Criticism of democracy
Criticism of democracy has always existed in democratic societies, with much of the criticism claiming that democracy is either economically inefficient, politically idealistic or morally corrupt.
- 1 Definitions of Democracy
- 2 Economic criticisms
- 3 Sociological criticisms
- 4 Political criticisms
- 5 Philosophical criticisms
- 6 Administrative criticisms
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Definitions of Democracy
There are two characterizations of the term democracy that are pertinent to the following discussion.
According to one recent source, "democracy, for the Greeks who coined the word, meant 'power of the people' or 'rule of the people.' Perhaps the best-known example of genuine democracy in a highly-advanced, highly-literate, polity, is Athens and its sister democracies of Ancient Greece. There, all significant political, legal, and judicial decisions were made directly by the people. Democratic Athens went to war if, and only if, the majority so voted; a man was exiled, or condemned to death, if, and only if, his fellow citizens so decreed."
With the possible exception of Switzerland, no country in the world today is a direct democracy. Instead, extant systems in the West and elsewhere can be best described as representative democracies, where the people elect members of the executive, legislative, and sometimes even judicial branches, who then proceed to govern on the people's behalf. In this version of democracy, a country can go to war, for instance, even when the majority is in favor of peace.
Free-market-oriented economists since Milton Friedman have strongly criticized the efficiency of democracy, based on the argument that voters are irrational or otherwise highly uninformed about many political issues, especially those concerning economics, while having a strong bias about the few issues on which they are knowledgeable.
For example, voters may not be adequately educated to be able to foresee the betterment of the community they belong to, and therefore are unable to cast a vote to that effect. But given the right to vote, an uneducated man would certainly cast a vote which will more likely be wrong as affected by the personality charisma of the candidate or some other superficial reason. An ordinary voter may also be lured into casting a vote on the basis of financial help or some other petty promises.
Efficiency of the system
Chicago economist Donald Wittman has written numerous works attempting to counter these common views of his colleagues. He argues democracy is efficient based on the premise of rational voters, competitive elections, and relatively low political transactions costs. Economist Bryan Caplan argues, while Wittman makes strong arguments for the latter two points, he cannot overcome the insurmountable evidence in favor of voter irrationality. It still remains the Achilles heel of democratic government. The problem is not mere lack of information; it is that voters badly interpret and judge the information they do have. Unfortunately, according to Caplan, the problem lies in the fact that the relative cost of learning about a particular issue is very high compared to the cost of not knowing that information. This really becomes an issue when those ignorant people vote, which they will do because of the good feeling it gives them. Other economists, such as Meltzer and Richard, have added that as industrial activity in a democracy increases, so too do the people's demands for welfare. However, because of the median voter theorem, only a few people actually make the decisions in the country, and many may be unhappy with those decisions. In this way, they argue, democracies are inefficient.
This could result in a wealth disparity in such a country, or even racial discrimination. Fierlbeck (1998) points out that such a result is not necessarily due to a failing in the democratic process, but rather, "because democracy is responsive to the desires of a large middle class increasingly willing to disregard the muted voices of economically marginalized groups within its own borders." The criticism remains that the will of the democratic majority may not always be in the best interest of all citizens within the country.
Lack of political education
Furthermore, some have argued that voters may not be educated enough to exercise their democratic right. A population with low intellect may not be capable of making beneficial decisions. They argue that the lack of rationality or even education is being taken advantage of by politicians, who compete more in the way of public relations and tactics, than in ideology. While arguments against democracy are often taken by advocates of democracy as an attempt to maintain or revive traditional hierarchy in order to justify autocratic rule, many extensions have been made to develop the argument further. This is interesting given Lipset's 1959 essay about the requirements for forming democracy, where he found that good education was present in almost all emerging democracies. However, education alone cannot sustain a democracy, though Caplan did note in 2005 that as a person's education increases, their thinking tends to be more in line with most economists.
