This recent Understanding Our Divisions post by George Will was very thought provoking. The part that caught my attention was his focus on the word democracy.
Democracy is rule by the people. But instead of focusing on the word people, focus instead on the first part. Saying we have a democracy is saying that we are making rules. The rules are made by the majority decided by popular elections.
But what exactly are rules that are to be made? Does the idea of democracy make any sense if there is no need to make new rules?
It seems we have become so enamored with the idea of democracy that we feel motivated to prove its value by expanding the number of rules that we create using democratic processes. It is like a tool that has to be used in order to be useful: if unused, the tool becomes a mere ornament to be displayed for ceremonial purposes. We have a democracy, so we must use it.
We feel obliged to employ the democratic engine to do what it is meant to do, to make more rules. We need to make more rules in order to show off the power of democracy. It is our national pastime or hobby to create new laws with our special democratic tool.
The people part comes in when attitudes shift and a new group of people take over. This is the real opportunity to show off democracy because it demonstrates that new groups can use the same tools. We are not a nation of a fixed set of rulers, but of a dynamic set of rulers chosen democratically. To prove that they are in fact rulers, they need to actually make rules, new rules, or even ideally over-ruling older rules. This is fun stuff.
The process starts to become its own form of entertainment or even sport. The reins of power are passed to a new group who had previously been sidelined. This is exciting because now we fall on one side or the other with interest in seeing what happens next now that it is their turn to govern. If we are on the side that wins, we cheer them on to show their might. If we are on side that loses, our attention is riveted on whether the rulers over step their boundaries.
It makes for great theater. The drama is provided by the rules themselves. New rules are necessary to prove possession of the power to rule. There is also motivation to answer old rules with new rules when there is a change in philosophy.
The above linked article describes a part of the country is focused specifically on democracy. Rules should be made, and all rules should be made democratically. If there is any controversy about any topic, then we should come up with a rule to put an end to the controversy one way or the other, and that rule should be decided democratically.
The other part of the country is questions the need for a rule at all. Just because a democracy can make a rule does not mean it has to make a rule. Most controversies do not require a rule. There should be no obligation of the government to make a rule about any particular problem. The problem may not be serious enough to require a rule, or the consequences of any particular rule are not understood well enough to eliminate the risk of it not working or having unintended and bad consequences.
This is another way to look at the idea of a limited government, instead of limiting government by imposing some barriers that government should not cross. A limited government is constrained to what is absolutely necessary.
Our debates could be primarily about the necessity of any rule (new or old) rather than about the actual rule itself.
To call government a democracy is to presume that it is about making and enforcing rules. In the above article, the author points out that the word democracy doesn’t appear in either the constitution or the declaration of independence. The a large part of the original documents was on creating institutions to restrain rule-making at all levels. Restraining rule making to the minimum necessary rules is something different from our idea of democracy.
We define democracy as one of the options for authoritarian rule. Instead of monarchy, or tyranny, or oligarchy, or dictatorship, our government’s authority is derived democratically.
There is an alternative concept of lumping democracy with all of the other forms of authoritarianism as a single concept of a ruling body. The alternative to having a ruling body is to create an institution that challenges the necessity of making rules in the first place. Challenging the necessity of making any particular rule does not mean that all rules will never be considered necessary. We can still decide that rules are needed in some areas and defer to the democratic majority to make those rules. But the first priority is to agree that the rules are truly necessary and have potential to be effective.
In older posts, I described a veto of a minority as the flip side of lacking a super-majority consent. If there are enough people who don’t accept the rules and they are joined by a substantial number who may not agree but nonetheless do not lend support to the government, then the minority could veto some action. I used this idea to describe an element of the various nationwide protests that destabilized many countries with the most recent examples being Ukraine and Venezuela that are still working through the process or regaining super-majority consent.
The idea probably maps well on pre- and post-revolutionary United States where the revolution succeeded in part due to a lack of super-majority support for the King. The above discussion suggests two ways to look at the motivation of that rebellion. One motivation was not objecting to being ruled arbitrarily, but instead was objecting specifically to the king’s rule. The other motivation was objecting to the very idea of arbitrary rule no matter who makes it.
In modern times, there is a division between those who accept the necessity of the democratic majority to make rules, and those who question the needs for the rules in the first place. The former group gets all the attention because they are divided between the current power-holders and the future power-holders waiting for their turn to make rules.
We ignore the group that objects to the very necessity of making the rules at all. To them, the question is not who has the better solution, but whether any solution is needed at all, or that the best solution is no action at all.
There will always be concerns, controversies, and other worries. We don’t need to have an answer to all of them. More specifically, we should only answer the ones that meet a high bar of necessity, a bar set so high that rule making is rare.
I’m reminded of some earlier government charters that provided short legislative sessions measured as a few weeks. Legislating was not a full time occupation because it was assumed that most of the time there would be no need to make rules at all.
Today we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that so many rules are needed and so many more are waiting to be decided that it is a full-time project to make and refine rules. We have a huge backlog of rules that need to be made using our tool called democracy.
One may ask whether the word democracy itself is getting in the way of judicious government.