Why Have Democracy?

I was somewhat fascinated the other day, when participating in a discussion of school vouchers on another blog, to hear someone make the assertion that public schools are “more democratic” than vouchers because everyone must use the curriculum which is decided via “the democratic process” in public schools, whereas with vouchers someone might attend a religious (or otherwise flaky school) teaching things you do not believe to be true.

This strikes me as interesting because it suggests to me a view of democracy rather different from my own. Thinking on it further, I think there are basically three reasons why one would consider deciding things democratically (defining that broadly here as “by majority vote, either directly or via elected officials”) to be a good thing:

  1. One is skeptical of the ability of rulers to determine “the good” and so one supports majority rule in order that even if the good is not chosen, people are at least responsible (to the greatest extent possible) for the mistakes they make.
  2. One considers there to be some sort of special virtue to a decision which is reached by the majority, thus making democratically arrived at decisions good for their own sake.
  3. When dealing with a centralized system (such as the administration of a school system) one knows of no better way than majority-rules voting to give most people what they want for themselves most of the time.

I would tend to see 1 and 3 as often going together to an extent, while 2 strikes me as rather nonsensical.  One need but look at the history of democracies (Athens being a prime example) to see that there is nothing inherently good about decisions made via the democratic process.  Having seen how Athenian voters happily drove their polis off the cliff, the great Greek philosophers (Plato and Aristotle both lived and wrote in the aftermath of the disastrous Peloponnesian War) were rightly skeptical of democracy.

Being someone who holds to 1 and 2 above, it seems to me that the more one is able to pursue distributed system, whereby things are accomplished at the most local level possible rather than through centralized systems, the better — because one may hope that individual people will best be able to determine what is the right thing to do in their circumstances and do it.  And, if they choose wrongly, they are most directly responsible for their actions.

Now some decisions regarding the state simply must be done by majority vote and cannot be solved in a distributed fashion.  A modern state must pretty clearly be ruled by executives and/or a legislative body, and there’s no way to elect those leaders other than majority vote.  However, wherever possible, it strikes me as most in keeping with the ends of democracy to have distributed systems.  Thus, I would consider providing all students with vouchers to be superior to having government run schools.  Providing the poor with housing grants, food grants, or health care grants will generally be superior to having government run housing, having the government directly hand out food, or having government run health care.  Etc.

If we value individual determination enough to want to adopt a system of government in which people vote for their leaders (rather than simply having a monarchy or oligarchy) then it seems to me that our respect for individual determination naturally should stretch to enabling people to make decisions themselves wherever possible rather than being served by centralized institutions.  To insist on determining things via winner-takes-all vote where more distributed means of decision making are readily available seems… undemocratic.

3 Responses to Why Have Democracy?

  1. Matt McDonald says:

    Whether public schools are more democratic or not is certainly a question. When a small group of despots (judges, the head of the NEA, etc) control the curriculum of practically every student in the country, that’s not really democratic.

    In any event, being more or less democratic is not the key principle, a leaderless rabble is democratic isn’t it, but I prefer an organized authoritarian style army myself.

    The point is that when it comes to educating children the natural law principle is not what is most democratic, it is what the parents want their children to be taught. It is not for the state to infringe on this right in any case without good reason. The good reasons may not be general, but only in specific instances where the parents have seriously neglected their obligations. School choice very precisely follows this natural law requirement, and I don’t see how a Catholic could stand against it.

    Even aside from the Catholic sensibility, there is an American principle of self-determination which may be exercised not solely at the collective level, when we vote, but in individual freedoms, such as the right to educate your children as you see fit.

  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “then it seems to me that our respect for individual determination naturally should stretch to enabling people to make decisions themselves wherever possible rather than being served by centralized institutions.”

    Especially when one considers the track record of big government bureaucracies. The fact that so many people still have faith in government to solve problems across a broad spectrum of human activity is the triumph of hope over experience.

  3. Tito Edwards says:


    Just like the old Soviet Union where everybody had a “say” in their local village communist party committee, just as long as they agreed on the party line.

    It’s a joke to think that the public school system is the better form of a democracy than a voucher.

    ‘Nuff sed.

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