Democracy is a system of government, based on the ideals of liberty and equality of citizens, in which the sovereign citizens exercise power directly or elect representatives from among themselves to form a governing body to rule in the interest of the general will.
Understanding Democracy, a System of Government in Which the People Rule Directly or Indirectly
In other words, whether “the many” rule directly or indirectly, a democracy is “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” With that said, given the many different types of democracy (and the aversion to democracy by many of history’s greats), the conversation is notably more complex than that.
What Is Democracy? Direct Democracy vs. Indirect Democracy
With the above said, another way to define Democracy is: Democracy is rule by “the many” directly, via direct democracy, or rule by “the many” indirectly, via representative democracy.
Both types of democracy (direct and indirect), along with the many “mixed” variations of these types, are types of democracies.
Here one should note that the exact definition of democracy can differ greatly by context.
Sometimes democracy simply denotes the vital attribute of consent (voting rights), sometimes it denotes all legislative, judicial, and executive duties being preformed by citizens (with power being delegated for select roles via some sort of democratic system), sometimes only it denotes legislative duties being preformed by citizens directly or indirectly in-part or in-whole (but not executive and judicial), sometimes it simply denotes a state that ensures classical liberal values like basic liberties and rights and a separation of powers. Sometimes it denotes a complex mix of these things in a mixed-government (which mixes in other government types). The U.S. is a mixed-government (which one could loosely denote as a mixed-Republic with a mixed-democracy).
All this to say, democracy is a very broad term that speaks to governmental power originates with the citizens (it does not for example originate with the King by divine right or with “the strongest” or “the most worthy of merit” or “the richest”), outside that the meaning of democracy differs greatly by context.
TIP: According to the CIA World Fact Book. Democracy – a form of government in which the supreme power is retained by the people, but which is usually exercised indirectly through a system of representation and delegated authority periodically renewed. Constitutional democracy – a form of government in which the sovereign power of the people is spelled out in a governing constitution. Democratic republic – a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them. Republic – a representative democracy in which the people’s elected deputies (representatives), not the people themselves, vote on legislation. Federal republic – a state in which the powers of the central government are restricted and in which the component parts (states, colonies, or provinces) retain a degree of self-government; ultimate sovereign power rests with the voters who chose their governmental representatives. In other words, all of these versions of government types are all types of democracies. This is why we can say the United States is both a Republic and a type of Democracy. When the philosophers spoke against democracy, they meant pure direct democracy specifically! They were generally a fan of the more republican representative democracy.
TIP: The term “republic” implies democratically values… but with that said, not every nation that calls itself a democracy or republic is one in practice.
Democracy – A short introduction.
“Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors. … Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. … everyone is equal before the law …”
– See Hobbes’s Thucydides, II. 37-43., this this translation of Thucydides is from “The Athenian Constitution” by Libertarian philosopher Roderick T. Long
The Pros and Cons of Democracy
Most great thinkers have been critical of democracy, but this criticism is specifically related to aspects of direct democracy. To clear the air quickly before we move on, the general pros and cons of democracy are this:
- Pros: Consent (voting rights), liberties, rights (including legal rights), a separation of powers, recognizing that sovereignty lay in the citizens and that power is delegated from there (and can be retracted via voting).
- Cons: Ideally a state should be run in a way that represents the general will of the whole people. This takes an impossibly wise aristocracy or a enlightened citizenry not corrupted by special interests. This, in a large Republic, also takes impossible coordination. One of the worst form of governments is an angry mob overtaken by emotion and corrupted by special interests, a close second is chaotic uncoordinated anarchy.
In other words, everything about democracy is good, but in practice pure democracy is a little dangerous and impractical. That is essentially why Plato suggested the mixed-Republic (a sort of system of checks and balances of government types).
When the philosophers warn of direct democracy they aren’t warning of the pros of democracy, they are mainly warning of democracy without restraints.
