Form of democracy whereby citizens elect legislators, rather than voting on every issue themselves. Practically all modern democracies adopt this system, sometimes called parliamentary democracy.

You have a choice when it comes to governments. That dictatorship getting you down? You have the choice to revolt. That "democracy" a little too socialist for you? Well, you can get the local megalomaniac elected on a nationalist platform, and watch as the government you've chosen casts itself into chaos with neighbor states. Want more humanism in government? No problem, you can choose it--and stand paralyzed as the world around you erupts into glory and violence and your neutrality and social programs prosper on their ill-gotten gain. But you will forever remain uncompetitive in the world market. You may be a successful tourist destination, but a super power? C'mon.

To really seize and consolidate power, you need the people's consent. To give them too little is too doom yourself to paranoia and the need to oppress and monitor. This is bad for business. To give them too much is to doom yourself to too little power, to become a footstool and an object of ridicule. This is also bad for business.

To rule a people effectively and maximize your world market share, you need to give the individual just enough power. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and a few other freedoms to achieve bleak prosperity on their own will give them the sense of enough personal power that they will not cast you out. What's left over of their works, their loyalty, can then be effectively applied to extending your sphere of influence domestically and abroad. You can work their freedom--indeed, propensity--to gather and talk into an ever-churning reactor that puts out consent to your plans in the guise of debate. The question then is not "Should we acquire Country X's holdings?" but "Should we acquire Country X's holdings through diplomacy or force?" Either way, your business grows, and you end up controlling another country's assets and natural resources, wiping out its less competitive government and replacing it with one that fits your model.

Why does this work? Because the consumer wants freedom. This is what the dictators never understood. People want a choice: you can't sell them a government that says they have no choice, they have to wear beards and veils. That never lasts long in the modern market. You have to place before them a proper choice: Coke or Pepsi. Foreign or domestic. Republican or democrat. Military war or economic war. Their perception that their wills are working and their choices have real power are a necessary part of your marketing plan if you want to truly amass power.

Representative democracy is the superior product. When it's administered correctly (for which you need a relatively competent and duly elected layer of middle management in local and national legislators), people buy and keep buying. In a matter of decades, it's possible to build enormous brand loyalty that will have people calling it treasonous to question your strategy.

Some will protest your acquisitions and partnerships, but your vehemently defending their right to do so will eviscerate their movement. There are no martyrs without oppression, and in a representative democracy, the only discernable oppression among consumers is the absence of a complaint department. "We hear you" is your slogan, "we listen to you" is your warranty policy. You depend on them to tell you which way you should go about the business of consolidating power. What cinches the sale is that you give the consumer choice, and he or she can see it working in the market.

Following the breakdown of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, democracy is the state-form that has the monopoly on political legitimacy. This legitimacy is derived from participatory democracy, the direct self-rule of the Athenian polis, where every adult male finds himself part of the executive at some time in his life. But the modern state and a global capitalist economy are unsuited for such "radical" democracy because the citizen can never comprehend all the things in the world that affect and endanger his life. Indeed, the modern state, with all its facets and resources, is often unable to understand the world with sufficient clarity. Thus the state must be constructed and perpetuated alongside democracy - for political authority must be exercised. What representative democracy does is to make this legitimate.

That representative democracy appears to many as a contradiction has made a cynical view of it popular. It is mainly defined in negative terms - it isn't fascism, it isn't Communism - simply because the twentieth century has taught us to value it over the alternatives. Its emergence in the last third of the last millenium should not be put down to a renewed interest in the idea of popular self-rule, but rather a breakdown in the means of subjection among the ancien regime of Europe. That it has proved singularly compatible with capitalism helped it along greatly, although both Adam Smith and David Hume eyed it with suspicion. John Dunn says representative democracy has secured three political goods which encourage its perdurance -

  • 1. It helps to protect the citizens of a nation from its government.
  • 2. It establishes governmental responsbility to the governed.
  • 3. It makes both democracy and the modern state compatible with the modern capitalist economy

Point three is very important, but the Ancients would have been surprised. Capitalism can only function when property rights are respected to a sufficient degree to allow the market to allocate resources efficiently and generate wealth. Many people have opposed democracy precisely on the grounds that it can undermine property rights, being essentially rule by the poor (who outnumber the rich in any society). Aristotle and Edmund Burke agreed on this point, but their pessimism was perhaps ill-founded - the property of the rich was relatively safe against the egalitarian demands of the Athenian poor and has continued to be so in our modern societies. This is perhaps because the market economy has political legitimacy as a means of advancing the wealth of all.

