For a democracy that protects the rights of the individual, see Liberal democracy. For other uses, see Democracy (disambiguation) and Democrat (disambiguation).
Democracy (Greek: δημοκρατίαdēmokratía, literally "rule of the people"), in modern usage, is a system of government in which the citizens exercise power directly or elect representatives from among themselves to form a governing body, such as a parliament. Democracy is sometimes referred to as "rule of the majority". Democracy is a system of processing conflicts in which outcomes depend on what participants do, but no single force controls what occurs and its outcomes.
The uncertainty of outcomes is inherent in democracy, which makes all forces struggle repeatedly for the realization of their interests, being the devolution of power from a group of people to a set of rules. Western democracy, as distinct from that which existed in pre-modern societies, is generally considered to have originated in city states such as Classical Athens and the Roman Republic, where various schemes and degrees of enfranchisement of the free male population were observed before the form disappeared in the West at the beginning of late antiquity. The English word dates to the 16th century, from the older Middle French and Middle Latin equivalents.
According to political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens; a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
The term appeared in the 5th century BC, to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Athens, to mean "rule of the people", in contrast to aristocracy (ἀριστοκρατία, aristokratía), meaning "rule of an elite". While theoretically these definitions are in opposition, in practice the distinction has been blurred historically. The political system of Classical Athens, for example, granted democratic citizenship to free men and excluded slaves and women from political participation. In 1906, Finland became the first government to herald a more inclusive democracy at the national level. In virtually all democratic governments throughout ancient and modern history, democratic citizenship consisted of an elite class until full enfranchisement was won for all adult citizens in most modern democracies through the suffrage movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Democracy contrasts with forms of government where power is either held by an individual, as in an absolute monarchy, or where power is held by a small number of individuals, as in an oligarchy. Nevertheless, these oppositions, inherited from Greek philosophy, are now ambiguous because contemporary governments have mixed democratic, oligarchic, and monarchic elements. Karl Popper defined democracy in contrast to dictatorship or tyranny, thus focusing on opportunities for the people to control their leaders and to oust them without the need for a revolution.
No consensus exists on how to define democracy, but legal equality, political freedom and rule of law have been identified as important characteristics. These principles are reflected in all eligible citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to legislative processes. For example, in a representative democracy, every vote has equal weight, no unreasonable restrictions can apply to anyone seeking to become a representative,[according to whom?] and the freedom of its eligible citizens is secured by legitimised rights and liberties which are typically protected by a constitution. Other uses of "democracy" include that of direct democracy.
One theory holds that democracy requires three fundamental principles: upward control (sovereignty residing at the lowest levels of authority), political equality, and social norms by which individuals and institutions only consider acceptable acts that reflect the first two principles of upward control and political equality.
The term "democracy" is sometimes used as shorthand for liberal democracy, which is a variant of representative democracy that may include elements such as political pluralism; equality before the law; the right to petition elected officials for redress of grievances; due process; civil liberties; human rights; and elements of civil society outside the government.Roger Scruton argues that democracy alone cannot provide personal and political freedom unless the institutions of civil society are also present.
In some countries, notably in the United Kingdom which originated the Westminster system, the dominant principle is that of parliamentary sovereignty, while maintaining judicial independence. In the United States, separation of powers is often cited as a central attribute. In India, parliamentary sovereignty is subject to the Constitution of India which includes judicial review. Though the term "democracy" is typically used in the context of a political state, the principles also are applicable to private organisations.
Majority rule is often listed as a characteristic of democracy. Hence, democracy allows for political minorities to be oppressed by the "tyranny of the majority" in the absence of legal protections of individual or group rights. An essential part of an "ideal" representative democracy is competitive elections that are substantively and procedurally "fair," i.e., just and equitable. In some countries, freedom of political expression, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and internet democracy are considered important to ensure that voters are well informed, enabling them to vote according to their own interests.
It has also been suggested that a basic feature of democracy is the capacity of all voters to participate freely and fully in the life of their society. With its emphasis on notions of social contract and the collective will of all the voters, democracy can also be characterised as a form of political collectivism because it is defined as a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in lawmaking.
