The real democratic deficit

Most people view the “democratic deficit” as imperfections in the way that voters’ wishes are communicated to governments (and governments’ failure in translating them). Hence democracy must be improved by more frequent voting on a wider range of subjects, and hence David Cameron’s promise to “empower” the people in a “post bureaucratic age” via internet technology and so on.

In The Daily Telegraph recently, Melanie McDonagh wrote an article entitled “As the Swiss say no to minarets, I vote we have many more referendums”. In Ireland, she has “seen abortion and divorce taken right out of the political realm by being put to the people in referendums” and cites other candidates like assisted suicide, hunting, and Sunday openings for pubs.

But referendums do not take things out of the political realm at all. More often they take them into the political realm, out of their rightful private realm. All such voting assumes “the divine right of the majority”; the equivalent of two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.

Imagine Tesco operating by a system of votes on what things it should stock and at what prices. Leave aside the fact that a true referendum would rank all people (customers or not!) eligible. Even if limited to customers, should votes depend on the frequency and size of their shopping? Chaos would ensue. In fact voting on major issues is carried out only by shareholders (according to their holdings, not one vote per shareholder) and directors as appointed and approved by shareholders. Shoppers vote with their feet, every day.

Democracy itself is no panacea. It creates groups of vocal busy-bodies, vested interests, angry mobs, and wars. (Let us not forget that democracy elected Hitler.)

Profoundly illiberal, democracy legitimises the oppression of minorities – like Muslims in Switzerland, and high earners here. What we really need is a constitution which specifically excludes most issues from voting and indeed from government itself.

10 thoughts on “The real democratic deficit”

  1. Posted 14/12/2009 at 11:28 | Permalink

    I once argued that ‘democracy’ should be extended by allowing five-year-olds to have the vote. This was an attempt at reductio ad absurdum with respect to who should comprise the ‘electorate’.

    Terry raises a good point about what matters should (or should not) be decided by ‘democratic’ vote.

    Hayek said it is far more important to limit the power of governments than to worry about precisely who should form the government.

    And W.E.H Lecky wrote an interesting book about ‘Democracy and Liberty’ pointing out (for the umpteenth time) that of course they are by no means the same thing. (Hayek, again, explained that authoritarian governments could be liberal, or democratic ones totalitarian.)

  2. Posted 14/12/2009 at 11:59 | Permalink

    Hayek addresses some of these issues in ‘Economic Freedom and Representative Government’, which is now available online:

  3. Posted 14/12/2009 at 12:52 | Permalink

    I think that Hayek said that democracy, by giving government legitimacy, is likely to undermine freedom. I cannot remember the exact quote, but it was very pertinent.

  4. Posted 14/12/2009 at 16:55 | Permalink

    There is also the matter of consistency. Voters in California have in essence voted for lower taxes and more Government spending (surely that couldn’t happen here, could it?)

  5. Posted 15/12/2009 at 07:24 | Permalink

    Democracy is not mob rule or majority rule; it is not suffrage. It is Supreme Power vested in the people, upheld with Common Law Trial by Jury. Politicians throughout the western world, notably Canada, Australia, Great Britain, the USA ( not the Republic of Ireland) have removed this right. When the people of these countries are in legal conflict with their governments, (States is a better word), only summary judgement is available. A gross conflict of interest, or Star Chamber. In Canada this has been done using Section 11(f) of the so-called Charter of Rights and Freedoms in which Trial by Jury is only a right if there is a possible 5 year prison sentence.

  6. Posted 17/12/2009 at 00:32 | Permalink

    Terry Arthur, I was hoping that you in particular would reply to my blog. Dr Philip McCormack

  7. Posted 04/01/2010 at 13:52 | Permalink

    Reply to Philip McCormack – sorry for the delay.
    The most common definition I can find is that Democracy is a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people collectively and is administered by them or by officers appointed by them. Furthermore the former case involves referendums – which is what Melanie McDonagh was promoting and what I was criticising.
    I agree 100% with your lament that politicians have removed ancient rights, although I have not come across any necessary links between Democracy and “Common Law” or even between Common Law and Trial by Jury.
    Best wishes
    Terry Arthur

  8. Posted 04/01/2010 at 16:26 | Permalink

    Hi Terry, Go to It’s a terrific site, even has a good solution for global warming. All the best Philip McCormack

  9. Posted 06/01/2010 at 13:30 | Permalink

    Anyone who can look at this world and come to the conclusion that the rich are oppressed is very far from reality indeed.

  10. Posted 06/01/2010 at 19:54 | Permalink

    Michael Foord, What book and whose reality, not mine. Philip

Comments are closed.