Democracy is defined as:

Democracy is sometimes referred to as "rule of the majority". Democracy is a system of processing conflicts in which outcomes depend on what participants do, but no single force controls what occurs and its outcomes.

Democracy and democratic votes is a mechanism that can be used to resolve many kinds of conflicts. However, when is actually democracy the wrong type of conflict resolution mechanism?

There's a scenario I came across in another post on Stack Exchange, regarding a class seating arrangement. It's a benign example, but in that case, would a democratic vote be the right tool to decide who sits where? Or would a democratic vote be the wrong tool?

E.g. in that scenario, other ways of deciding the seat arrangements would include: a first come first served based distribution, or a random distribution of the seats, or a distribution based on student eyesight levels, which I think the latter would be the most fair.

So my question is more general on when/which kinds of scenarios where it is actually wrong to use a "democratic vote"?

How can we generally define the limits of when a democratic vote should not be used as the conflict resolution mechanism?

  • 69
    What do you mean by "wrong"? Ethically wrong? Unpractical? Something else? I assume that by "democracy" you mean direct democracy? Because many western countries are democracies, but cannot directly vote on specific issues.
    – tim
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 20:16
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    @tim Wrong in terms of not the optimal solution/unpractical. E.g. the democratic vote in the classroom would benefit the more politically inclined person that can affect people's opinion. Randomness would not be so good either because it would separate friends from each other in the classroom. Yes, direct democracy, I have just learnt that distinction.
    – Wadih M.
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 20:19
  • 1
    I would recommend Victor Davis Hanson's material on the subject. He has a few lectures detailing the Athenian view of Democracy. Here is a little clip from a longer talk: youtube.com/watch?v=-bQkjlgFxXE
    – blud
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 22:20
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    "...the wrong tool?" To achieve what? It probably strongly depends on the purpose of what you want to achieve. Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 13:40
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    When you say "not the optimal solution", what exact measure do you mean? Because part of a democratic vote, is that it's designed to respect what the consensus is on "the most optimal solution". To some people that may be most productive, for some the one where friends are closest and some which are based on misinformation ("it's a fundamental truth that good classrooms need to have symmetric balance of vegans on at least 2 axes"). Democracy is the tool for resolving that - not for resolving a solution where you've already determined the criteria.
    – Bilkokuya
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 15:10

19 Answers 19


Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.

~ a quote commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin

So, to answer your question:

When is a democratic vote actually the wrong tool?

Any time the rights of minorities matter. Pure democracy is mob rule.

That's one reason the United States is not a pure democracy. It's a constitutional representative democracy and a federal republic.

This means, among other things, that:

  1. the rule of law takes precedence over the will of the majority
  2. minority rights are protected
  3. the people elect representatives (presumably with good temperament) to make rules and decisions on their behalf

Democracy may also be inadequate when a faster speed of decision-making is important. Examples include:


  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – yannis
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 15:12
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    For real world example : During the Rwandan_genocide the hutu were the democratically elected majority and the tutsi were the minority.
    – Jylo
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 15:57
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    This might be improved, in the context of American democracy/democratic republic, by mentioning the Supreme Court and how it is not a democratic entity but has a lot of power in the US government. I mention that because historically it has been the Supreme Court in the US that has made the most changes in favor of minorities despite the actions or inaction of the democratically elected legislature and executive branch. Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 17:30
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    The second part is also the reason why the CDC has, if they deem it necessary, the authority to lock down every single airport, sea port and rail line in and out of a city. If they're responding to an epidemic outbreak they can't afford the delay of explaining to a governor that it really is necessary, or the risk that said governor waffles in fear of the voters' reaction to such a move. Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 19:35

Democracy works for decisions where (a) everyone is equally informed (or at least there is no reasonable way to exclude the ill-informed) and (b) everyone is equally affected by the outcome.

So, bad situations to use a democratic decision making process are where either:

(a) not everyone is equally informed. Voting on the value of the Planck constant, for the least contentious example I could think of.

or (b) not everyone is equally affected by the outcome. Two wolves and a sheep, as mentioned above.

  • 3
    Economists call 2nd point "moral hazard", but definition is easily extendible to political and even personal levels.
    – M i ech
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 22:22
  • Can this be backed up? Especially the first point - about a situation where everyone is equally informed. Commented Feb 3, 2018 at 17:53
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    a) is a good example, but not for being equally informed. Example: If nobody had an idea, voting on the Planck constant still would not yield good results. Science IS a good example where democracy is no good way to get to results, but not because of lack of information, but because of the scientific method that requires verifiability and proof of results (within the limits of an always possible falsification). It is not interesting if the majority thinks the spin of the electron is 1 if it is 1/2 in reality.
    – Thern
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 8:54
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    @indigochild: Any situation where a populist POV clashes with a moderate POV, really. Information is reasonable talk, while opinion can be shouted at any volume.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 12:11
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    @Nebr: For a real world example, consider legislating π. Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 0:47

Democracy is entirely the wrong tool when you need fast, consistent decision-making. This is why every successful armed force in the world is some flavor of dictatorship, rather than making decisions by majority vote.

