If the question had been Is majority rule A Good Thing? then the answer would have to be ‘not necessarily.’ If we can imagine a political unit where all the citizens are interested in, and well informed about, politics, economics, sociology and foreign affairs and each citizen is intelligent and possessed of good judgement then a majority might agree to the best possible policy on a given matter. This of course is by no means guaranteed and in any event there is no political unit blessed with such a citizenry.
Democracy, however, as an idea at work in the modern world has become a shorthand word for a number of related principles which should work together within a polity. These include-
- Freedom of Speech
- Freedom of the Press
- Freedom of Assembly
- The Rule of Law
- Periodic multi-party elections
The purpose of these things is not so much to give effect to the will of the majority on any given topic as it is to hold those who wield power to account for the way in which they exercise that power. Where power is abused or used in an incompetent or inefficient way then democracy is the mechanism which allows people to denounce these things, publish that denunciation widely, organise to bring abuses to an end and, if necessary, remove those inefficiently wielding power and replace them with others.
There are a number of unspoken assumptions here. Firstly, that a consensus exists as to how power should be used. Secondly, that the disruption caused by replacing the inefficient or abusive is less harmful to society than allowing them to remain in place. Thirdly, that the freedoms will be exercised responsibly, that is, denunciations, publications, organisations and elections shall focus on telling truth to power not on stirring up dissent and hostility for reasons unconnected with good governance.
None of these assumptions are fully true under all circumstances in any democracy which has ever existed. The model does not take into account how deeply divided societies are and that, therefore, some groups are so antagonistic to other groups that they will oppose each other without any regard to truth, to agreed values or the greater good of society as a whole. Victory or defeat is seen to be a more important value than the tranquillity of order. Such groups will not only abuse power if they happen to hold it they will also abuse opposition if they find themselves powerless. Which is to say, they will denounce imagined abuses, publicise lies, distortions and half-truths, organise campaigns with hidden agendas and contest elections with the weapons of deceit and misrepresentation. Democratic forms, then, can be used with equal facility to replace bad governance with better or to replace good governance with worse.
In a divided society where the bulk of the population finds better things to do with its time than worry about politics then democratic forms do not necessarily work towards holding power to account. They work rather towards gaining power or retaining it with voters being viewed by activist minorities as being the instrument which they must work upon to achieve their own narrow objectives. Since all societies are divided all democracies are flawed in this way.
It is an undoubted truth that power corrupts and that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Therefore it is in the interest of each citizen within a given polity that effective mechanisms should exist to prevent this corruption from becoming endemic and ineradicable. Before such mechanisms can be constructed, however, it is necessary to make an accurate analysis as to where power lies and how it can be abused. The model for democracy which we currently have was, in its essentials, constructed in the eighteenth century and rests upon suppositions which were arguably naive from the outset and certainly overdue for re-examination in the twenty-first century.
It is a mistake to think that the national State is the unique centre from which dangerous power can be exercised. It is one of the most important centres no doubt but in complex modern societies it does not have anything approaching a monopoly of power and in some ways is a subordinate centre. International bureaucracies, transnational corporations and financial markets, for example, often make decisions to which national States can only acquiesce. Within the boundaries of a nation there are powerful sub-groups whom the State for one reason or another is afraid to challenge or control. Democracy itself creates institutions- the Press, political parties, lobby groups- which accrue power to themselves by virtue of the influence they can bring to bear on voters, that is citizens can be moved to cast their votes on the basis of misinformation, disinformation and outright lies in the absence of accurate counter-balancing information.
What is of most material interest to citizens is that those who wield power over their lives can be held to account for how they exercise that power. A system which does not hold every centre of power fully to account fails to meet that criteria. Everyone who exercises authority must be open to scrutiny by people who are not afraid to report what they have found and who have some prospect of having their reports widely disseminated. Such reporters themselves must be open to scrutiny also. Where abuse of power can be demonstrated consequences must follow. Elections in a multi-party democracy are not by themselves any guarantee against abuses occurring or being sustained over decades since the electoral system itself can be abused by the powerful who are able to negate the effect of scrutiny.
There are, I think, only two bulwarks of accountability which can exist and sustain themselves to some extent within the context of a divided society and a mostly disinterested electorate. They are, firstly, the Rule of Law. The principle of equity underlies Law, each person is formally equal before it and accountable to it. The doctrine of the separation of powers is crucially important to the administration of Law, it must be independent not only of the executive and the legislature but also of political parties, the press and any institution national or international, open or secret, which wields power. The question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (who guards the guards) applies to the Law itself of course, it is as open to corruption as any other human institution.
This brings us to the second bulwark. Morality. Divided societies are not necessarily divided about everything. The possibility exists for common values to exist and to be strongly affirmed by each member of an otherwise riven community. Justice, fair play, doing the right thing even at a personal cost to the person doing it and so on. The universal acceptance of shared fundamental values of this kind means that within each institution which wields power there will be some people at least with an ethical commitment to something more important to them than victory or defeat and these people will be the sources of information about abuses of power. It is of utmost importance that such a universal morality be adopted by democracies and that formation in such a morality be an essential requirement for anyone practising in the legal system, that is, ethical training should take up at least as much of the curriculum as legal training in the law schools of a democracy.
The answer to the question Is Democracy A Good Thing is, I think, ‘an ethical society is a Good Thing and to the extent that democracy fosters that it is A Good Thing too but to the extent that it does not it is not.’