The Ethics Of… Democracy

Written for the St James Ethics Centre in early 2013, but strangely never published. The article is based of my Masters thesis research into governmental accountability which had rather horrifying results – I’ll post more on that research later.


If someone shot Barak Obama in the head tomorrow, it shouldn’t make the papers. If someone kidnapped Julia Gillard it shouldn’t receive anything more than standard police attention. And if Tony Abbot snuck out of Parliament to go to a strip club for the day, the only one who should care is his wife.

Pretty outlandish statements about the elected leaders of great nations are they not? Well that depends on whether you believe in democracy. You remember democracy right? That thing that is so important, so fundamental to civilisation that we’ve deemed it necessary to invade a number of sovereign nations so that their people might have it. A system of government so synonymous with justice, human rights and freedom that even it’s critics are forced to admire it.

What a pity then that it’s almost completely non-existent.

I can almost hear the eye-rolling. But before you write me off as a radical malcontent, let’s consider the point: what is democracy? This question could and has filled a thousand books, but the fundamentals are fairly clear;

  • One citizen, one vote – no person has more voting power than any other.

  • Governance for the people, of the people, by the people – government is empowered by the people who elect it to act only in their interests.

  • Majority rules – When it comes to a vote, the most popular course of action will be taken.

  • Authority derived from the consent of the governed – Government must remain accountable to those it serves in order to remain legitimate.

When democracy emerged in the city-states of ancient Greece it took the ‘one citizen, one vote’ characteristic quite literally; when a decision needed to be made citizens of each city-state would gather and put their hands in the air to vote on a course of action. A very few modern nations, most notably Switzerland, still conduct this form of direct democracy but the sheer size of most countries made this impossibly unwieldy. Instead, the vast majority of modern democracies, including Australia, the UK and the USA have citizens elect representatives to speak for them in government decisions, in line with the four characteristics listed above.

Sounds good right? Where’s the problem with that? Well, ask yourself this question: when was the last time a politician represented you?

When was the last time your MP, the individual employed using your power to represent the will of their constituents (ie. you), actually asked your opinion on something they voted on? When was the last time they sought your opinion on policy? And when was the last time they actually acted on those views?

The simple fact of most modern democracies is that your representation ends at the voting booth. We don’t elect representatives; we elect leaders. They do not represent the will of their constituents; they represent the views of their parties, of which you have to choose which one you dislike the least.

When the will of the people has been downgraded from ‘the basis of government’ to ‘a suggestion we may take into consideration if we feel like it’ this is no longer a democracy, but rather an elected oligarchy. In fact, given the influence of well-financed lobby groups in the US system and the sheer impossibility of running for government without huge financial backing, it could be described as an elected plutocracy. And when the so-called representatives people are so completely distant from those people that the vast majority of the population and an entire gender are seriously neglected, as we can see coming to a head in the current strife in India, then democracy becomes little more than an elected dictatorship.

But woah woah woah, surely this is missing the point? Comparing the broken, corrupt democracies of developing nations to the largely successful systems in Australia, Europe and the USA is completely unfair! After all, the current system isn’t perfect but it seems to work pretty well. If it isn’t the textbook definition of ‘democracy’, who cares? What’s so good about the ‘real’ version of democracy anyway?

Well it certainly isn’t the ‘majority rules’ characteristic. The majority can be pretty daft if history has anything to tell us – 11 million Germans can’t be wrong, right? Not to mention that the Australian death penalty and racial segregation in the USA would still be in place if the will of the majority had been listened to, despite how unpopular they have since become.

So is it the ‘consent of the governed’ characteristic that makes democracy so important? It’s certainly a great principle, preventing tyranny and any claim to a ‘natural right of rule‘ that plagued earlier forms of government. But the current system does that fine without the public having active participation in government. Don’t like what the government is doing? Vote them out next election. Consent of the governed in action!

No, what makes democracy so important, and what our current systems seriously lack, is the distribution of a government’s power. Within a true democracy, everyone has equal power when it comes to making decisions – ‘one citizen, one vote’. You can debate, you can lobby, and you can market all you want, but at the end of the day the decision that’s made is the precise will of the people affected by that decision. This would still be true in a representative democracy that actually represented the will of the people – one citizen, one vote, collated and voiced by an elected representative.

But when those representatives become leaders, power becomes concentrated into their hands and the will of their constituents is relegated to a suggestion. And when those leaders are almost without exception members of political parties, power is even further concentrated into those few competing organisations who have their own values, write their own policy and dictate their own decisions to their member MPs. And even this would be fine if those MPs and their parties were perfect, and could be trusted to act in the objective interests of those they govern. But they aren’t, and so they often don’t.

Remember the demonstrations prior to Australia getting involved in the Iraq war, way back in 2003? 500,000 people demonstrated against the war, forming Australia’s largest ever popular protest. And achieving precisely nothing.

The next time you feel like leaving politics to the politicians, ask yourself the question – if the democratic government of one of the most developed, uncorrupt and free nations in the world is happy to help invade a sovereign nation without provocation, in defiance of unprecedented public opposition, what would they hesitate to do if they thought they could get away with it?

Government that does not belong entirely to the people does not belong to them at all.

7 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Democracy

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