  • 16
    Not only armed forces. Most private companies are also essentially dictatorships.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 11:21
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    If you want to see pure democracy and how evil it is just witness any social media community like imgur where a downvote is issued because "I'm just not feeling it". Or another example is the #metoo campaign were judgements by the mob have concrete effects. This is an extreme that is distasteful to me Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 12:46
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    Indeed, the Roman Republic (a quasi-democratic institution) was routinely suspended in times of dire need, especially self-protection, in favour of appointing a temporary dictator, who would then renounce it after the danger was over. It was a very effective system, in this respect. (And yes, well, temporary up to the point of Caesar, but that's a long complex story...)
    – user12926
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 15:02
  • 5
    If a company is publicly traded, the CEO is accuntable to the BOD. And the BOD can be relaced by the shareholders. That's very different from a dictatorship. Also, employees are free to quit, and customers don't have to be repeat customers. Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 20:34
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    @WalterMitty you seem to be missing that companies and militaries are categorised as dictatorships because there is one person making the decisions (including what decision making to delegate, and to whom). That the decision makers are not dictators for life, or that they are accountable to some oversight, does not stop them being dictators.
    – Caleth
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 9:25

Some of the most notable examples of irrational democratic decision-making come from referenda.

  • In 1955, Swedes voted 83% against switching from driving on the left to driving on the right. Nevertheless, the Riksdag voted in favour of it eight years later.

    I think that most people today would agree that it was a good idea to convert. A likely explanation of why the public rejected the idea is that it's difficult to convince the entire population to vote against their short-term self interest (making their own cars obsolete, or less drivable). An enormous change had to be made, but is there value in mounting a massive campaign to obtain the 50.1% support? Arguably, what is needed is courageous leadership.

  • Referenda in 2005 to ratify the EU constitution. Many national parliaments voted in favour of the treaty, but only two of the four national referenda succeeded.

    I won't debate whether the proposed constitution was a good idea or not. However, I would note that the referenda were hardly a rational decision-making process. For one thing, the constitution itself is over 400 pages — too long to read and too technical to understand for the typical voter, even in digested form. At best, the decision came down to a pro-EU or anti-EU sentiment. At worst, voters decided emotionally: "The national government is for the constitution; I don't like the government, so I'm voting No out of spite."

    This highlights a flaw with referenda. Voters, who normally have limited day-to-day influence on government decisions, are given a special one-time chance to voice their opinion on one specific and important issue. However, some voters may take that opportunity to voice their discontent on a different issue instead, since it is such a rare opportunity to have any voice at all.

  • Brexit, 2016, narrowly approved. I won't debate the merits of the issue here, except to note that Russian propaganda may have been involved, which was undesired or at least embarrassing. Also, as in the EU constitutional referenda, many voters voted against the EU simply to voice their frustration, but ended up surprised that they accidentally went too far.

    David Cameron, for one, will surely agree that it was unwise to allow the vote in the first place, as a kind of unnecessary risky political bet that he had hoped would strengthen the UK's commitment to the EU.

  • 3
    "except to note that Russian propaganda may have been involved, which was undesired or at least embarrassing" - if it "may" or may not have been involved, shouldn't it be "which would be undesired or at least embarrassing"?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 9:28
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    @AndrewGrimm - it definitely was undesired, whether or not it actually happened. Anyway, it turns out we didn't need Russian propaganda anyway; we created plenty of our own. The referendum was close enough that we can almost be certain that it was won on the basis of easily dismissed untruths (such as the popular notion that the entire total national contribution to the EU budget could be simply reassigned to other purposes, e.g. the NHS, without needing to use it to replace activities that are directly EU funded at present).
    – Jules
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 10:12
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    I object to the characterising the 2005 referendums as a pro-EU or anti-EU referendum. I strongly support the EU. I voted no because I thought the constitution was bad for the EU (and I still do).
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 11:22
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    The biggest problem with Brexit is that it ended up being a vote between a half truth and a lie, with both being sold as truth. The Leave campaign started retracting promises and claims literally the morning after the vote took place. Thus we demonstrate a more general flaw: democracy is a bad idea when the people voting do so based on lies. That applies just as well to a jury as it does to a referendum. It also doesn't always mean that the voted for option is the wrong one, only that the reasoning was at fault.
    – Kaithar
    Commented Feb 3, 2018 at 0:00
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    You're slandering Russia with no concrete evidence and alienating a large nation of people with media-led speculation, providing a good example of the subversion of democracy by media. "Russian involvement" implies the Russian government itself, and whether or not they attempted to manipulate the result, there was more propaganda coming directly out of the mouths of our own MPs and journalists, so it's unnecessary to make such a point of something that "may or may not" have happened, when you haven't made any mention of what definitely did happen.
    – Dom
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 18:35

Democracy is not a good way to administer justice. It's a good way to create laws, but laws are rules of behavior which make socially-acceptable behavior predictable. Deciding whether laws were broken or not is a fact-finding endeavor and does not easily yield itself to a democratic process (which is inherently impulsive).

