opinion web
Liberal Opinion Conservative Opinion
Walter Williams
Walter E. Williams
18 Mar 2015
Selma and Voting Rights Triumph

March 7th was the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the first attempt by black protesters to march from Selma,… Read More.

11 Mar 2015
Global Warming

"But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact," said President Barack Obama in his 2014 State of the … Read More.

4 Mar 2015
College Campus Update

President Barack Obama wants Americans to dig deeper into our pockets to expand college education. Let's … Read More.

What's Gone Wrong With Democracy?


The Economist magazine recently published "What's gone wrong with Democracy ... and what can be done to revive it?" The suggestion is that democracy is some kind of ideal for organizing human conduct. That's a popular misconception.

The ideal way to organize human conduct is to create a system that maximizes personal liberty for all. Liberty and democracy are not synonymous and most often are opposites. In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison explained, "Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." Democracy and majority rule confer an aura of legitimacy and respectability on acts that would otherwise be deemed tyrannical.

Let's look at majority rule, as a decision-making tool, and ask ourselves how many of our life choices we would like settled by majority rule. Would you want the kind of car you own to be decided through a democratic process, or would you prefer purchasing any car you please? Ask that same question about decisions such as where you shall live, what clothes you purchase, what food you eat, what entertainment you enjoy and what wines you drink. I'm sure that if anyone suggested that these choices be subject to a democratic process, we would deem it tyranny.

Our Founders saw democracy as a variant of tyranny. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Edmund Randolph said, "...that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy." John Adams said, "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." Alexander Hamilton said, "We are now forming a Republican form of government. Real Liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments. If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship."

By the way, the word democracy appears in none of our founding documents.

The Founders of our nation recognized that we need government, but because the essence of government is force, and force is evil, government should be as small as possible.

The Founders intended for us to have a limited republican form of government where human rights precede government and there is rule of law. Citizens, as well as government officials, are accountable to the same laws. Government intervenes in civil society only to protect its citizens against force and fraud, but does not intervene in the cases of peaceable, voluntary exchange. By contrast, in a democracy, the majority rules either directly or through its elected representatives. The law is whatever the government deems it to be. Rights may be granted or taken away.

Alert to the dangers of majority rule, the Constitution's framers inserted several anti-majority rules. In order to amend the Constitution, it requires a two-thirds vote of both houses, or two-thirds of state legislatures to propose an amendment, and it requires three-fourths of state legislatures for ratification. Election of the president is not done by a majority popular vote, but by the Electoral College.

Part of the reason for having two houses of Congress is that it places an obstacle to majority rule. Fifty-one senators can block the wishes of 435 representatives and 49 senators. The Constitution gives the president a veto to thwart the power of 535 members of Congress. It takes two-thirds of both houses of Congress to override the president's veto.

If you don't have time to examine our founding documents, just ask yourself: Does our pledge of allegiance to the flag read to the democracy, or to the republic, for which it stands? Or, did Julia Ward Howe make a mistake in titling her Civil War song "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"? Should it have been "The Battle Hymn of the Democracy"?

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



5 Comments | Post Comment
The Founders considered unfettered democracy to be worse than monarchy. The entire Constitution was a blueprint to create a representative (rather than a direct) democracy that exercised power derived from the people without allowing the people to exercise it directly, as a way of preserving individual freedoms from the tyranny of the mob.
Unfortunately, in the years since the Founding we have removed or destructively altered most of the constitutional provisions that kept our representatives from being chosen by the mob via demagoguery. Those provisions included forbidding direct popular election of Senators and the President, and forming House districts small enough that voters would be already familiar with the candidates and thus less likely to be swayed by demagoguery and propaganda. Those safeguards against demagoguery and deceptive propaganda are no more.
That is why deceptive rhetoric, empty promises, and campaign money now rule the electoral process and our elected representatives have become our rulers instead of our servants. This could never have happened had we kept the original constitutional provisions regarding election of our representatives.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Eric M. Bram
Tue Mar 24, 2015 5:49 AM
Uh... when people in the US say "democracy" these days, they mean "a government like the United States." Very few people are thinking of a direct democracy. However, here in New Hampshire, many towns have town meetings that are indeed democratic. If 20 people show up for the town meeting, they vote. If 2000 show up, they vote. It's binding either way. Actually, it works rather well.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Geoffrey James
Tue Mar 24, 2015 2:35 PM
What a wonderful column. Should be mandatory reading for everyone.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Bernard Lochte
Wed Mar 25, 2015 5:16 AM
"here in New Hampshire" voting is *exactly* like a "direct democracy"!

a majority of the people who cast votes for measures that increase taxes are, in actuality, a minority of the total homeowners and businesses who are forced to pay those taxes or they and their families will be forced from their homes and businesses. therefore, the two wolves are a 'majority of a minority' who are deciding which lamb, out of the whole flock of sheep, will be 'invited' to dinner.

and it appears that those democracy loving 'majority' voters in new hampshire never met a tax they didn't like!
Comment: #4
Posted by: dann
Wed Mar 25, 2015 8:54 AM
dann -- You hit the nail right on the head
Comment: #5
Posted by: Rick
Wed Mar 25, 2015 11:17 AM
Already have an account? Log in.
New Account  
Your Name:
Your E-mail:
Your Password:
Confirm Your Password:

Please allow a few minutes for your comment to be posted.

Enter the numbers to the right: comments policy
Walter E. Williams
Mar. `15
Su Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31 1 2 3 4
About the author About the author
Write the author Write the author
Printer friendly format Printer friendly format
Email to friend Email to friend
View by Month
Authorís Podcast
Marc Dion
Marc DionUpdated 30 Mar 2015
Mark Shields
Mark ShieldsUpdated 28 Mar 2015
Brent Bozell

5 Dec 2007 Income Mobility

27 Jun 2007 Straight Thinking 101

2 Mar 2011 Public Employee Unions