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Is democracy mob rule?
By J.K. Baltzersen
I was interviewed some time before Christmas by A Swede Speaks. I bluntly told the interviewer that democracy is basically mob rule. A Canadian politician, apparently from Ontario, Rob Wolvin, responded on Twitter on New Year’s Eve. He claimed democracy is not mob rule.
Strictly speaking, he may be right. At least when we’re speaking of how democracy generally is implemented as a form of government within a constitutional, institutional, bureaucratic, and procedural framework.
However, as long as the people in power and positions follow the correct procedures, they can do almost anything “legally” and “constitutionally.” Basically “everything” is up for grabs in a democracy. Due in large part to the legitimacy that is bestowed on the government by “consent of the governed,” (almost) anything goes. Also, there is a confusion of the governed and those who govern. We do it to ourselves, we tend to think.
Yes, there are limits, but they are grossly overrated. How the system has been rose-colored, may be a significant factor in Donald Trump’s coming to power. People are fed up with how a flawed system is being overrated by the elite, and along comes a guy who says things very bluntly indeed. This is not to excuse Donald Trump’s many flaws, of course, but serves as one of several explanations.
The word democracy does have many different definitions; it may be one of the most misused words in our political vocabulary. If we take the classical definition, it means rule by the majority amongst politically equal citizens. It need not be a direct democracy. There are other definitions where all sorts of criteria are added. It would be more correct to call such enhancements constitutional and/or liberal democracy. Although it can arguably be claimed that conditions that allow relatively free elections to take place should be included in the definition of democracy itself. An example of such conditions is, as Wolvin mentions, freedom of speech.
Wolvin also apparently states that an independent judiciary must be part of a system called democracy. I do not seek to undervalue the institution of an independent judiciary. It is important. To claim that it is part and parcel of the concept of democracy even without the constitutional/liberal modifier is, however, dubious (to the extent it is necessary to keep free elections going, it can be conceded, but not in a general sense). Also, note that very much can be done even with an independent judiciary, as long as one follows the correct procedures. Even in a so-called liberal democracy (liberal as in liberty-friendly?), one can tax (a group of) people out of 80 % of their income.
As for Wolvin’s claim that a democracy requires an informed citizenry, there is evidence to suggest that modern mass democracy does not encourage this. It is simply not rational to spend time becoming and staying informed when the impact of one’s vote is miniscule. Bryan Caplan, as an example, has written a book on this – The Myth of the Rational Voter.
Wolvin seems to be a very enthusiastic proponent of the present-day Commonwealth model of constitutional monarchy, in particular that of Canada. There are several models of constitutional monarchy. We have the European principalities of Liechtenstein and Monaco of today. We had constitutional monarchy models in the 19th century, where the popular power element was less than it typically is today. But let’s here keep to the present-day Commonwealth model.
This model of constitutional monarchy does have some advantages. No ambitious politician may actually climb all the way to the top, as the top position is reserved. With the separation of the head of state from the political leader, you do not get the same pressure towards deference to the political leader, as you get with the American President. This may have some tempering effects on the system.
When you don’t have deference towards political leaders to the same extent, that may result in more encouragement towards being an informed citizen (we don’t “deify” our political leaders to same extent, so rational argument is in higher regard). However, the single voter’s discrepancy between investment in being informed and the small influence through the vote is still there.
We must remember, however, that the vastness of modern government is mutual to both the republican and monarchical form. Canada has a so-called welfare state. So do the Nordic countries. So do other European countries. Even the American system has this to an extent, even though it is not as “well developed” as in other countries. The state reaches far and wide. One can through the system reach deep into one’s neighbor’s pockets. It may not be mob rule in its purest form. It may move slower than mob rule in its purest form. But mob rule it is.
The protection given by certain human rights may be a blessing. But there are so-called positive rights, which also creates for others a duty to provide. And even with the rights that protect against certain acts of government, the level of intervention can be immense. The level of rights protections is overrated. [Here is an essay of mine with some reading tips on democracy.]
Before universal suffrage there were people warning against the effects of the have-nots getting the opportunity to vote themselves that of the haves. The history of universal suffrage so far has to a great extent proven the warnings correct.
J.K. Baltzersen writes from the capital of the Oil Kingdom of Norway. He is the editor of the book Grunnlov og frihet: turtelduer eller erkefiender? (in Norwegian and Swedish; translated title: Constitution and Liberty: Lovebirds or Archenemies?), with Cato Institute’s Johan Norberg amongst the contributors. Follow him on Twitter.