We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

This great Isonomy of ours

I am happy and relieved by the result of the US election. I thank those who campaigned, volunteered or just plain voted to keep the right man at the helm.

All the same, I take literally the statement that democracy is the least worst form of government.

Many here argue that we do not need any government at all. It is not going away any time soon, though. Most anarchists and minarchists will concede that modern liberal democracy is fertile ground compared to the despotic wasteland that makes up most of history, even if it is not yet a garden of libertarian delights.

I figured out as a child that the least wonderful aspect of a modern liberal democracy is that it lets the majority decide: the tyranny of the majority is to be feared. Votes are a mechanism to deal with the fact that some administrative variables affecting many people (speed limits, for instance, or surrenders) must be set at a predictable value for a recognisable group, or bad stuff happens.

I also figured out as a child that the good soul of a liberal democracy, the thing that has made us the most fortunate human beings in history, is the idea that every individual matters. None of us can be made to stop mattering because we look wrong or do wrong. That’s why every individual has certain rights that cannot be…

…OK, OK, I had better stop myself before I re-hash the Declaration of Independence in much inferior prose. You know all this. You can probably cite references. Please do!

It is a pity it ever has to come to voting. Votes by definition make some people sad. Yet we go on and on about majorities and mandates and elections and other things to do with the regrettable majoritarian aspects of our system. We talk much less about how the only reason that counting people matters is that people count. And, as we on this blog know, it is a constant struggle to defend individual rights against the majority.

I just wondered, is the reason that we so exalt the rule of the majority over the more fundamental principle of equality before the law simply because we picked the wrong ruddy name for our system of government? Everybody knows that we don’t mean by democracy what the Greeks meant by it. We don’t have ostracism. We don’t have slavery. These prohibitions are not mere differences of custom but integral to the system. The difference between our ‘democracy’ and theirs is precisely that we believe in inalienable rights and equality under the law. So whose bleedin’ stupid idea was it to call our system the Greek word for “people-rule?” It was sure to give folk the wrong idea. If we had just called it isonomy instead we would all be a lot better off.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on Google+Share on VKEmail this to someone

14 comments to This great Isonomy of ours

  • “we so exalt the rule of the majority over the more fundamental principle of equality before the law ”

    Hold on, Natalie. The point of democracy is surely to determine what that law is. You have to have laws before you can have equality under them.

    I can’t think of a better way of doing it.

    I do worry about people who think, for example, that armed forces should be privatised. It would break one of P J O’Rourke’s rules for the good state

    “Never let the people with all the money and the people with all the guns be the same people”

    I used to observe anarchy in action as a Stonehenge festival-going hippy. Comes down in practice to “all power to the Windsor Hell’s Angels”

  • Ron

    Great article about the mess within Kerry’s team during the run-up to the election.

  • Laban, I actually largely agree with you. Maybe my late-night post didn’t make that clear. I can’t think of a better way of doing it either – for those few decisions that must be made for the whole group, let us decide by counting heads.

    Unfortunately there are vast numbers of decisions being made for whole nations (or collections of nations) when there is not the slightest need for majority views to be imposed on minorities either at a national scale or at all. The National Curriculum is one example. EU Regulation Number Anything is another.

    I expect I’m preaching to the choir here.

    My point was that most people focus on the demos aspect much more than the isonomy aspect, and maybe that’s simply because of the name “democracy”.

  • Re-reading my comment above, I see that I have phrased it in such a way as to make it liable to be misunderstood in the same way as the original post. It should read “Unfortunately there are vast numbers of decisions being made for whole nations (or collections of nations) in cases where there is not the slightest need for majority views to be imposed on minorities either at a national scale or at all.”

    I am a minarchist who is sad not to be an anarchist.

  • You can uphold the principle of equality before the law before you have any laws to be equal before. The principle of equality can (and should) be primal: all laws should bow to it, and no law which contravenes it should be allowed to be passed. Of course, that sort of approach would in itself be a law of sorts, so it’s possible I don’t know what I’m talking about.

    In Britain, where government may do anything, I suspect this is just nonsense. In a country with a written constitution that the government shalt not breach, the principle of equality, if it is enshrined in the constitution, exists prior to and above the law. Unless the constitution is a law. Oh, I give up.

  • Dale Amon

    Part of the problem is that we all mis-use the word democracy when we speak of the form of government rather than the act of voting.

    The United States, for example, is not a Democracy. It is a Republic. The nature of the Republic is precisely the issue of limited government. Not all things may be voted on; Presidents are not elected by popular vote; Senators used to not be elected by popular vote but by State legislatures; State used to mean just that, a small mostly independant area joined in a Federation for common defense and a common overarching framework for commerce.

    The intention of the framers was the solution of precisely the Majoritarian problem Natalie speaks of.
    The more Federalism centralizes and the more ‘democratic’ America becomes, the more the majoritarian tyranny effects become a problem.

  • In Britain, where government may do anything, I suspect this is just nonsense. In a country with a written constitution that the government shalt not breach, the principle of equality, if it is enshrined in the constitution, exists prior to and above the law. Unless the constitution is a law. Oh, I give up.

    I disagree that a written consitution is the source of very much of this. In a lot of cases Britons are governed by common law principles rather than actual legislation. Many of these evolved out of legal conceptions of natural justice very much akin to the sorts of things Squander is talking about. And America has some but not all of these principles codified in its written constitution. And Americans do enjoy more common law freedoms and protections than just those codified in the consititution.

    What I think the written consitution is good for is providing some protection for your principles and freedoms when they are under threat. As it happens Britain has very little preventing a determined government from breaking these sorts of things down and removing them, which is what the present government is doing, and what people like David Carr are so upset about.

    And to be honest, even the American constitution isn’t great protection against a really nasty government, judicial system, and a population that are really determined to make an assault on it. Ultimately a constitution is just a piece of paper. It is the good sense of the American people far more than the constitution itself that matters.

  • Jim Beam

    I find the idea of you pondering rights and liberal democracy as a child very touching.

  • Brett Smith

    Many years ago, my high school social studies teacher opined that we live in an aristocratic republic with democratic tendencies.

  • majorchuck

    “Never let the people with all the money and the people with all the guns be the same people”

    Is it any better to allow the people who have all the power also have the guns? At least rich people have shown that they can achieve something. Politicians have only shown that they can lie there way into being elected.

  • Cobden Bright

    A tangential point – the Isle of Man has no speed limits outside towns and villages, and doesn’t seem to have collapsed into anarchy 🙂

  • majorchuck “At least rich people have shown that they can achieve something.”

    You could drop back 800 years “At least the barons have shown that they can achieve something.”

    And if they have all the guns, we’ll have a system called feudalism. Rule by gangsters. No thanks. South America’s been a bit like that for the last 150 years.

    I’m not against rich people, but a situation where the money and military power coincide would bring us within a measurable distance of measureless calamity.

    Would you prefer Bill Gates to GWB as commander in Chief ? Or in the UK, the Barclay Brothers instead of Blair. I think I’ll stick with democracy …

  • Sharon Ferguson

    Dale Amon : DITTOS.

    This misunderstanding is indicative of a populace who have either recieved very poor education in the civics of American Government, OR an elitist tendency to reshape the language of popular discussion in such a way as to dismiss and/or ignore the basic tenets and principles of a representative republic.

    Then of course, Ben Franklin was highly prophetic in his statement “[we have] a representative republic…if we can keep it.” Leftism shows itself to be the force designed to eliminate the existence of a Representative Republic.