Acknowledging and Analyzing the Pitfalls of Democracy

America was founded as a republic with a representative democracy. The Declaration of Independence is one of the most historically significant documents that represents a milestone in the development of humans, akin to the Magna Carta. With the principles of limited government in mind, the founders believed in a government that protected its citizens’ natural rights and used representative voting as a means for “rule by majority” to ensure a “common good”.

Dating back to the Romans and Ancient Greece, democracy has flourished into the primarily accepted form of government. However, I always want to challenge the status quo. Although I believe democracy is the best form of governance, I think there are often some dangerous (and ignored) implications presented by “rule by majority” and “common good” that we must acknowledge. Furthermore, I think the founder’s vision for a representative democracy has been convoluted over the years to where it no longer is such.

The words “common good” have been manipulated to serve as an excuse for a variety of corrupt policies and friendly handouts. Politicians will apply it to just about anything if it helps their personal gain. But can anyone actually define a “common good” and when it is no longer a “common good”? In my opinion, I define “common good” as a direct impact to societal structure and order. There are very few things that could be a “common good”.

An FDA food inspector does not prevent the demise of social order nor do I have a direct interest in the quality of food in Nevada, thus it cannot be a “common good”. If I live in Maine and pay taxes for federal urban transit subsidies in Chicago (that I will likely never use), how does that constitute a common good? The government has spent billions on pointless studies (including the massaging of rabbits) and corporate welfare. As history tells us, the government is not very selective when it comes to constituting a “common good”. Many of these misguided beliefs of a “common good” can and should be handled by the market, but that will be another post.

Conversely, I believe a system of courts used to protect property rights and enforce contracts certainly act in the favor of a common good. Without a system of laws, there would be no basic “rules of the game” to the economy. There are other traditional functions of government that would be a “common good”, such as a national defense. I will not go into those for now, but they exist in small portion.

“Rule by majority” is often accepted as qualification for any action of the government. You voted for it, you get it – that sort of thing. There are two dangerous faults here: 1) the assumption that you and your fellow voter know what is best solely because you outnumber me and 2) that a majority vote will be representative of the majority without harming a minority.

Throughout history, there have been numerous human rights tragedies and terrible policies at the hand of a “rule by majority”. For one, segregation was a policy enforced by this same notion – that a majority vote justified government forced segregation. Did the majority know what was best for people, and was it for the “common good”? Clearly, the answer is no, yet we use the same logic for segregation as we do for many other policies. ObamaCare is not popular with a large group of people, and, whatever your opinion may be, the IRS will force them to buy health insurance. Why? Because other people outnumber them, and therefore that is what’s best for the minority? Seems like a flimsy excuse to me.

Even today, the events of police brutality are manifested in the principle of “rule by majority” and “common good”. The NYC cigarette tax was approved by politicians elected by a “rule of majority”. Thus, is the majority indirectly responsible for Garner’s murder? Furthermore, the cigarette tax was meant to reduce consumption for the “common good”, but it created a criminal black market that got someone killed. Can that be defined as justice for the “common good”? If so, that would mean every New Yorker had a direct interest in the cigarette tax, which would justify Garner’s murder over not paying. After all, New Yorkers “ruled by majority” to have a cigarette tax. I doubt too many New Yorkers would be willing to accept that responsibility. But if politicians enacted the tax without the use of a ballot, how can it still be a “rule by majority”, let alone the result of a representative democracy?

Modern American democracy now has many deeply rooted problems that have worsened over time. The idea of a representative democracy is somewhat gone now. Congressman will frequently gerrymander or re-district so they can win re-election. With a lousy 7% approval rating, one has to wonder how they maintain a re-election rate of about 80%.

Our biggest problems, while brought to life by legislatures or executives, are rooted in bureaucratic administrations and departments that have sweeping, unchecked regulatory power. In a democracy where government is representative of people, many of their actions are occasionally brought to a vote in the legislature, but never directly by the people. Larger regulations, such as a Dodd-Frank, mostly originate in the legislature with the input of the respective bureaucracy and special interests groups. I do not think the latter two are representative of the “majority”, let alone the “common good”.

You don’t have to look far to find this regulatory overreach. However you may feel about gun control, the ATF frequently passes ill-conceived gun laws that arbitrarily restrict law abiding gun owners. Sure, they can be minor, but that is not how a representative democracy works. I didn’t vote for or against ATF regulations, and I did not see the bubble on the ballot box. Therefore, the enforcement of said law is not legitimate or representative of the people.

We can extend this same premise to most bureaucracies. For example, farming subsidies from the USDA and DOA have little concern with a “majority rules”, although I doubt the majority is aware of how that money is spent. If the USDA gives someone $100,000 not to farm (which they do), there needs to be a clearly defined “common good”. Certainly, public money used to diminish supply to maintain higher food prices is in no one’s “common good”. We need to be very careful of how this premise can lead to government abuse.

There are other things we must understand about democracy if we are to effectively participate in it. If government exists because people are inherently immoral, then why do we give a monopoly on force to small group to rule over a larger group? In practice, democracy is an oligarchy – a few ruling over many. If we do not acknowledge its strengths and weaknesses, those who wish to be corrupt will manipulate it to their own end at the expense of individual liberty.

I sincerely hope to have challenged the status quo beliefs about our representative democracy. While no system of governance is perfect, it represents a major accomplishment for mankind that has guided us to great prosperity. If we are to sustain democracy and freedom, we need to reign in government control and always keep in mind the rights of the minority instead of carte blanche majority rules.



  1. You’re absolutely correct, taking from one person and giving to another is hardly advancing the common good. The general welfare clause does not mean the government can promote one specific constituent’s welfare at the expense of another’s welfare. That is definitely not general. Great post!


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