TOP 2020-05-10

Rethinking Democracy

Democracy, while literally meaning ‘people power’, in practice refers to the use of some kind of majority voting by a broad electorate. Democracy is a concept that few dare to question, much less oppose; we are constantly enjoined to idolise, defend and worship democracy as a principle that is foundational to freedom. And yet democracy is as much a threat to freedom as it is an ensurance of it, for a very simple reason - democracy gives the majority the power to impose its will on a minority, even if the minority is the only stakeholder in the decision. For this reason if nothing else, we must question the legitimacy of democratic systems.

Military conscription is one of the clearest examples of an affront to liberty. That does not change even if conscription has been approved by a majority in a democracy. If even one person is conscripted against their will, then we are dealing with an authoritarian abuse of power. In Switzerland, a country unique for its robust system of direct democracy, there was a majority in 2013 to uphold military conscription. A majority therefore imposed its will on a minority. We should not praise such a result merely because it is ‘democratic’, lest we fall into the trap of supporting words more than the ideals those words are supposed to represent.

Decisions should be made as far as possible by those affected by them - and nobody else. Nobody would argue that it is legitimate to force someone to pursue a particular line of work or marry a particular person because a ‘majority’ decreed it. Majority voting subverts this simple principle of individual freedom by allowing those with little or no stake in a decision to overrule those whose lives are significantly changed by it.

While it is good to celebrate advances in LGBT rights, what should not be celebrated is the fact that the government - and by extension, the people (qua ‘majority’) - had the right to make those decisions in the first place. LGBT rights, therefore, are won not because of democracy but despite democracy. If the majority has the power to decide who you may or may not marry or have sex with, then their power should not be respected merely because they had the generosity of permitting your decisions; their power is illegitimate, no matter how much democratic rhetoric it’s coated in.

For this reason it is significant that the USA legalised same-sex marriage via a Supreme Court verdict on the constitution, rather than by a majority vote of the legislature as in other countries. Individual freedoms should indeed be enshrined in a constitution; it should indeed be illegal for any jurisdiction to legislate such freedoms away. I can therefore agree with this quote from the Supreme Court’s verdict that “fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections”, as it hints that there are important areas in which democracy has no place.

But I would go further than this and suggest that democracy’s proper place is actually very limited. Democracy has created a class of professional politicians who have decision-making power in areas they know nothing about and which may in fact be none of their business, and by extension, this gives the electorate the chance to meddle in affairs in which they have neither expertise nor lived experience. Indeed, it is actively harmful that politicians have even the hypothetical right to overrule a scientific consensus on a matter of major public health or environmental concern - for example, during a pandemic or a global climate crisis.

Of course, this is no argument in favour of autocracy. A dictator who interferes in things that are none of their business, or sets policy based on their own biases and superstitions, is no better than an elected government that does the same.

We need a system where decisions are made by the people affected by them. We need a system where students and educators shape education, where disabled people shape disability policy, where health professionals shape health policy - not where they merely advise, lobby, set up think tanks or write position papers, but where they have real decision making power instead of the government. But most importantly, we need a system where individual decisions are made by the individuals themselves, and where no-one, ever, elected or not, has the authority to make your decisions for you.