Benefits of a specialised society
One such argument is that the benefits of a specialised society may be compromised by democracy. As ordinary citizens are encouraged to take part in the political life of the country, they have the power to directly influence the outcome of government policies through the democratic procedures of voting, campaigning and the use of press. The result is that government policies may be more influenced by non-specialist opinions and thereby the effectiveness compromised, especially if a policy is very technically sophisticated and/or the general public inadequately informed. For example, there is no guarantee that those who campaign about the government's economic policies are themselves professional economists or academically competent in this particular discipline, regardless of whether they were well-educated. Essentially this means that a democratic government may not be providing the most good for the most amount of people. However, some have argued that this should not even be the goal of democracies because the minority could be seriously mistreated under that purported goal.
Additionally, some political scientists question the notion that democracy is an "uncontested good." If we base our critique on the definition of democracy as governance based on the will of the majority, there can be some foreseeable consequences to this form of rule. For example, Fierlbeck (1998: 12) points out that the middle class majority in a country may decide to redistribute wealth and resources into the hands of those that they feel are most capable of investing or increasing them.
Cyclical theory of government
Machiavelli put forth the idea that democracies will tend to cater to the whims of the people, who then follow false ideas to entertain themselves, squander their reserves and do not deal with potential threats to their rule until it is too late to oppose them. He put forth a cyclical theory of government where monarchies always decay into aristocracies, which then decay into democracies, which subsequently decay into anarchy, then tyranny, then return to monarchy. An example is the timeline of France before, during, and after the French Revolution until the last Bourbon Monarch.
Political Coase Theorem
Some have tried to argue that the Coase Theorem applies to political markets as well. Acemoglu, however, provides evidence to the contrary, claiming that the Coase Theorem is only valid while there are "rules of the game," so to speak, that are being enforced by the government. But when there is nobody there to enforce the rules for the government itself, there is no way to guarantee that low transaction costs will lead to an efficient outcome in democracies.
More recently, democracy is criticised for not offering enough political stability. As governments are frequently elected on and off there tend to be frequent changes in the policies of democratic countries both domestically and internationally. Even if a political party maintains power, vociferous, headline grabbing protests and harsh criticism from the mass media are often enough to force sudden, unexpected political change. Frequent policy changes with regard to business and immigration are likely to deter investment and so hinder economic growth. For this reason, many people have put forward the idea that democracy is undesirable for a developing country in which economic growth and the reduction of poverty are top priority. However, Downs argued that the political market works much the same way as the economic market, and that there could potentially be an equilibrium in the system because of democratic process. However, he eventually argued that imperfect knowledge in politicians and voters prevented the reaching of that equilibrium.
Oppression by the majority
The constitutions of many countries have parts of them that restrict the nature of the types of laws that legislatures can pass. A fundamental idea behind some of these restrictions, is that the majority of a population and its elected legislature can often be the source of minority persecutions, such as with racial discrimination. For example, during the mid-1930s and mid-1970s in the democratic country of Sweden, the government forcibly sterilized thousands of innocent women. They were sterilized due to "'mental defects', or simply because they were of mixed race." This is one of the biggest failures of democracy, yet Sweden remains a model example of a democratic state to the world today. A second example is when, in 2014 in Pakistan, "a Christian couple were burnt alive in a brick kiln by a mob for their alleged burning of the pages of Quran." This was followed by little police retaliation and a statement from the President of Pakistan stating that his government would protect the rights and interests of the Christian community. Some countries throughout the world have judiciaries where judges can serve for long periods of time, and often serve under appointed posts. This is often balanced, however, by the fact that some trials are decided by juries. While many, like Wittman, have argued that democracies work much the same way as the free market and that there is competition among parties to prevent oppression by the majority, others have argued that there is actually very little competition among political parties in democracies due to the high cost associated with campaigning.
John T. Wenders, a professor of Economics at the University of Idaho, writes:
“The unpopular answer, of course, is no. Freedom and democracy are different. In words attributed to Scottish historian Alexander Tytler: 'A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.' Democracy evolves into kleptocracy. A majority bullying a minority is just as bad as a dictator, communist or otherwise, doing so. Democracy is two coyotes and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”
There is a difference between democracy and freedom. Freedom is not measured by the ability to vote. It is measured by the breadth of those things on which we do not vote.
