuesday, 02 June 2020 11:20 AM
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