Direct Democracy Is Not To Be Desired

The maintenance budget was voted down.
The maintenance budget was voted down.

That people’s first reaction to questioning democracy is anger ought to tell you a lot.

This fellow @Voxday was on Twitter advocating direct over representative democracy. I made the point that direct democracy is insane (and did not, by implication, disagree that so is representative democracy). He marshaled his facts and retorted that I was a moron and that I held to 18th century views. Which, I think, proves my point, only more so. Not only is direct democracy insane, it drives those who hold to it batty.

Now to qualify (as much as possible in 750 words). If you’re on a small island with two other people in their right minds, a direct democracy might appeal. But if one of you three is an expert in survival tactics, it would be insane to form a democracy instead of (a modified) monarchy. And since it’s likely one person will have superior necessary skills, one leader is better than three.

For the same reason, captains of boats don’t share responsibility because, as all experience proves, that while some captains will sometimes cause their ships to flounder, making decisions dictatorially (as it were) is far more protective than harmful.

Direct democracy insists “all adults” vote on all decisions. What’s an “adult”? Who decides? All adults vote on it? But that’s circular. All people vote first on defining “adult”? Do we include infants in this list of “all people”? Appealing to “common sense” (to decide not only who is an adult but to decide anything) is to move from direct democracy to something else, where something other than the will of the people is sovereign. Like Reality, or God. (I’m all for both.)

A bridge in Spokane needs replacing. How much should be spent on it? In a direct democracy, all adults (assuming we know what this means) must gather to vote on the matter. There are a lot of bridges in this country, and a great deal of other matters to be decided. How far from the curb should the stop signs be in Charlevoix, Michigan? Boy, we’d be pretty busy voting, no? In other words, it’s insane. And that’s not all.

What should be the punishment for breaking a law? What should the laws be? Who decides right and wrong? The direct will of the people? That is insane, and obviously so. The madness of fickleness of crowds guarantees that, sooner rather than later, a direct democracy will vote itself into error. Let’s attack Sparta! Again! If there is no appeal to Truth and Reality, which cannot be voted on, then a direct democracy must fail.

Of course, as a direct democracy we can vote whether to delegate all small matters to smaller, local units. And we can leave the big stuff to bodies that are freed from thinking about the mundane. Which is to say, we can start with a direct democracy to implement a representative democracy. This appears to be an improvement. And it is. It is closer to the principle of subsidiarity, which (to quote a succinct Wiki) “is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.”

Representative democracies that don’t acknowledge Truth and Reality are just as prone to failure as direct democracies, though the former have the advantage of discovering a greater variety of ways to go insane.

The fellow with whom I was arguing said, “‘Representative democracy’ is a lie” (the scare quotes are original). Well, and so it is if that government does not hold to Truth and Reality. Vox also said, “Representative democracy is a wolfpack telling a herd of sheep that they will respect their wishes, then doing what they want.” This isn’t quite right.

If a representative democracy holds (to at least a large extent) to Truth and Reality and which honors subsidiarity, then it can reach rational decisions. Not always. Nobody’s perfect. No, the problem comes in over-representation, which appears to be the thing Vox hates—and which he should hate.

Over-representation is the move away from subsidiarity towards centralization. Instead of village men voting for county representatives who in turn vote for regional representatives who in turn vote for state representatives who in turn vote for higher bodies which in turn vote for leaders (you get the idea), the lower tiers are shorn or their influence removed and we move toward oligarchy and tyranny. Vox’s wolf pack.

Which is exactly what has always happened. And which is obviously happening to us now. The solution, however, is not to turn to direct democracy, which is insane.

I remind the reader that a complete political theory cannot be completed in 750 words.

Update. Say, even the raving Salon agrees: Can the people be trusted with democracy?


  1. Gary

    The effectiveness of direct democracy is proportional to the social cohesion of the group. Size of the group is proportional to cohesion. Small groups of people who know each other or are related can make a direct democracy work, although it’s not as effective as the few blessed with leadership skills wisely directing those with other skills. This is how nature orders things until egos and ambition get in the way. Then we have to devise artificial constraints to limit the forces that dissolve the cohesion. Eventually, as the group grows, the center cannot hold.

  2. Nate

    Vox is a useful read for many things (SJW’s Always Lie is worth a read), but he’s wrong in particulars primarily due to his anger and apparent desire to tear down the system. Perhaps he sees direct democracy as the easiest way to cause the system to collapse on itself? Though I could be giving him too much credit.

    It’s funny – for many years the progressive left was anti-democracy, pursuing technocracy instead – Wilson’s quote “The bulk of mankind is rigidly unphilosophical, and nowadays the bulk of mankind votes” comes to mind. Soviet Russia and Maoist China generally put an end to the belief in technocrats, though Modern China until recently has been a shining example in certain corners – Tom Friedman. Today there is a very strange belief in democracy , but only as long as the people vote for the correct ideas.

    As you note above, the answer is subsidiarity. Madison and the framers attempted it, but generally I’m not sure humankind is up to the task of controlling its urges for longer than a generation or two.

    You know, you remind me of the character Stuart Rene LaJoie from Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. His character firmly believed that monarchy is the only institution that can save the people from “the worst of all tyrants, themselves.” But in the book, Heinlein didn’t really explore the idea of monarchy much. Does anyone know of any authors that write about what a modern monarchy might look like? Not so much the SciFi where the monarchy is really nothing more than Napoleonic France in Space

  3. James


    I’d say “Kings”, but it wasn’t necessarily positive toward monarchies. Still a great show!

