“Many dreams come true, and some have silver linings. I live for my dream, and a pocketful of gold” – Robert Plant, from Led Zeppelin’s Over the Hills and Far Away
Do we live in a republic or a democracy? This is the question that 6th grade civics teachers love to drop on their unsuspecting students who may not be aware of the distinction. I imagine those same 6th graders are not reading this blog, so we’ll skip the introduction.
What interests me is the relative pros and cons of the different forms of popular governance and whether we are reaping those benefits. The descriptions of republics and democracies are varied and often overlap. So, we will describe the two forms in terms of their extremes and then consider the middle ground.
Democracy, at its extreme, is simple majority rule (direct democracy). To pass any law requires a majority vote of the population. There are several obvious downsides to this form of government. The first is simply logistical – holding a direct vote on every issue is infeasible for even modestly sized populations (or land masses for that matter). More sinister than this is the threat of “tyranny of the majority” or “mob rule”. Fifty percent plus one vote is all it takes to enact whatever legislation you wish. Rights of the citizens become utterly subject to the will of the majority. If the majority decides that people over six feet tall are to be taxed at a higher rate and have their left pinkie-toe amputated, then I’m just out of luck.
Even with this, there are benefits to democracy. First, policies are decided by the masses, so movements can be taken directly to the hearts and minds of the governed. Further, any prior policy decision can be undone by a single vote – there is no mass bureaucracy that can stand in the way when the majority has made its decision. The system can react quickly to failure.
For a Republic, we go to the other extreme. The rule and power of the majority is restricted, severely restricted, by the rights of the individual. Now, the benefits of this form are derived simply from its definition – individual rights reign supreme. Citizens of a republic need not worry (in a perfect world) about having their rights trampled or restricted.
The downside of the republic is the inflexibility or rigidity of the form. There are times when, for the very survival of the state, rights of individuals must be subverted (or rather, subverting those rights is the easiest path toward a successful resolution to the danger at hand). We see this frequently in times of war.
It is here that we note the obvious – America is not governed as either of these extreme definitions. That’s fine, no country is. The history of popular government is littered with various balances between the two.
Next we point to the not-so-obvious. The current state of American governance may not be better than either of these extremes. To the mathematician this is mildly unsettling. We’d like to see a smooth, monotonic transition between pros and cons of the different forms.
I submit that the degradation of form (examples to follow) extends from the slow subversion of “rights” with larger power grabs by the central government, coupled with an unwillingness to transition to direct democracy. The amalgam in the middle opens the way for a great deal of corruption.
At the root of this corruption is the focused and intent special interest group. These groups may be social, religious, or corporate in nature. What they hold in common is a desire to see certain policies or laws enacted, regardless of their impact on citizens’ rights. In a republic, these groups are stopped cold by the unalienable rights of the citizenry. In a democracy, they must make their case to the population as a whole. In our current form, a corruption of a republic, there are much easier ways to play the shell game.
Let’s consider some examples. A few years ago American auto manufacturer General Motors was headed toward bankruptcy. Lobbyists and union groups convinced Congress and the President to use public funding to reorganize GM, stripping bondholders of value and giving it to unions and other interests. Shortly thereafter congress passed the “cash for clunkers” program, using taxpayer funding to supplement car purchases, a clear benefit for GM. Now, in a republic this does not happen. The rights of the citizens, including the right to private property and due process, forbid the government from stripping bondholder rights and using taxpayer funds for private corporations. In a democracy, neither of these proposals comes close to passing a popular vote. But, we have neither and were stuck with this nonsense.
A similar argument holds for the TARP funding – a taxpayer ripoff to bailout bank bondholders. (Interesting that auto bondholders were destroyed by the same government that gave away the farm to save bank bondholders.) This is forbidden in a republic and doesn’t pass muster in a democracy. But, in a corruption-based government it’s exactly what we get.
On a more local level we could look to public sector unions. They have a strong lobbying capability and voting bloc – enough to sway elections. In a republic, these tactics would be subjected again to the right to private property. Seizing funds of one to give it away to another doesn’t fly. In a democracy they would need to convince the public to pay more (unnecessarily) for the same functions – not likely. But, we live in a corruption-based government, so this is what we get. The same argument could apply to any government give away to any group. Not permitted in republics, not passable in a democracy, perfectly acceptable in America.
The middle ground is not safe friends. The direction is toward fascism, with ever-greater ripoffs laid on the backs of the “free” citizens for the sake of special interests. When elections only determine which interests get the benefit, not whether things get better or worse, we have serious problems.
But I have hope for this country yet. I believe we can wake up and shake off the shackles of republicorruption.