While representative democracy is sometimes equated with the republican form of government, the term "republic" classically has encompassed both democracies and aristocracies. Many democracies are constitutional monarchies, such as the United Kingdom.
Main article: History of democracy
See also: Athenian democracy
The term "democracy" first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens during classical antiquity. The word comes from demos, "common people" and kratos, strength. Led by Cleisthenes, Athenians established what is generally held as the first democracy in 508–507 BC. Cleisthenes is referred to as "the father of Athenian democracy."
Athenian democracy took the form of a direct democracy, and it had two distinguishing features: the random selection of ordinary citizens to fill the few existing government administrative and judicial offices, and a legislative assembly consisting of all Athenian citizens. All eligible citizens were allowed to speak and vote in the assembly, which set the laws of the city state. However, Athenian citizenship excluded women, slaves, foreigners (μέτοικοι / métoikoi), non-landowners, and men under 20 years of age.[contradictory] The exclusion of large parts of the population from the citizen body is closely related to the ancient understanding of citizenship. In most of antiquity the benefit of citizenship was tied to the obligation to fight war campaigns.
Athenian democracy was not only direct in the sense that decisions were made by the assembled people, but also the most direct in the sense that the people through the assembly, boule and courts of law controlled the entire political process and a large proportion of citizens were involved constantly in the public business. Even though the rights of the individual were not secured by the Athenian constitution in the modern sense (the ancient Greeks had no word for "rights"), the Athenians enjoyed their liberties not in opposition to the government but by living in a city that was not subject to another power and by not being subjects themselves to the rule of another person.
Range voting appeared in Sparta as early as 700 BC. The Apella was an assembly of the people, held once a month, in which every male citizen of at least 30 years of age could participate. In the Apella, Spartans elected leaders and cast votes by range voting and shouting. Aristotle called this "childish", as compared with the stone voting ballots used by the Athenians. Sparta adopted it because of its simplicity, and to prevent any bias voting, buying, or cheating that was predominant in the early democratic elections.
Even though the Roman Republic contributed significantly to many aspects of democracy, only a minority of Romans were citizens with votes in elections for representatives. The votes of the powerful were given more weight through a system of gerrymandering, so most high officials, including members of the Senate, came from a few wealthy and noble families. In addition, the Roman Republic was the first government in the western world to have a Republic as a nation-state, although it didn't have much of a democracy. The Romans invented the concept of classics and many works from Ancient Greece were preserved. Additionally, the Roman model of governance inspired many political thinkers over the centuries, and today's modern representative democracies imitate more the Roman than the Greek models because it was a state in which supreme power was held by the people and their elected representatives, and which had an elected or nominated leader. Other cultures, such as the Iroquois Nation in the Americas between around 1450 and 1600 AD also developed a form of democratic society before they came in contact with the Europeans. This indicates that forms of democracy may have been invented in other societies around the world.
During the Middle Ages, there were various systems involving elections or assemblies, although often only involving a small part of the population. These included:
- the Frostating, Gulating, Eidsivating and Borgarting in Norway,
- the Althing in Iceland,
- the Løgting in the Faeroe Islands,
- the election of Uthman in the Rashidun Caliphate,
- the South Indian Kingdom of the Chola in the state of Tamil Nadu in the Indian Subcontinent had an electoral system at 920 A.D., about 1100 years ago,
- Carantania, old Slavic/Slovenian principality, the Ducal Inauguration from 7th to 15th century,
- the upper-caste election of the Gopala in the Bengal region of the Indian Subcontinent,
- the Holy Roman Empire's Hoftag and Imperial Diets (mostly Nobles and Clergy),
- Frisia in the 10th–15th Century (Weight of vote based on landownership)
- the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (10% of population),
- certain medieval Italian city-states such as Venice, Genoa, Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Amalfi, Siena and San Marino
- the Cortes of León,
- the tuatha system in early medieval Ireland,
- the Veche in Novgorod and Pskov Republics of medieval Russia,
- The States in Tirol and Switzerland,
- the autonomous merchant city of Sakai in the 16th century in Japan,
- Volta-Nigeric societies such as Igbo.