  • 9
    It's not necessarily the best way to make laws, either. We might not have civil rights laws in a pure democracy, it took the work of legislators who were willing to go against the opinions of their constituents for the good of society.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 23:15
  • @Barmar, and having legislators has its own problems (empowerment of special interests, for example). No system is perfect. The question is what is generally good or generally bad.
    – grovkin
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 23:18
  • @Barmar-And conversely we might have even better civil rights laws if society and democracy were given the chance come up with the solutions instead of them being forced upon the people.
    – Dunk
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 23:21
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    You can generalize this to any fact-finding procedure. Democracy does not provide the methods to find facts in a reliable way.
    – Thern
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 12:15
  • @Nebr, your comment is actually very insightful and can probably be an answer by itself.
    – grovkin
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 23:49

Some main points speaking against a pure democracy are that a pure democracy brings along a (theoretical) risk of...

  • ... suppression / abuse of the individual. Democratic approval voting for expropriation of a single, lone homeowner for construction of a cross-country motorway is a commonplace edge-example, while class-mates voting for you to hand over your lunch is an extreme example.

  • ... suppression / abuse of the minority. A current controversial example is extra-taxation of the top-1-percent income group in the society, while democratic discrimination of a race, religion or skin-colour are extreme examples but democratic discrimination based on skill level, educational background or criminal record is commonplace and generally accepted (such as a school management board deciding on pupils acceptance on the school).

  • ... suppression /abuse of smaller communities. A smaller community is here defined as equal in terms of demographics, thus not being considered a minority (such as a city in a country or a parallel class in a school). Overtaxation of certain citizens based purely on zip-code or state are commonplace examples, while in Europe a very on-topic example is the fear of the European Union overruling national law-making and judging.

  • ... slow reaction time. Examples are disaster handling and actions with an immediate deadline, such as the doctor's life-saving treatment, where democratic voting is impossible due to time-constraints, as well as the obvious examples of law enforcement and military protection.

  • ... insecurity and doubt in decision making and stability. A small-scale example is the sergeant's strict orders in combat that require prerequisite blind trust. A larger-scale example is lawmaking changing often causing a market that cannot be trusted and thus preventing foreign investors and entrepreneurs from accessing that marked (changes in corporate taxation, in energy billing, in start-up requirements, in consumer rights etc.), as well as businesses with a reputation of rapid changes and thus instability in trading says that scare off partners and customers.

  • ... sluggishness / indolence of the voting people due to a large information requirement, theoretically leading to random and thus non-optimized outcomes of votes and elections that do not reflect a proper choice or opinion. The use of representative democracies (a smaller parliament representing the countries voice) around the World is a method of overcoming the issue of the common layman not being able to gain expertise, insight, full understanding and proper reflection of every single topic and detail in decision-making, while having a concurrent full-time job and separate life.

  • ... nothing ever being done / everything taking literally generations to carry through. Imagine every detail of the lawmaking being put up to public vote. Everything from the specific numbers on every state budget to the wording of paragraphs.

  • ... low-quality and non-educated decisions. Democratic elections often follow along with an intense "hunt" and campaigning towards people who choose not to vote, which is seen as inappropriate and disrespectful of the democracy. Forcing or urging everyone to use their vote even on matters they know nothing about, will obviously dilute the expert voices on the decision. Examples include decisions of scientific and medical nature.

  • 4
    I would add that democracy fails always when expert knowledge is necessary. The majority of voters usually lack knowledge. This causes overreactions: CERN, nuclear energy, genetic engineering, Brexit, ...
    – user16984
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 12:16
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    @dgrat Thank you for the input. I feel this issue is covered in the last point regarding the people not being well informed in all subject areas. Do you disagree?
    – Steeven
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 14:35
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    @dgrat: See, you list four points as "overreaction due to lack of knowledge", and I (considering myself well above average in my knowledge of the fields involved) see two rather pronounced _under_reactions in your list... One man's knowledge is another man's propaganda, and vice versa...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 12:22
  • @dgrat I have come to agreement with your addition and have now added it to the list (the last point). It does cover a degree of risk that is not already covered due to the expectation of everyone to use their democratic vote, even in ignorant cases. One could assume smart people to not use their vote if they know nothing about the topic, thus making this risk non-existing, but that would be a very unlikely and naive expectation. Thank you again for the suggestion.
    – Steeven
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 15:30
  • 1
    I think your answer is underrated :( Hope it gets more up votes. Guess especially americans have a tendency to favor simple citations of VIPs or historical persons, visible on the >100 up vote answer and in nearly all Hollywood movies where the main actor cites one of these ultra patriotic phrases. Why is that so?
    – user16984
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 11:49

