Autocracy is where the citizenry has no recourse to affect the laws they are governed by.

Representative democracy, is a system where the citizenry has no direct recourse to affect the laws they are governed by.

How is indirect power to affect law (choose people, to choose the laws for you), different from autocracy?

Is it not a parallel within law, to the Communist GosPlan - where chosen (through revolutionary democracy of course, different path) representatives decided supply and demand within the economy, without directly consulting the citizenry?!

  • Did you mean to write "revolutionary" in your title too? I don't see where you discuss evolution (even in the social sense) in your question.
    – Fizz
    Apr 14, 2020 at 4:48

2 Answers 2


Because having indirect power to affect law ≠ having no power to affect law.

It turns out that that is what people seem to want, most of the time. It allows for their to be regular changes in government, it forces leaders to be aware of the desires and priorities of the people (even if they don't have to follow them) It allows for a reasonably streamlined decision and law making process.

It obviously different from autocracy. (In which regular changes in government and the priorities of the people can be largely ignored) and it is obviously different from direct democracy (in which the law making process is cumbersome and often irrational) Experience suggests it is generally more effective than either.

  • you describe two extremes - the head directly creating law (autocracy, representative democracy), and the body directly creating law (direct democracy). what about semi direct democracy - the head directly makes positive law, and the body directly strikes the decisions of representatives it does not acquiesce to? that imo is democracy and concord. why is only one of two parties, deciding for both, concord? Apr 13, 2020 at 11:29

One way of thinking about the history of political systems is to start with the idea that there is always competition over who gets to control and use the collective resources of a community. 'Collective resources' in this sense means both the material property that the community holds 'in common' and the time, effort, and skills of the members of the community.

If we take the simplest case, a band of hunter/gatherers needs to organize its members for a hunt, and needs to distribute the meat from anything they kill across the group, but everyone in the band might have different ideas about how the hunt should organized and how the meat should be distributed. David Easton called this "the authoritative allocation of values" — in the sense that a government dictates both how material values are distributed and what the society ought to value — and most individuals in a society want to be able to make those determinations for themselves, to some limited extent. One person in our band might argue that he deserves the lion's share of the meat because he killed the animal; another might argue that he needs the best portion because he is ill and needs to recuperate; a third might demand that the children eat first, because meat is in short supply; there will be active competition between band members over which set of values to apply and who gets to make those decisions.

Aristotle laid out three 'primitive' structures of government, which still influence us today:

  • Monarchy, in which one person makes all the decisions for the community by community consent. This is called 'tyranny' when that person forces others to comply by brute force, which is viewed as a corruption.
  • Aristocracy, in which a small 'elite' group makes decisions, usually because they are perceived to have some unique virtue. That virtue could be any number of things — private ownership, and thus a unique commitment to preserving the community; religious insight, and thus a unique desire to serve others; a bloodline back to community founders, suggesting a unique heritable connection to the community; etc. The corrupt form of aristocracy is oligarchy, in which a small group rules a community for their own personal profit, not the welfare of the group.
  • Polity, in which all 'virtuous' citizens — those dedicated to the good of the group — rule in common. The corrupt form of this is demagoguery (Aristotle used the term 'democracy, but the meaning of that word has changed over time to become a synonym for 'polity'), in which individuals seek out their own individual power and welfare at the expense of others.

As you can see, these all reflect that competition for control, in which the corrupt forms all amount to forcing one's way to the top as opposed to rising to the top by gaining the consent and approval of the community.

As the size of communities has increased over the ages — from wandering bands to sedentary tribes to established city-states to expansive empires and nations — the pressure for cooperative rule has increased. Any sufficiently large community needs local levels of control, meaning governors, generals, satraps, viceroys, etc. This creates a combined system in which monarchs and aristocrats coexist and compete with each other for various kinds of power. As technology and commerce increased, this combined system had to incorporate the bourgeoisie: rich commoners who built up the wealth of the nation, and who demanded power of their own. This led up to the Liberal revolution, and eventually even to Marxist movements, as greater and greater segments of the population began demanding some element of control over the allocation of community goods and values.

As you can see, the natural evolution of social systems has been towards democratic governance, which is at the opposite end of the scale from monarchical (autocratic) forms. There have been those who push in the opposite direction in the modern world: totalitarian regimes that use technology to extend their control over populations through mass surveillance, mass imprisonment, and mass violence. But representative democracy is (ostensibly) a reasonable compromise which gives some power to the populace as a whole while maintaining the efficiency of more centralized systems, and blocking some of the worse cases of demagoguery. Of course, representative democracy can easily deteriorate into oligarchy or tyranny, to the extent that the representatives ignore those whom they represent, or the executive ignores the controls placed on it by representative bodies, but that's a different question.

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