- the Mekhk-Khel system of the Nakh peoples of the North Caucasus, by which representatives to the Council of Elders for each teip (clan) were popularly elected by that teip's members.
- The 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh ji (Nanak X) established the world's first Sikh democratic republic state ending the aristocracy on day of 1st Vasakh 1699 and Gurbani as sole constitution of this Sikh republic on the Indian subcontinent.
Most regions in medieval Europe were ruled by clergy or feudal lords.
The Kouroukan Fouga divided the Mali Empire into ruling clans (lineages) that were represented at a great assembly called the Gbara. However, the charter made Mali more similar to a constitutional monarchy than a democratic republic.
The Parliament of England had its roots in the restrictions on the power of kings written into Magna Carta (1215), which explicitly protected certain rights of the King's subjects and implicitly supported what became the English writ of habeas corpus, safeguarding individual freedom against unlawful imprisonment with right to appeal. The first representative national assembly in England was Simon de Montfort's Parliament in 1265. The emergence of petitioning is some of the earliest evidence of parliament being used as a forum to address the general grievances of ordinary people. However, the power to call parliament remained at the pleasure of the monarch.
Early modern period
In 17th century England, there was renewed interest in Magna Carta. The Parliament of England passed the Petition of Right in 1628 which established certain liberties for subjects. The English Civil War (1642–1651) was fought between the King and an oligarchic but elected Parliament, during which the idea of a political party took form with groups debating rights to political representation during the Putney Debates of 1647. Subsequently, the Protectorate (1653-59) and the English Restoration (1660) restored more autocratic rule, although Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act in 1679 which strengthened the convention that forbade detention lacking sufficient cause or evidence. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Bill of Rights was enacted in 1689 which codified certain rights and liberties, and is still in effect. The Bill set out the requirement for regular elections, rules for freedom of speech in Parliament and limited the power of the monarch, ensuring that, unlike much of Europe at the time, royal absolutism would not prevail.
In the Cossack republics of Ukraine in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Cossack Hetmanate and Zaporizhian Sich, the holder of the highest post of Hetman was elected by the representatives from the country's districts.
In North America, representative government began in Jamestown, Virginia, with the election of the House of Burgesses (forerunner of the Virginia General Assembly) in 1619. English Puritans who migrated from 1620 established colonies in New England whose local governance was democratic and which contributed to the democratic development of the United States; although these local assemblies had some small amounts of devolved power, the ultimate authority was held by the Crown and the English Parliament. The Puritans (Pilgrim Fathers), Baptists, and Quakers who founded these colonies applied the democratic organisation of their congregations also to the administration of their communities in worldly matters.
18th and 19th centuries
The first Parliament of Great Britain was established in 1707, after the merger of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland under the Acts of Union. Although the monarch increasingly became a figurehead, only a small minority actually had a voice; Parliament was elected by only a few percent of the population (less than 3% as late as 1780). During the Age of Liberty in Sweden (1718–1772), civil rights were expanded and power shifted from the monarch to parliament. The taxed peasantry was represented in parliament, although with little influence, but commoners without taxed property had no suffrage.
The creation of the short-lived Corsican Republic in 1755 marked the first nation in modern history to adopt a democratic constitution (all men and women above age of 25 could vote). This Corsican Constitution was the first based on Enlightenment principles and included female suffrage, something that was not granted in most other democracies until the 20th century.
In the American colonial period before 1776, and for some time after, often only adult white male property owners could vote; enslaved Africans, most free black people and most women were not extended the franchise. On the American frontier, democracy became a way of life, with more widespread social, economic and political equality. Although not described as a democracy by the founding fathers, they shared a determination to root the American experiment in the principles of natural freedom and equality.
The American Revolution led to the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1787, the oldest surviving, still active, governmental codified constitution. The Constitution provided for an elected government and protected civil rights and liberties for some, but did not end slavery nor extend voting rights in the United States beyond white male property owners (about 6% of the population). The Bill of Rights in 1791 set limits on government power to protect personal freedoms but had little impact on judgements by the courts for the first 130 years after ratification.