My interpretation of where a democratic vote is "wrong", at least in the context of US politics, is one in which the natural or civil rights of a person/demographic are concerned. To give some context, when I say natural rights, I refer to the equal rights of all people to life/liberty/property as described by Locke (1). I would add "speech", and specify property that is obtained by legal and ethical means, although "ethical" opens a whole new can of worms, so we'll leave that open to interpretation for now. When I say civil rights, I refer to rights guaranteed by the government entity's rule of law.

To give an example, a "democratic" vote was held (7-2) that resulted in the Dred Scott Decision. This effectively nullified the idea that African Americans, slave or freeman, could become citizens of the United States. To get right to the point, the Chief Justice Taney ruled this on the basis that the Framers clearly did not intend to include African Americans when they stated that "All men are created equal". (2)

Unless you are an avowed racist, you have probably come to the conclusion that this verdict will live on as one of the less "justicey" ones of the SCOTUS' history. Clearly, the SC decision violates the very principle which Taney quoted, which was that all men are created equal (have equal natural rights), because Scott was no less a man simply because he was African American.

Apply similar logic to issues of censorship: just because a majority of people disagree with an idea and believe it should be censored, that does not justify its censorship, because the proponents of the idea have an equal right to exercise their first amendment. The mere fact that their opinions upset people does not make them less valid as opinions, however valid criticisms would. (Criticism being contingent upon both the idea's existence in the public sphere of discussion, and something to be criticized that would make it less legitimate in the first place).

The free speech example is one of "tyranny of the majority".

To sum up, if democracy violates somebody's natural or civil liberties, it's probably time for those people to rethink what made them vote that way.

  1. http://www.crf-usa.org/foundations-of-our-constitution/natural-rights.html
  2. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2933.html

Besides the other answers given, I think there are two points where democracy is potentially not optimal:

  • Democracy is often a slow process and you cannot be prepared for every situation. This is why many countries have a state of emergency they can invoke, in which regular democratic processes might be suspended for the time being. Of course, the understanding is usually that after the state of emergency there will have be an accounting.
  • A less clear cut example is that are quite a few wealthy countries in the world that are democratic now, but for which the recurring theme is a non-democratic (or perhaps only in name) government that builds up an industrial base with heavy hand. Usually large groups within the population are affected in negative ways in such phases (driven from their homes, losing jobs, etc.). You might argue that the industrialization of such countries would not be as fast or successful in a democracy.

Democracy gives you a decision that matches the desire, rational or otherwise, of the majority of the population actually voting.

Thus, any situation where this decision is not the optimal or ideal or ethical decision is one where democracy is inappropriate.

They can include decisions where

  • the majority would or are enforcing a cost on the minority that is not also borne by the majority, where the cost is unreasonable or unethical or immoral (ironically such as the right to vote itself)

  • the costs borne by the majority or the entire population are well in excess of the costs which would be borne by a decision with minority or zero support (such as whether to mine or farm a given piece of land, or vary the rate of taxes on incomes and business)

  • the time available for making the decision in a democratic manner makes the decision irrelevant, when other processes provide an effective resolution or a decision that has lower costs than not making the decision in time


There are also things which cannot be decided by democracy or any other means, because they are facts.

In the local newspaper they made fun of a teacher who allowed the class to decide whether a pet kitten was male or female.

That is a harmless example - maybe not for the kitten. But imagine uninformed or religiously indoctrinated persons voting on the value of pi, or the shape of the earth. The effect would be disastrous for science and engineering (and the rest of the world would laugh at them).


Do you feel like having a democratic vote over what you have for lunch would be a good thing? Would you like if instead of counting the votes in your country (region/city/...), they'd be taken all over the world? Would it be okay if voters in half the world banded together and voted that everyone else should give them all they have (the "two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner" fun)? Clearly even in normally "democratic" contexts, there are boundaries in place. Your neighbor can't vote on what you have for lunch. Most countries don't allow kids to vote.

You seem to follow the basic idea of "democratic is a good default, but there may be exceptions". I think it's the opposite - a democratic vote is a last resort after all the other (not openly violent) approaches at conflict resolution fail. A pure democratic vote always disadvantages minorities, and every individual is ultimately a minority of their own. The fewer things decided by democratic vote, the better - but if it does come to a conflict that's threatening to be violent, it can be a decent resolution mechanism.

