What is democracy? You probably hear this term in history or civics courses but take it for granted because it is such a common political system today. In 2013, it was reported that 123 countries in the world can be considered democracies. However, democracies were not always common. This governing system became more popular after World War I. Before the spread of democracy, colonial empires were commonplace. Colonial empires were systems of government that were ruled by kings, queens, or autocratic leaders. World War II was one of the only 20th century periods during which democracies did not expand, but many former colonies declared independence after World War II and shifted to democratic systems.
Ancient Greek Democracy
Democracy may have become a popular way for countries to govern themselves during the 20th century, but the ideas of democracy were born in Greece. Athens, Greece operated under a democratic system in the 5th century BC, and other Greek cities and towns did the same. The idea was to have a government by the people. Direct democracy, where people met in assemblies and made decisions, was once a popular form of democracy. Direct democracy was more appropriate for smaller communities. Most countries in the world today operate under indirect democracy. People choose representatives to protect their interests in government. In either case, there are arguments for and against democracy. Many people who are for democracy say that this prevents one person from gaining too much power and becoming a dangerous authoritarian. Even so, there are people who are critical of democracy and it is worthwhile to examine why some people feel this way.
Where We Stand Today
A Pew Research Survey found that most people are in favor of a democracy, but some people would be open to alternative modes of government. Their findings show that some people would prefer a direct democracy where people govern themselves directly. However, some people actually support autocratic governments, and many people say they would be open to having a government that is run by experts who are competent. People with different levels of education favor certain types of governments over others. A country’s economic position can also affect people's opinions. Feelings about democracy can change depending on economic circumstances.
Here are some terms you should know:
- Monarchy: rule by a single person, usually because they were born into the position.
- Oligarchy: a government run by a few people.
- Autocracy: a government with a singular head of state, usually with unlimited power.
- Fascism: a type of autocracy that puts the interests of a nation or race above others.
- Communism: a political theory that fights against the ownership of private property, and in which things are owned by the public and available for use whenever others need them.
Arguments for Democracy
Countries around the world embraced democracy in the 20th century, most notably after WWI and WWII. Prior to this shift, countries were ruled by oligarchies, monarchies, and self-appointed autocratic leaders. During World War II, the world saw the dangers of fascism and fascist leaders like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Democracy was supported because it allowed people to choose representatives with set term limits. Many citizens had seen how their countries were ravaged due to corruption and inequality caused by the rule of the few. Democracy was seen as a way to make sure no one person had too much power. Many democracies also wanted a free market. Before democracy, few people had control or say in the economy which allowed rulers and those in power to use their economic influence to silence critics or give large rewards to those who followed their lead. Democracies were seen as a way to decentralize the market, but many of the same forces that freed the market were imperative to the development of democracy. People need more resources and education in order to vote and make educated purchases or financial decisions. A free market allowed more people to improve their status, and the economic boom that occurred after WWII created favorable conditions for democracies that were born out of former dictatorships, autocracies, and monarchies.
Freedom of Speech
Experts and citizens often defend democracy because they say it allows people to speak freely and have the ability to criticize leaders they feel might not be doing what the public wants. In fascist regimes, people who criticized leaders were often punished, and many critics were tortured or executed. Philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn was a proponent of the link between democracy and free speech.
Respect for Human Rights
Pro-democracy arguments also include a greater likelihood of respect for human rights. That is because people must vote to make changes to laws or statutes. Democratic leaders cannot solely make unilateral decisions, and there are often other branches of government that can step in if this occurs. This is supposed to encourage democratic governments to be transparent about their work.
Checks on Power
Another common argument for democracy is that it allows citizens to be empowered to elect their representatives, which means that everyone is expected to compromise so that no one interest is considered more important. Elections are also a way to make sure leaders know there are limits to their power.
Debate and Exchange of Ideas
Democracies allow citizens to be exposed to various points of view before making their choice. This allows candidates, citizens, and stakeholders to have a proper debate about why they would better represent the people that elect them. Transparency in elections is also meant to promote peace because people are more likely to accept the results of a fairly-won election, even if the candidate that won is not the one they chose.
Arguments Against Democracy
There are also arguments against democracy. The Greek philosopher Socrates made some compelling arguments against democracy by birthright as early as 399 BC. It is important to consider the possible negatives when discussing democracy.
Charismatic, but Unqualified Leadership
Socrates argued that people need to be equipped to vote during elections instead of going about the process without the right information. Socrates felt that people need to be rational about who they vote for, not that they should not have the right to vote. He warned that people may be swayed by leaders who seem to provide all the right answers or know what to say. Basically, Socrates said that people might vote for someone because of how the candidate makes them feel, not because the candidate is able to do the job correctly.
Democracy Might Devolve into Tyranny
Another Greek philosopher, Plato, was also critical of democracy. He examined five existing government styles and looked at the pros and cons of these systems in his famous book The Republic. His argument is that people become tired of systems such as oligarchy and then succumb to democracy because they are hungry for power. He felt that crumbling democratic societies are more easily able to transition into tyranny once democracy becomes unsustainable.
There Might Be Reasonable Alternatives
At best, voting for the wrong person means that nothing gets done at the taxpayer’s expense. At worst, people are making an uninformed vote. Modern-day philosopher Jason Brennan echoes many of the warnings of Socrates, but he also created a new term to describe what he perceives as an ideal alternative to democracy: epistocracy. Brennan argues that people need to think about what they expect from the government and then become informed so they can choose representatives that accomplish the tasks their citizens want. He also argues for the “competence principle.” Voters should use their right and power to vote to the best of their ability in order to maintain their right to vote. Brennan also says that Singapore is a modern-day example of a technocracy. In a technocracy, experts run the government.
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