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” – Winston Churchill
Understanding the Different Ways Democracy Can Work
With the above said, there are many different ways democracy can work, and given this the term can be confusing. To help shed light on exactly what democracy is, it will help to understand the following points about democracy:
- In classical terms, Plato’s Socrates essentially defined Democracy as a government type where all citizens made the laws and where liberty and equality were the highest virtues. See Plato’s forms of government.
- As Plato points out, the problem with pure liberty and equality is that it is also anarchy (and things don’t work well in extremes, even virtues like liberty and equality).
- When the people rule directly (when they preform legislative, judicial, and executive duties as citizens) this form of government is Pure Direct Democracy (which is the form Plato was talking about… even though it notably different than Athenian Democracy, which was democracy by sortition for pure blooded Athenian male landowners).
- With that said, “classically speaking,” in Plato’s terms, democracy implies “pure direct democracy” (or a form of it, such as Athenian Democracy).
- To phrase this another way, when we say “pure direct democracy” we mean direct democracy only (not a mix of democracy and another government type), where everyone creates laws and votes on them directly (no representatives; just direct rule, especially of the legislative duties of the state). In Athens, all qualifying Athenian males could directly participate in the legislative and judicial process and could “put their name in the hat” to take on higher positions. These are features of pure democracy and direct democracy (i.e. “Pure direct democracy”).
- In a small political body with a lack of corrupting special interests a pure direct democracy might be feasible, but generally there needs to be some form of delegating power (or it is anarchy). There are a few different ways this form of “almost pure direct democracy” can work, it can be democracy by sortition like the Athenians had, it can be anarcho-communism or anarcho-capitalism (where everyone follows a set of rules, but there are no rulers with more power than a citizen), or it can be anything in between.
- More common than pure direct democracy in history is a sort of hybrid system with representatives. There are countless options for the way this could work. All of these options are called “representative democracy.” A parliament is a type of representative democracy, America’s system is another.
- In modern terms, when we say “democracy” we are often referring to democratic elements of a mixed-republic with a representative democracy. For example, in America, “our democracy” denotes the democratic elements of our Democratically minded representative Republic (our liberal and democratic republic with its representative democracy.)
- The term “republic” generally implies a form of democracy with a separation of powers where certain positions are delegated to elected or appointed officials. The United States of America is this sort of Democratic Republic, the U.K. is a type of Parliamentary system. Neither country is purely democratic, and neither elects the head of their political body democratically (the President in the U.S. or Monarch in the U.K.); instead both systems use advisory voting to some extent (in the U.S. we use a winner-take-all system, but it is technically an advisory vote). This is still “democratic,” because the power still originates with the people. Delegating power is a slightly more aristocratic aspect of government than “pure direct democracy”… but it is still democracy.
- To be clear on the above, the U.S. Presidential elections are an advisory vote, and Brexit was an advisory vote. That isn’t “direct” democracy, it is representative. This is still democratic, but it isn’t pure direct democracy.
- In fact, we can note that every real democracy here in 2017 is actually a representative democracy, and we can note that representative democracies often use a mix of advisory and direct voting for positions and laws (just like the U.S. does).
- In the U.S. laws are made by congress for the most part, but the citizens elect congress people. When people say “our democracy” in the U.S., we are denoting the liberal aspects of our constitution and the fact that we have consent via the ballot box.
- So really, any mixed-form of government where the citizens are sovereign and their will is represented by representatives, and where there is some aspect of a democratic process (voting), is a type of democracy.
- The more say the people have, and the less elites and special interests hold more power than the citizen, “the more democratic” the system.
- Again, to be clear, other aspects of democracy (speaking loosely and denoting the virtues of liberty and equality) include classically liberal values like freedom of speech, freedom of association, legal rights, and other human rights and liberties confirmed by the state.
“If there have been those who doubted whether a confederated representative democracy were a government competent to the wise and orderly management of the common concerns of a mighty nation, those doubts have been dispelled.” – John Quincy Adams
“Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people.” – Henry Clay
TIP: The image below shows one way to illustrate the types of governments. As you can see democracy in a Republic is a mix of rule by the many and few.
Why Pure Direct Democracy Doesn’t Work
There are a few very obvious reasons why pure direct democracy isn’t ideal, they are explained below.
