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-given 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 is 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

7 responses to “Three justifications for democracy

  1. chrstphre campbell

    Democracy is an example of the Righteous’ inability to control the rabble.

  2. chrstphre

    Another Obvious Observation would be that if you examine a Bell Curve for Intelligence,
    Most People ( Featherless Parakeets ) are really Stupid, These hamsters aren’t only going to make dumb decisions for society, but very often make very dumb personal decisions which are then superimposed onto society by democracy.
    Clever Dictators love to call their nation’s Democratic, and they might even run a Genuine Democracy, knowing that it will be very easy to manipulate The Damp Masses Using Media Resources, So that the Featherless Parakeets routinely make, believe and vote for policies that are screwing themselves over.

  3. chrstphre

    Were you being ironical or sarcastic here ?
    i have trouble picking up on stuff like that; In that :
    a) you’re not usually either ironical or sarcastic
    b) my asperger’s interferes with my ability to know what other traffic cones are thinking or what they mean when they are ‘speaking’
    c) the trouble with sarcasm or irony is that there are plenty of people that ‘believe’ whatever crazy thing you’re ironic position is stating.
    ( ??? ) !

  4. No, I’m not being ironic here. (Well, I am presenting arguments in favor of something I don’t believe in, but I think I make it pretty clear that that’s what I’m doing.) I really do think that all justifications for democracy boil down to one or more of these three:

    1. The majority ought to rule because it tends to make the best decisions.
    2. The majority will inevitably rule anyway, so it’s best to let it do so without putting up a fight.
    3. It’s simply an axiom that the majority ought to rule.

    • tiny wanda

      Was it Winston Churchill that suggested that democracy is the worst political solution, except for all the others.
      The problem with finding a philosopher king to rule you, is finding one. Plus there seems to be a great deal of truth to the idea that absolute power…
      Plus plus, any political organization is invariably run by invisible munchkins that always have some crazy agenda.

  5. Two is good.

    But on the wisdom of the crowds thing, you get even better results if you restrict your electorate somewhat using a rough cut.

    So I’d say that the two of the better apologies for democracy are really reasons for restricting the franchise.

    A third argument is that democracy tames ‘popular will.’ Every long-term form of government has to care about the views of the populace, but in non-democratic settings those views tend to be either expressed catastrophically via violence and riot, or else are more easily manufactured. That’s surprising, because we tend to think of voting as manipulated, and it its, but its even easier to manipulate chatter, which is why polling on specific issues, or news media opinion on the same, won’t necessarily be reflecting in the actual voting.

  6. I realize this post is old, but…

    I have heard democracy defended as having low potential for corruption, bribery, and blackmail. If the demos is taken as a single homogeneous populous, as it seems to be the ancient Greek texts I have read, then democracy also suggests a lack of the rulers oppressing the non-rulers for their personal gain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s