Democracy – Part 2

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in its definition of democracy notes that it “refers very generally to a method of collective decision making characterized by a kind of equality among the participants at an essential stage of the decision-making process.” It goes on to detail four aspects of this definition, which I reproduce here for completeness:

“First, democracy concerns collective decision making, by which we mean decisions that are made for groups and are meant to be binding on all the members of the group. Second, we intend for this definition to cover many different kinds of groups and decision-making procedures that may be called democratic. So there can be democracy in families, voluntary organizations, economic firms, as well as states and transnational and global organizations. The definition is also consistent with different electoral systems, for example first-past-the-post voting and proportional representation. Third, the definition is not intended to carry any normative weight. It is compatible with this definition of democracy that it is not desirable to have democracy in some particular context. So the definition of democracy does not settle any normative questions. Fourth, the equality required by the definition of democracy may be more or less deep. It may be the mere formal equality of one-person one-vote in an election for representatives to a parliament where there is competition among candidates for the position.”

The definition is positive (meaning, it’s descriptive) and does not have normative (meaning prescriptive) implications. But very frequently democracy is normatively promoted for various reasons. For instance, it is held that only a democratically elected government assures that the government has legitimacy because it has the consent of the people. This argument does not stand scrutiny for various reasons. It is decidedly vacuous. It lacks content. It’s empty. Devoid of any meaning. This parrot is definitely deceased. (If you get that bit, let me know in the comments section.)

First, consent is never unanimous. Democracies, as encountered around the world, follow the majority rule or the first-past-the-post rule. That means, in most cases of multi-party democracies, usually a minority gets to decide on who is to govern; the majority does not vote for the government.

In India, the BJP won parliamentary majorities in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. What percentage of eligible voters voted for the BJP in those elections? I don’t have the exact numbers handy but I’d be surprised to learn if it was even 30 percent. That means the BJP did not have the consent of the 70 percent of voters who either did not vote or voted for a non-BJP candidate.

Second, mere consent means nothing if the consent is not informed. For consent to have any meaning, it has to be informed. You have to know what you are consenting to. It’s an undeniable fact that voters are uninformed. The literature is clear on what is called the rational ignorance of voters. For the individual voter, it is rational to be ignorant of what various political parties and candidates stand for.

An individual’s vote counts for practically nothing: his vote would be decisive only if it breaks a tie, the chances of which are virtually zero. It takes time and effort to learn what the various policies are, and furthermore, it takes considerable knowledge of the social sciences (for example public choice theory) to figure out the likely outcomes of those policies. Even if you know who intends to implement what policies, you don’t know if the outcome would be to your liking. The costs of becoming an informed voter is enormous and the returns are minuscule.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine that a politician makes a credible promise to you, an individual Indian voter, that if he gets elected to the Lok Sabha, he’d give you $1 million. Should you take the trouble to go out and vote for him? No. Whether he wins or loses is almost entirely independent of whether you vote for him or not. Your chances of getting $1M do not change if you do.

But of course, people do go out and vote. They do that for various reasons ranging from being mistaken about the fact that their votes don’t count, to a sense of civic duty, or to express their preferences (mistaken though they may be about their goals), or demonstrate solidarity with their group, etc. Rationally ignorant though they are, voting itself for an individual in elections with hundreds of thousands of voters is irrational.

Voting is like the petitioning of the Almighty (Yahweh or his counterparts in the Abrahamic tradition or the various gods and goddesses of the Indic traditions) by prayer to grant you your wishes — in either case, it makes no damned difference. You will suffer the same fate regardless of whether you pray or not. You cannot petition the lord with prayers. (You may recognize that bit if you are know the rock group The Doors.)

You, as an individual, cannot move those in government to your preferred actions by voting. It’s stupid to expect that your vote matters. It’s stupid to think that you somehow consent to the government you get merely because you engaged in the charade of voting. More about this later.

I note that my rant against democracy is taking longer than I expected. I thought that it will be a short rant. It won’t be. I will have to continue but for now, I will close with a quote from dear old Hayek (whose birthday I celebrated just two days ago.) In a letter to The Times, published on July 11, 1978, he wrote:

A limited democracy might indeed be the best protector of individual liberty and be better than any other form of limited government, but an unlimited democracy is probably worse than any other form of unlimited government, because its government loses the power even to do what it thinks right if any group on which its majority depends thinks otherwise. If Mrs. Thatcher said that free choice is to be exercised more in the market place than in the ballot box, she has merely uttered the truism that the first is indispensable for individual freedom, while the second is not: free choice can at least exist under a dictatorship that can limit itself but not under the government of an unlimited democracy which cannot.

The operative phrase is “a limited democracy.” We have to understand that while the abstract concept of democracy is attractive, it is not an unmitigated good. The context matters, the supporting institutions matter, and the characteristics of the participants matter. Sure, we can ignore of all that but we could end up with a facsimile which does not bear any relationship with the real — we’ll have at best a cargo cult democracy (a post on this blog from 2004.)

Alright, I will continue this in the next bit. Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.








Author: Atanu Dey


7 thoughts on “Democracy – Part 2”

  1. All good points showing the limitations of democracies.
    But we need to come up with alternatives which work.


    1. Patience, my dear fellow, patience. All good things come to those who wait. When you have the time, read “Against Democracy” by Jason Brennan and “Democracy: The God that Failed” by Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

      Also, if you have the time, it would be nice if you would give a summary of Mounk’s thesis in a comment.


      1. No rush old chap… we have been waiting since 500 BCE – so another 500+ years is understandable…
        Mounk’s book is some 360 pages. In summary, he suggests scepticism about the desirability of diverse democracies (DD) characterises extremes on both the right and left. The right argues that descendants of the ‘true born’ citizens must retain control. The left insists this is a war between sinful hereditary oppressors and righteous hereditary oppressed – to be resolved by a clear victory of the latter over former. These opposing pessimisms on both sides are self defeating. Hence support is needed from the decent Middle.
        Mounk seeks to answer 3 questions: When do diverse societies go wrong? What should DD seek to become? How can diverse societies succeed?
        He suggests the only possible foundation for a DD is protection of rights and guarantees of security for all individuals…..


    1. As I am wont to do, I sometimes make promises that I neglect to keep. It’s a character flaw, most probably arising from what can be generously termed “attention deficit disorder.” The “list of books I like” suffered that fate. But thanks for the reminder. I will start composing a list. I know that at least one person is interested in it — you. It would be helpful if you could tell me which discipline you care about: economics, political science, political economy, literature, philosophy, poetry, fiction, etc. That will motivate me to start the list. Thanks.


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