Is Democracy the Problem?


Back when I taught collegiate political science, one of my pet peeves was the habit of some students to treat republics and democracies as if they were opposites.  “The founding fathers wanted a republic, not a democracy,” it was often said.

By:  Ryan McMaken

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This sentiment, I suspect, has permeated some sectors of the general population thanks to years of usage by mostly conservative writers and talk show hosts who use the two terms for mostly the rhetorical purpose of condemning “too much” democracy.

“Republic” Defined

Historically, however, almost every scholar of politics and history has used the the term “republic” to mean simply a type of regime that is not a monarchy. As I suspect most school children even today learn, the word “republic” merely comes from the Latin for “public thing” or “public affair.” The actual opposite of a republic is not a democracy, but a privately owned regime, such as an absolute monarchy. An example would be the Angevin “Empire” which was really just a vast private estate owned by the House of Plantagenet. Indeed, medieval feudalism in general was a system of privately owned regimes, as explained in “Feudalism: A System of Private Law.”

On the other hand, republics, at least in theory, are regimes where the inhabitants are not renters or subjects or guests, but are “citizens.” This concept suggests nothing about the extent of democracy or regime power, though. It simply denotes a regime that is supposedly a public corporation of sorts in which all the citizens have some sort of stake. Thus, Switzerland, which is highly democratic, is a republic. And, as the name implies, the USSR was a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The soviet republics were totalitarian republics, but republics nonetheless. Historically, we could also point to the old Roman Republic and to The Most Serene Republic of Venice which was a powerful and wealthy republic that lasted a thousand years and was mostly ruled by thoroughly undemocratic oligarchs. Most regimes in 2016 consider themselves to be republics if they aren’t explicitly monarchies.

What Is Democracy? 

Nowadays, though, when Americans use the term republic, they often mean “limited democracy.” So, in a phrase like “the American founders wanted a republic and not a democracy” the sentiment being expressed is the idea that the US Constitution is designed to limit the excesses of majoritarian rule. This latter sentiment is a historically accurate one, although it would be wrong to say that the “founders” opposed democracy in all its forms.

After all, if the intellectual elites of the early US opposed the idea of ordinary people voting for elected officials, they would have had to condemn every single state government in the US at the time the Constitution was written. There’s evidence to believe that people like Washington and Hamilton did indeed think that there was entirely too much democracy going on in the American states at the time, although by today’s standards, the eligible voters of the 1780s look downright aristocratic when compared to the population around them.

By global standards, however, the US in the 18th century was amazingly democratic, in spite of requirements for land ownership. After all, land ownership could be obtained in frontier areas rather cheaply. The purpose of property requirements were simply to keep paupers from voting since there was a belief that voters should have an economic stake in the state’s economy. As the Constitution of 1777 (i.e., the “Articles of Confederation”) suggests, “vagabonds” and fugitives and paupers (and women and slaves, of course) were to be excluded from participating in government.

But even with this requirement, widespread participation by the middle classes, as seen in the US at the time, was virtually unheard of in the rest of the world.

By the 19th century, the franchise began to expand, so that with the reforms of the Jacksonian era, nearly universal male suffrage had been implemented, with even non-whites and resident aliens voting in some states.

A Very Limited Democracy

The British lagged on this, but by the mid-19th century, their franchise had expanded significantly as well. The Reform Act of 1832  in the UK, for example, expanded the voting population by 60 percent from about 400,000 people to 650,000 people. That was in an overall population of 16 million, however. So, we’re talking about four percent of the population.

As with the early US, though, the Brits in the 19th century stuck somewhat to the idea that voters should be net contributors to the economy.  (By the 20th century, those limits had been abolished.)

Who Gets to Vote? 

So, when we’re talking about “democracy” and whether or not it’s a good thing, it may be helpful to use more precision in what exactly we mean. After all, a regime that limited the vote to only net-taxpayers, as I suggest here, would look very different from a regime in which anyone who avoids death until his or her 18th birthday gets a vote.

Moreover, a regime which emphasizes immense national-level elections (like the US) is very different from a regime that relies much more so on locally-based democracy and local government, as in the case of Switzerland. Both have elections, but it would be silly to say that both are pretty much the same because they are democracies.

And what about plebiscitary democracy? In some US states, it is illegal for governments to raise taxes or take on more debt without them being approved by the electorate. Is this a bad thing, or should the wealthy elites of each state and their allies be able to control tax policy as they wish? (Experience suggests that giving the business elites what they want on this matter would lead to immediate and extensive increases in taxes and government spending.)

There’s Arguably Very Little Democracy Going on in the USA 

And finally, there is the issue of the level of representation in terms of the number of elected officials. When it comes to its national legislature, the United States has fewer elected official per capita than most other countries that claim to have democratic institutions. The British House of Commons, for example, has 650 seats for 62 million people. That’s a ratio of one representative per 95,000 people. Norway has one parliament member per 30,000 people. The US House, on the other hand, has 435 seats to represent 320 million people. That’s a ratio of one representative per 735,000 people. The US tends to be far less democratic in this regard than other countries. Add to this the fact that economic policy and social policy are the domain of unelected Fed chairmen and Supreme Court judges, and we find that the US’s “democracy” relies primarily on few elections for a small number of  very powerful officials. Is this too much democracy or too little?

Interestingly, in a paper titled “Constituency Size and Government Spending,” Mark Thornton has analyzed the effects of the number of elected representatives, and he found that  “smaller legislatures result in larger constituencies, poorer representation, and higher levels of government spending per capita.”

There are all important issues and ones that can’t simply be dismissed out of hand when discussing “democracy.” Even totally private organizations like condo associations and private corporations have elections. And, the monarchies of the late middle ages, such as France, Spain, Poland, Hungary, and other states employed diets, parliaments, and what the Spanish call a “cortes.”  The Poles elected their king.

So are elections a bad thing, or are other issues, such as having a financial “stake” in society the more important variable? Perhaps its not a matter of how many people can vote, but more about who votes, and the qualifications of the electors. And finally, there is always the overriding issue of ideology. A society that accepts an interventionist and authoritarian state will ultimately get one, no matter how many elections it has or doesn’t have.

Image credit: KCIVEY via Flickr

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