To digress a bit, modern democracies are neither pure nor abide by the principle of non-aggression. This is based both on historical development (e.g. when you buy a piece of property, you're kind of leasing it from a government that claimed that particular piece of land and violently opposed anyone counter-claiming; go far enough in time, and every ownership started with what would be "a crime" today), practical necessities, and even outright power manipulations by people who profit from exploiting others. I'm going to ignore the abuses (it's not like there's a system that cannot be abused) and focus on the other two.

A lot of modern countries kept many laws from their pre-democratic days. The constitutions and "basic rights and freedoms" that cover the core principles of government were formed by an elite, not democratic vote. Since any government needs to root itself in the previous government, this is perfectly natural - you don't want to clean the whole board of laws just because they originated from a different process. But it does mean that many laws were never democratically voted for - they were kept. Many things like land and industry ownership (and other "debts") were never re-evaluated democratically (and where they were, it usually didn't end well - history is full of the famines and economic downturns that often follow). It just wasn't practical for one reason or another.

The practical necessities are probably the core of what you're asking about.

First, even today, democratic votes take a long time - even just organizing them takes a lot of time, and when the issue is particularly undecided, it may take a lot of preparation to have a fair vote. People need to figure out what the issue is about, find out all the relevant information, what other people in their social circles think about it, all that jazz. Since all votes have nominally the same value, people who aren't well informed have the same power as people who are. So if you really want a democratic vote, you need time, and you need to keep the votes far enough apart that people don't start ignoring most of the votes. Even if you can afford the time to decide one particular issue (that is, it's not an emergency where the delay is expected to be more harmful on average than not being "democratic" about it), it limits how many issues you can reasonably resolve like this in a given time frame.

The solution to this has historically been to either delegate your responsibilities (instead of voting on concrete issues, you vote on a representative and hope he'll actually represent you) or make the votes smaller (instead of voting on world/nation-wide laws, you vote on laws as local as possible while still being relevant). For almost all the decisions being made in the government, you don't really get a vote - you just helped choose the people who entirely un-democratically decide on what to do.

Second, most people don't have a strong opinion about most things, or don't care enough to share it beyond a pub conversation. Even if it didn't cost people anything to show up to the vote and even if they didn't have to do any research to be effective, you'd get a pretty small voter turn out. Now either you say "Okay, we'll count the proportion in people who actually voted", which makes a minority dictate rules to the majority, or you say "Okay, we'll count how many votes there are out of all the eligible voters", in which case you'd only ever get a democratic decision for very important issues that carry serious voter interest. This wouldn't be a bad thing for a government that tries to be as small as possible, but that's a rare thing.

Third, even if you do vote on serious issues that enough people are interested in and everything, it's impractical to implement those issues based on democratic processes. Usually the vote is along the line of "Yes, we want this" or "No, we don't want this". The finer points of how a particular issue is resolved in detail is still delegated to some non-democratic mechanism.

I could go on, but my point is: if you want examples, look everywhere around you. Unless you assume an ideal world where everyone has unlimited time, resources and attention to assess every single issue, it's a clear indicator of the failings of democratic votes. Democratic votes are the tiny minority, even today. And if you do assume such ideal world... would there really be conflict? It's kind of like talking about what the economy would look like in a true post-scarcity society. We have limited resources to work with, and that shapes the tools that work. If our resources weren't limited, the problems wouldn't really need resolving in the first place :P


Democratic voting is a fallback. If people cannot come to agreement through other means, it's usually better than outright violence. There's nothing inherently good about a democratic vote - it can result (and has resulted) in just as much injustice and oppression as any other system, and no matter how many people vote that the Earth is flat (or a sphere, or an oblate geoid, or...), it will not change the shape of the Earth. It's just a system we use for a relatively small number of decisions that affect a lot of people simultaneously. In an ideal world, it should just be something that moves you to peacefully resolve conflicts without resorting to a judgement by some authority.


Technocracy versus Democracy

Other answers here have discussed the need to limit democracy to prevent the abuse of minorities. I'd like to add something else.

Democracy is rule by the people, or their elected representatives.

Technocracy is rule by experts.

The problem for democracy is that it assumes that the voters will make sensible decisions. However it is simply impossible for any single human being to have an informed opinion about all aspects of how society is run. For instance, is your local water company doing a good job? Suppose it were to hold elections for CEO. What policies would you support? Is leak reduction a priority, or would money better be spent upgrading waste treatment plants? Making an informed decision is a non-trivial job. Merely understanding the issue and identifying the relevant facts will require hours of study.

Now imagine repeating this exercise for hundreds of jobs. And of course this is just the decision about who does those jobs. If you actually want direct democracy over what these people are doing then the work required from every citizen becomes even more insane. There is simply no substitute for hiring people who already understand the work and letting them get on with it. Hence the pressure for technocracy.

