How Beliefs Can Threaten Democracy

A favorite starting point of people when the topic is democracy is to quote Winston Churchill’s remark that democracy is the worst form of government except for all others. That is one of the worst things anybody has ever said.

First of all, a functioning democracy has a decisive practical advantage over non-democratic forms of government. It allows the right person or the right idea to come along as needed.

Churchill himself was a great example of that. The people of England were blessed to have him as Prime Minister during World War II — and doubly blessed to be able to get him out of office as soon as the war ended. England again provides a sterling example of the right idea coming forth at the right time when John Maynard Keynes’s analysis of and cure for the Great Depression was published in 1936. [Currently, I would say a new idea is a far more urgent need than even a truly great person is.]

Ever more important than that practical advantage, however, is that democracy is the only just form of government. In it the people who are affected by the actions of government have the ultimate political authority in their hands.

Here is the point of this essay: in a democracy people are not being forced to accept whatever beliefs might underlie any particular outcome; rather, they are accepting the justness of the process within which those outcomes are wrought. To the extent that people’s beliefs about ‘living life’ are more important to them than having a democracy is, those beliefs do represent a threat to democracy.

There are two conditions of justice for the political process: freedom of political speech and a just distribution of political rights. Only democracy meets those conditions; to meet those conditions is to be a democracy.

Freedom of political speech is universally recognized as a cornerstone of democracy. Along with freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, etc., it is a right that applies to the political process and is also more broadly applicable. Other rights are specific to participation in the political process, such as voting and running for office.

Since all rights are abstractions, they are therefore both cost-free and available for an unlimited number of people. The ‘default value’ can therefore be for everyone to have every political right. ‘Distributing’ those rights becomes a matter of placing restrictions on them.

I do think that political speech is more important than other speech. Still, including it in a generalized right to free speech does at least establish freedom of political speech. That allows all members of the community to participate in the political process.

To be just, restrictions on other political rights must be universally applicable and universally applied among members of the community. Such a distribution of political rights is definitive of a democracy.

Age is a valid restriction on political rights. It is a proxy for having the requisite maturity, life experience, etc. to exercise a right reasonably well. It is surely imperfect in that regard, but it is at least universally applicable and universally applied.

It is somewhat more problematic to consider whether a person of the allowable age is a ‘good enough’ citizen (a non-felon, anyway) or ‘sane’ enough to be allowed to exercise those rights. Yet, since anyone can become a felon or lose one’s finger-grip hold on ‘reality’, those restrictions are not necessarily invalid.

‘Race’ (color of skin), gender, and national origin are examples of restrictions on political rights that cannot be universally applicable. Such restrictions are therefore patently unjust.

Even with freedom of political speech and a just distribution of specifically political rights in place, some people say democracy is still not really just because coercion is still present. People are restricted by law from doing things they believe should be allowed to do, with some kinds of drugs (to include alcohol and tobacco), gambling, and prostitution as common examples. People also have to accept that behaviors which they believe should be illegal are not. Two examples are abortion and living the same way as a homosexual person that heterosexual people are allowed to live.

To be clear, both of the above sets of examples of people putting their beliefs ahead of political outcomes are a threat to democracy. Democracy cannot survive without liberty, nor can liberty survive without democracy.

People who put their choices of behavior above the law do degrade the democratic process. Democracy is often referred to as ‘self-government’. That means ‘the people’ governing themselves as a polity, but it also means that people should be good citizens who govern themselves for the sake of the community as a whole. That basically means having respect for other people in the community, taking them into account in assessing one’s own actions.

Beyond that, disregarding any law lessens respect for lawfulness. Moreover, it forces the community to channel more resources into enforcing the laws that are on the books, and channeling more resources into law enforcement does per force create a generalized threat to liberty.

The other attitude regarding one’s beliefs is a more direct threat to liberty. To have the liberty to live as one wants to the greatest extent possible requires the greatest possible tolerance for others to live as they want.

Obviously, a community has to have laws governing citizens’ behavior. However, to maximize liberty for all we have to limit our laws to behaviors that pose a threat to the persons or property of the entire community, either as a whole or as individuals within it. Using laws to make the community ‘a better place’ is one thing; using laws to make the members of the community ‘better people’ is another.

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid, academically trained philosopher and political economist