– What’s a democracy?
– Democracy means that people rule and the government respects the opinions of the citizens.
– So the government should do what the people want?
– In principle, yes, but…
– Can a majority of the people decide to abolish the parliament?
– No, the basic institutions of the state are usually set in the Constitution and constitutional rules are not to be changed like that. Everything that is in the constitution is off limits.
– OK, I can see why. Can the people decide different groups deserve different pay for the same job?
– No, even if this is not outlawed by the Constitution, there is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and fundamental human rights are not be changed by democratic majorities.
– Makes sense. Can the people decide on gay marriage? That’s not in the Declaration.
– Well, there are certain human rights that are not yet in constitutions and universal declaration, but we now recognize them as essential so they are also not subject to majorities.
– OK, so in democracies the government does what the people want, but not when it comes to constitutional issues, recognized fundamental human rights, and other very important norms.
– So can the people decide to change the interest rate?
– Oh, no! Not even politicians can do that. Monetary policy is delegated to independent central banks.
– But people can decide on regulating tel…
– Nope, regulation is basically all delegated to independent agencies, so that’s out.
– Hm, ok, so can the people decide to change the terms of foreign trade?
– Not really, these are set in international treaties so people cannot change anything that is in international treaties just like that.
– Got it. But people surely can decide if their country goes to war or not?
– Well, foreign policy is tricky, there is a lot of secret information involved, complex strategies to be made and it needs rapid responses, so, no.
– OK, can people decide on pensions, then?
– Pensions affect the future lives of those who can’t vote yet, so current majorities can’t really decide.
– OK, so in democracies the government does what the people want, but not when it comes to constitutional issues, recognized fundamental human rights and other very important norms, and not on anything that is in international treaties, and not on monetary policy or any regulatory issues, and not on foreign policy, and not on pensions. But for the rest the government should do what the majority of people want?
– Well, not really. It might not be clear what people want: there could be cyclical majorities among policy alternatives. And it might not be clear how to respond: respecting majorities on particular issues might lead to disrespecting a majority of the people overall.
– That sounds complicated. But if there are not cyclical majorities and one can satisfy a majority of people on a majority of the issues, then one should do what the people want?
– Nope. People might not want what’s good for them. People don’t understand policy and don’t follow political developments close enough. And people are duped by politicians and the media.
– Hard to disagree. I think I got it now: Democracy is a political system in which the government does what the people want, but not when it comes to constitutional issues, recognized fundamental human rights and other very important norms, and not on anything that is in international treaties, and not on monetary policy or any regulatory issues, and not on foreign policy, and not on pensions, and not on anything where it is unclear what the majority wants or how to satisfy a majority of people on majority of issues, and then only if the people want what’s right for them, to be decided by some experts in government or outside. Now that’s what I call a real demockracy!