Tag Archive: institutions

What democratic institutions may be expected to do

Seen in this light, the theory of democracy is not based upon the principle that the majority should rule; rather, the various equalitarian methods of democratic control, such as general elections and representative government, are to be considered as no more than well-tried and, in the presence of a widespread traditional distrust of tyranny, reason­ably effective institutional safeguards against tyranny, always open to improvement, and even providing methods for their own improvement.

He who accepts the principle of democracy in this sense is therefore not bound to look upon the result of a democratic vote as an authoritative expression of what is right. Although he will accept a decision of the majority, for the sake of making the democratic institutions work, he will feel free to combat it by democratic means, and to work for its revision. …

Institutions are like fortresses. They must we well designed and manned.

This distinction between the personal and the institutional element in a social situation is a point which is often missed by the critics of democracy. Most of them are dissatisfied with democratic institutions because they find that these do not necessarily prevent a state or a policy from falling short of some moral standards or of some political demands which may be urgent as well as admirable. But these critics misdirect their attacks; they do not understand what democratic institutions may be expected to do, and what the alternative to democratic institutions would be. Democracy (using this label in the sense suggested above) provides the institutional framework for the reform of polit­ical institutions. It makes possible the reform of institutions without using violence, and thereby the use of reason in the designing of new insti­tutions and the adjusting of old ones. It cannot provide reason. The question of the intellectual and moral standard of its citizens is to a large degree a personal problem. (The idea that this problem can be tackled, in turn, by an institutional eugenic and educational control is, I believe, mistaken; some reasons for my belief will be given below.) It is quite wrong to blame democracy for the political shortcomings of a democratic state. We should rather blame ourselves, that is to say, the citizens of the democratic state. In a non-democratic state, the only way to achieve reasonable reforms is by the violent overthrow of the government, and the introduction of a democratic framework. Those who criticize demo­cracy on any ‘moral’ grounds fail to distinguish between personal and institutional problems. It rests with us to improve matters. The democratic institutions cannot improve themselves. The problem of improving them is always a problem for persons rather than for institutions. But if we want improvements, we must make clear which institutions we want to improve. [ch. 7, 137-9]

Democracy, majority rule, tyranny

And indeed, it is not difficult to show that a theory of democratic control can be developed which is free of the paradox of sovereignty. The theory I have in mind is one which does not proceed, as it were, from a doctrine of the intrinsic good­ness or righteousness of a majority rule, but rather from the baseness of tyranny; or more precisely, it rests upon the decision, or upon the adoption of the proposal, to avoid and to resist tyranny.

For we may distinguish two main types of government. The first type consists of governments of which we can get rid without bloodshed—for example, by way of general elections; that is to say, the social institutions provide means by which the rulers may be dismissed by the ruled, and the social traditions ensure that these institutions will not easily be destroyed by those who are in power. The second type consists of governments which the ruled cannot get rid of except by way of a successful revolution—that is to say, in most cases, not at all. I suggest the term ‘democracy’ as a short-hand label for a government of the first type, and the term ‘tyranny’ or ‘dictatorship’ for the second. [ch. 7, 136]