Sunday, 15 December 2013

More Thoughts on Democracy

Hardly anyone in the West can be found to argue against democracy; indeed, it is considered a truism that democracy is the best form of government. Countries moving towards democracy are regarded as making political progress, whilst those with other systems are trapped in political backwardness. When applied to systems of government, the word ‘undemocratic’ has become almost a synonym for ‘bad’.
You would certainly be excused for thinking that we believe ourselves and most of our immediate neighbours to possess democratic systems. Yet can we even define the concept? One hears elected politicians, who presumably ought to know what they are doing, regularly make a simplistic equation between democracy and majority rule.
If democracy were indeed the same thing as majority rule then of course it would be far from the best possible system of government. It is not hard to show examples of what J S Mill called the tyranny of the majority. Suppose a society to be divided upon ethnic, religious or economic grounds, such that one section was always outvoted. Would it be democratic for the majority to rob, persecute, or enslave that minority? If not, then democracy must imply limits to what the majority may do. These limits are usually understood to be human and civil rights.
Even more crudely, the doctrine of the ‘mandate’ is nowadays widely taken to mean that an elected government is empowered to put into practice any element of the manifesto upon which it stood. The voters who supported a government are held to have endorsed everything that it proposed, despite the fact that, except for the occasional referendum, there exists no mechanism by which the electorate may disagree.
Democracy means rule by the people, not the dominion of the majority, not the dominion of the largest minority (which was the UK norm between 1945 and 2010), and certainly not the dominion of the professional political class.