Wrong to say that direct democracy can become “Tyranny of the majority”

One of the arguments made, by those who do not like direct democracy, is that there is the danger of  “tyranny of the majority”.

Many politicians, commentators and other in the elites, have made this argument.

However, if we look at history, at the facts, such fear does not make much sense, reality does not back it up.

Greek direct democracy never became the “tyranny of the majority”. The only other example of direct democracy, in the whole history of humanity, is today’s Switzerland.

Switzerland is not totally a direct democracy. This is so because in Switzerland they also have politicians and political parties, like in representative democracy.

But Switzerland is a direct democracy because citizens have the final say on all important laws and issues at the local, canton (state-province) and national level. The government and elected representatives do not have the final say.

It is true that Swiss politicians are not as “professional” as the politicians in representative democracies. In Switzerland many elected representatives are not full-time politicians; they keep their regular jobs.

Switzerland, like representative democracies, also has “professional” political parties.

This means that in Switzerland ordinary citizens do not directly run the government. In ancient Greece, they did. In Ancient Greece ordinary citizens were selected randomly to serve in government, even at the highest levels. Before taking their jobs another body of citizens, also selected at random, examined their fitness to serve. It makes sense to me.

In a way, what the Greeks did and what the Swiss do, reflects what the well-known conservative American commentator William F. Buckley Jr., once said: “I would rather be governed by the first 2000 people in the Manhattan phone book than by the entire faculty of Harvard”.

This is one of the best statements about direct democracy I ever read. I do not know if Mr. Buckley meant it that way, but even if he did not, it is a great argument for direct democracy.

What he was saying is that he had more faith in the ability of a large group of ordinary people, selected randomly, to provide better government, than a small elite with a high level of formal education (or money, I presume).

Ordinary Swiss citizens do not directly participate in government, but they do have the power to make sure government and parliament behave in accordance with the will of the majority, just like the Greeks had also.

Like the Greeks, Switzerland has not fallen into the “tyranny of the majority” either. It will not fall into that because, if the majority believes in democracy, it is not rational to fear their tyranny. To believe that ordinary citizens, who believe in democracy and practice it, will turn into tyrants, is like fearing sane people because they could become insane; it makes no sense.

Tyranny has never happened in direct democracy. Tyranny may happen if direct democracy, or representative democracy, collapse.

As long as the democratic majority in a democracy feels and knows its will prevails, they will not become frustrated or fearful that the elites, the wealthy and those in top positions, are running the country for their economic benefit. They will not fear either that a “cultural” elite is imposing its ideas on social and economic practices that go against the will of the majority of ordinary citizens.

The reality is that if the majority does not fear being control by the elites, direct democracy or representative democracy will not collapse. Direct democracy is probably the best way to keep that fear away.

Collapse into tyranny, of the known kind, is more likely to happen in representative democracy than in direct democracy. The reason is obvious; in representative democracy desperate voters who feel they have lost control of their country may elect a demagogue “to fix things”. The demagogue, if he or she has a parliamentary majority, can run the country pretty much as a dictator. In fact, sometimes it happens.

In direct democracy there is never need of a demagogue, a “great leader”, a “visionary”, a “prophet” because ordinary people are and feel in charge of the country.

Another danger in representative in representative democracies is that, often, the elected representatives fall under the control of pressure groups. Often, the interests of pressure groups may not coincide with the national interest; they may be even contrary to the national interest.

It is true that in representative democracies the Supreme Court can stop the government from doing certain things, but an absolute majority government can even do away with the Supreme Court, unless it requires a constitutional change approved in a national referendum.

If we recognize that in representative democracy ordinary voters must have the final say on the constitution, it is obvious they are also capable of having the final say in much more “pedestrian” matters. For example, laws and regulations, budgets, building of schools, the military, roads, bringing the Olympics, minimum wage, universal health care and on and on.

This is why direct democracy makes sense.

The experience of Switzerland and Greece tells us direct democracy is a sound system.

Stable representative democracies can make the transition now. The current political, economic and social elites, who now run such countries, will probably oppose the change because they will lose power.

Once the transition is made, the end result will be that the 2000 randomly selected people Mr. Buckley spoke about would provide, not better, but much better government than the entire faculty of Harvard, the economic elite and elected politicians. Switzerland proves it; enter “direct democracy”, “Swiss direct democracy” in your computer or phone and you will see.

Reject the argument that direct democracy presents a danger of the “tyranny of the majority”; it has never happened.

Direct democracy is the better way.


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