Daily Archives: January 17, 2014

Three justifications for democracy

1. The wisdom of crowds

Groups of people tend to make better — smarter and/or more moral — choices than individuals, and the larger the group, the better. It is better to be ruled by a committee than by an individual, and best of all is to be ruled by a multi-million-member committee-to-end-all-committees consisting of the entire adult population of the country.

This, despite its prima facie implausibility, is probably the reason most democracy-supporters would give for their preference, and the policy decisions of actual democracies are more-or-less consistent with it. I mean to efforts to maximize the size of the electorate (through the enfranchisement of women, get-out-the-vote campaigns, etc.) while still excluding the mentally and morally deficient (children and felons).

2. Violence minimization

Moldbug somewhere compares an election to a limited civil war in which the armies show up, get counted, but don’t actually fight. Elections serve a purpose similar to that of the ritualized dominance displays of other social animals. The contenders for alpha rank show off their size, power, and ferocity so as to sort out which of them would most likely win were they to fight it out. That established, the actual fighting can be dispensed with, to the benefit of all parties concerned. Humans, of course, win fights not by having bigger muscles or sharper tusks, but by forming bigger armies than their rivals, and so we arrange our dominance displays accordingly.

This is to my mind a fairly compelling justification for democracy, but it is apparently not the rationale on which actually existing democracies are based. If voting is about “counting the armies,” only able-bodied men should have the vote, and violent criminals are the last people in the world we should want to disenfranchise.

3. Divine right

It is the God-givenĀ right of the people to rule, and that’s that. The probable results of different forms of government are irrelevant; only democracy is legitimate. It is inherently good, while all other forms of government are inherently bad.

This kind of thinking, while rarely actually articulated, is probably what isĀ really behind most people’s support for democracy. And just like its close cousin, the doctrine of the divine right of kings, it is immune to argument.


If there are any democrats among my readers, which of these justifications is the decisive one for you? Or are there other basic arguments for democracy which I have overlooked?


Filed under Politics