    Also, I agree with your first paragraph. Considering that Vox is very anti-immigration it’s odd to support direct democracy. If your country was full of immigrants that wanted to vote in Sharia and you had a DD, you couldn’t do anything about it without appealing to a standard beyond the crowds. I think he thinks that enough anti-immigration people exist that a DD can make deportations and restrictions happen (it’s plausible).

    I can’t agree to that, though, because I don’t support arming my opponents.

  4. Steve E

    Direct democracy is so 5th Century BC!

    It seems so attractive until you actually have to govern. In Canada we have a left wing political party called The New Democratic Party (NDP) whose articles and conventions advocated that the party leadership was beholden to the will of the caucus on all matters. As you can imagine, like most political parties it would attract all kinds of people including some real wing nuts with some real wing nut ideas.

    Now this party was perennially out of power and could afford to hold to such “high ideals.” When they won power in Canada’s largest province the leader had beg and twist some political arms to be removed from the party’s conventions in order to run the province. I will not comment how horribly he did it for that would take well over 750 words.

  5. Peregrinator

    “Does anyone know of any authors that write about what a modern monarchy might look like?”

    You might try Pournelle (CoDominium) or perhaps David Weber (Honorverse) if you prefer something wordier.

  6. Ross Perot once suggested this could be done via e-democracy. It didn’t catch on. Perhaps at that point people did realize what “everyone participates” would lead to. Right now, direct democracy would probably lead to the same problems we have in Washington DC—people voting themselves tax breaks, welfare, free housing, raising their own salaries, etc, etc. Currently, people have to go the indirect route and vote for those they think will get them tax breaks and free lunches. When people look at senators voting themselves pay raises, the tendency is to say that’s wrong. Direct democracy would have the same effect, only nationwide.

    I doubt there is any form of government that truly stands the test of time. All eventually fall and are replaced with different forms. Monarchies and dictatorships seem to last for the longest periods, changing leaders, but not forms of government. Now, Europe and America elect leaders that don’t follow what the electors want, so their days are numbered, also. Probably because their decisions are having a very negative effect on the people living in their countries. Another turnover or revolution seems likely. Face it, humans just don’t like to be controlled or have rules. They need them, but they don’t like them and will damage themselves to near death in the effort to get rid of the rules and those who make the rules.

  7. Bruce

    direct democracy = lynch mob

  8. kmann

    “Face it, humans just don’t like to be controlled or have rules. They need them, but they don’t like them and will damage themselves to near death in the effort to get rid of the rules and those who make the rules.”

    Exactly correct. That’s why any form of (human) government is susceptible to failure.

  9. Steve E

    “Face it, humans just don’t like to be controlled or have rules. They need them, but they don’t like them and will damage themselves to near death in the effort to get rid of the rules and those who make the rules.”

    Sheri, I’m not sure that’s entirely true. What humans really don’t like is uncertainty and discomfort. Many are willing to trade personal freedoms and responsibilities for certainty and comfort. They will readily accept a benign dictator who can provide both.

  10. Sander van der Wal

    Democracy is the best way to get rid of bad politicians. You vote against them and if enough people do so, they go away. You don’t have to kill them, and they (having lots power) are not killing you.

  11. SteveBrooklineMA

    A bit off topic Briggs, but I was reading this Politifact article “Picking Paul Ryan ended Mitt Romney’s chances of winning the White House in 2012, Donald Trump says” and was wondering what you think. Politifact rules Trump’s claim false. Are they saying it is a verifiable fact that Romney/Ryan had a “chance” of winning? What can that mean?

  12. Gary

    Sheri, democracy by surveymonkey?

  13. Gary: Guess so.

    Steve E: Good point. Humans like certainly and comfort. Perhaps more than rules. If the dictator is benign, it probably works for as long as the dictator is able to provide for the flock. If I remember right, Rome had problems when the citizens required more and more entertainment and things to keep them happy.
    Being able to control one’s life and accept responsibility can be a better way to deal with uncertainty and discomfort but humans do like shortcuts. This is probably why monarchies and dictators are the most common of governments.

  14. Steve E

    “Being able to control one’s life and accept responsibility can be a better way to deal with uncertainty and discomfort but humans do like shortcuts.”

    Sheri, true, however, regardless of the way people are aligned, we all share the innate human quality of kvetching. 🙂

  15. vince

    I normally like Vox. But on this topic, he’s wrong. I think this whole election cycle has poisoned his thinking. Which is too bad.

  16. Harley Estin

    Economist and Philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe has written extensively on Western Civilization’s fall from limited monarchy to unlimited democracy in his opus, “Democracy: The God That Failed.”

  17. Allen

    Most of the arguments against direct democracy can be boiled down to arguments against democracy as a whole. Ignorance? Few politicians are experts in anything other than self-promotion. Disinterest? Most congressman don’t bother to read the bills they vote on, and many of them simply vote the way their party leaders tell them to, because even if they would like to vote otherwise, that’s how the party system works. You have to vote for someone else’s ideas in order to get them to vote for yours. Selfishness? Few politicians are anything but. Unfortunately, without a benevolent, omniscient leader, these problems are universal to any human endeavor.

    On the other hand, there are notable benefits of a direct democracy. First and foremost, the population needn’t wait until the next election to change direction. This can of course be a liability, as the public maybe unwilling to see a course of action through to its beneficial end. More often than not, however, it is only through the lens of hindsight that we understand our mistakes, and the need to change direction. The sooner the better.

    There is no question that direct democracy would have problems, missteps, and failures. But we already have those things. They would not be amplified with the direct democracy, it would simply be easier to point the finger in the direction it belongs: at ourselves.

    As to the need for urgent action — in a crisis, say — we would deal with it the same way we do today: by authorizing someone to make those decisions when necessary.

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