I've been reading the definition of Democracy given by the social contract of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The objective of democracy is not to do the best laws, but to choose the laws shared by most of the people. So for the laws that are really far away from justice. Daniel Goleman states what is fair by scientific searches.

If the subject A wants to do the laws A, B, C, D and the subject B wants to do A, B, C, E it doesn't matter if D or E were the best laws in the world.

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    Can you please add how do you define "best laws"? You mean just? If so, what notion of justice are you using? My understanding is that justice in the social contract theory is included in the general will such that, in respect to the sovereign, law is fair. Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 9:21
  • The concept of fair is well defined by empathy through some searches by Daniel Goleman in his book Social Intelligence. The book deals with scientific measurement through MRI. Fairness is really well defined also by religion. Capitalism, for example, is just the easier way to obligate people to make efforts and work hard reducing the centralized effort. Michael Moore's Capitalism a love story shows the degeneration of this system.
    – Revious
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 9:46
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    Daniel Goleman provides one definition, based on something (that I'm not aware of). Rousseau provides another, based on something else. What I'm saying is that it is possible that the Social Contract is not optimal in the sense that it does not achieve fairness according to Daniel Goleman's definition, but is optimal in the Rousseau's definition. Even if you agree more with one, it does not mean it is "the definition". My comment was on those lines; which definition are you using, can you add a link to it? Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 9:56
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    @J.C.Leitão: I've opened a question on the cognitive session to get a definition of fairness..
    – Revious
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 11:02
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    "Michael Moore movies" are basically hard left fictional rants that are masterfully presented to be "documentaries". If your worldview is informed by THAT, you should really expand your sources. For example, by talking to some people who immigrated from socialist countries.
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 16, 2014 at 12:53

5 Answers 5


Democracy literally means the rule of the people

1570s, from Middle French démocratie (14c.), from Medieval Latin democratia (13c.), from Greek demokratia "popular government," from demos "common people," originally "district" (see demotic), + kratos "rule, strength"


It doesn't specificity how a consensus comes about or what portion of the governed defines a consensus. It simply means that the people rule themselves, as opposed to a king or something.

If a law can be passed by just a plurality of the people, than it's still a democracy

If a law can only be passed unanimously, than it's still a democracy.

If the ruled come together and discuss what they think is the optimal laws, and then come to whatever consensus they want, than it's still a democracy.

In general, as long as the people are ruling themselves somehow, it's a democracy. How optimal the laws may or may not be is not in the scope of the defnintion

Democracy isn't inherently more apt to make less optimal rules than any other type of government. It's perfectly possible for a king to make suboptimal rules, and it's also possible for wealthy landowners to make suboptimal rules, and it's also possible for a class of nobles to make suboptimal rules.

  • I would say that a good king can make good laws, as a good people can make good laws.. If people are influenced by bad instruction system and bad mass media they could be not so good also in making optimal laws
    – Revious
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 18:53
  • On a side note, you are using the word "than" incorrectly here. You should be using "then".
    – user3165
    Commented Dec 4, 2014 at 19:29

It may seem like democracy always ends up with suboptimal laws but its more a function of the people in the democracy than the system of government.

The resulting set of laws being suboptimal is a matter of probability and depends on the people making the laws. As a democracy can make sub optimal laws, a king has the same chances or even more to make a set of sub optimal laws.

In the other way, it's possible for the people in a democratic nation to choose optimal laws also. A group of people may not always end up going for the most acceptable version. There are people who give up their lives for the common good like our patriots and in the same way there are people who compromise their B and C for the good of D and E.

Comparing democracy and dictatorships for example, democracy tries to minimize the amount of dissatisfaction in the laws being enacted. So even if it isn't optimal, chances are, you won't end up living under laws you don't like.

And the way to make perfectly optimal laws is a meritocracy where we choose a ruler based on how good he is as a ruler, but unfortunately we don't have any standardized tests for that and the best we have found so far is democracy, trusting the wisdom of the crowds.

So in the end, the pros of democracy is that

  • Probably the wisdom of crowds is more than any random person
  • If the laws end up sub optimal, hopefully you won't end up living under laws you don't like. So it's trading efficiency for the maximum amount of satisfaction.

A way out of this seems like educating people and empowering them so that, in the end, the probability of a sub optimal set of laws are decreased.

Some more thoughts based on Revious' comment about how democracy ends up with sub optimal laws and about long time periods for change.

This phenomenon where A and B are accepted and the rest are neglected is actually a feature of democracy and not a drawback.

How democracy is supposed to work is, first there is a proposal, which goes through stages of dissent, discussion and ends with consensus.

In a perfect democracy it should always end with a consensus which we reach through education and informed discussion. In the real world, when this doesn't happen, or when we are pressed for time, we have a fallback called voting. In theory, voting should be the last resort and consensus should be seen as the first option. The end result of a perfect democracy is actually consensus and not rule of the majority or voting.

In the question, when only A and B gets passed, what is happening is that, the system, or democracy is producing consensus. We can see that those are the two laws with a unanimous consent and those are the laws that gets passed. In a fully formed democracy, this is the expected outcome. The system makes sure that only those laws with consensus gets passed and will put the rest of them, the ones without a consensus to a pause, it won't get enough support to pass, until all the actors can reach some kind of consensus. Something analogous to the efficient market theory of economics. So, as we make democracy stronger we end up getting closer to consensus even if we don't plan for it.

