The Problem of Democracy
A lot of ink has been spilled about the central problem of democracy. On one hand, the reason to have a democracy is because people should have some input into their governance. On the other hand, people do stupid or terrible things with that power.
The ancient Greeks (and later the Romans and Christian writers) considered democracy to be a failure of government. Plato (Republic, Book 8) explains that a democracy is ruled by useless desires (such as misplaced survival instincts or the desire for personal wealth). In a democracy, these misguided people are allowed to rule, which results in chaos.
This view was shared by Aristotle (Politics, Book 3 part 8), who summarized the problem as:
For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all.
Outside the classics, this view exists up until today. In the 19th century, English philosopher J.S. Mill (On Liberty, Chapter 1) attributed the problem to public opinion. Nearly all people use their naive opinion as a basis for political decision making. They base their support, voting, and other choices on there own personal opinion based on their personal experience - and they don't see a problem in this. Governments led this way do what their citizens want, rather than what is effective for obtaining what their citizens want. In addition to poor governance, Mill describes how democracies are driven to control people's personal lives - the "tyranny of the majority".
So the problems common throughout history are that democracy is unstable, leads to poor governance, and easily becomes oppressive rather than free.
Although I cited philosophers, in practice politicians have followed these kinds of ideas. The American founding fathers implemented many features to prevent citizens from having direct influence on the government:
- Legislation can only be created through legislators, not citizens.
- Senators (members of the upper chamber) are not to be selected by citizens, but by state legislators (this feature later removed).
- Federal judges are not elected, but appointed for life terms to prevent citizens from influencing them.
- The electoral college prevents citizens from directly choosing the President and Vice President.
We could easily list many more, including examples from other countries. Founders of modern democracies are aware that popular rule is a problem to be avoided, rather than something to be embraced. Probably the fairest synopsis is that although the public should have input into the system, their input has to be moderated.
In political science, we often describe states with "too much" democracy as being populist. Populism is generally a danger to citizens' rights and liberties. Much of this theory was developed by William Riker, but it is still common in spatial voting theory, social choice theory, and other fields.
Riker's basic concern was with electoral systems. How does the electoral system influence policy? Essentially, his conclusion is that elections restrain elected officials and policy, not empower them. Furthermore, the populist example (where citizens empower representatives to enact their will) is meaningless. Public support is unstable unless it is moderated by some kinds of institutions. Relying on public opinion directly for policy would lead to policies which are chaotic and inconsistent, as public opinion ebbs and flows. The result is that in these kinds of states, most public policy is wasteful: it changes too quickly or is quickly forgotton, never allowed to be useful.
In the modern liberal democracy (where policy is somewhat insulated from public opinion) voting is less detailed: we either accept or reject a candidate. Voters punish candidates who create policies they don't like. In this situation, policy is more consistent, less prone to large fluctuations, and leads to better outcomes.
I won't cite all of Riker's work, but this synopsis may be useful to anyone interested.