Feb 112001

A textbook of politics usually mentions the following as a defect of democracy: Democracy operates under majority rule, where those in the numerical majority are powerful and they tend to ride roughshod over the concerns of the minority. It is a problem of democracy to be solved how to protect the weak minority from the tyranny of the majority. Is this classical theory true?


1. Why can the minority rule democracy?

When you observe the reality of representative democracy, you will find that the reverse is the case. It is a few pressure groups of the economically weak that cannot survive without any subsidy or regulation that actually control democracy.

How can the weak minority control democracy? Let’s simulate the control by means of a simple example. Suppose a representative governs 10 thousand inhabitants and they have equal rights to vote his decision, paying a telephone rate of 20 cents per call. Who will come out against his suggestion that he should charge every inhabitant 10 cents for subsidizing the weakest in the community?

If the inhabitants are economically rational, nobody will declare himself against losing 10 cents, paying 20 cents for call, while the weakest to be subsidized not only declare themselves for it, but also promise to donate part of subsidy to the representative so as to realize the subsidy. This is the mechanism for the economically weak minority to exploit the silent majority.

2. Why can’t the majority rule democracy?

Can the majority exploit the minority, as the classical theory assumes? Let’s examine it with the similar example. Who will approve of the representative’s suggestion that he should charge the richest in the community 1 thousand dollars for giving 10 cents to every inhabitant?

If the inhabitants are economically rational, nobody will declare himself for receiving 10 cents, paying 20 cents for call, while the richest to be charged 1 thousand dollars not only declare themselves against it, but also offer a bribe to the representative so as to stop the exploitation. This is the reason the majority cannot exploit the minority. The minority can control the majority rule based democracy, not though but because they are in the numerical minority.

Of course, it will not be the case, if participants in a majority decision are fewer. The larger the majority is, the less influence, whether preferable or not, the result has on each voter and the less significant he feels himself, the more are apt to abstain from voting, thinking the result will remain the same without his voting. In short, the more, the less powerful.

3. How to improve the voting rate

In fact, the voting rate among advanced countries is very low. It is because most of the silent majority consider the benefit gained from voting less than the cost necessary to vote that they abstain from voting.

Suppose a voter desires a bill B to be passed through the Congress. In representative democracy, he must face the following indeterminacy:

  1. Whether there is a Congressman C or not that pledges to pass B is indeterminate.

  2. Whether C, if any, will win the election or not is indeterminate.

  3. Whether C, if he wins the election, will honor the pledge or not is indeterminate.

  4. Whether B, if he tries to honor the pledge, will be really passed through the Congress or not is indeterminate.

However valuable passing B may be for the voter, its value will be reduced to almost nothing, multiplied by probability coefficients of these 4 uncertainties. This makes the opportunity costs of the time necessary for most of the silent majority to gather information and go voting surpass the benefit of voting.

We must decrease the costs of voting and increase its benefit, so that the silent majority can take part in public choice. The Internet can play an important role in reformation of election. The Internet removes many middlemen including the representatives as mere transmitters of public opinion. Internet voting enables direct democracy, reduces the indeterminacy of voting and increases its value, while it decreases the costs of voting, because you can easily gather information and vote on the screen of a terminal at home. As a result, more voters will participate in the decision making process and democracy will approach the ideal.

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  15 Responses to “The Paradox of Democracy”

  1. This is a well-written and thoughtful article, but I disagree with many points. First of all,I’m curious of the definition of economically rational.
    I can think of plenty economically rational reasons for arguing against a subsidy. Additionally, the fact that an elected democratic representative of the people can enact a local subsidy is not so much an aspect of democracy in action, but of our inherent, still-present system of limited monarchy, through which a representative can promote his or her individual agenda.
    In 150 BC, the Greek philosopher Polybius first articulated his theory of government by mixed constitution, meaning a mixture of monarchy (the one), aristocracy (the few),and democracy (the many). His reasoning was simple: monarchies tend to degrade into tyranny; an aristocracy slips into oligarchy; and a democracy grows, over time, into mob rule. By combining the three forms, a system of checks would be in place to prevent any arm of government from crystalizing into its negative counterpart.
    Polybius was not the first political theorist to realize this; Plato and Aristotle also suggested power separation. Aristotle labeled his three branches of government the deliberative, executive, and judicial. Here in America, we call our mixed constitution a republic, of which our democracy, and all the fairness it implies, is only a part.