In 1789, Revolutionary France adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and, although short-lived, the National Convention was elected by all men in 1792. However, in the early 19th century, little of democracy – as theory, practice, or even as word – remained in the North Atlantic world.
During this period, slavery remained a social and economic institution in places around the world. This was particularly the case in the United States, and especially in the last fifteen slave states that kept slavery legal in the American South until the Civil War. A variety of organisations were established advocating the movement of black people from the United States to locations where they would enjoy greater freedom and equality.
The United Kingdom's Slave Trade Act 1807 banned the trade across the British Empire, which was enforced internationally by the Royal Navy under treaties Britain negotiated with other nations. As the voting franchise in the U.K. was increased, it also was made more uniform in a series of reforms beginning with the Reform Act 1832. In 1833, the United Kingdom passed the Slavery Abolition Act which took effect across the British Empire.
Universal male suffrage was established in France in March 1848 in the wake of the French Revolution of 1848. In 1848, several revolutions broke out in Europe as rulers were confronted with popular demands for liberal constitutions and more democratic government.
In the 1860 United States Census, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million, and in Reconstruction after the Civil War (late 1860s), the newly freed slaves became citizens with a nominal right to vote for men. Full enfranchisement of citizens was not secured until after the Civil Rights Movement gained passage by the United States Congress of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
20th and 21st centuries
20th-century transitions to liberal democracy have come in successive "waves of democracy", variously resulting from wars, revolutions, decolonisation, and religious and economic circumstances. Global waves of "democratic regression" reversing democratization, have also occurred in the 1920s and 30s, in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the 2010s.
World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires resulted in the creation of new nation-states from Europe, most of them at least nominally democratic.
In the 1920s democracy flourished and women's suffrage advanced, but the Great Depression brought disenchantment and most of the countries of Europe, Latin America, and Asia turned to strong-man rule or dictatorships. Fascism and dictatorships flourished in Nazi Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as well as non-democratic governments in the Baltics, the Balkans, Brazil, Cuba, China, and Japan, among others.
World War II brought a definitive reversal of this trend in western Europe. The democratisation of the American, British, and French sectors of occupied Germany (disputed), Austria, Italy, and the occupied Japan served as a model for the later theory of government change. However, most of Eastern Europe, including the Soviet sector of Germany fell into the non-democratic Soviet bloc.
The war was followed by decolonisation, and again most of the new independent states had nominally democratic constitutions. India emerged as the world's largest democracy and continues to be so. Countries that were once part of the British Empire often adopted the British Westminster system.
By 1960, the vast majority of country-states were nominally democracies, although most of the world's populations lived in nations that experienced sham elections, and other forms of subterfuge (particularly in "Communist" nations and the former colonies.)
A subsequent wave of democratisation brought substantial gains toward true liberal democracy for many nations. Spain, Portugal (1974), and several of the military dictatorships in South America returned to civilian rule in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Argentina in 1983, Bolivia, Uruguay in 1984, Brazil in 1985, and Chile in the early 1990s). This was followed by nations in East and South Asia by the mid-to-late 1980s.
The first book in English by Professor Sir Karl Popper was accepted for publication in London while Hitler’s bombs were falling, and was published in 1945 under the title “The Open Society and its Enemies”. The book was well received, but in this article Sir Karl questions whether his central theory of democracy (which he does not characterise as “the rule of the people”) has been understood.
MY THEORY of democracy is very simple and easy for everybody to understand. But its fundamental problem is so different from the age-old theory of democracy which everybody takes for granted that it seems that this difference has not been grasped, just because of the simplicity of the theory. It avoids high-sounding, abstract words like “rule”, “freedom” and “reason”. I do believe in freedom and reason, but I do not think that one can construct a simple, practical and fruitful theory in these terms. They are too abstract, and too prone to be misused; and, of course, nothing whatever can be gained by their definition.
