The tyranny of too much democracy

Eamonn Butler

January 3, 2019

I’m writing a book on democracy. I’ll probably call it something like An Introduction To Democracy – because that’s what it is. But I’d really prefer to call it One Cheer For Democracy – because the more I think about democracy, the more I think we would be better off with less of it.

That, of course, is a shameful admission. It will get me vilified on all the politically correct blogs, banned from speaking in universities, and blocked by the BBC and every bien-pensant blogger. You cannot even question democracy, never mind criticise it, without making yourself an outcast: in the public understanding, democracy is good, democracy is life, democracy is the people.

That is why all politicians hail themselves as democrats, even the most repulsive and authoritarian ones. Leftists hail Allende in Chile and Chavez in Venezuela as democrats, even though, like Lenin and Hitler, once elected they set about dismantling democracy.

The most authoritarian countries, too, are desperate to be known as “democratic” or a “republic”. Just think of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), the People’s Republic of China, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And remember the German Democratic Republic (the undemocratic bit, before the Berlin Wall was torn down). Russia has elections, but it is hardly a democracy.

Everyone wants to be a democrat. Many enthusiasts want “greater” democracy like direct online voting on issues, “deliberative” democratic systems like citizens’ juries. It seems you just can’t have too much democracy. Asking the people is the way to do things.

But you can. And it isn’t. Democracy is not about the public choosing leaders and deciding policy. It is easy to elect people to positions of power. The difficult thing is to get rid of bad leaders before they do too much damage. That is the key purpose of democracy.

Now it is true that you need some kind of democratic process if you are to take decisions that you think can only be decided collectively. Public goods, for example, like David Hume’s example of dredging harbours. But how many things genuinely need to be decided collectively? Libertarians would say that even police and justice can be better provided privately. And quite a large number of people think that the government has precious little right to tell them how much sugar they should consume, how much alcohol they should drink, whether they should smoke – or in some countries, even vape – and all the rest of its nannying.

They are quite right, in terms of both the theory and reality of democracy. The trouble is that, since democracy is acknowledged by most people to be a good thing – it is a peaceful way of transferring power, it respects individuals, promotes prosperity, and so on – everyone says we need more of it. Particularly politicians, of course, who are empowered by it. Because democracy has been so good at keeping the peace, they say, we should decide other things democratically, like our health system, schools and colleges, how the railways are run, local bus services, pensions, maximum prices for electricity, and even the size of your Coke can and the number of calories in your pudding.

When people talk of taking decisions “democratically”, they actually mean taking them politically. The whole point of democracy is to curb politics, and yet it is a fundamental part of the system. Which means, of course, that it is riddled with vested interests.

Elections are not a measure of the “public interest” but a conflict between millions of conflicting interests: should we build houses or protect open spaces; extend a runway or preserve historic buildings; spend on defence or boost mental health services? And the politicians we elect are not angels any more than the electors are: they all have their own pet projects and supporters to enrich out of the public purse that they control. Officials, meanwhile, have an interest in making laws and regulations ever more complex, so that even more officials are needed to administer them.

Sure, democracy is much better than dictatorship. Democratic countries are richer and more equal (and healthier, better educated, and all the other things that come from being rich), as well as more peaceful, law-abiding, progressive, flexible and all the rest. Indeed, democracy is better than most other systems. 

But it only works if it is limited. Supposedly “greater” democracy with referenda and IT voting on issues is basically mob rule, as Thomas Jefferson would have said. Everyone complains of the “ignorance” of voters, but what do you expect? Most people have better things to do than boning up on the intricacies of Scotland’s sewerage system, or the finer points of state pension provision. Leave every decision up to the public and you are asking for trouble. It might work in small paces like a Swiss canton or ancient Athens, but if it not going to work in a country of over 65 million, all with different opinions, many of them wildly intolerant.

That is why, instead, we elect representatives to do the decision work on our behalf. The trouble is that power corrupts them. So we need elections to keep them in check, throw them out, and keep them attuned to our thinking. It’s not working right now because democracy tries to do too much, but I will give it one cheer, at least.


Written by Eamonn Butler

Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute.


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