  2. A subsidy is economically irrational for society but it is economically rational for individuals to receive it.

  3. A very interesting article. However, I disagree with your statements on direct democracy and the internet in several ways.
    First, information posted on the internet is notoriously unreliable, and requires time to verify reports. The can often take quite a long time because rumours spread from one website to others, adding authority to the opinion without evidence to support it.
    Secondly, most people (at least in North America) simply don’t care enough to research anything. They are far more interesting in spending time on immediate satisfaction, in general. I would argue that since the growth of the interent, the public has not become better informed about relevant issues.
    Lastly, direct democracy has similar weaknesses to representative democracy. Corporations can lobby politicians to influence policy or they can advertise to the public. Most likely, the side with the biggest budget still wins. I do not know whether this is specific to late 20th century democracy (due to my ignorance of political history), but I doubt that it is.
    Also, you mention the analysis of a rational voter. Are you implying that voters choose in such a rational manner? If so, it is subconsciously?

  4. You said you were curious of the definition of economically rational. What I consider economically rarional is to decide to act when its benefits surpass its costs. The sum total of economical rationality for individuals often brings about economical irrationality for their society.
    Representatives are unnecessary as mere transmitters of public opinion, but necessary as bill makers. They should argue the validity of bills each other before referendum. Congress can open an official site where voters can easily read the pros and cons of the introduced bills.
    Even under direct democracy, the elite should not give away all power to the masses. Under indirect democracy the elite directly and the masses indirectly governs, while under direct democracy the elite indirectly and the masses directly governs. This filter of indirect uncertainties will prevent the rich elite from trying to control politics behind closed doors for selfish purpose.

  5. This is nonsense. The weak minority can never rule…It is the rich minority that rules in all cases. Secondly, it costs nothing to vote, and far from being economically rational as you term it, most people vote because of one or two hot issues, like abortion, law and order…In other words catch phrases that produce knee-jerk responses. What’s more, low voter turn out in countries like the U.S. is more likely a result of what a sham the system has become. You basically have a one-party system posing as a two-party system. Both Republicans and Democrats represent the interests of the rich. The poor and working class have no representation but never realize it because the press is owned by the rich minority.

  6. What I call the weak minority are those who could not be rich without the Government, while the silent majority consists of those who are rich or poor regardless of the Government.
    In most countries, there are two Parties, the conservative and the socialistic. The former represents the interests of managers of fading industries and the latter those of labor unions. Both of them are the weak minority (Most of workers do not belong to labor unions in Japan).
    I am not familiar with US politics, but in most countries, the masses that can be easily affected by mass media do not go voting. My theory applies to welfare states or development dictatorship. US is exceptional.

  7. It is a palpable but often disregarded truth that modern democracy in large countries is dominated by interest groups, but this article goes too far in discounting the majority’s ability to infringe on the rights of the individual and the minority group. The fact that it can do this gives the Supreme Court its raison d’etre: to protect the rights of individuals and minorities against the majority. As the Democratic branches have little incentive to do so and much incentive not to do so, the Court makes the definition and protection of such rights its province. Consider Brown v. Board as a democratically unpopular assertion of individual rights against the majority, and Plessy v. Ferguson as an example of the Court failing to do its Consitutional duty: in this latter case it catered to the whims of the majority and rejected individual rights.

  8. Japan will introduce a jury system. If normal citizens can participate in a judical decision, the majority may win the minority. But the jury system imposes too many burdens on jurors.

  9. @Reuben Schwartz
    “First, information posted on the internet is notoriously unreliable, and requires time to verify reports. The can often take quite a long time because rumours spread from one website to others, adding authority to the opinion without evidence to support it.
    Secondly, most people (at least in North America) simply don’t care enough to research anything. They are far more interesting in spending time on immediate satisfaction, in general. I would argue that since the growth of the interent, the public has not become better informed about relevant issues.”
    This is a real problem, let alone the fact that even 100% informed people can not know all about the details about each law that is discussed and do not have the time to get involved in detail in the law-making and law-voting process.
    However, this problem can be solved if we imagine to have a not-completely-direct democracy, but to add one or two layers of delegated users between the usual voter and the lam making parliament.
    Delegated users would be the ones informed and with enough time to participate in the political process.
    Still normal users could be allowed to “bypass” their delegation and vote directly when they feel to.
    “Lastly, direct democracy has similar weaknesses to representative democracy. Corporations can lobby politicians to influence policy or they can advertise to the public. Most likely, the side with the biggest budget still wins. I do not know whether this is specific to late 20th century democracy (due to my ignorance of political history), but I doubt that it is.”
    I disagree with this point of yours.
    Politicians can be lobbied in one way or another by the corporations and the power centers (army, research institutions) as the politicians are very few in number.
    It is easy to lobby (bribe) one politician but very difficult to lobby (bribe) 1000 informed people.
    If you have hundreds or thousands of delegated users and behind them millions of citizens who control them, it would be impossible to bribe them all.
    Matteo Martini
    Project iDemocracy