This article is divided into three main parts. The first sets out, briefly, what may be called the classical theory of democracy: the theory of the rule of the people. The second is a brief sketch of my more realistic theory. The third is, in the main, an outline of some practical applications of my theory, in reply to the question: “What practical difference does this new theory make?”
The classical theory
The classical theory is, in brief, the theory that democracy is the rule of the people, and that the people have a right to rule. For the claim that the people have this right, many and various reasons have been given; however, it will not be necessary for me to enter into these reasons here. Instead, I will briefly examine some of the historical background of the theory, and of the terminology.
Plato was the first theoretician to make a system out of the distinctions between what he regarded as the main forms of the city-state. According to the number of the rulers, he distinguished between: (1) monarchy, the rule of one good man, and tyranny, the distorted form of monarchy; (2) aristocracy, the rule of a few good men, and oligarchy, its distorted form; (3) democracy, the rule of the many, of all the people. Democracy did not have two forms. For the many always formed a rabble, and so democracy was distorted in itself.
If one looks more closely at this classification, and if one asks oneself what problem was at the back of Plato’s mind, then one finds that the following underlay not only Plato’s classification and theory, but also those of everybody else. From Plato to Karl Marx and beyond, the fundamental problem has always been: who should rule the state? (One of my main points will be that this problem must be replaced by a totally different one.) Plato’s answer was simple and naive: “the best” should rule. If possible, “the best of all”, alone. Next choice: the best few, the aristocrats. But certainly not the many, the rabble, the demos.
The Athenian practice had been, even before Plato’s birth, precisely the opposite: the people, the demos, should rule. All important. political decisions—such as war and peace—were made by the assembly of all full citizens. This is now called “direct democracy”; but we must never forget that the citizens formed a minority of the inhabitants—even of the natives. From the point of view here adopted, the important thing is that, in practice, the Athenian democrats regarded their democracy as the alternative to tyranny—to arbitrary rule: in fact, they knew well that a popular leader might be invested with tyrannical powers by a popular vote.
So they knew that a popular vote may be wrongheaded, even in the most important matters. (The institution of ostracism recognised this: the ostracised person was banned as a matter of precaution only; he was neither tried nor regarded as guilty.)The Athenians were right: decisions arrived at democratically, and even the powers conveyed upon a government by a democratic vote, may be wrong. It is hard, if not impossible, to construct a constitution that safeguards against mistakes. This is one of the strongest reasons for founding the idea of democracy upon the practical principle of avoiding tyranny rather than upon a divine, or a morally legitimate, right of the people to rule.
The (in my opinion, vicious) principle of legitimacy plays a great part in European history. While the Roman legions were strong, the Caesars based their power upon the principle: the army legitimises the ruler (by acclamation). But with the decline of the Empire, the problem of legitimacy became urgent; and this was strongly felt by Diocletian, who tried to support the new structure of the Imperium of the God-Caesars ideologically with traditional and religious distinctions and the corresponding attribution of different titles: Caesar, Augustus, Herculius, and Jovius (i.e., related to Jupiter).
Yet it seems that there was a need for a more authoritative, deeper religious legitimation. In the next generation, monotheism in the form of Christianity (which, of the available monotheisms, has spread most widely) offered itself to Constantine as the solution to the problem. From then on, the ruler ruled by the Grace of God—of the one and the only universal God. The complete success of this new ideology of legitimacy explains both the ties and the tensions between the spiritual and the worldly powers which thus became mutual dependants, and therefore rivals, throughout the Middle Ages.
So, in the Middle Ages, the answer to the question “Who should rule?” became the principle: God is the ruler, and He rules through His legitimate human representatives. It was this principle of legitimacy which was first seriously challenged by the Reformation and then by the English revolution of 1648-49 which proclaimed the divine right of the people to rule. But in this revolution the divine right of the people was immediately used to establish the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell.
