Democracy is overrated

Democracy is overrated

It may be the best means, but it is not the desired end.

The American nation has developed an unhealthy fixation on democracy.  It has come to hold center stage in our public discourse.  We champion it at home.  We endeavor to create it abroad.  Over the years we have slipped into the belief that Americanism is synonymous with democracy.  It isn’t.  Democracy is nothing more than a tool, and a treacherous one at that.  Americanism is about something much bigger than casting votes.

Americanism, at its heart, is about advancing civilization.  Our Constitution was created to safeguard individual rights.  It was the most radical form of individualist government ever seen in history, and it served as the blueprint for what became the most civilized country in the world.  Democracy has never been anything more than the political mechanism that is most compatible with individual rights.  We would be a happier nation if we put democracy back in proper its place as a device, and reminded ourselves of our true goal: a better civilization.

The word “democracy” does not appear in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.  What does appear are things like: “separate and equal station,” “decent respect,” “unalienable Rights,” “principles” and “justice”.  In fact, our two most important founding documents clearly state our nation’s purpose and goals.  The Declaration of Independence says, “all men are… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.  The Constitution’s prologue explains it is designed “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  There can be no mistaking our original intent: to create a government that would secure our individual rights in order to lay the foundation for our national prosperity.  The Constitution may codify a number of democratic practices, but nowhere does it conflate those practices with our nation’s ultimate goals.

Think of our country – the United States of America – as the house our nation lives in. In the same way we want our own homes to be clean, comfortable, and efficient, we want our country to be civilized, peaceful, and prosperous.  Democracy is nothing more than the toolset we have chosen for maintaining and improving our house.  Which is more important, our house or our toolbox?  Saying our government is about democracy is like saying our house is about hammers.  Our blueprint obviously calls for the use of a hammer, but we aren’t building a house as an excuse to swing one.  A house answers to a much higher calling than a hammer.  To claim our country is primarily about democracy reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of its higher calling.

Americans want to use the fairest possible manner of administering political power.  Democracy is nothing more than the best tool we have found for that job, and it isn’t perfect.  In fact, it is inherently flawed.  Democracy is deeply vulnerable to abuse by majorities.  Modern Americans are inclined to equate “majority rule” with justice.  The Founders strongly disagreed with that notion.  According to the author of the Constitution, James Madison:

On a candid examination of history, we shall find that turbulence, violence, and abuse of power, by the majority trampling on the rights of the minority, have produced factions and commotions, which, in republics, have, more frequently than any other cause, produced despotism.  If we go over the whole history of ancient and modern republics, we shall find their destruction to have generally resulted from those causes. (“Speech at the Virginia Convention to ratify the Federal Constitution.”  6 June 1788.))
There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied… than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong. (Letter to James Monroe.  5 Oct 1786.)

Since the dawn of time, mankind’s default political arrangement has involved government with unlimited power.  People may have come to demand more sophisticated justifications for the exercise of that power, but the default remains the same.  Ancient tribal chiefs claimed the authority of their own strength.  Feudal kings and emperors claimed the authority of God.  Modern democratic majorities claim the authority of the ballot box.  In each instance the people with power claim some excuse to exercise it without limits.  The Founders not only rejected those excuses, but rejected the very notion of unlimited political power.  America was the first nation to turn mankind’s default political arrangement on its head – instead of government existing to exercise its own unlimited power, here it exists to protect individuals’ rights.

Madison’s single greatest accomplishment may have been developing a system of government that so cleverly restrains the majority.  In that system, democracy is not a necessary virtue, but a necessary evil. We should treat it with the respect, and apprehension, it deserves.

Our nation’s ongoing obsession with democracy doesn’t deliver positive results any more than an obsession with nice tools creates a nice house.  What matters is how we use our tools; the goal we set them to.  America’s goal, at its heart, is about building a better civilization.  That is a goal that can’t betray us, and can’t be overrated.