[T]he rule of 999 people over one is more stable, less subject to change, than the rule of one over 999. The one can always be assassinated; majorities are never exterminated, only minorities, by the majorities.
We often hear quite diverse claims about democracy. Some of these claims even contradict each other. We hear that it’s the rule of the popular majority. We hear it’s the rule of those we pretend to elect from time to time, and that if the majority really were in charge, we would be quite fine. We hear it’s the rule of interest groups.
For a moment let us, for the sake of illustrating a few points, consider the ruler and his government as two completely different entities. The ruler appoints or elects the government, which runs the country. The ruler may or may not rule by giving directives to the government. Such an illustrative model can be quite explanatory in comparing popular and personal rule.
With personal rule we may have rule solely through appointments, although that would be rare. With popular rule we may have rule through both appointments, elections that is, and through directives, referenda that is. The ruler will rule more or less actively or passively. With personal rule the tendency will be towards active rule, and with popular rule the tendency will be towards passive rule.
Given the nature of the popular majority as ruler it is next to impossible for it to give directives on its own initiative. Hence, the popular majority gives directives only when asked to do so — either by the government or a small group among the electorate. A personal ruler by contrast will be quite able to give directives on his own initiative, although he may choose not to intervene and rule quite passively.
Now, with popular rule we may not have a pure democracy. Legislatures and presidents are often elected in such a manner that they technically cannot be seen as appointed by the popular majority as a whole. However, that changes little with respect to this model and the points illustrated by it. Whether we have limited or universal suffrage does perhaps matter more, but the popular rule systems we have today are basically based on universal suffrage.
For the top of the government it is quite comfortable not having some ruler constantly intervene. Thus, they would likely prefer popular rule. Moreover, being on the top of government and suggesting that the ruler is not fit to rule is quite hazardous. After all, the ruler might choose not to reappoint the top of the government.
The fact that the ruler in practice may not give directives does not rule out strong influence by the ruler on affairs of government. How the government under democratic rule gives in to interest groups in order to keep the popular majority happy should provide ample evidence of this. Now, one could object that the rule of interest groups is something else than rule of the majority. Well, it is not necessarily so. The majority will, almost as a rule, be comprised of interest groups.
For the government it may be quite comfortable to have the popular majority as ruler. For the minorities that are ruled it is of great peril to their liberties.
We are often told in this age of democracy that in these democratic times "we" may throw out the decision makers if they are bad or we don’t like them. It is not so. First of all, in keeping with democratic principles the ruler may not be thrown out. Secondly, one must convince the majority to replace the government. That isn’t necessarily easy even if the present government is bad. Under personal rule one can also endeavor to convince the ruler to replace the government, as one may attempt to convince him to give good directives, which is similar to campaigning for certain referendum outcomes. The personal ruler may decline to himself be convinced, but so may the popular ruler.
The individual voters are many. There is little chance that one vote will make a difference. Hence, the individual voter will have little incentive to make an informed and responsible decision. As Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn told us in Liberty or Equality:
[T]he democratic principle of "one man, one vote," viewed against a background of voting masses numbering several millions, only serves to demonstrate the pitiful helplessness of the inarticulate individual, who functions at the polls as the smallest indivisible arithmetical (and not always algebraic) unit. He acts in total anonymity, secrecy and legal irresponsibility.
Lots of people consider the problem with modern democracy to lie solely with the government. Hence, the solution is to increase the power of the ruler by introducing more direct democracy. However, if the ruler is a bad ruler, which there is much evidence the popular majority is, this is a dangerous path indeed.
Perhaps what this model best illustrates is that the claim that democracy provides peaceful transition of power compared to personal rule is a fallacy. As a result of an election the government may change. Very often only the top of it changes though. However, it is still a change of government that takes place peacefully. Changes of government have also taken place under personal rule — and to a large extent peacefully. Wait a minute? The popular majority, which is the ruler in a mass democracy, does change over time as new generations grow up and old ones leave us. However, this could be compared to generational changes in monarchies, and they have very often taken place peacefully.
When comparing popular rule to personal rule when it comes to peaceful transition, one must consider how the ruler were to be replaced. Personal rulers have often been in not so peaceful manners. Would this also not be the case were the rule of the popular majority to end?
Jørn K. Baltzersen [send him mail] is a senior consultant of information technology in Oslo, Norway.