No government can continue good, but under the control of the people.

—Thomas Jefferson. Letter to John Adams, Monticello, December 10, 1819.

The nature of representative democracy

Representative democracy has always been an imperfect expedient. The ideal would be to have all political questions decided by direct democracy. In the past this has been impractical except in small towns. However, thanks to information technology, people can now vote from their own computer or mobile device wherever and whenever convenient.

Representative democracy is badly flawed

I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.

—Thomas Jefferson. Letter to Francis Hopkinson, Paris, March 13, 1789.

Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments are the sentiments of every moral person. To sell yourself unreservedly, body and soul, to a creed or program is a wicked and immoral act. Unfortunately, with representative democracy, voters are asked to do exactly that every time they elect a politician. They are forced to choose a representative rather than to vote for particular laws. The whole institution of representative democracy is based on the fiction that the people who vote for a particular politician agree with everything that politician espouses. In reality, people vote for the candidate whose policies they detest the least.

The great benefit of direct democracy is that it allows a separation of issues and, therefore, meaningful participation in government by each and every voter. When a person votes, he is exercising his own personal sovereignty to decide how he wishes to live. With direct democracy the result accords far more closely to his wishes.

Representative democracy is prone to manipulation by special interests

Elected representatives are faced with a terrible dilemma: do they fulfill their trust to those who elected them or serve the special interests that control their chances of re-election? Reasoning that they cannot do any good unless they get re-elected, they typically rationalize putting special interests first. Even if their entire electorate disapproves of a vote, such as for the bailout of Wall Street speculators, the wishes of the electorate tend to be flagrantly ignored. The enraged electorate has no recourse other than to vote for the candidate put up by the other party. The problem is that the other candidate has been compromised by the same special interests.

Special interests have a similar modus operandi to the mafia. Mobsters approach a single union official, government official or businessman and tell him that if he does not do as he is told he will be murdered. Once the person has been corrupted the mobsters move on to their next victim. Every so often, in order to give credibility to their threats, they will murder someone for not cooperating. Eventually there forms a lattice of corrupted individuals giving the mobsters effective control of the whole system. Likewise, special interests tend to focus on an individual politician and corrupt him. This is done through a combination of bribery (by providing campaign funding) and intimidation. The intimidation works by every now and again heavily funding an incumbent’s opponent and de-seating him. This serves as a warning to other congressmen should they refuse to tow the line.

Direct democracy is more morally justifiable than representative democracy

Tyranny has no moral justification, whereas self-rule, exercised through democracy, is perfectly in accord with the natural law. Representative democracy, being a flawed attempt at providing the people with self-rule, sits somewhere between the two extremes. Thus in a contest between representative democracy and direct democracy, direct democracy is morally superior.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove