Democracy – but only when it goes your way!

Over the years of watching the democratic process I’ve noticed something important.  People tend to reject democracy, indeed, fight it tooth and nail, when it doesn’t go their way.  But when it does, well, it is the tops.

Consider the case of California’s Proposition 187.  Then governor Gray Davis of California was maneuvering to essentially gut this referendum, one that won with over 60% of the votes.  So let us recognize that the leader of the Democratic Party in California has no problem rejecting what the majority of the people want when he and his friends believe that the people are wrong.


Former California governor Gray Davis, a typical representative of the cronyism prevalent in the US merchant State. What eventually tripped him up wasn’t his attempt to gut prop. 187 by legal maneuvering, but his perceived poor performance during California’s energy crisis. Many of his energy advisors were the very speculators who benefited the most from the crisis. It was one affront too many. Davis was the first member of California’s ruling caste to fall prey to a recall, after 117 previous recall attempts throughout California’s history had failed, and only the 2nd politician in US history to suffer this ignominious fate. During the boom of the 1990s, Davis had greatly expanded government spending, landing California with a near $35 bn. deficit when the bust inevitably struck.

Photo credit: Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg


Now if you believe in democracy regarding the handling of certain problems in society, whether people actually have signed up for that process, you will go along with the verdict regardless of whether you like the outcome.  That is a principled defense of democracy.

During all the health (Obama) care reform debates it is liberal Democrats who said, repeatedly, that their demand for a government supervised health care system merely expresses the will of the public and thus has ample legitimacy behind it.

That is why there is so much polling, too, by the media — it is widely believed that if “the people” want something, then it is OK. What, then, makes for a good law for champions of democracy is whether the majority wants it to be enacted.  (One reason that most Democrats used to oppose a balanced budget amendment is that they believe it would place undue obstacles before the will of the people.  Surely if they people want to go into debt [read: if that’s what the majority wants], we ought all to comply and go into debt.)


Healthcare Act ZingersA couple of well-known affordable health-care act zingers. #Grubered is a well-known scandal (see “Dr. Gruber, wie geht’s dir?” and “#Grubered” for the highly amusing details) which was however at least marked by a truly candid assessment on the part of the good doctor/government advisor, who described the obfuscation tactics and the reliance on the “stupidity of the American voter” that were so instrumental in passing the law. What is perhaps less well known is that Ms. Pelosi channeled mid 1930s and mid 1940s satirists and cartoonists when she made her infamous remark about having to “pass the law so that you can find out what’s in it” – more on this below this post.


The people — the public interest, the general will, the greatest satisfaction of the greatest number, the will of the people, etc. — have been the objects of adoration of the leading lights of the Democratic Party.  Until the people no longer like what Democrats want, that is.

Consider prop 187.  The people of California wanted it.  But the Democrats did not.  Some years back they did want to make people in business stop hiring illegal aliens, so they enacted legislation and claimed, again, that they impose such restrictions and delegate such police powers as this requires on businesses because, well, the people demand it.

But if you keep fighting the outcome, via law suits and such, you testify to your dismissal of democracy in favor of something else — say, judicial intervention, some kind of higher law that democracy must not abridge, whatever.

Not that there is that much wrong with judicial intervention, as far as I can tell.  After all, the US Supreme Court interferes often when Congress or some other political body acts in defiance of the US Constitution, thus testifying to the conviction that there are some things that are way beyond the reach of the democratic process.

And few folks think it would be OK to, say, vote the Mooney church out of existence or to vote to shut down the New York Times.  That is because the US Constitution protects church and press from democratic meddling, no matter how eager the majority of the people are to meddle.


Leaving Matters to Popular Vote – When Convenient

One of the mainstays of the liberal democrats, mainly members of the Democratic Party of the United States of America, has been that in most matters we should leave decisions up to a vote.

We should vote on whether smoking is to be allowed in restaurants, how much money is too much when given to political candidates, whether zoning ordinances are to be enacted, how high taxes should be, how to run public schools, and so forth and so on.

Not OK by me, of course, but notice that it isn’t OK even by those who champion the “democracy uber alles” theme.  The process seems to be kosher only until things don’t quite go the liberal democratic way.

The flack over Proposition 187 was a wonderful case in point.  Just how hypocritical can you get!  Be a fervent supporter of people power except when people do not like what you like.  Then suddenly people power sucks.

I guess California’s majority will have to pick and choose some other issue on which to unite in order to fend off the duplicitous legalism of liberal Democrats.  I am sure there will be no problem with voting away private property rights, voting for massive government intervention in practically any area of human life, voting for extensive government regulation of business, medicine, and so on.


BastiatFrederic Bastiat had the right idea about socialist statism and the associated legalism. Generally speaking one could state that statism gives you “laws”, but not justice. To the extent that State power expands, the power of society is diminished.


But if there is a successful vote to rid the community of the expanding tyranny of government, the liberal democrats suddenly aren’t democrats any more.

It just goes to show you.  In their hearts of hearts most democrats are never really democrats at all but merely opportunists who make use of the power of the majority over the minority’s rights.  But should the majority not wish to go along with this plan, well down with democracy — it is the enemy of higher principles in which democrats believe only sporadically, however.


Addendum by PT:

As noted above, Ms. Pelosi, presumably unwittingly, channeled satirists and cartoonists of the 1930s and 1940s. In a joke appearing in the August 14, 1937 issue of the New Yorker, an anonymous author wrote (hat tip to Ben Zimmer of the Language Log):


“The wages-and-hours bill has become so complicated that it is a mystery to everybody in Washington. Congress will have to pass it to find out how it works.”



ofallthingsCopy of the actual “Of All Things” joke as it appeared in the New Yorker, Aug 14, 1937


The joke made a reappearance in a “Grin and Bear It” cartoon by George Lichty in the Mar. 12, 1947 issue of the Los Angeles Times:


grinandbearit“I admit this new bill is too complicated to understand….we’ll just have to pass it to fin out how it works!” – the “senate committee on new legislation” in action.


The problem is that Ms. Pelosi didn’t intend to make a joke. There is actually a serious background to the joke – as George Madison once said:


“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.”


Unfortunately the entire body of law is these days “so voluminous it cannot be read” and “so incoherent it cannot be understood” – characteristically, not even by those passing the laws. One suspects this is by design, as it is the easiest way to make sure that a potential criminal is made out of everybody (sometimes, as in Dennis Hastert’s case, this can lead to poetic justice being delivered).


Image captions by PT


Dr. Tibor R. Machan has recently been appointed senior fellow at the Heartland Institute (Arlington Heights, IL) and has worked as a Hoover Institution research fellow, is Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Auburn University, Alabama, and has held the R. C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University from 1997 to 2014.




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2 Responses to “Reflections on Modern Democracy”

  • Crysangle:

    You know , I have never actually met a majority . The more I think about it the more confusing it becomes . A minority , well that is no problem , we have only to look at ourselves , as in we are a minority having our feet placed on a certain piece of ground . It gives a feeling of superiority maybe … no one else stands where I do , but I digress … if there is to be minorities then there must be majorities . As a minoritarian I suppose you would say everyone else is the majority , but if you ask them they will at best question your intellect . Are majorities secretive then , are they private , do they sneak around at dusk when few are about , like elephants tiptoeing invisibly down main street .

    The politicians know , they seem to know , but they just won’t give the game away . They talk about silent majorities , aha … a clue , but most people I know make noise , and the quiet ones won’t let on a thing , in fact they tend to shy , more horselike than the pachydermal we would expect from such a powerful creature as is the majority made out to be .

    So I must leave you to the mystery , that you do not brush it off in ignorance but actually devote a thought in helping solve this most enigmatic of puzzles .

    • Crysangle:

      I have encountered further evidence .

      I read that majorities may be simple , and they may be absolute , but there cannot be a simple absolute majority , only simply absolute or absolutely simple majorities . In either combination they sound convincing .

      Ah yes , convincing majorities exist too apparently . Do they set out to convince others or are they in the process of becoming convinced ? Clue – look for people who seem convinced , or that are in the process of being convinced , they may well be majorities .

      There are small minorities too , but I never wish to offend the stockier of our kind by insinuating on their stature , and as you may know , the shorter amongst us are often robust in build .

      That leads us to great and strong majorities (they are rarely described as weak if you have not noticed , nor poor or pathetic or any other name of that nature , at worst there are unexpected majorities , or surprising majorities to beware of ) , and still I must imagine that they are endowed with a subtle humility that prohibits exhibition at all times .

      The search for answers continues .

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