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Democracy is, sure enough, as the old Churchill quote goes, the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be improved.

The thing that worries me about democracy is that, when practised on a large scale, it destroys the very thing which makes it desirable: the possibility of dissent through three means:

  1. Excessive intermediation
  2. Destruction of local specificities
  3. Levelling of opinion


But before going on to those three means, what do I mean by “practised on large scale”? Well, basically, when one democratic entity is too large. Your typical example would be Europe, governed by the European Union. But Belgium fits the bill too. What exactly is the right size, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely smaller than most countries.

Anyway, on to how things go awry.

Excessive intermediation

This one is only really obvious in very large democratic units, usually when some sort of federation is going on. Between “We the People” and whoever our government is, there are just too many levels of representation.

But it’s not just that our “elected” representative elects a representative who elects a representative who actually governs. It goes quite further.

At the end of the day, the election concept is based on the idea that you are going to vote for somebody who will, at least broadly speaking, represent your views. Someone with you’ll agree most of the time.

The problem is, I don’t know that many people with whom I agree most of the time. And none of them is a politician.

So basically, the issue is the scope of the mandate we give our elected leaders. I don’t know many people with whom I agree most of the time, but I know a lot of people with whom I mostly agree on economic issues. Or social issues. Or defence issues. Or health issues. You get the idea.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could vote for actual ideas instead of people? And specific ones too, where you wouldn’t have to accept the bundle that is a party’s program, which you are bound not to agree with in full.

Removing excessive intermediation would help that.

Destruction of local specificities

Obviously, if you go more than a few kilometres away from where you live, the average concerns of the people will start to change. Not necessarily dramatically, but they will vary. If you go hundreds or thousand of kilometres away, radical change is likely. The concerns of the Greeks just now are rather different from those of, say the Germans.

Yet through large scale democracy, these differences are necessarily brushed away, or, at the very least, compromised about.

The consequences are clear. The desires of some will be sacrificed in name of the desires of others, or, more likely, nobody’s desires will be met, and some compromise will leave everybody unhappy.

Some of these differences might be conjunctural, but some could be more permanent. This means structural disagreements will lead either to permanent dissatisfaction of large numbers of people, or to structural modification of opinions as people tire of being unhappy. Which leads us to the last element.

Levelling of opinion

Through both media and normative uniformity, large-scale democracy tends to level opinions. Extremes are quietly pushed aside. It becomes ever more difficult to escape conformity. Because as regulation becomes unified, so do the reasonings behind them. And these in turn get loudly communicated.

The thing about Big, is that it can – and does – impose it’s views. A belief shared by millions of people remains just that: a belief. But it does look a lot like a truth, and those who have no beliefs or have doubts about their own beliefs will be all the more likely to adopt that belief.

It’s positive reinforcement really. You are encouraged to share the beliefs of your fellow citizens.

Of course, it’s nice to share beliefs. But I like to share them based on more than just group-think. I like to share them based on reasoning, constructive criticism, challenges. But in a large forum, there is no room for that. There is room only for slogans. Mass appeal.

In a nutshell

In a nutshell, democracy on a large scale erases differences. And not in the good way. Very gently, like an overbearing kindergarten teacher, it instils in people the need to conform. And erases personality, displacing any possibility of anything more than symbolic dissent.

So what?

So, will I just complain? Well, since I’m a grumpy old man, I’ll do whatever I please, thank you very much. But no, here are at least a few outlines of solutions (don’t complain about the fact these are nothing more than outlines, it gives me stuff to think and write about later):

  • First, obviously, the locus of power should be brought much closer to the people. How close, not sure, but definitely low. I’m thinking town level or something.
  • Second, have people discuss ideas. Enable them to vote on issues. Why not referendums? It works for the Swiss. Could work for others too.
  • Third, test-drive new ideas. Let people not pay that new tax. See what happens. If they don’t pay it, they don’t want it.


Sound a lot like “direct democracy”? Sure. That’s the only real one there is…


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] course, if representation were done at a much lower level, this kind of argument would basically disappear. With representation at a very low level and […]

  2. […] reading on why I distrust the EU can be found here and what I suggest as alternative can be found here. « The […]

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