There's always the story of how the majority dominating the minority but that happens only in a partial or weak democracy because such a clear cut segregation of an issue happens only when a lot of the voices or actors are silenced.

When we can't reach a consensus on some issue, it is put on pause and stays like that until there is a consensus among the actors and this may take a very long time sometimes. We can make it faster by making use of better methods like using newer technology for discussions and voting, like taking them online which is one simple crude example.

Even so, we don't always need to make decisions so fast or in a haste. Will Durant once said that

But where a hundred million destinies maybe involved, four wheel brakes may be advisable even when going uphill. Large bodies must move slowly

And when the general public collectively wants something bad, like a short sighted solution? It is the will of the people and there is no stopping it, whatever form of government we may have. In a democracy we can try a hand at educating the people and manufacturing consent. In a dictatorship even with a benevolent monarch, we end up going through tyranny, revolution and conflict.

  • Just a caveat, the wisdom of the crowd is more likely to break down in a voting situation than something like a market or game. Since one's vote is highly unlikely(nigh impossible) to influence the outcome of an election, it's easy for people to adopt biases like wishful thinking. In voting, this can be the norm, while people who invest or play games based on biased or unrealistic thinking suffer negative outcomes and thus have incentive to change their ways.
    – lazarusL
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 18:05
  • Very nice answer. Just to discuss, referring to this sentence "Comparing democracy and dictatorships for example, democracy tries to minimize the amount of dissatisfaction in the laws being enacted. So even if it isnt optimal, chances are, you wont end up living under laws you dont like." I see the big problem in consequence of bad choices coming 30 years after the choice.. This is why democracy can stay unoptimal, because of short sighted decisions similar to the seek of an immediate gratification.
    – Revious
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 10:19
  • @lazarusL actually, people who play political game suffer negative outcomes too, they just usually are very bad at attributing the negative outcome to the cause, because the game is much more complex and there's a lot of vested interest in confusing the link between the cause and the effect. The government is a game where the cost of error is enormous, but most people barely realize it and there is usually no good way to demonstrate it unequivocally.
    – StasM
    Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 22:06
  • @StasM I think that's an important point, but I am referring to the fact that whether one person votes for one side, the other, or does not vote, the result is almost guaranteed to be exactly the same. The voter suffers no negative outcome as a result of his or her choice.
    – lazarusL
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 20:35

In the Social Contract theory, Democracy is a requirement of the social contract.

The theory says nothing about wether a law is "good" or "bad", because that is not in the scope of what the social contract solves:

"The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before." This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.

The social contract only says that the law should follow the general will. This is the only morality it defines. Whether a law is good or bad is a political debate, which in the social contract is included in the general will.


If adopting a collection of policies would leave everyone worse off than if none of the policies were adopted, it would seem pretty clear that under an optimal government the policies would not get adopted. Unfortunately, it's quite common in a democracy to have the government consider a variety of policies which individually benefit, and are thus individually favored by, different majorities of the population, and for the government to adopt such policies even though their collective effect is to make everyone worse off.

Even if everyone in some population can concretely rank their favorite artifact from the set {rock, paper, scissors}, it may still be possible for 2/3 to significantly prefer paper to rock, 2/3 to significantly favor scissors to paper, and 2/3 to significantly prefer rock to scissors (i.e. even though every member of the population may have a clear ranking of flavors, the population as a whole may not). Thus, if at some moment in time, a town musesum's showcase was decorated with a rock, it would be possible to have 2/3 of the populace favor spending $1,000 to replace it with paper, and then have 2/3 favor spending $1,000 to replace it with scissors, and then have 2/3 favor spending $1,000 to change it back to rock. After the third change, the town would have spend $3,000 but otherwise be right back where it started, effectively leaving all taxpayers worse off than if none of the actions had been approved, and leaving nobody (except maybe the supplier of museum artifacts) better off.

The notion of "optimality" requires that no potential solution be better than an "optimal" one. If for any solution that might be proposed it would be possible to find a "better" one, that would imply that no solution can be called "optimal". In many situations, democracies will be unable to define consistent rankings among various alternative policies; that will make optimality by definition impossible.


Democracy can be a system involving people who are ruling themselves. The people may vote to a non-optimal law and that is still democracy. However, people ruling themselves - may evaluate the laws and make them better (this is still to be decided by people themselves). Whether a law is good or bad (optimal or non-optimal) has to be evaluated by people themselves (as Democracy is a status where "people are ruling themselves" and is a process where people may contribute to a better ruling). To evaluate (whether the law is bad or good), people may ask themselves how many people are benefiting from the good consequences of the related law (Democracy = all people evaluate the laws they have set for themselves); Are all people benefiting or not? Is there a minority that suffers from the implementation of the law? or people may ask this question: how many people are benefiting from the reduction of sufferings or harm as consequences of the law? Many other evaluative questions can be asked by people themselves. The feedback may help to a better law in future and this can be regarded as a democratic process (more people are involved in ruling and evaluating the rules).

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