Who Are 'The People'?


My previous article on LRC discussed voting as an act of legitimating the State, and it generated a great number of extra e-mails in my inbox. Most of them politely told me I had overlooked the fact that a rather large part of the United States population is not eligible to vote. And so the effectiveness of my reasoning is undermined due to errors in the numbers.

It’s true that I didn’t mention the ineligible part of the population, but this I did on purpose. The reason is that the democratic principle is based on the people (or, the population) ruling themselves, but nowhere is "the people" clearly defined. In ancient Greece, most famously in the city-state of Athens, "the people" consisted only of male property-owners who had been born in Athens. All other people living there — males without property, women, children, immigrants, and slaves — could not take part in public affairs.

The same is true in the contemporary version of democratic states: the representative democracy. It still means the people ruling themselves, but through a number of representatives, yet still no one really knows who "the people" are. One would think that claiming the people should rule themselves means you already know who the people are, but no political scientist or politician will be able to answer such a question without reservation.

The truth is that in using the argument for democracy almost everybody simply takes for granted "the people" are anyone who either lives in or is a citizen of the specific organization with territorial monopoly of the use of aggressive violence, a.k.a. a State or government (I’m using the terms interchangeably here.) This is supposed to mean that everyone who has a real interest in how government is going about its business also has the right to choose representatives in that government, has control of government policy-making, and can hold representatives accountable.

This sounds a bit too good to be true, even though I’m no proponent of government, and it is: the argument for democracy is simply fiction. And as we know, there’s always a difference between fiction and fact. Democratic government is no exception to this rule.

In reality "the people" are not anyone with real interest in government, but only those people the government have already approved. Hence, there are rules for who are eligible voters. For instance, you have to be of a certain age, be a citizen or have lived within the borders of the State for a certain number of years, not be imprisoned, and you have to be "sane" in a way specified by the State. And you have to register to receive this right to be part of the people, with the effect that people supposedly representing you know exactly who you are and where to find you.

These rules are of course arbitrary. What’s there to say anyone aged 17 years and 11 months cannot vote for this or that reason, but for the same reasons someone about a month older can? Why does not a mother aged 17 have the right to vote, while a senile person of 71 does? And why do certain crimes take away your right as a part of "the people" so that you no longer can influence government?

Such rules make no sense. If democracy really means "the people" should rule, then why does the government, which supposedly represents the people, forcefully exclude large parts of the people from that democratic right? This question, striking at the root of what democracy supposedly is, is a perfectly good reason not to accept government’s arbitrary rules as a starting point for discussing voting and the legitimacy of the State.

My point of departure in the article mentioned was the fiction of democracy — the principles of the theory, not the facts. This is to say, I discussed the foundations for our modern-day democratic states as the argument usually goes: that "the people" elect representatives who in turn rule but are frequently held accountable. But even the argument for democracy fails to be convincing, and the fact about democracy is even worse. The democratic fiction is that "the people" rule themselves through appointing government representatives, but the fact is "the people" is defined by government.