However a pure technocracy doesn't work either. The problem is that the technocrats are well placed to divert resources to themselves and their families, and over the years they inevitably start to feel a sense of entitlement to these perks. Eventually they morph into a rigid self-serving oligarchy. This is what happened to the USSR.

This is why every Western country has wound up with a balance between technocracy and democracy. The top-level executives are chosen by popular election, and the rest of the decision making is done by technocrats who are answerable to the democratically elected representatives. This is horribly imperfect because even the elected representatives working full time cannot realistically oversee everything they are theoretically managing, but its the least bad answer anyone has yet managed to come up with.

For a satirical view on this problem see Yes Minister, especially the bit starting at 16:50 where the technocrat Sir Humphrey explains how to manage the democratically elected Minster, and by extension the process of democracy itself.


Democracy can be the wrong tool when there's no further iterations or even second chances. Example: a controversy on the best way to divert a huge meteor from destroying the Earth in a few years.

Other answers here seem to have fixed upon good information and expertise leading to "right answers" as prerequisites for democracy, but democracy isn't about the voters always being right, or even consistent, it's about the fallible voters making conscious decisions collectively, and preserving a kind of national unity, as their nation learns.

No form of government is free from erroneous and harmful decisions:

  • When a non-democratic nation screws up, the people have no one else to be angry with but their rulers. Similarly when a non-democratic nation decides with the help of experts to make an unpopular decision, the the people must also grow angry with their rulers, because the people can't understand the expert decision. Such fractures can be relieved by soothing propaganda, but that tool may become a prop that enables corrupt rulers to make worse mistakes that eventually widen such fractures beyond hope of recovery.

  • Democracy helps diffuse the blame for such errors, and behaves something like a heat sink in electronics, or mechanical damper springs. That diffusion is especially useful when the populace is diverse and uncertain. Its people can blame each other, converse, forgive, recover, and try again next time.

Democracy is somewhat baffled by propaganda, noise, and censorship. If the people cannot learn from their mistakes, because the fact of a mistake somehow never reaches them, or that fact is quickly forgotten, their mistakes will continue, and the nation must suffer. But that's true of every form of government -- national decision makers either learn, or their nations suffer, and eventually give way to nations that can learn.

  • 2
    Learning from mistakes would cause psychological discomfort of admitting being wrong at start. Wouldn't it be more convenient for voters to create some conspiracy theory to explain undesired observations?
    – Shadow1024
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 10:12
  • @Shadow1024, No, that would be less convenient for normal voters. There's a balance to it: people grieve their errors, but laugh again when they find a better way.
    – agc
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 3:14

It appears as a truism amongst modern Whigs and Tories that democracy is an acceptable mechanism to distribute control over the state, but an unacceptable mechanism to distribute control over the economic firm. Compare and contrast to the position of pre-modern Tories, reactionaries and fascists regarding the distribution of control over the state. To move this beyond this as an answer that effectively resolves to "when culturally appropriate," we can link existence of democracy with party systems and effective capacities of the state to disenfranchise controllers or owners of socially significant property. This gives us an answer that democracy is acceptable, from 1815, when it does not effect which class controls social property; in summary, "if voting changed anything they'd make it illegal."


There's a scenario I came across in another post on Stack Exchange, regarding a class seating arrangement. It's a benign example, but in that case, would a democratic vote be the right tool to decide who sits where? Or would a democratic vote be the wrong tool?

E.g. in that scenario, other ways of deciding the seat arrangements would include: a first come first served based distribution, or a random distribution of the seats, or a distribution based on student eyesight levels, which I think the latter would be the fairest.

In many countries, mixed democracies have already decided seating arrangements.

In the US for instance, we have something called ADA which gives priority to the people who are hearing impaired, visually impaired, or physically impaired. Plus, we've also set the precedent that the teacher would be allowed to decide who gets to sit where (assuming he respects our current laws).

And taking a vote in the classroom with just the students that are already there wouldn't be an example of democracy at all because such a vote would go against the vote of our much wider population at large that has already decided most of those things already.


Defense and foreign policy decisions often have to be made behind closed doors, because the information that frames those decisions is usually very sensitive, as in deciding to pursue stealth aircraft technology. We'd prefer a potential adversary not to know about that technology until after it has been used in combat... won't they be surprised?

Nor does the average voter have the time or inclination to understand all of the issues that go into foreign and defense policy. They could easily be led astray with a bit of cherry picking and omission, especially true in today's profit driven media.

Consider complex weapons that tend to go through a long development cycle, as they are pushing the limits on what can be built. We have been bombarded by horror stories on weapons systems in the past while they were in development... V22 Osprey, F15 Eagle, Ohio class submarines, that later turned out to be very effective. Just as we are being bombarded with horror stories about the F35 today.

If the average voter had to vote on weapons procurement, we'd probably have no army.

