The capacity of human beings to delude themselves knows few limits. Few human delusions have been quite as pervasive, or as destructive, as the rather touching belief in democracy. Marxism is the only delusion that can match it for sheer silliness.
The idea that the best way to choose a ruler is by a popularity contest is so extraordinary that it is difficult to see how it could ever have been supported by sane people. Wisdom and truth cannot be determined by putting the matter to a vote. We don’t decide whether gravity is true or false by putting the question to the vote.
The idea that democracy, freedom and justice form some sort of magical triad is an associated idea that is equally ludicrous. As conservative philosopher Roger Scruton points out in his excellent book England: An Elegy English liberty was historically assured not by democracy, but by the rule of law.
Scruton argues, convincingly, that the British constitution (an unwritten constitution but a very real one) was an elaborate system for protecting citizens against democracy. The monarchy and the House of Lords balanced the power of the House of Commons. Even more importantly the common law provided protection for individual rights against the dangers of democratic tyranny.
All that went by the board when Tony Blair set out to trash a constitution that had served the nation well for centuries.
The founding fathers of the United States were equally aware of the perils of democracy. The US Constitution and the Bill of Rights were intended to provide a defence against the follies of politicians.
Tyranny exercised by 51% of the electorate is no different in practice to tyranny by a dictator. Democracy has been described as two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner (a quote widely attributed to Ben Franklin although in fact it dates from the 1990s).
Of course the counter-argument to all this is that the alternatives are worse. This is a misleading argument since the alternatives usually presented are dictatorship or technocracy. Those alternatives are certainly worse than democracy, but other alternatives such as the limitations on democracy outlined by Scruton are generally not mentioned by enthusiasts for democracy.
When your ship is heading for an iceberg the options might be limited and somewhat unattractive but simply continuing on the same course will in the long run be an even more unpleasant option.
I’ll close with a quote from John Adams, in a letter to John Taylor on 15 April 1814:
“I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.” –