  10. I agree with Matteo Martini as to the first part of his comment. Both direct democracy and representative democracy have their merits and demerits. Therefore we should select the merits of the two and invent a new hybrid democracy.
    As for the second part I interpret Reuben Schwartz’s comment differently. Maybe what he meant to say is that under representative democracy “corporations can lobby politicians to influence policy” and under direct democracy “they can advertise to the public” so that “direct democracy has similar weaknesses to representative democracy”.
    Still I think the Internet can overcome this weakness of direct/hybrid democracy. When a few companies monopolize most of the media (for example, only six companies are allowed to broadcast in a nationwide range in Japan), it is relatively easy for affluent industry or parties to brainwash voters. But the Internet has ended this oligarchy and enabled various people in various positions to publish and even broadcast their political opinions. So, it gets more and more difficult for the rich to control the public, as is shown in the current Middle East.

  11. In my opinion, a system-nation can be defined as “democratic” if the actions taken within such system-nation are according to the will of the people who are part of such system.

    A major problem of the current governments, including the so-called “democratic” ones, is that the actions of the government of a nation are not according to the will of the majority of the population of that nation: some of the laws that most of the people would like to see brought forward are not even discussed, while the government passes laws and does things that are not as from the will of the majority of the electorate.

    This problem has different causes:

    1) The voting person has no way to vote in the same election for different political stances of different parties, according to his own/her own positions according to each different topic. In other words, the American voter has no way to vote, for example, for the Democratic Party for foreign agenda positions, the Republican Party for financial-related positions and the Green Party other positions. The voting person has to choose one party and one candidate. Therefore, being unlikely that the voting person agrees with absolutely all the positions of any of the candidate/party involved in the elections, he/she will have to choose one of them, looking and the candidate/party that is more likely to be close to his/her opinions on few main issues. Being this the case, the candidates of any party will be able to easily write a more or less generic declaration of intents that will be offered as “political program” to the electorate, without precise engagements in any political area, in order to have later free hands to do what they want once elected

    2) Most of the times, the average voter does not even have the time nor the knowledge to get informed on the past actions of the political parties and the candidates and the political program offered by the candidates. Therefore, most of the times the candidate elected is the one who does not necessarily have the best political program or is best fit for the job, but it is the candidate who has the best eloquence and TV appearance, regardless of his/her political positions.

    3) In most nations, elections take place every 4 or 5 years, even if the voters are not satisfied with the performance or the political actions of the government, they will not be able (unless extreme things happens, like revolutions or impeachment) to change the people in the government before the next scheduled elections take place. In this way, the people in the government will not be immediately accountable for their actions in front of the people.

    4) Often power lobbies can influence the actions of a government quite decisively so that the government will act more according to the economical and political pressure of such lobbies than according to the people who voted.

    In most nations, choice is always limited to two or few major parties, in such case it is not at all impossible that the candidates of the parties agree behind the scenes to willingly limit the possible choices of the electorate regarding specific issues. For example, being one country with two major parties at war, if the elite of such country decides that such war has to be continued, may push both major parties to support it, even with few minor differences between the political positions of each party. In this case, even if a large part of the voters would like to stop the war, they will not find any major party representing them. Minor parties usually have extreme positions on issues not accepted by the majority of the electorate. In many countries it is theoretically possible to create new parties at national level, but there are many obstacles to practically becoming significant (legal loop-holes for the application for the elections in different counties, no access to the media, etc.). In conclusion, it is easy for the leaders of the two or three major parties of one nation to avoid giving options to the electorate about major topics if they all decide to do so and agree on this behind the scenes.

    I would like to propose an internet-based system (“I-Democracy” system) which is intended to remove as much as possible the above problems and to change the way the voters can participate in the writing of a political program:

    1) by allowing each voter to delegate his/her representation to one or more people in order to work on the writing of the political program above, with some sharp differences with the current representative democratic system that the delegation above a) can be retracted at any moment, b) is meant to be given to people known personally, c) can be subscribed at any moment by the voter for one or more voting therefore by-passing the delegation given and d) can be given to different people for different government areas (defense, economy, environment, education, research, etc.);

    2) allowing the voter to directly propose and vote single laws or packages of laws (political programs)

    By internet, it is possible today to create a system that allows the citizen-voter to directly participate in the creation of a political program for the government. In detail, the scope of the proposed internet system is that of a virtual environment where every voter, after getting registered, is able to propose and vote laws or packages of laws…

    Read the rest at Project iDemocracy

  12. I read "iDemocracy Document" and let me comment on it.

    Your goal is to "build an internet platform to empower the citizen and let them create a political and government program at national level", and you say, "The final goal of the platform is to create a political program for the government of the country."