  • I agree, most of the other answers give situations where democracies had some short coming but dictatorships fail too. Weapons procurement is a lot like herding cats. There is a lot of debate and politicking but it happens in private,
    – user17932
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 4:37
  • Re "We'd prefer... until after...": it's unclear how usual or likely is it for that preference to be fulfilled. There's also the danger that too much secrecy can deprive one's own forces of much needed intel -- in a secretive regime such losses can be quite difficult to measure.
    – agc
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 6:55

What you describe is direct democracy, where issues are voted on and a majority prevails. However, most democracies around the world are representative. Representatives are voted for and then act on the electorate's behalf, the theory being that the electorate cannot be expected to be fully informed and expert on every issue so employs people to make decisions for them.

As such the answer to your question is that most of the time direct democracy is the wrong tool, at least under most systems in use today.


An answer that hasn't come up in the other answers is: when the question is a matter of fact and not opinion. This may seem obvious, but math, science, history, etc. are not democratic and democracy would not improve those fields. Deciding what 1+1 equals isn't a democratic process, because there is a real and tangible answer.

This may seem obvious, but it gets tricky at the intersection of politics and science, for example - the EPA, or NASA. The EPA should be controlled democratically, because it's making political decisions based on what is important to the populace. But it should be making decisions based on real, undemocratic science.


When interests are not proportional.

Imagine a corporation where you have 80% stake. And another 20 people have 20% stake.

One man one vote.

No body would care how the corporation will make profit. The 20 people will simply vote that the corporation gives all the money to all people.

In Jakarta there is a mosque that like to sound adzan. Adzan is a sensitive issue in Indonesia with one girl sent to jail for complaining against it.


The way things work in Indonesia is that the majority of the population is muslim. However, the non muslims, particularly the chinese, are way richer. How rich? I don't know.

And the result is a never ending discrimination against chinese. It gets less and less though recently it went up again.

Another story that I know is about a mosque in the middle of a real estate project.

The owner of real estate project definitely wants the mosque to be demolished. After all that one mosque is "noisy". The property developer wants his house to sell and the mosque is not advantageous for him.

I think in cases like this, owners of land should have "bigger" vote than any normal people. Not necessarily an issue in this case because the muslim is also minority there.

However, there are cases where many poor people illegally squat on government land have the same voting power with those actually owning the land.

When voting power does not depend on contribution

In US, democracy gives disproportionate power to those who simply have more children. We have generations and generations of cradle to grave welfare parasites.

Most people in democracy do not like accepting refugee or even cheap workers because of this. That's because those refugee will become citizen with equal voting power. This lead to inefficiency. Why should rich American wash their own dishes if they can pay cheaper mexican to do so? But if you accept them, they can vote more money out of your paycheck through income tax.

And that leads to an important point. Why should someone have power to run your life simply because he's born at the right place or come to your country? If anything, it doesn't serve your interests at all.

However, democracy weighted by interests and contribution works just fine. In corporation we have one share one vote. So it works pretty fine.

When some voting blocs can vote to steal from another voting blocs

Giving dividend to shareholders is also another reason why corporate democracy works better than normal democracy.

In normal democracy, some voting blocs would vote against the interest of other voting blocs. The result is often legalized stealing. The effect of voting blocs voting against one another's interest results in a very unnecessarily complex social program.

We got job creation for those who gets job, we got unemployment benefits for those who don't. And we got affirmative action for those who are less likely to get a job.

Combined those tend to benefit citizens in equal share for everyone anyway. So why not just pay dividend and get done with it.

There's a parody of this issue here http://www.usmessageboard.com/posts/21128617/

In corporate democracy, voting blocs cannot vote to steal from another voting blocs. Every share got the same dividend. Hence, in corporate democracy people vote on how to make the "pie" bigger rather than how to get more pie.

Corporate decisions are often more swift. Normal democracy is so bloated.

When catering to the need of all kind of people is inefficient/where it's far more efficient to make certain niches happy than all people happy

Now for minority rights. Market mechanism protect minority right far better than democracies. Minority shareholders can just sell shares at market price. Minority customers can simply buy from different company.

This gives "legitimacy" to decisions made by the majority shareholder.

The market solution for minority right is efficient. If you don't like what we're doing just get out. We don't expect microsoft to produce noodle. Each corporations try to make "some people" happy. The rest are none of their concern. If someone is unhappy, as long as their right is not violated, then no problem. Who cares. Those who like pizza can go to pizza hut instead of microsoft.

In democracies, 2 things happen, and both are bad. One thing that happens is the majority oppress the minorities. We see extermination of jews, armenian. We see discrimination and pogroms against chinese.

Usually, the one screwed by the mob are the best and brightest. The race or ethnic that's slaughtered are often the most industrious ones.

Another thing a democracy can do is to have laws protecting minorities right. This often leads to the majority bending over backward for the minority. That is also not efficient.