After the dictator’s death, there was a return to the older form of legitimacy; and it was the violation of protestant legitimacy by James II, by the legitimate monarch himself, which led to the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, and to the development of British democracy through a gradual strengthening of the power of Parliament, which had legitimised William and Mary. The unique character of this development was precisely due to the experience that fundamental theological and ideological quarrels about who should rule lead only to catastrophe. Royal legitimacy was no longer a reliable principle, nor was the rule of the people. In practice, there was a monarchy of somewhat dubious legitimacy created by the will of Parliament, and a fairly steady increase of parliamentary power. The British became dubious about abstract principles; and the Platonic problem “Who should rule?” was no longer seriously raised in Britain until our own days.
Karl Marx, who was not a British politician, was still dominated by the old Platonic problem which he saw as: “Who should rule? The good or the bad—the workers or the capitalists?” And even those who rejected the state altogether, in the name of freedom, could not free themselves from the fetters of a misconceived old problem; for they called themselves anarchists—that is, opponents of all forms of rule. One can sympathise with their unsuccessful attempt to get away from the old problem “Who should rule?”
A more realistic theory
In “The Open Society and its Enemies” I suggested that an entirely new problem should be recognised as the fundamental problem of a rational political theory. The new problem, as distinct from the old “Who should rule?”, can be formulated as follows: how is the state to be constituted so that bad rulers can be got rid of without bloodshed, without violence?
This, in contrast to the old question, is a thoroughly practical, almost technical, problem. And the modern so-called democracies are all good examples of practical solutions to this problem, even though they were not consciously designed with this problem in mind. For they all adopt what is the simplest solution to the new problem—that is, the principle that the government can be dismissed by a majority vote.
In theory, however, these modern democracies are still based on the old problem, and on the completely impractical ideology that it is the people, the whole adult population, who are, or should by rights be, the real and ultimate and the only legitimate rulers. But, of course, nowhere do the people actually rule. It is governments that rule (and, unfortunately, also bureaucrats, our civil servants—or our uncivil masters, as Winston Churchill called them—whom it is difficult, if not impossible, to make accountable for their actions).
What are the consequences of this simple and practical theory of government? My way of putting the problem and my simple solution do not, of course, clash with the practice of western democracies, such as the unwritten constitution of Britain, and the many written constitutions which took the British Parliament more or less as their model. It is this practice (and not their theory) which my theory—my problem and its solution—tries to describe. And, for this reason, I think that I may call it a theory of “democracy”, even though it is emphatically not a theory of the “rule of the people”, but rather the rule of law that postulates the bloodless dismissal of the government by a majority vote.
My theory easily avoids the paradoxes and difficulties of the old theory—for instance, such problems as “What has to be done if ever the people vote to establish a dictatorship?” Of course, this is not likely to happen if the vote is free. But it has happened. And what if it does happen? Most constitutions in fact require far more than a majority vote to amend or change constitutional provisions, and thus would demand perhaps a two-thirds or even a three-quarters (“qualified”) majority for a vote against democracy. But this demand shows that they provide for such a change; and at the same time they do not conform to the principle that the (“unqualified”) majority will is the ultimate source of power—that the people, through a majority vote, are entitled to rule.
All these theoretical difficulties are avoided if one abandons the question “Who should rule?” and replaces it by the new and practical problem: how can we best avoid situations in which a bad ruler causes too much harm? When we say that the best solution known to us is a constitution that allows a majority vote to dismiss the government, then we do not say the majority vote will always be right. We do not even say that it will usually be right. We say only that this very imperfect procedure is the best so far invented. Winston Churchill once said, jokingly, that democracy is the worst form of government—with the exception of all other known forms of government.
And this is the point: anybody who has ever lived under another form of government—that is, under a dictatorship which cannot be removed without bloodshed—will know that a democracy, imperfect though it is, is worth fighting for and, I believe, worth dying for. This, however, is only my personal conviction. I should regard it as wrong to try to persuade others of it.
We could base our whole theory on this, that there are only two alternatives known to us: either a dictatorship or some form of democracy. And we do not base our choice on the goodness of democracy, which may be doubtful, but solely on the evilness of a dictatorship, which is certain. Not only because the dictator is bound to make bad use of his power, but because a dictator, even if he were benevolent, would rob all others of their responsibility, and thus of their human rights and duties. This is a sufficient basis for deciding in favour of democracy—that is, a rule of law that enables us to get rid of the government. No majority, however large, ought to be qualified to abandon this rule of law.