Democracy, Liberty and Equality Unrestrained
The folly of pure direct democracy can be illustrated in a simple Golden Mean chart.
Pure liberty and equality need to be retrained by true virtues like wisdom, honor, and duty. Pure liberty and equality is chaos (especially in a large republic).
|Sphere of Action||Vice of Deficiency||Golden Mean||Vice of Excess|
|Wealth||Poverty||Wealth as a Virtue||Greed|
Why Socrates Hated Democracy.
“The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.” “And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty?” – Book VIII
“Last of all comes the tyrannical man; about whom we have once more to ask, how is he formed out of the democratical? and how does he live, in happiness or in misery?” – Book IX
Democracy and the Ship Metaphor
Above we discussed the pros and cons of democracy and we showed why pure liberty and equality were a slippery slope. Now lets illustrate this further with a metaphor by Plato.
The question the metaphor below addresses is: What logic is there in letting everyone on the ship play the navigator? Shouldn’t the one best trained in navigation steer the ship?
TIP: In his Republic Plato’s Socrates compares a state to a ship to illustrate the perks of a system rooted in an aristocracy (where the wise rule) rather than a system rooted in a democracy (where everyone rules) in Chapter 6. The following quote questions whether one would put an expert navigator (the aristocratic philosopher king) in charge of navigation, or would let everyone on the ship (the democracy) navigate. This is an argument for a government ruled by the wise rather than the many.
I perceive, I said, that you are vastly amused at having plunged me into such a hopeless discussion; but now hear the parable, and then you will be still more amused at the meagreness of my imagination: for the manner in which the best men are treated in their own States is so grievous that no single thing on earth is comparable to it; and therefore, if I am to plead their cause, I must have recourse to fiction, and put together a figure made up of many things, like the fabulous unions of goats and stags which are found in pictures.
Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering –every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.
They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them.
Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling. Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded?
Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?
NOTE: The “partisan” in the story is the tyrant oligarch ready to rise up as a champion of the people, “the classical tyrant,” the “good-for-nothing star-gazer” is Socrates’s philosopher king.
How The Republic Safeguards Democracy
In other words, while the people are sovereign and their rights inalienable, it does little good for them to all have absolute power over the state. That simply opens the door to corruption by special interest and mob rule!
It is much more sensible to delegate power to “the wise” via the ballot box (thereby delegating power via consent under the power of the law; just as surely as that power can be taken away by law and/or consent).
We elect representatives to ensure the General Will and safeguard the Republic, not to take power away from the people!
In metaphor: The coach of a team is not hired to take power away from the players, the coach is hired to guide the players to greatness. If the coach does not guide the players to greatness, or does not make an honest attempt, the coach is fired.
Examining these truisms laid out by Plato’s Socrates helps us to understand why our American founders weren’t just being cute when they created a Republic.
They were well aware of the government types defined by Plato and Aristotle and they, wisely, neither trusted the minority or majority not to be tyrannical or act on behalf of a special interest.
In fact, they expressed constant concern over special interest and pure democracy in documents like the Federalist papers, constantly seeking to safeguard the Republic.
Not trusting the people to avoid the election of a tyrant, they created a system in which representatives picked the President and Senate and the people picked state and local officials (a “representative” democracy with a separation of powers in a “mixed Republic”).
This wasn’t a way to ensure aristocracy, it was a way to ensure democracy!
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of TYRANNY.” – James Madison, Federalist #47 on tyranny.
Here we should note, America has long cast off the old ways and embraced direct voting on Senators via the 17th Amendment and a popular state-based “winner-take-all” voting system that favors the minority via state based law and custom.
There are of course pros and cons, but this is something we should be somewhat skeptical of.
Even though this more Democratic approach might seem like a good idea, hardly any thinker, from Plato to Madison, thought it was from a historical perspective (as we’ve already pointed out).
Not even the social democrat Rousseau was a big fan of direct rule (he was big on consent, law, and delegating).
