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1992

No More Martyrs Now: Maximum Democracy

Caldwell dispels democratic mythology and argues for a new “maximum democratic” reality.

Caldwell, Don.  No More Martyrs Now:  Capitalism, Democracy, and Ordinary People.  Johannesburg:  Conrad Business Books.  1992.  105-115.  Excerpts.

7. Maximum Democracy

Referendums, Local Choice, and Majority Rule

Suppose you heard a proposal for a single world government elected, very democratically, by all five billion people on earth.  Whatever government 51 percent of the voters chose would be the government everybody would live under.  The majority-rule world parliament would make decisions affecting everybody, everywhere, on a wide range of issues:  shop hours, the school curriculum, gambling, taxes, language, religious rights, the press, company law, labour relations, traffic lights, road building, you name it.

The capital of the world would be Phnom Penh, where the parliament would meet to determine things like abortion policy in Sri Lanka and farm subsidies in Albania.

Supporters would say:  “We believe in a democratic system in which people elected on the basis of one person, one vote administer the world in the interests of the people as a whole.”

Would you say the world’s people would be living in a democracy?

Hardly.  The mind reels at the mischief such a centralized world parliament could make under the banner of “democracy.”  Suppose representatives from China and India dominate and vote for compulsory one-child families andmale serilisation.  The whole notion is absurd.

Why should a person in Sydney have a say, through the central parliament, in the shopping hours in Timbuktu?  Worse, who wants homogenization on a world scale—reminiscent of Ceausescu’s systemization lunacy in Romania?  There is no reason for the history curriculum in Honolulu to be the same as that in Addis Ababa.

And how excited should we be that 51 percent of the world’s population is living under the government of its choice, when 49 percent isn’t?  What becomes of them?  Do they just become, very democratically, slaves of the 51 percent?

And what is the 2,500,000,001 people who form the majority have questionable notions of press freedom, religion, property ownership, trade, money, morality, sex, race, and justice?  Must the other 2,499,999,999 just toe the line?

Do we ignore huge cultural differences and animosities because, after all, we are all human beings—united, equal citizens of the world?  Would unity be strength?

What’s lacking in this centralized model are guarantees of accountable government and good old-fashioned freedom.

Start with this model of a single world government.  What could you change to counter abuse of state power, promote greater freedom, and increase the number of people who actually like the government they’re living under?

Devolution of Power

The obvious step would be to abolish the centralized government and replace it with far smaller, independent units of government.  Just cutting the earth in half, so to speak, would be a good first step.  Say there are two independent governments instead of one—one for the western hemisphere and one for the eastern hemisphere.  If the world’s ideologies and values were exactly evenly spread, the same party that won the world election would win the two half-world elections.  So, at worst, the exact same number of people, 51 percent, would be living under the government of their choice.  But it’s far more likely that different parties and policies would dominate in each half, better reflecting the views of each hemisphere’s citizens.

Now cut the world in half again at the equator and set up four independent governments.  At worst, the same party gets 51 percent of the vote in each quarter, so there are still almost 2.5 billion unhappy people.  But, of course, such a result is less and less likely as government power is further decentralized—into 8 or 16 or 32 or 64 or 128 or 256 regions.  Different parties would win in different places and at different times; people who would have been swamped as insignificant minorities at the world level could become self-ruling majorities in a region.

Something else happens as governments become smaller and more localized.  The laws tend to reflect the norms of the people living in that area, so they are less likely to be completely unacceptable.  Even if your party loses a particular election, you aren’t miserable living under the winning party because it typically offers a variation of policies that are generally acceptable to you, not something radically different.  The more state power is decentralized, the greater the number of people who will be living under a government that they have chosen or at least find tolerable.  In many areas, close to 100 percent of the people will accept their government even thought they do not agree with all its policies.  They will support the general thrust of the rules they live under.  The smaller the area, the more likely it is that a 100 percent acceptance will arise.  Contrast that to the discontent (and armed rebellion) that would exist if people were ruled by a distant world parliament.

Note that the fundamental principle of majority rule doesn’t change.  Majorities still rule.  But if you add up the people who say they are in the majority, you get far more than 51 percent of the world’s population.  There is more consent of the governed, so there is more democracy.

Another benefit of devolution of power is that if you’re disgruntled with the government you’re living under, you can easily move to another jurisdiction.  In other words, you can vote with your feet.  Under one centralized world parliament, you’d just have to suffer.  If there were two parliaments, one for each hemisphere, you’d have to move halfway around the globe to escape bad government or to switch to the less bad one.  But if power were devolved right down to your community, you could move just a few kilometres, or even a few blocks, in search of better government.  You could probably change your government without changing your friends or your job.