Properly understood, democracy and capitalism are both systems of individual freedom. But because they operate in different spheres of life the choices made in one sphere may not be compatible with those made in the other. As a political system democracy aims to promote the general good of all those under its sovereignty, and may pursue human ends other than the efficient operation of the market. It is generally accepted in modern social democracies that some goods have to be public, but there are no scientific criteria for deciding which these should be - this is another potential point of conflict between the two systems. The collapse of the USSR has shown that the state is not in the position to take on the responsibility of running the whole economy, and it is generally accepted that a market economy secures the advance of wealth. Representative democracy hence then does tend to protect the rich from the poor.

Dunn identifies three questions that must be posed to representative democracy to challenge its legitimacy. The first is whether it can ever tame the business cycle and secure an increase of opulence indefinitely, or whether representative democracy is cursed to see the onset of class warfare at bad parts of the cycle. Modern economists can not fully explain or predict the progress of economies, but the material well-being of society is key to the progress of democracy. When economic instability pushes people to seek security rather than freedom, an erosion of the democracy is bound to take place. A radical attack on the rich, carried out in ignorance of their role as a public good, could have dire consequences for both governed and governor.

The second question is whether any criteria can be established on who would be best to govern us. As natural science continues to expand our capacity for action and has now put mankind in a situation where it can destroy itself, this is becoming more and more crucial. As a system of free choice, representative democracy does not give us any clue on who to choose to rule us. The centuries have seen many different theories and musings on this subject, but no answer. This is a singularly difficult question, but one we must be aware of. Because of the complexity of the modern state and its constant growth, different answers to this question will be correct at different points in time and space.

The third is how safely we can approach the ideal of the Athenian polis in the modern world. Those who understood the modern world most acutely - Hannah Arendt, Max Weber, Karl Marx - have all commented on the alienation of modern man with regard to his environment. The ideal of living in prelapsarian freedom no longer seems realistic, as the modern global economy necessarily involves subjection to the authority of some hierarchy. The modern state itself - especially its bureaucracy - encourages alienation because it seems so vast and inhuman. But amidst this the ideal of citizen self-rule remains, as the legacy of the Athenian demos is the belief that the voice of humankind can ring out in controlling its own affairs. There is no clear limit on where the line on freedom should be drawn to ensure a stable society, but the continuation of the ideal ensures the survival of the reasonable hope that the voice of man will never be silenced.


The Dunn book mentioned is Democracy: the unfinished journey, 508BC to AD1993 (Oxford, 1992). Arendt speaks about modern man's alienation in The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition and Between Past and Future. Marx does so in Capital.

Representational democracy is a form of governance that, in theory, is meant to protect the interests of citizens* when population size reaches the point that direct democracy becomes impractical or inefficient.

It is structured in such a way that groups of citizens elect, or have chosen for them, a representative who in turn casts votes on legislature and government offices in the manner that the citizens whom they represent would most likely choose. This is the first hurdle of the system.

The larger a population gets the less easy it is to efficiently discriminate information on what a vote entails (e.g. the full details of a proposed piece of legislature or the scope of an office candidate’s platform and political leanings). Larger populations mean more people who are not adequately informed casting votes based on missing or incorrect information, as well as a higher percentage of citizens intentionally abstaining or being unable to vote for one reason or another. It is the representative’s responsibility to vote based on the perceived notion of what the majority of citizens would decide if they could. This is accomplished by way of preliminary polling and the “popular vote”. The representative takes this information and then casts the only vote that actually matters.

While the concept of representative democracy is effective in speeding up the voting system and guarantees that the government hears the voice of its citizens, the biggest flaw with representative democracy is determining whose voice is being heard.

The group of citizens a representative is responsible for can be determined in a few ways, though generally by geography or population density. With appropriate forethought, vote outcomes can be rigged through planning what groups of citizens a representative has. In the US this is referred to as gerrymandering.

Illustration

Consider a group of sixteen “citizens” organized in a square array like so:

O O O O
O O O O
O O O O
O O O O

Assign votes of O and X for each citizen casting a vote and A for each citizen abstaining or unable to vote.

X X O O
X X A O
O X A O
O X O O

X has six votes, O has eight votes, and there are two abstentions. In a direct democracy those who vote O will get their way.

In a representative democracy those citizens are grouped, with each group having one representative vote.

Simply split the array into four quadrants like so:

X X
X X

O O
A O

O X
O X

A O
O O

With quadrant 1 going to X, quadrant 3 a tie, and quadrants 2 and 4 going to O, O still wins the vote.

Now, it is possible those who determine who represents whom could have gathered the information necessary to predict the above vote break down near perfectly. For the sake of argument they have, and they want to organize things so that X wins the vote. All they would have to do is find a way to split quadrant 1 into three groups. This would give X three votes to O’s two, so X would win. If they wanted to get greedy they could split quadrant 1 into four groups.

And that is how you make democracy work for you.

* Citizens, meaning any person whom the government has issued the ability to cast a vote. This does not mean that everyone under the umbrella of said government has a say in what that government can and cannot do.

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