US President James Madison devoted the whole of Federalist No. 10 to a scathing critique of democracy and offered that republics are a far better solution, saying: "...democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths." Madison offered that republics were superior to democracies because republics safeguarded against tyranny of the majority, stating in Federalist No. 10: "the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic".
Plato's Republic presents a critical view of democracy through the narration of Socrates: "Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike." In his work, Plato lists 5 forms of government from best to worst. Assuming that the Republic was intended to be a serious critique of the political thought in Athens, Plato argues that only Kallipolis, an aristocracy led by the unwilling philosopher-kings (the wisest men), is a just form of government.
Timocracy and oligarchy
According to Plato, other forms of government place too much focus on lesser virtues, and degenerate into each other from best to worst, starting with timocracy, which overvalues honour, then oligarchy, which overvalues wealth, which is followed by democracy. In democracy, the oligarchs, or merchant, are unable to wield their power effectively and the people take over, electing someone who plays on their wishes (for example, by throwing lavish festivals). However, the government grants the people too much freedom, and the state degenerates into the fourth form, tyranny, or mob rule.
Violation of Property Rights
Role of republicanism
The Founding Fathers of the United States intended to address this criticism by combining democracy with republicanism. A constitution would limit the powers of what a simple majority can accomplish.
Some thinkers believe democracy will result in the people's distrust and disrespect of governments or religious sanctity. The distrust and disrespect pervades to all parts of society whenever and wherever there is seniority and juniority, for example between a parent and a child, a teacher and a student. This in turn is suggested to be the cause of frequent divorces, teenage crimes, vandalism, hooliganism and low education attainment in Western societies, all of which are lower in Asian societies. It could be argued that Democracy follows essentially a doctrine of moral relativism, where no particular moral code is privileged by any form of reasonable evidence or argumentation to be true or more worthy; only what a particular group of people (that defines a particular nation) would agree to value, is to be given any value. This intrinsic property of the democratic thesis appears to conflict the very meaning of 'moral values' in a way that still demands serious scholarship and careful academic consideration.
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Democracy is also criticised for frequent elections due to the instability of coalition governments. Coalitions are frequently formed after the elections in many countries (for example India) and the basis of alliance is predominantly to enable a viable majority, not an ideological concurrence.
This opportunist alliance not only has the handicap of having to cater to too many ideologically opposing factions, but it is usually short lived since any perceived or actual imbalance in the treatment of coalition partners, or changes to leadership in the coalition partners themselves, can very easily result in the coalition partner withdrawing its support from the government.
Democratic institutions work on consensus to decide an issue, which usually takes longer than a unilateral decision.
Corruption within democratic governments
This is a simple form of appealing to the short term interests of the voters.
Mere elections are just one aspect of the democratic process. Other tenets of democracy, like relative equality and freedom, are frequently absent in ostensibly democratic countries.
Moreover, in many countries, democratic participation is less than 50% at times, and it can be argued that election of individual(s) instead of ideas disrupts democracy.
The new establishment of democratic institutions, in countries where the associated practices have as yet been uncommon or deemed culturally unacceptable, can result in institutions that are not sustainable in the long term. One circumstance supporting this outcome may be when it is part of the common perception among the populace that the institutions were established as a direct result of foreign pressure.
Sustained regular inspection from democratic countries, however effortfull and well-meaning, are normally not sufficient in preventing the erosion of democratic practices. In the cases of several African countries, corruption still is rife in spite of democratically elected governments, as one of the most severe examples, Zimbabwe, is often perceived to have backfired into outright militarianism.
- Anti-democratic thought
- Chinese skepticism of democracy
- Democracy: The God That Failed
- Free market fundamentalism
- The Myth of the Rational Voter
- Tyranny of the majority
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