It's Not A Democracy

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 11-08-2022

Among those elites who would shape our view of things there is a meme that they like to intone, in an often condescending voice: democracy dies in darkness. It has even made it into several movies.

The problem, of course, is that we don’t live in a democracy; we live in a republic. And the difference is VERY important.

A democracy, from the Greek demos - people, is rule by the people. Specifically, democracy is direct rule by the people. Everybody gets together in a hall, an arena, maybe a huge stadium, and decide on this and that. It is direct rule. And what the majority wants, the majority gets. A democracy allows for every citizen to participate directly in the running of the state. 

If change is needed, change can be had in a single meeting. Stand up, voice your ideas, let others hear it, argue on it, vote. And then an order goes to the bureaucracy to act as directed. 

There are two wonderful features about democracies: the first is that every citizen is equal - every citizen has the same authority to stand up and make his voice heard, to present ideas. The second is that democracies can, when necessary, move very quickly, as there are no true checks on the people. The citizens are, in the most complete sense, the government. And accordingly, they are bound by no restrictions.

But, there are some problems with democracies. The first is practical: a town or small city might be able to hold meetings and a majority of the citizenry can get together and discuss and vote on issues. But once you get past a certain size - and that size is not that large (perhaps a few thousand) - true democracy becomes impractical and very quickly impossible. By the time you get to thousands of citizens it is in fact impossible.

There have been concepts put forward of using such systems as the internet or social media to allow for a huge, nation-wide electronic assembly and people could vote on every issue, but this fails to answer issues of ensuring that the bulk of the citizenry had access to the necessary information to assess costs and risks as well as impacts on existing activities, which slices of society would have enough free time, etc.

There might also be the issue of how would you guarantee that all voting would be tamper free, but as there is no vote tampering, we’ll ignore that...

But there also two issues that democracies not only fail to address but, in fact, represent fundamental flaws in the nature of democracies. Those two issues are the issues of rights, and limits.

A democracy, rule by the people, with no filter, means that all power rests in the hands of the assembly of citizens. Even if there are laws or rules restricting the actions of the assembly, those rules are created and enforced by the assembly. If the assembly wants to change them, they can. And because of the nature of a democracy, they can change them very quickly. (The assembly can even change the rules that govern changing the rules…) As long as 50% plus 1 vote of those present want something, they can pass a law and so order. And that means they can order anything. The result is that there is no such thing as protected rights. There are no protections from the government - the government is the majority and the minority, no matter how defined - and anyone can be forced to obey. The term of art is tyranny of the majority. There is no bill of rights, and there is no limit on the actions of the government.

The solution to this problem is a republic, a constitutional republic. In a republic representatives are elected by the citizenry and given specific tasking. They are not supposed to make things up, they are not supposed to create new authorities, they are sent to the capital to do certain things and nothing more. Further, in a constitutional republic the bureaucracy is barred from concerning itself with certain thoughts and actions and activities. These rights are apart and above the government, they precede the government and therefore provide some degree of protection to those who, even if in a minority, find themselves counter to those who wield power.

And, in most cases now, the powers in a republic are further separated. The power to create laws, and to tax and spend, rests with a legislature - which in nearly half of the governments in the world is further separated into two houses (Iceland’s Althing had a form of tri-cameralism for 87 years, and the Tynwald on the Isle of Man which is a form of tri-cameralism); this is done to further restrict power grabs and force the legislature to deliberate (the verb) and thus be deliberate in its actions. Republics recognize that laws drawn up in haste are very often bad laws. So, the process is by design slow and a bit cumbersome.

Representatives are elected and sent to the capital with limited, clearly stated authorities, and they then direct the executive to carry out certain actions. Though the system is much abused by people in power, the executive is supposed to follow the direction of the legislature. Especially in the US, the Legislature is the first among equals, it writes the laws and then identifies funds to carry out those laws, and authorizes (or not) when money can actually be spent to execute those orders. The executive branch is supposed to be just that: the executor.

It seems that these very deliberate facets of a republic, particularly a constitutional republic - the inability of a majority to simply sweep aside a minority, as well as the slow, sometimes even ponderous movements of the legislature, are what the elites dislike and which they wish to denigrate when they intone about democracy.

But it’s the wonderful fact that minority rights are protected, that government - no matter how popular some idea might be today - is limited both in scope and in the speed with which it may act, that is what a republic, what our republic, provides. It deserves to be protected.

Remember that this Tuesday. Vote for the Republic.