Devolution would allow diversity rather than forcing conformity.  It would end the destructive (and ultimately insoluble) fight over which coalition of the world’s diverse people is going to rule everybody else.  It would allow thousands of education systems, language policies, tax regimes, and codes of morality, rather than one.  And if these smaller governments allowed free trade and travel, the world would be no more fragmented than it would be under a centralized parliament.  There can be unity, but a unity brought about voluntarily, among free people—people who are generally happy with the regime they live under.  Strength lies in diversity, not in enforced unity.

At Home

Now suppose you heard a proposal for a single South African government elected, very democratically, by all 39 million in the country. Whatever government 51 percent of the people voted for would be the government everybody lives under.  The majority-rule central parliament would make decisions affecting everybody, everywhere, on a wide range of issues:  shop hours, the school curriculum, gambling, taxes, language, religious rights, the press, company law, labour relations, traffic lights, road building, you name it.

Parliament could meet in Cape Town to determine things like the history curriculumin Pietermaritzburg and the official language of the Karoo.

As ANC veteran Walter Sisulu put it:  “We believe in a democratic system in which people elected on the basis of one man, one vote administer the country in the interests of the people as a whole.”

Would you say South Africa’s people would be living in a democracy?

Hardly.  As with a centralized world parliament, the mind reels at the mischief such a centralized South African parliament could make.

People in Durban would be meddling in the lives of people in Outdshoorn.  The majority’s notions of press freedom, religion, property ownership, trade, money, morality, sex, race, and justice would be shoved down everybody else’s throats.  And even if the parliament is voted in by a majority, how excited should we be that 51 percent of the country’s population is living under the government of its choice, when 49 percent isn’t?

Just as centralized power would be undemocratic for the world, so it would be undemocratic for South Africa.  The same friction, fights, resentment, corruption, and abuses of power would result.

With devolution, different parties could win in different places and at different times; people who would have been swamped as insignificant minorities at the national level could form majorities in a region.  The number of South Africans happy with the laws they live under would soar.

Devolution would allow diversity rather than forcing conformity.  It would end the destructive fight over which coalition of the country’s people is going to rule everybody else.  It would allow a wide range of education systems, languages, tax regimes, and codes of morality, rather than one.  And if the constitution guaranteed free trade and travel among these lower tiers of government, the country would be no more fragmented than it would be under centralized rule.  There would be unity among free people.

The 1991 proposal by the Democratic Party to devolve power to eight to twelve state governments doesn’t go far enough.  Though clearly preferable to a single centralized government, it would not provide the diversity that’s needed.  There would still be some four million people living in each state, so millions of people could be left unhappy.  How far could devolution go in South Africa?  A lot farther than people think.

Consider the now-famous devolved system of Switzerland—the basis of proposals by Leon Louw and Frances Kendall in South Africa:  The Solution, parts of which seem to have influenced the government’s latest constitutional plans.  Seven million people—speaking German, French, Italian, and Romansch—live in a tiny country.  At 41,000 square kilometres, Switzerland is half the size of Scotland; it’s one-tenth the size of California; it’s about the same size as Lesotho, the tiny mountain kingdom that South Africa surrounds; and it would fit fully three times into the Orange Free State.  So, what for some people is the outer limit of devolution—a third of the Orange Free State—is just the starting point for Switzerland.  It devolves real lawmaking power to 26 second-tier states, called cantons, and 3,000 communities.  Seen in this light, the DP’s call for devolution of a few powers to just 12 states in all of South Africa looks almost Stalinist.

While other ethnically diverse countries experience regular constitutional conflict (Canada, Belgium, Fiji) or degenerate into violence (Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, and countless African countries), the liberal model of Switzerland carries on as a multilingual but united nation.  Yet left-wing politicians in ethnically diverse South Africa still argue that only centralized power will unite the nation, against all evidence to the contrary.

A glance through the newspapers shows how many contentious issues in South Africa could be settled at regional or, preferably, local level:  abortion, capital punishment, policing, education, health, language, culture, recreation, housing, roads, town planning, business regulation, industrial development, liquor laws, shop hours, gambling, prostitution, monument building, pollution control, conservation, tax.  There is very little that could not be settled locally.  Nobody would be happy with all the decisions made across the country, and nobody would be happy with every decision made in their area.  But it’s the socialists who promise utopia, not democrats; one person’s ideal South Africa is not what devolved democracy delivers.  Dramatic devolution of wide-ranging legislative powers to hundreds of areas would simply allow many South Africans to be satisfied with the rules that govern them and virtually everybody to at least accept them.  In a divided country as potentially explosive as South Africa, that would be no small feat.

The Policies of Your Choice

Going back to the proposal for one centralized world parliament, what else could be done to democratize the government besides devolving power?

