Democracy is a good idea. But it is not the only good idea. And it's not the most important good idea. As protection against governmental mistreatment, the rule of law is much more important than democracy.
Democracy gives voters only limited influence over government.
It isn't "government by the people" because that's impossible. Governing requires power, power requires organization, and the ability to make day-to-day decisions on behalf of any organization always becomes concentrated in the hands of a few individuals.
This "iron law of oligarchy" was originally discovered by a sociologist who studied democratic political parties.
Since all governments are oligarchical, all that democracy can do is to limit what the individuals who are ruling can get away with. Democracy employs competitive elections in which people striving for positions of power bid against one another for the favor of the voters. Democracy is rule by some people, limited by the people.
This protects a majority of the people from being abused by government but doesn't prevent a majority-backed government from abusing minorities or disfavored individuals.
Furthermore, people have limited ability to vote in their own interests.
They choose leaders based on images projected through mass media rather than on personal acquaintance. These leaders will work within circumstances that couldn't be predicted when they were elected. Voters must guess who will do the best job.
Although voters may replace top officials, this is a far cry from changing government's overall behavior. Like a steamship, government has tremendous inertia — a tendency to keep on doing what it is already doing — and is difficult to turn around.
Only over time can persistent voters steer the political ship in a radically new direction.
Protection from abuses that democracy by itself cannot guarantee is provided by the rule of law. The rule of law, as I understand it, requires that government impose sanctions (deprivations of life, liberty, or property) only upon people duly convicted of violating a truly general rule of action.
To be truly general, rules must apply to everyone, not just selected parts of the population. No sanctions can be imposed on black people for actions other races are free to take.
Government cannot exterminate Jews or put Japanese-Americans in concentration camps.
Government cannot imprison or fine women for actions which men can take freely.
Imagine a country which is democratic — responsive to majorities — but doesn't respect the rule of law. Suppose a majority supports a pseudolaw requiring black folks to ride in the back of buses. Suppose a majority supports forcing selected people to join the army or go to jail, or prohibiting women from working as a bartender.
Democracy would not protect blacks, young men, or women from having sanctions arbitrarily imposed on them.
The rule of law's requirement that sanctions be imposed only for violating a really general rule of action protects individuals and minorities. Those who govern must be subject to the same rules, giving them ample motivation not to enact intolerable ones.
And this is true whether or not the government is democratic.
We are born into an existing political order. We generally can't choose the form of government under which we will live. But if we did have such a choice and couldn't have both types of protection, it would be rational to prioritize the rule of law over democracy.
It's best to have both democracy and the rule of law. But not all countries enjoy the social preconditions making democracy possible. U.S. foreign policy should therefore encourage other countries to respect the rule of law before we encourage democratization.
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. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
© 2021 Newsmax. All rights reserved.