25 October 2012

A Paradox of Democracy

Ulysses quotes de Tocqueville:

When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education . . . the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint . . . . It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold. . . . they neglect their chief business which is to remain their own masters. [Emphasis added.]

As voting rights have become more universal, more and more rights have been ignored and trampled upon, and many liberties have disappeared.  The right to own and carry guns unobstructed by the government is no longer recognized anywhere in the states.  The right to operate one’s own property in whatever manner one sees fit (insofar doing so does not infringe on anyone else’s right to do the same), free from state interference is also gone, buried under Byzantine regulations.  Every action by any citizen, as demonstrated by Harvey Silverglate’s excellent Three Felonies a Day, is subject to state approval, either directly or indirectly. The state controls virtually every aspect of its citizens’ lives.  And thus, members of the nation are no longer citizens; rather, they are truly slaves.

What’s interesting, though, about this development of practical slavery is that this was accomplished in tandem with the expansion of voter rights.  Politicians, unsurprisingly, lied to a rather gullible voting public, and the public believed the politicians, and consequently loosened their hold on their rights.
This, then, points to the paradox of democracy:  As a state becomes more democratic in function, it becomes more dictatorial in form.  There are likely several different plausible explanations for why this generally tends to be the case.  My personal theory is that people are more likely to pay attention to a representative government if they don’t believe that it represents them.  To state it another way, one is more wary of an elected government when one doesn’t get to vote, for one will necessarily be concerned that those who have the right to vote will vote to harm those who do not have the right to vote.
Another paradox is this:  once one receives the right to vote, one is not as concerned about elected officials representing him.  To explain it metaphorically, the dog looks tamer once you have it on a leash.  But, this doesn’t preclude the dog from dragging you.  Democracy is like that leash:  you feel more in control when you have it, but this feeling isn’t necessarily reality.

When you first tame a dog and put it on a leash, it will generally act compliant until it senses a good opportunity to break away.  An experienced handler will recognize a dog’s subtle attempts at going its own way, and rein it in; an inexperienced handler will not.  If the dog is sufficiently large and fearsome, any handler that finds the dog attempting to go its own way will find it easy to rationalize the situation away:  you wanted to go that direction anyway.  Emboldened, the dog presses his course with more fervor and strength until the hapless handler is being dragged along.  At this point, the only way to stop getting dragged along is to either let go of the leash or dig in your heels and fight back.  But you must first recognize that you are getting dragged, and you must first recognize that holding a leash doesn’t mean you’re in control.

The same is true in democracy.   Having the right to vote doesn’t automatically mean that you no longer have to be vigilant against the wiles of corrupt politicians; it means you have to pay just as much attention.  And once politicians start charting a course that strips you of your freedoms, you mustn’t start rationalizing this away as being “for the greater good,” or “a good thing, just this once.”  You must bring the politicians back to heel by voting the cads out.  And if, as appears to currently be the case, you find that you no longer have control of those who claim to represent you, your options are twofold:  either “let go of the leash” by ceasing to vote or dig your heels in and support and vote for those who will actually act in your interest (hint:  these sort of politicians don’t tend to be in either the Republican or Democrat party).

Only by remaining vigilant can we overcome the paradox of democracy.  Attaining the right to vote doesn’t mean you don’t have to diligently guard your freedoms anymore.  Au contraire, it means you have to be even more vigilant in defending the freedoms that belong to you.


  1. But vigilance is so hard, what with all the reality tv and celebrity gossip there is to follow.

  2. @odinslounge- lol. It's funny 'cause it's true.

  3. " As a state becomes more democratic in function, it becomes more dictatorial in form."

    What does dictatorial mean in this context? The paradox is only this mistake - associating dictatorship with lack of freedom. There is no basis in history or logic for such an association. A dictator takes away your political power, but not usually any personal liberties.