Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Democracy Caveat

I think a lot of people mistakenly think that American democracy--or any successful democracy--is simply about the majority getting its way. That is the starting point, but there are some important caveats to keep a democracy from becoming what de Tocqueville called, "the tyranny of the majority."

1. There must be boundaries to what the majority can do. This is what happened in Egypt, when the Muslim Brotherhood tried to use majority rule to make the country so Muslim that Coptic Christians and secular Muslims were oppressed. This is why the Bill of Rights is so important. Neither the government--nor the people--can violate the basic rights of a minority or an individual.

This is why we have a justice system that is not the part of the government that makes laws (Congress) nor the part of the government that enacts law (executive). This is why Supreme Courts judges are for life. If you remember, the notion of "activist judges" comes from a time when the Supreme Court, with the cooperation of the executive branch, forced the South to stop its highly prejudicial practices in relation to blacks. The South "majority" didn't want to be forced to take into account the rights of the "minority" in the South.

So there are some things in a successful democracy that are not a matter of a vote.

2. The second caveat is that ethical decisions are rarely decisions that can be made successfully on a local level. So let's assume that the chemical regulations of West Virginia are inadequate. Shall we count on West Virginia to make those decisions? Apparently not.

Decisions relating to the "general welfare" of the minority--or those who are not in power--are never best made on the local level. They are best made on the federal level, where there is enough distance from a situation to see more objectively. This, again, was the case in the civil rights era. Trust Alabama to make decisions about the rights of African-Americans? Apparently not.

Somehow we have forgotten where all this rhetoric of state's rights, activist judges, and the drive to the local comes from. It is a hangover from the time when people resented being forced to let blacks drink from the same water fountain and resented the government forcing them to let black children go to school with their white children.

Ethical decisions are best made by third parties who are more impartial. Will they always make the right decision? Of course not. But they will more likely be fair than the local or state level, where self-interest and power more easily overrun the rights of individuals and the minority.


Jim Schenck said...

Good thoughts. I wonder, though, if the reassertion of states' rights is more of a push-back of what some view as the federal government becoming too involved, too "nit-picky" (for lack of a better term) in state, local, or individual concerns. Where would/should the line be drawn that separates the federal good and the federal over-reach?

Ken Schenck said...

Another set of proverbs :-) I'm mainly talking of protecting the minority here...

Rick said...

We don't have a democracy. We have a constitutional democratic republic.