To see the answer, consider the problem.  Suppose that in the election for a world parliament, you vote for the party that promises not to persecute or slaughter minority cultures.  That’s your only concern.  With any luck, that party wins.  Then suppose this elected world government—the government you voted for—doubles your taxes, decrees that all education be carried out in Mandarin or Urdu, and bulldozes your neighbourhood.  Who’s actually doing the ruling, the majority of people (including you, who voted for the winning party) or the handful of elected politicians?

Obviously, the politicians.  This problem is not unique to a world government.  It’s inherent in representative democracy—that is, democracy by an elected parliament, congress, or council.  And it occurs at all levels of government.

You can cast your vote on one issue, only to find that your winning candidate disagrees with you on almost everything else.

Your dilemma is clear:  in a two-person contest, you support one candidate’s stance on tax, education, and conscription and another candidate’s stance on everything but tax, education, and conscription.  Who do you vote for?  You are forced to decide which issues are more important to you.  Even if the candidate you select wins, you lose.  Standard political analysis holds that in a representative democracy, 51 percent of the people have the government of their choice—the much-vaunted majority rule.  But that analysis is misleading.  The majority could find that they strongly oppose dozens of laws passed by the parliament that they elected.  In a representative democracy, you can easily get the government of your choice without getting the policies of your choice.

The solution is to have people vote directly on each issue in referendums.  The issues appear on the ballot and voters choose “yes” or “no”—whether it is a proposal to subsidise farmers, raise the petrol tax, or increase education spending.  That way, voters can mix and match policies in a way that no single party’s platform can ever do.  At all levels of government, everbody can vote directly on taxes, education policy, minority protection, traffic problems, and so on.  That can still lead to majority tyranny, of course.  But at least on every issue, a majority is happy, something that doesn’t happen when a majority-rule government makes the laws.

Basic mathematics explains why voting on each issue is more democratic than voting for a representative to represent your views…Suppose there are ten issues—which is reasonable even in a local election—for example, street lights, schools, Sunday movies, a proposed road, property taxes, petrol tax, liquor licensing, abortion, topless bars, town planning.  Then there are fully 1,024 combinations of yes and no.

If your choice is between two candidates, it is virtually impossible for your views to be properly represented in the parliament or city council.

This is not theoretical philosophizing and number crunching.  In South Africa, virtually all national elections for whites over the past five decades have been decided on ethnicity and nationalism (the broad package of black rights and white survival).  In recent elections, crudely put, the racists (or the very nervous) voted for the CP, the half-hearted racists voted for the NP, and the antiracists voted for the DP.  And, on the race issue, the parties in recent elections were a fairly good reflection of the three strains of public opinion.

But beyond that, white representative democracy was a monumental failure.  What is the will of the majority of the white electorate on sales tax? Conscription? Press censorship? Privatization? Capital punishment? The Banana Board?  None of these issues was ever seriously debated at election time.  It was just race, race, race.  But even if other issues had been debated, what party would you have voted for if you were, say, a racist who was opposed to handouts for farmers?  Or a half-hearted racist who supported massive privatization?  Those positions were non-existent.

No modification of representative democracy can solve this mathematical problem.  The only solution is to introduce direct democracy—referendums that allow the electorate to vote on every important issue directly.  This way, the will of the majority will always prevail on every single issue.  And this can be instituted at all levels of government.  Voters would no longer have to put up with a tradeoff between abortion, postal service, and tax policy…

Morality Versus Practicality

A final note on the mathematics of majority rule.  Everybody talks about the “right” to vote for a democratic government, as if there is some intrinsically moral case for majority rule.  There isn’t.  I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of why 51 percent of the people around me should have the power to conscript me, force me to pay for somebody else’s education, prevent me from watching the films of my choice, or do anything else to me.  The majority has no moral “right” to do any of these things.  There is, however, a practical case for democracy, and that is that other forms of government will inevitably be even more repressive.

In discussing democracy, people tend to confuse “the majority” with “the people.”  They say a law passed democratically reflects the will of the people.  Though widely used, this phrase is correct only when there is unanimous agreement, which is rare.  The correct term is “the will of the majority.”  And it’s not clear why 49 percent or 10 percent or even 1 percent must become slaves of everybody else.

Liberal democracy does not solve this moral problem.  Even with its checks on government power and guaranteed rights, it still provides for plunder (taxes, subsidies, regulation) and repression (conscription, censorship, state monopolies).  Indeed, it gives this legalized theft and oppression a seal of approval that they don’t deserve.  In the end, the case for liberal democracy is a practical one.  It is better than the alternatives.  It reduces the likelihood that self-appointed elites will suppress the masses.  It minimizes authoritarianism, persecution, and the theft of people’s wealth.  It leaves space for individuals to own property, trade, and prosper.

A liberal democracy of decentralized power and referendums doesn’t necessarily produce good government.  But it does result in less bad government.  Devolved, democratic governments can still abused power.  But they are far more likely than centralized states to allow people to live their lives in liberty and tranquility—and that’s the goal that democrats should always aim for.

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