    This order, however, should be reversed. Introducing iDemocracy at national level is so risky that it will take long time to realize it. Practically it is easier to introduce iDemocracy to a small local government experimentally. If the experiment is successful, this movement will spread across the local governments until it is adopted at national level.

    Project iDemocracy by Matteo Martini wrote:

    […] the system “I-Democracy” (“ID” from now on) is a virtual environment that allows any voter to directly (or by delegation to a “Proxy” or “Super Proxy” user) create a political program for each area of government (called “ID Section” from now on)

    I agree that hybrid democracy where voters can optionally use proxy voters is superior to strictly direct democracy where voters have no choice but to vote directly. But I do not consider it necessary to confine the role of proxy users to individuals. If political parties that embrace specialists of all departments in them play the role of proxy users, the arrangement of ID Administrators that you propose would be unnecessary.

    You seem not to trust political parties. To be sure the current parties are so few and so similar that they do not offer enough option to voters. Because under representative democracy the party /parties that fail to gain a majority has no power, the number of parties are limited (typically two) and all parties that are ambitious enough to gain power try to please everyone and get to resemble each other. Under hybrid democracy, where voters can vote directly, parties do not have to gain a majority. Many and different proxy parties will be created to attract voters.

  13. Dear Nagai Toshiya-san,

    1) the idea of starting from local governments and then move up to regional and national government is a good one.

    I think the approach can be used at all levels, but I agree that maybe it is easier to start at local level.

    2) I agree that proxy and super-proxy users may not be individuals.

    Major political parties, religion parties, research organizations and even private companies can have their own site and solicit delegation votes from anyone to propose their own agenda.

    In fact, it should be possible to delegate different super-proxy users for each area of government.
    My humble idea is that the main difference from proxy-users and super-proxy users should be that the first ones are still general users (a friend, a relative, someone that we know directly),
    while super-proxy users should be real experts (economists, tax experts, political parties, religious parties) that most of the times are dedicated to one or few areas of the government.

    For example, five or ten competent economists can be enough for formulating a good government plan for the national economy, but economists probably know nothing about national defense, so they should work only in the area of Economics, as super-users, but they should not work in the areas of defense (or Research, or talk about topics about Gay Marriage or abortion).

    3) The role of ID administrators is necessary in order to do the day-by-day work of administration of the site.

    New elections should be scheduled, if a new matter is brought forward, in which section shall be voted, in the section of Economics, in the section of Defense, how many votes are needed to pass a law? and how many to present a law?

    4)As for political parties, I think that, if people will like the system of hybrid democracy, political parties will more or less disappear as the focus will be on solving practical problems, not on ideology, I guess.

    But this is just my opinion.

    I have invited other people to join the discussion

  14. One of reasons why parties are more suitable for proxies than individuals is that the former scarcely abstain from voting. If some are sick, for example, other members of the party will vote as a party. Another is an individual expert might draft a new law or advocate a policy that is not compatible with the others of different area, while a party of various experts based on a unified policy can compile a coherent package of bills.

    If a party can be a proxy, then its super-proxy is unnecessary. I propose a system that evaluates parties according to the number of delegating voters. Suppose 100000 voters register Party X as their proxy and 60000 of them directly voted on a bill, while 40000 abstained from voting. The Party X can cast only 40000 votes but it is ranked as a 100000-voter-party.

    The value of a bill can also be calculated from the sum of delegated vote number of parties that agree to the bill. If only a bill that passes a threshold can come to a vote, then the arrangement of ID administrators is again unnecessary. Everything should be quantitatively determined and we must exclude the arbitrariness of ID administrators as much as possible to be fair. Of course, bureaucrats are necessary but we should not allow them to make a political judgment.

  15. Hi Nagai-san,

    I agree that super-proxies are sometimes non necessary.

    If you have your party as proxy, your party can participate directly in making and voting laws.

    In this case maybe a super-proxy is not needed.

    But if you have a father who has two sons and he gets the delegation votes of his two sons and his wife and he wants to delegate to different super-proxies for health, education and so on.. then super-proxies are needed.I think there are various different ideas about how to make the system work, here there are some links about discussions around.

    I-Democracy « Equality by lot

    I suggest it would be good to have one single big discussion forum where everybody speaks and exchange opinions, instead of many small forums where two, three people speak only between them.

    For any change and for any proposed system, it is important to gather a number of 20~30 people with strong interest.

    Even the best system in the world would fail without much public support.

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