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The terrible tyranny of the majority

The terrible tyranny of the majority

According to Winston Churchill, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

The word “democracy” has come to symbolise the only legitimate political system in most languages. In my ignorance, I always believed that democracy was the only fair system of government, but Brexit and the reckless regard for decency and the environment across the Atlantic have revealed that it is an inherently flawed system. What’s more, many of humankind’s greatest minds decry it a terrible form of government. Even the great Greek philosopher Plato was against it.

That said, constitutional documents in almost every country proclaim their democratic nature, and only the least trustworthy governments wish to be thought undemocratic. People around the world want democracy, and pro-democracy feeling is high even in the most unexpected places.

So, what’s the problem? Well, paradoxically, in a society where you need a certificate of competency to do everything from making a sandwich to riding a moped, almost anyone can aspire to running the government. Obviously, this is a big drawback, since running a country takes a high level of expertise and not everyone has the skill or temperament to do it. Managing even a small business requires leadership skills, intellect and a plethora of other virtues, so imagine the caliber of person you need to lead a country.

In recent years, the system has been raising up despicable and undeserving individuals to the highest of offices, individuals set on ruining the very governments over which they preside, threatening world peace and even the survival of the planet itself to further their personal agendas and ‘vanity’ projects.

Anti-democracy proponent Plato believed that governments based on liberty, equality and wealth would deteriorate into chaos and tyranny due to a lack of proper restraints (the so-called “checks and balances”). He postulated that the monarchy/aristocracy, which he considered ‘wisdom-based government” was stable, but that over time timocracy, a government based on honor and merit, like a military, would lead to oligarchy (a government based on capitalism), and that democracy/anarchy (a government based on liberty and equality), would tumble into tyranny (a despotic authoritarian state with no liberty and law and with extreme inequality) in a republic.

How to avoid this decline down the slippery slope? Plato talked of the Kallipolis or “ideal city” system… an “ideal mixed Republic”. Theoretically, this description could be applied to the United States, which is part democracy, part oligarchy, part timocracy, and part aristocracy, with each higher form supposedly restraining the lower but the second part of Plato’s argument explains how the best laid plans have gone awry.

A democratic election is supposed to identify the most popular person, but just because someone is popular, it doesn’t mean they are going to be great at running the country. Again, you don’t choose your doctor, mechanic or even your cleaner based on popularity. You choose the person who is best for the job, but the way the current system works, politicians are forced to choose between what is best for their countries or what is more likely to get them reelected.

Ultimately, I don’t know what the alternative is, because although democracies seldom live up to the ideals of democracy, democracy is still an aspiration, albeit a normative one, where our inevitable failure inspires us to try harder.

Juliet Allaway

Written by editor