The Problems With Democracy

Democracy has been almost universally lauded in the West since the Enlightenment as the most sophisticated, liberty-inspiring form of government in existence. This is, for the most part, true – but it is still not without its share of flaws. No system is perfect. We just have to choose a system we believe to be as ideal as possible, a system with built-in room to correct some of its errors. In my opinion, democracy fits the bill.

Representative democracy, the kind practiced by America, is characterized by free elections in which people are chosen to represent blocks of the population. These representatives are the ones who actually do most of the voting on large issues, passing laws, and any other work determined by them to be in their jurisdiction. This system has several inherent flaws.

First, representatives cannot be guaranteed to vote for the views held by the majority of their constituency. Although by winning the election, they are likely to hold beliefs similar to most of their constituency, there are often small areas of disagreement. In such cases, it would be a tough job for any human to rise above his own beliefs and vote purely based on others’ opinions, even if he really wanted to do so.

Second, and more importantly, people are irrational. In the fields of economics and politics, there exists the helpful idea that humans act based on their own perceived self-interest: they always do what they think will be best for them. However, in real life, this simply isn’t the case. For one thing, no one has perfect information available when making a decision. For another, few people apply logic or precision to their decision-making. Most people are overly emotional creatures who rely more on their feelings than on fact. This often leads to mistakes and miscalculations. People are often led to irrationally do things against their own self-interest by their emotions.

Another important consideration is the fact that corruption empowers. A common saying is, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This could not be further from the truth. People generally don’t change. If they were truly good and well-intentioned when they first took power, they very likely continued to be good and well-intentioned while in power. The truth is, those who are already corrupt have a significant advantage when it comes to gaining power. Just think about it logically. If a well-meaning candidate is unwilling to stoop to muckraking or remotely surveying the other, he will be defeated by a corrupt candidate who is willing to do these things. Corruption empowers, and absolute corruption empowers absolutely. (To learn more about this, you can watch this video.) The common misconception about power and corruption is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation.

Representative democracy is not the only form of democracy, although it is the most common form today. In Ancient Athens, democracy meant every citizen getting a vote on every issue or law passed. Each person represented only himself. The power truly did reside with the people. However, as a result, Athens was basically ruled by a mob. If you could get a simple majority (51% or more) to vote a certain way on a rule, that rule became law. And as we’ve already discussed, there are few purely rational human beings. Ancient Athens was a frightening place to live.

So, is democracy all bad? This isn’t what I’m saying. I like democracy as a form of government and believe it to be the least flawed system man has invented so far. However, it would be unfair to sugarcoat its flaws. Democracy does have its issues, but the great thing is, in a system like this, we can fix these issues by coming together to create solutions. Democracy only works if citizens cooperate and participate, working together to solve problems and keep elected officials accountable for their actions. Democracy is flawed, but we can constantly improve it and make it better. It has the built-in room for corrections and improvements that is so important. That’s why I love it so much.

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”   – Alexis de Toqueville

“Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”   – Thomas Jefferson

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