Let’s Play Political Philosopher! (Part II: Democracy)
So you’ve been indoctrinated from birth to think democracy is all that and a bag of chips. But have you ever stopped to ask what’s so magical about 50% + 1? Today you will! Thus, the theme of our second installment in our ongoing amateur political philosopher series: What’s so special about democracy, anyway?
[Note: Below I prime your brain a bit, but the root question is whether a law or decision or policy is ethical simply because a majority endorses it—what seems to be the core of the democratic ideal. If you say yes, then you have to explain a bunch of terribly counter-intuitive policies. If you say no, well, you're just un-American and you're not allowed to visit SocratesVotes anymore (kidding!). The trick is to come up with some brilliant, nuanced version of democracy that can accommodate the complaints, or explain why they're not a real worry. If you can't do all that by yourself, you're in luck—lots of smart people are here to help. So think aloud on the screen, and maybe we can redeem our precious democracy together!]
First, it’s common to dismiss democracy in its most simple form. We can all imagine a majority abusing a minority with brute force, we can imagine the same majority accomplishing the same abuse via legal means, and we can see that there’s little difference between the two. Nobody thinks direct democracy is defensible. The problem, as we’ll see, is that there may not be a meaningful difference between this and the more accepted forms.
So how about representative democracy? We elect our best and brightest, then they use their superior judgement to promote our interests. But if your representative is simply promoting your biases, how is that significantly different from direct democracy? Couldn’t the same mob achieve the same abuse via a representative? By itself, that doesn’t sound like a satisfying solution.
“But ah,” you say—“constitutional democracy is where it’s at. We put a barrier between the mob and the law with elected legislators, then bind them with a constitution—a meta-law that regulates the sorts of regular laws we’ll allow. And for good measure, we’ll erect some quasi-external authority to ensure the legislature doesn’t do anything unconstitutional.”
That’s better, but theoretically a constitution could deny freedom of speech, religion, assembly—you name it. Every horrible thing that was possible under direct democracy is theoretically possible under constitutional democracy—just build it into your constitution. And if you’re suspicious of arguments based in hypotheticals, how about a federal constitution that implicitly endorses slavery (by counting slaves as 3/5 of a person for representative purposes) or a state constitution that excludes a minority from enjoying certain civil liberties (prop 8, anyone?). Is the mere fact that a law is constitutionally consistent enough enough to make it right?
Lots to think about, huh? As always, don’t be shy. Surely democracy can be redeemed. Make your jr. high civics teacher proud! I’m not sure if mine would smile or cry if she visited SocratesVotes… At least I’m trying, Mrs. Thomas!