Such are the theoretical differences between the old and the new theories. As an example of the practical difference between the theories, I propose to examine the issue of proportional representation.
The old theory and the belief that the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people constitutes a natural right, or a divine right, form the background of the usual argument in favour of proportional representation. For if people rule through their representatives, and by majority votes, then it is essential that the numerical distribution of opinion among the representatives mirrors as closely as possible that which prevails among those who are the real source of legitimate power: the people themselves. Everything else will he not only grossly unfair but against all the principles of justice.
This argument collapses if the old theory is given up, so that we can look, more dispassionately, and perhaps without much prejudice, at the inescapable (and possibly unintended) practical consequences of proportional representation. And these are devastating.
First of all, proportional representation confers, even if only indirectly, a constitutional status on political parties which they would otherwise not attain. For I can no longer choose a person whom I trust to represent me: I can choose only a party. And the people who may represent the party are chosen only by the party. And while people and their opinions always deserve the greatest respect, the opinions adopted by parties (which are typically instruments of personal advancement and of power, with all the chances for intrigue which this implies) are not to be identified with ordinary human opinions: they are ideologies.
In a constitution that does not provide for proportional representation, parties need not be mentioned at all. They need not be given official status. The electorate of each constituency sends its personal representative to the chamber. Whether he stands alone, or whether he combines with some others to form a party, is left to him. It is an affair he may have to explain and defend to his electorate.
His duty is to represent the interests of all those people whom he represents to the best of his ability. These interests will in almost all cases be identical with those of all the citizens of the country, of the nation. These are the interests he must pursue to the best of his knowledge. He is personally responsible to persons.
This is the only duty and the only responsibility of the representative that must be recognised by the constitution. If he considers that he has also a duty to a political party, then this must be due solely to the fact that he believes that through his connection with that party he can do his primary duty better than without the party. Consequently it is his duty to leave the party whenever he realises that he can do his primary duty better without that party, or perhaps with a different party.
All this is done away with if the constitution of the state incorporates proportional representation. For under proportional representation the candidate seeks election solely as the representative of a party, whatever the wording of the constitution may be. If he is elected, he is elected mainly, if not solely, because he belongs to, and represents, a certain party. Thus, his main loyalty must be to his party, and to the party’s ideology; not to people (except, perhaps, the leaders of the party).
It can therefore never be his duty to vote against his party. On the contrary, he is morally bound to the party as whose representative he was voted into parliament. And in the event that he can no longer square this with his conscience, it would, in my opinion, be his moral duty to resign not only from his party but from parliament, even though the country’s constitution may place no such obligation upon him.
In fact, the system under which he was elected robs him of personal responsibility; it makes of him a voting machine rather than a thinking and feeling person. In my view, this is by itself a sufficient argument against proportional representation. For what we need in politics are individuals who can judge on their own and who are prepared to carry personal responsibility.
Such individuals are difficult to find under any party system, even without proportional representation—and it must be admitted that we have not yet found a way of doing without parties. But if we have to have parties, we had better not, by our constitution, add deliberately to the enslavement of our representatives to the party machine and to the party ideology by introducing proportional representation.
The immediate consequence of proportional representation is that it will tend to increase the number of parties. This, at first glance, may seem desirable: more parties means more choice, more opportunities, less rigidity, more criticism. It also means a greater distribution of influence and of power.
However, this first impression is totally mistaken. The existence of many parties means, essentially, that a coalition government becomes inevitable. It means difficulties in the formation of any new government, and in keeping a government together for any length of time.
While proportional representation is based on the idea that the influence of a party should be proportional to its voting power, a coalition government means, more often than not, that small parties can exercise a disproportionately great—and often decisive—influence, both on the formation of a government and on its resignation, and so on all its decisions. Most important of all, it means the decay of responsibility. For in a coalition government there is reduced responsibility for all the partners in the coalition.
