Can We Correct Democracy?, as The Freeman’s Tom W. Bell poses, is one of the most pertinent questions facing modern democratic nations, which I will begrudgingly label the United States. I say begrudgingly because it makes me cringe when i hear the rhetoric that “we are a democracy,” and attaching a stamp of approval on this as if democracy yields desirable results.
Going back to the birth of our nation, our founders (with almost no divergence) expressed their misgivings regarding the inherent deficiencies of a democratic state. They knew, before John Stuart Mill famously expressed it, that there were two kinds of tyranny: tyranny of the magistrate and tyranny of the majority. A democratic system such that a voting majority may grant positive rights (rights which we cannot enjoy unless we force someone else to provide them for us) or take away natural rights because “the people will it” is not a system any righteous lover of liberty would feel safe under.
The mythical quote from “Alexander Tyler”expresses this view aptly when it decrees, “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising them the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over a louse fiscal responsibility, always followed by a dictatorship.” As long as government is able to maintain a monopoly on force and expropriate its people at the barrel of a gun, it doesn’t matter whether a king or a majority are causing the mischief; it still lacks legitimacy so long as the results mean violations of individual rights.
We must also remember that the Constitution did not guarantee a democracy; rather, it guaranteed “a republican form of government,” because, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, democracy is “nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine percent.” It is no more just for a democratic majority to decree that (to use Murray Rothbard’s famous example) all redheads must be put to death than if a totalitarian ruler does the same, and this principle extends down to the minutiae of any individual rights violations.
In light of all this, we must ask: Are these defects of democracy capable of being corrected, or at least subdued, by some process so that each individual will be able to live a free and prosperous life? Tom Bell uses an example involving ice cream to show that under democratic decision-making it is difficult to arrive at a consensus of what action should be taken or, in his example, what flavor of ice cream they should buy, since they can only buy one. However, his example shows that although agreement on what should be done is difficult to achieve, even in small groups, what not to do or what mistakes can be avoided tend to prove easier to achieve unanimity. For example, we can observe that it will be difficult to reach a consensus on what single beverage everyone should drink, but it will be easy to come to a consensus that the single beverage everyone should be drinking is not bleach.
A corrective democracy, which Tom Bell lays out in his article, is one where a law, regulation, or ordinance may be struck down if a majority (or other agreed upon percentage) of voters decide it’s deleterious. This system would offer an added protection to our liberties because if a representative should violate some right the people believe they have and impose an onerous and/or costly law or regulation, they may vote it down. It allows a greater oversight of our government’s activities than simply waiting to “vote them out” of their office, which does not (and likely will not ever) correct the error made by the official.
Particularly concerning federal government, any new law or regulation added to the books becomes nearly impossible to remove and new regulations end up being piled onto it. Robert Higgs discusses this idea in depth in Crisis and Leviathan and shows how government initiates massive amounts of legislation during crises (such as wartime) as temporary measures, yet these measures never end up being temporary. The functioning corrective democracy would be able to alleviate the burden caused by these permanent-temporary measures through the power of the ballot box.
However, the downside of corrective democracy would mean that voters could use the ballot box to strike down measures that were in favor of protecting their freedom and their natural rights. What if, through the corrective process, the people struck down these “good” laws rather than the “bad” ones? Historically, it has been the case that the masses are generally in favor of “free handouts,” of one kind or another, so what is the likelihood that they would eliminate measures that provide benefits to their special interests?
If, Congress today eliminated Social Security, but, through a corrective democratic system, they struck down the law repealing it, wouldn’t we consider this as a hindrance rather than a help? We have seen the historical outcomes of laws or systems which were intended for one use, but ended up being used for other, more nefarious intentions. Our own Constitution is the prime example of intent versus reality. For example, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the government insists the Interstate Commerce Clause means Congress may regulate anything they want, even down to the wheat grown on your own farm for only your own use, because it can roundaboutly “affect” interstate commerce (Wickard v. Filburn).
The question of whether democracy can be corrected is an important one to ask, from a practical standpoint. The ability to eliminate the worst excesses of (democratic) government would be of immense benefit to the general public, and if corrective democracy can do this, I would wholeheartedly support it.