Democracy is not the highest ideal

The term undemocratic is one heard quite regularly in the media. Usually it means that the pundit in question disagrees with the government and thinks he or she has majority opinion on his or her side, usually they are wrong!

Still even when they are right the term always makes my stomach turn. It makes it turn because it equates good or even correct policy with majority opinion, something that has never been the case. In Australia we sometimes seem to hold out democracy as the highest ideal, yet close examination of our system of government and our constitution shows that democracy is only a limited part of ensuring we live in a free and prosperous society.

Australia today is a federal representative limited democracy. What does this mean in practice? This means that we elect our government, we are a democracy, we have both state and federal government, we are a federation, and most importantly government cannot do what it likes, it is limited.

The crucial part is that in our system power is delegated and limited. And for good reason too! Democracy is essentially majority rule and in any system of direct majority rule it is likely that the minority will be alienated and ignored.

America’s founding fathers recognised this and it is talked about in “the Federalist Papers”. In those papers the founders advocated the ratification of their constitution largely for the safeguards that a limited federal republic would provide. They saw representative democracy in the form of a republic as superior as voters would vote on a range of issues and therefore one group would not constantly be triumphing over another. Representative democracy can be a strong break on mob rule! People often forget in Australia that our constitution has strong connections with the American. We are a federation just as they are, with formal separation formal powers and just like them have a House of Representatives and a Senate.

Perhaps the most important part of the system is that power is limited, although we have no formal bill of rights in Australia, the high court has affirmed the right to freedom of speech as implicit in our constitution. In so doing it has prevented the banning of political parties such as the communists. The constitution also explicitly prevents the government from establishing an established church.

Moreover we live in a federal system which by its very nature prevents any one government from acting with impunity in interfering with daily life. Power resides at different levels and where practical closest to those effected. Power is also separated between a legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

Why is government power so limited? It is limited because the will of the majority does not always correspond to the general welfare, majority is after all simply 50% + 1, and often interferes with the rights of the minority. Lord Acton expressed this perfectly when he called democracy “the tyranny of the majority”.

History has demonstrated many occasions when the democratic will of the majority has directly attacked the right’s and welfare of minorities, Hitler was democratically elected. History has also shown us that state’s (such as Northern Ireland) where minority interest’s run counter to the majority opinion do not often stay peaceful long. One may stay peaceful in the short term if you are out of government but are hopeful of getting in but frustration and violence can erupt when democracy becomes the foregone conclusion legitimising majority rule.

What can we learn from all of this? Is it simply theorising with little practical application? Not at all, the fact that government often acts contrary to the will of a large section of the community is not an argument against government per se. The common good can outweigh individual or minority interest. But it does indicate two points.

The first is that government should not act unnecessarily or act when its function could just as easily be left to the individual. This combined with the obvious empirical inefficiency of government is strong evidence of the need for small government and the weakness of central planning. Government subsidises or provides so many services today yet it would be fairer to put the dollar in the individuals pocket and let him or her decide the best way to spend. It seems obvious but, the individual is usually the best judge of his or her own welfare. The provision of health care to the rich, child care to the employed, hand outs to the undeserving, and corporate welfare to the innefficient are not legitimate parts of government but are pandering to get elected.

The second point is that government should be close to its citizens. close government is more likely to be responsive to and acting in the interest of its citizens. This is a strong argument for federalism. It is not surprising that the majority of complaint about government in Australia is centered around Commonwealth policies and actions, remote and ill informed decisions always lead to disatisfied locals. Yet in Australia today we are increasingly becoming centralised. The Commonwealth, using its foreign affairs powers and control of taxation, is centralising functions, powers, and spending federally.The rest of the world may be breaking up into small states mirroring closely ethnic and local identity but Australia is bucking the trend.

In Australia today we are apt to think that democracy is the highest ideal, yet it is only part of the package. It is a very good thing because it ensures government at least acts in the perceived interests of the majority of the population. But sometimes we forgets its implications. Without a respect for the minority and being mindful of its proper function democracy can be a monster.

Author: Peter Shaw

Is the founder and president of Princes Park Touch and the leader of the LocalHero project!

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