Upside-Down Democracies


Among anarchists and some libertarians, the instrument of democracy is less than popular. The classic argument against democracy is that democracy is grounded in moral relativism… After all, if 100 people vote, and 60 of them vote to take property from the other 40, isn’t that just legitimizing the greed of a mob?

Opponents of democracy say that democracy must be eliminated because of this flaw.

This strikes me as unreasonable. I think that saying that democracy is bad because it can cause oppression of the minority is like saying that guns are bad because they can kill people.

But libertarians and anarchists are the people who should be able to respect the flaw in this argument… we support gun rights! So we are already able to understand that the type of instrument matters less than how we use that instrument.

I think that democracy is very much like a gun. Democracy with no safety device is a hugely dangerous thing. But with appropriate safeguards in place, democracy is a useful defensive tool which can protect the rights of the people who use it.

The problem is that while it is pretty easy to figure out how to secure a gun, it’s not too easy to figure out how to secure a democracy. This is due to the fact that there have only been a handful of democracies in the history of mankind.

I would tend to think that, over time, we are slowly getting better at securing democracies. Indeed, we know what the instrument for securing a democracy is called – it is a constitution.

A constitution, if properly written, could limit democracy so that democracy only happens in fields where any of the possible results of a democratic election can only cause non-coercive consequences.

For instance, a democratic vote is completely fine when it comes to selecting a state motto. (Or a state bird, or a state song.) Indeed, we use non-coercive democracy as a mechanism in our everyday lives – for instance when deciding where to go out to dinner with a group of friends.

When no result of a democratic election can cause any harm to anyone, then democracy is a very expedient tool.

There is also another, even better possible outcome from democracy – the possibility that elections can exist where many of the possible outcomes might serve to advance the liberty of the participants.

For instance, consider this simple change – what if, every five years, a ballot goes out with a list of US Federal Agencies and check-boxes next to them? If you like what the FTC is doing, you can put a check next to it, but if you don’t like what the NSA is doing, then you can leave it unchecked. Then, when the votes are tallied, any agency that does not have more than 50% approval gets disbanded.

Or, what if the option of “Abolish” were added to every ballot? So, you would go in to vote, and the candidates on the ballot would be Barack Obama, John McCain, and Ralph Nader… but if you don’t like the candidates on the ballot, you can vote for “Abolish” instead. And if Abolish beats out the other candidates, then the office of president is abolished. (Or perhaps suspended until the next election cycle.)

Creative possibilities abound for how to structure democracies in ways that allow voters to easily access greater choice and liberty. But I am hardly the first person to think of this, or even to try to create a list of upside-down democracies. That was already done, nearly 50 years ago, by author Robert Heinlein. Rather than aping his work, I will simply present it below, and I will close this article with the following excerpts from Heinlein.

You might even consider installing the candidates who receive the least number of votes; unpopular men may be just the sort to save you from a new tyranny. Don’t reject the idea merely because it seems preposterous–think about it! In past history popularly elected governments have been no better and sometimes far worse than overt tyrannies…

I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent–the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws…

But in writing your constitution let me invite attention the wonderful virtues of the negative! Accentuate the negative! Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do.”

– Excerpted from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein (1966)

About Author

Scotty Freeman is a philosophy graduate who loves to write and talk about freedom, the future of peaceful governments, seasteading, creating wealth, and saving the environment through deregulation. He can be reached at