No one knew better how to deflate the inflated than the late political satirist and commentator H.L. Mencken. “Democracy,” he once said, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” He also famously defined an election as “an advance auction of stolen goods.” With so many promises made in this year’s elections to so many, his description seems especially fitting.
Mencken was not opposed to democracy. He simply possessed a more sobering view of its limitations than does today’s conventional wisdom, which regards it as the unmentioned fourth branch of the Trinity.
Democracy may be the world’s single most misunderstood concept of political governance. Commonly romanticized, it is assumed in most circles to ensure far more than it possibly can. The Norman Rockwell portrait of engaged, informed citizens contending freely on behalf of the common good is the utopian ideal that obscures the very messy details of reality.
Pure, undiluted democracy would be unshackled majority rule. Everybody would vote on everything, and 50 percent plus one extra vote would decide every “public” issue — and inevitably, a lot of what ought to be private ones, too. Ancient Athens for a brief time came closest to this, but no society of any size and complexity can practice this form of governance for very long. It’s unwieldy, endlessly contentious and disrespectful of the inalienable rights of individuals who find themselves in the minority.
People like the sound of “democracy” because it implies that all of us have an equal say in our government, and that a simple majority is somehow inherently fair and smart in deciding issues. Subjecting every decision of governance to a vote of the people, however, is utterly impossible. Many decisions have to be made quickly and require knowledge that few people possess or have the time to become expert on. Many decisions don’t belong in the hands of any government at all. A pure democracy, even if possible, would quickly degenerate into the proverbial two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch.
Suppose someone says, “I just don’t like people with boats and jewelry. I think we should confiscate their property. Let’s have a vote on that.” A democratic purist would have to reply, “All in favor say ‘Aye’!” Anyone interested in protecting individual rights would have to say, “That’s not a proper function of government, and even if 99 percent of the citizens vote for it, it’s still wrong.”
In common parlance, “democracy” has been stretched to mean little more than responsive government. Because of such things as elections, government officials cannot behave in a vacuum. That fact is laudable, but it hardly guarantees that government will be good or limited. Even the best and most responsive of governments still rest upon the legal use of force — an inescapable fact that requires not blind and fawning reverence, but brave, intelligent and determined vigilance.
Elections are a political safety valve for dissident views, because they rely on ballots instead of bullets to resolve disputes. They allow for political change without resorting to violence to make change happen — but the change a majority favors can be right or wrong, good or evil. The folks who work to make it easier to vote so more votes are cast should also spend their time encouraging others to be well-informed before they vote.
In spite of this year’s candidates singing interminable paeans to “our democracy,” America is thankfully not one and never has been. Our founders established a republic, modifying democracy considerably. It provides a mechanism whereby almost anyone can have some say in matters of government. We can run for office. We can support candidates and causes of our choosing. We can speak out in public forums. And, indeed, some issues are actually decided by majority vote.
But a sound republic founded on principles that are more important than majority rule (like individual rights) will put strong limits on all this. In its Bill of Rights, our Constitution clearly states, “Congress shall make no law. ...” It does not say, “Congress can pass anything it wants so long as a majority supports it.”
If you worship the golden calf called democracy, you might want to think about finding a different religion.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.