The problem is of course, as noted above, that liberty in an extreme is just as corrupting as extreme authority, with the same being true for equality and inequality.
One would think that direct voting would hold senators accountable to the people, but this is only true if the people’s opinions aren’t corrupted by special interest (like say, money in politics and opinionated media).
Sure, Oligarchy (which to the Greeks implies not just power by wealth, but also the orderly and conservative virtues of aristocracy) can also lead to tyranny, and a monarchy can become tyrannical as well, but what of a mixed-Republic that allows for both oligarchs and democracy due to its liberal and democratic values?
Well, it isn’t that there is no hope, it is just that any form of government comes with a cautionary tale as Plato notes in the Republic (Book VIII).
When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs. – Plato’s Socrates explaining how a “strong man” with a golden tongue can come to power when the establishment is seen as corrupt by the people of a democracy (see the ship metaphor above).
TIP: The video below is a good look at why we have a Republic, unfortunately it is also somewhat of a propaganda video meant to hint at the idea that the Republican Party is better than the Democratic Party (see why that idea is bogus given how the parties have changed; the reality is both parties have pros and cons). Filter out that slight bias and you have yourself a good explainer video on the flaws of pure democracy and the wisdom of a Republic with a representative democracy. Make sure to compare this to our discussion on centrism.Republic vs Democracy What Is The Real Form of the U S Government.
TIP: Plato’s theory inspired many including Buchanan, Montesquie, Marx, and other thinkers who understood that each government type had “virtues” and was subject to “cycles”. To avoid the fall of a Republic and the rise of a Caesar, a society must avoid extremes (such as the extreme corruption of the Roman Senate or the extreme economic inequality of the Weimar Republic. Or rather, even just perception of wealth inequality and a corrupt senate is enough if a populist base is rabid enough and a leader charismatic enough. Don’t worry, couldn’t happen here, we are much greater than Greece and Rome, and just look around, we are getting even greater).History of Democracy in 4 minutes.
The People is a Monster of Many Heads.’
To drive the “cons of democracy” home, let’s end with a metaphor passed down through ages.
Democracy, with its virtues of liberty and equality, is at its best a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives. At its worst, it is a monster with many heads.
People seem to confuse the many headed monster, but it is meant as a metaphor for the tyranny of the mob.
“You know the proverb, ‘the people is a monster of many heads.’ You are sensible, undoubtedly, of their great rashness and great inconstancy.” – George Buchanan on why pure democracy isn’t always as good as it sounds on paper. Who are populists like Caesar or Hitler if not charismatic leaders of the beast of many heads that had become enraged by inequality and the corruption of the ruling class aristocracy in a democratic Republic? But to our point, Plato predicted this all back in 300’s BC. So let’s turn to his guidance.
TIP: The many headed monster comes in many forms… but classically the term was a warning of democracy. It is not a comment on oligarchies and aristocracies, those are Hydras! Meanwhile a single headed beast is a Leviathan… and I like to think of factions as the Behemoth (all biblical terms borrowed from Hobbes’s theory). But make no mistake, the monster with many heads is the tyranny of the mob. This is ironically confused in the Jackson cartoon above (Jackson was a democrat lifted to power by the people.) Here i’ll note that when Cleveland is slaying the free-silver monster, he is actually slaying a many headed beast (this is the only one of the above cartoons the is correctly illustrating the many headed monster). The Jackson and Roosevelt cartoons are more like the many headed monster lifting up a democrat to slay a Hydra (this is true even though Roosevelt was a Republican). Just to get meta for a second.
“The real vice of a civilized republic is in the Turkish fable of the dragon with many heads and the dragon with many tails. The many heads hurt each other, and the many tails obey a single head which wants to devour everything.”
– Voltaire expressing the folly of thinking that the answer to a Despotic Prince is an angry democratic mob (Anarchy). See Plato on how democracy becomes tyranny when an oligarchical tyrant arises.
TIP: No form of government is immune to tyranny, that is why we mix the forms and adhere to the law and general will (not the majority or minority will).Campaign Finance Reform and the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision.