Democracy – Do we really have it?
March 12, 2011Posted by on
Democracy is a word we all like to throw into a discussion and we normally assume that we have a common understanding of a ‘democracy’ that is accepted by all. Some time ago I offered a post with the title ‘No to Democracy’,. It intended to make the distinction between a Democracy and a Republic. In a Times article with the leader The trouble with democracy is that you just can’t trust it, Matthew Parris wrote; Democracy, I believe, should always be invited to the table but rarely left to dine alone. I mistrust the quivering, awe-struck deference to Demos as though to some sacred text or divine and inviolable authority. The popular will is one factor – one of many – that it may be wise to take into account.
Following on from Matthew Parris, my concern with ‘democracy’ is in ‘Majority Tyranny’. On Liberty contains a rational justification of the freedom of the individual in opposition to the claims of the state to impose unlimited control. Written by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill and published in 1859, his essay also warns of the tyranny of the majority, something that we have become all too familiar with. Libertarians hold Mill in high regard to the extent that they see the abuse of the democratic process capable of curtailing even the inalienable rights written into the Constitution of any Republic. There are no inalienable rights in the Constitution framework of the United Kingdom that are not subject to to the Supremacy of Parliament. The very thing that drew Benjamin Rush to remark that; “A simple democracy is one of the greatest of evils.”
In his essay Mill writes: –
Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.