Normal democracies protect minority right with a band aid. And the result is even worse. Now small member of society can pretty much halt normal decision making for the whole group. Normal democracy becomes very "bloated" because of this.

I've heard in US, a muslim can sue a supermarket so he is replaced in a job where he doesn't have to help people buying pork. The japanese address this issue by simply making it very difficult for muslims to come to Japan. That actually hurts muslims.

French ban burqa and gets a lot of protest. It seems that muslim countries solve this issue easily. Don't listen to protest. So what if their country is a muslim country? As a non muslim, I simply don't go there.

I've also heard that muslim terrorists slaughter people in Charlie Hebdo. I've heard that such acts are supported by many muslim voters. In western countries, you can make fun of Jesus, Buddha, and Khrisna. But you risk getting shot by terrorists if you make fun of Muhammad.

So to protect some minorities "right" from being offended, the majority in western civilization is bending over backward toward their small number of radical muslim overlords. Very inefficient.

Instead, the french could declare that the nation caters to those who love freedom of speech niche. Those who don't like it can just get out.

Why not have a sensible solution. Sure they can come but they obey the will of the original citizens or majority? Well... Kind of tricky in normal democracy because once a person immigrate he can vote too.

I think it's simply more efficient for people that don't fit on society to simply get out.

Look at the secular in Indonesia. If they really want secular countries, shouldn't they get out?

Or look at the muslim in france. If they don't like burqha ban, why not just get out?

It's simply far more efficient for each countries to cater to their "niches" then trying to be fair and equal for all kind of people. We have islamic countries. We have secular countries. Why can't each people go where they like.

Under normal democracy this doesn't seem to work out really well. We are all minorities in some issues. There's always a question why should A that gets out and why not B. Also many feel that minorities also own part of a country and hence should be compensated if they get out.

In corporate democracy this is not a problem. Again, any minority shareholder can get out and be compensated for his share. Any visitors/people/customers to disneyland that do not like disneyland can simply write a bad review and go somewhere else.

In normal democracies, most benefits toward citizens only happens when the citizen lives in the same country. Welfare, jobs creation, would benefit citizens of french only if they live in french. So minorities that actually don't fit french culture, and don't like freedom of speech, and don't even speak french, choose to come and stay and breed in french.

Making them go then have much higher political costs and require much bigger determination even though it's the efficient thing to do.

If citizens are replaced by shareholders, those who do not like the way the french is doing things can sell citizenship to those who like freedom of speech. So those who don't fit will be compensated for "leaving" making things easier for everybody.

When commitment to freedom of speech is low

Democracies require people to be reasonably well informed. Well, some people think that certain ideas are sacrosanct it's beyond critic. So it's easy to package corruption with religious values. Anyone criticizing it go to jail.

A sample case of this is Ahok's case. Indonesia is a very corrupt countries. Ahok cleans up corruption. Then what? People uses religion to tell Indonesians that they cannot vote for Ahok because he's non muslims. Their true motives is to steal money from government. Obviously they don't honestly tell their true motives are.

Ahok, jokingly says that people are being lied to by using religion. Ahok was sentenced to jail for 2 years. He's still a very popular politicians that got 44% of the vote in the election. All because he said something that most westerners accept as facts, that religions are often used for lying.

Notice Ahok is already very polite. He didn't say that quran is a lie or that the ulama is lying. He said that someone is using it for lying. But restrictions of freedom of speech is very rubbery on this obviously politically charged accusation.

My guess is Ahok's case is typical. This explains why corruption is higher in muslim countries. This also explains why most muslim countries are not democracy. This also explains why most christian countries are also not democracies before they're secular.

Religion is like a wrench in a machine in democracy.

When objectives are unclear and hard to measure

Corporations have clear measurable objectives, namely maximization of investors' return.

Because citizenship doesn't have valuation, cannot be bought or sold, and does not pay dividend, people do not know for sure whether their leaders are doing a good job or not.

Sure corruption is legal. But what about using government budget to subsidize gasoline? OR giving money to some sport clubs? Or mobs? Or to build church? Or mosques? It's not clear whether that's corruption or not. It's obviously rent seeking.

Again, we don't have problems with this in corporations.

A democratic state should consider converting all their citizenship into shares. Allow those who don't fit the state's value to sell their citizenship/shares to those willing to pay, and then can convert back to normal democracy again.

This is a post that advocates changing normal democracies to be more like democracies practice in corporation http://www.usmessageboard.com/posts/21059253/

  • Re "80% stake": Please clarify whether the term "stake" here means mere ownership, or includes risk. One man might own a chemical factory that stores toxins, but the risks assumed by that factory aren't merely the owners' financial risks, but also those neighbors potentially endangered, (or actually harmed), should those toxins leak.
    – agc
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 7:05

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