Proportional representation—and the greater number of parties as a result thereof—may therefore have a detrimental effect on the decisive issue of how to get rid of a government by voting it out of office, for instance in a parliamentary election. The voters are led to expect that perhaps none of the parties will obtain an absolute majority. With this expectation in their minds, the people hardly vote against any of the parties. As a result, on election day none of the parties is dismissed, none is convicted. Accordingly, nobody looks on election day as a Day of Judgment; as a day when a responsible government stands to account for its deeds and omissions, for its successes and failures, and a responsible opposition criticises this record and explains what steps the government ought to have taken, and why.
The loss of 5% or 10% of votes by one or other of the parties is not seen by the voters as a verdict of “guilty”. They look at it, rather, as a temporary fluctuation in popularity. In time, the people become used to the idea that none of the political parties or their leaders can really be made accountable for their decisions which may have been forced on them by the necessity to form a coalition.
From the point of view of the new theory, election day ought to be a Day of Judgment. As Pericles of Athens said in about 430 BC, “although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it.” Of course, we may misjudge it; in fact, we often do. But if we have lived through a party’s period of power and have felt its repercussions, we have at least some qualifications for judgment.
This presupposes that the party in power and its leaders were fully responsible for what they were doing. This, in turn, presupposes a majority government. But with proportional representation, even in the case of a single party governing with an absolute majority and thrown out by a majority of disenchanted citizens, the government may not be turned out of office. It would rather look for the smallest party strong enough to go on ruling with its help.
Hence the censured leader of the larger party would still continue to lead the government—in direct opposition to the majority vote and on the basis of help received from one of the small parties whose policies, in theory, may be far removed from “representing the will of the people”. Of course, the small party may not be strongly represented in the new government. But its power will be very great since it may topple the government at any time. All this grossly violates the idea that lies at the root of proportional representation: the idea that the influence exercised by any party must correspond to the number of votes it can muster.
The two-party system
In order to make a majority government probable, we need something approaching a two-party system, as in Britain and in the United States. Since the existence of the practice of proportional representation makes such a possibility hard to attain, I suggest that, in the interest of parliamentary responsibility, we should resist the perhaps-tempting idea that democracy demands proportional representation. Instead, we should strive for a two-party system, or at least for an approximation to it, for such a system encourages a continual process of self-criticism by the two parties.
Such a view will, however, provoke frequently voiced objections to the two-party system that merit examination: “A two-party system represses the formation of other parties.” This is correct. But considerable changes are apparent within the two major parties in Britain as well as in the United States. So the repression need not be a denial of flexibility.
The point is that in a two-party system the defeated party is liable to take an electoral defeat seriously. So it may look for an internal reform of its aims, which is an ideological reform. If the party is defeated twice in succession, or even three times, the search for new ideas may become frantic, which obviously is a healthy development. This is likely to happen, even if the loss of votes was not very great.
Under a system with many parties, and with coalitions, this is not likely to happen. Especially when the loss of votes is small, both the party bosses and the electorate are inclined to take the change quietly. They regard it as part of the game—since none of the parties had clear responsibilities. A democracy needs parties that are more sensitive than that and, if possible, constantly on the alert. Only in this way can they be induced to be self-critical. As things stand, an inclination to self-criticism after an electoral defeat is far more pronounced in countries with a two-party system than in those where there are several parties. In practice, then, a two-party system is likely to be more flexible than a multi-party system, contrary to first impressions.
It is said: “Proportional representation gives a new party a chance to rise. Without it, the chance is much diminished. And the mere existence of a third party may greatly improve the performance of the two big parties.” This may well be the case. But what if five or six such new parties emerge? As we have seen, even one small party may wield quite disproportionate power if it is in the position to decide which of the two big parties it will join to form a coalition government.
It is also said: “A two-party system is incompatible with the idea of an open society—with the openness for new ideas, and with the idea of pluralism.” Reply: both Britain and the United States are very open to new ideas. Complete openness would, of course, be self-defeating, as would be complete freedom. Also cultural openness and political openness are two different things. And more important even than opening wider and wider the political debate may be a proper attitude towards the political Day of Judgment.
What if big democracies had different rules? (Dec, 2015)
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