The Poverty Of Democracy

I have been a strong proponent of democracy until the Spring of 2012 when I picked up Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed. Since then, I have never looked at democracy with the same warm feelings again. Now, in this post, I would like to explore why democratic political representation is an impossibility and why it deals poorly with value pluralism – the fact that society holds various fundamental values that are in conflict with each other. In addition, I would like to urge that we should look for other political possibilities and stop maintaining that democracy is the end of all forms of social organization.

What most people find attractive about democracy is its underlying idea that the electorate is an embodiment of the general will of the public as if the public has reached some kind of general agreement on public policies and legislation. It is believed that with regular elections, the rulers are in power for a limited time and they “will be compelled by the threat of dismissal to do what public opinion wants them to do” (Popper, 1963, p. 345). Gerard Casey writes in Libertarian Anarchy (2012) that “[T]he central characteristic of representation by agency is that the agent is responsible to his principal and is bound to act in the principal’s interest” (Casey, 2012, p. 125). It is however questionable to what extent the electorate can truly represent the constituency and to what extent the public voice can be considered univocal. We must also beware of attributing “to the voice of the people a kind of final authority and unlimited wisdom” (Popper, 1963, p. 347). When society holds a vox populi vox dei attitude, it can easily slip into a tyranny of the majority. A society ruled by public opinion by no means guarantees social justice.

It is important to realize that the notion of representation is highly questionable. According to public choice theory, political agents cannot possibly truly represent their constituencies when members of a society have different comprehensive doctrines, hold different values, and have different interests. Public choice theory applies economic methods in the field of political theory and provides some interesting insights that are relevant for political philosophy. It maintains that politics is ruled by clashing opinions among policy makers and clashing opinions among members of the constituency. One may for example desire to build new roads with public funds, another may want to use public funds for the modernization of the military and defense, a third may desire to spend more on social welfare, a fourth on education etc.

Given that we live in a world of value pluralism, it is difficult for policy makers to pursue and represent the ‘public interest’. Furthermore, special minority interest groups may have incentives to organize themselves in order to influence public policies through lobbying. When the expected gain of lobbying of such minority interest groups is greater than the cost of lobbying efforts, they have greater incentive to influence legislators. Large interest groups, such as taxpayers in general, have fewer incentives to campaign for particular legislations, because the benefits of their actions, if they are successful, are spread much more widely among each individual taxpayer.

When the principal believes that the cost of being politically active – keeping oneself up-to-date with political actualities and being involved with political campaigns – is not worth the benefits, the principal may become ‘rationally ignorant’ of politics. This gives representatives more incentives not to pay attention to the public interests. Rationally ignorant principals do not know who their representatives are or what they do. This consequently discourages the politicians’ feeling of accountability for their actions and it encourages the politicians to sell themselves to donors and to pursue personal agendas. Different interests, incentives, and ideologies among principals and political agents therefore result in unequal representation.

I believe that Casey is right when he asserts that there is

“no interest common to the constituency as a whole, or, if there is, it is so rare as to be practically non-existent. That being the case, there is nothing that can be represented” (Casey, 2012, p. 125).

Imagine that there is a piece of legislation that our representatives can either pass or not with 35 per cent of the public in favour of the legislation and 65 per cent who oppose it. If our representatives pass the legislation, they will represent the 35 per cent and ignore the interests of the 65 per cent. If they do not pass the legislation, they will represent the 65 per cent and cease to represent the interests of the 35 per cent.

“In this very normal political scenario, it is not that it is difficult to represent a constituency – it is rather that it is impossible” (Casey, 2012, p. 125).

A representative democracy is therefore actually quite inadequate in dealing with a pluralistic society as it cannot fulfill its promise: representing the will of the peoples. Democracy is moreover a system that is inherently violent, because it divides people along the lines of their comprehensive doctrines. People with similar political thoughts organize themselves into groups to campaign against people who hold conflicting ideas. In a democracy, these people then vote for their preferred ruler to rule over people who may have contrasting views or who may be indifferent to political issues at all. It has never happened that the turnout at elections is 100 per cent. According to, the average turnout rate in Europe is around 43 per cent. Nonetheless, the 43 per cent are choosing political agents who are expected to represent the 57 per cent of the non-voting constituency. The violent nature of democracy is that with every vote the voter attempts to enforce their preferred rulers or legislation unto others. This basically makes it a system in which people lose their political autonomy to other voters.

I believe that in order to deal more adequately with value pluralism we have to look for political possibilities that lie beyond a representative democracy. Instead of considering democracy as the end of all forms of social organization, we should ask ourselves how we could discover better forms of social organization.

Popper, K. (1963). Conjectures and Refutations. London: Routledge.

Casey, G. (2012). Libertarian Anarchy: against the state. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.


6 thoughts on “The Poverty Of Democracy

  1. I have never been a fan of democracy. The republic model our founders set up, was the best. We have since digressed into democracy and look what is happening. Good post on your part.

    • Yes, I agree with you. The republic model as founded by the American founders was a marvelous concept. But maybe there is this one fatal flaw in the model: it allowed political leaders to be in charge of the country’s justice and protection system temporarily, thereby slowly deroding constitutional rights and exploiting its nation’s resources with every successive political administration. This argument can be found in Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed.

  2. Interesting. Please keep considering the conundrums of governance and posting your thoughts.

  3. Of course democracy is terribly flawed as it cannot possibly encapsulate the desires and wishes of the entirety of the population. However can it be considered perhaps that the ultimate flaw in all of this may be the individual itself. The individual does not necessarily understand nor comprehend what it wants, rather with a vague concept of their desires formulated in their own conscious any democratic formula expects these individuals to participate and even make good decisions that will impact the whole. the problem in this is perspective the individual observes and interprets the world from its own senses to discern what is good and what is bad and in so doing is capable of moving through this world in pursuit of its own happiness. and as we all know an individuals good is anothers evil. however a government or rather any organised governing body needs to consider society as a whole looking at the world not just from an individuals perspective but through a perspective of the many. And by pursuing such an unrealistic agenda they err, they compromise and move not in the optimal direction but in the direction of compromise to appease the demands of the plurality of society.

    • I totally agree with you Oisin. Individuals often don’t know what they want. This leads to some other questions like: Is it the individuals’ fault? Should they know what they want politically or is it rational to be ignorant of politics?
      Is it possible for the government to look at the world from the perspectives of many, and to compromise societies plural demands? If they don’t move into the optimal direction, but in the direction of compromise… is that necessarily a good thing? Do they practically move into the direction of compromise or do they move in accordance to self-interests?
      I think you know my position already from our many hours of talks :P.

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