Too Much Democracy?

Why we're not supposed to be a democracy.

We often see editorials praising the wonders of democracy in spite of its messiness.  Winston Churchill, to name but one fan, said that democracy was the worst possible form of government, until we compared it to all the other forms we'd tried.

Nevertheless, there are limitations to the democratic form of government.  First, a few definitions:

According to, "government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system."  Most commentators assume that democracy means rule directly by the people, but that's wrong.  The definition confuses a key point when it says: "or by their elected agents."

Vox Populi, Vox Dei

Democracy literally means rule by the people, pure and simple.  It's from the Greek: demos, people, and kratia, power.  In ancient Greece, where both the word and the concept originated, that's exactly what it was.  The entire voting population assembled in the amphitheater and argued things out, voting on them as needed.  That's a democracy.

It doesn't work well if your group is of any size.  It worked in Greece for a while because the voting population was extremely small - the largest unit was a city, not even a proper state, and women and slaves couldn't vote.  As recent events in Greece show, you can't run a country that way; it's far too awkward.

What's worse, democracy didn't work in Greece for very long.  The Athenian democracy was destroyed by the same problem that has destroyed all democracies throughout history:

A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury.

From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.

 - Alexander Fraser Tytler

Representative Democracy

Knowing this bit of history, the early Romans came up with an improvement.  In their variant, the people still had the power, but not directly.  Instead, they elected representatives who went to the Roman Senate, and they were the ones who voted on laws.  That was the Roman Republic.

This is sometimes called "representative democracy."  It wasn't really a republic because there was only one government, the central government in Rome.  That would be like America without any state governments - all power would be vested in the federal government.

Alas, the Roman republic succumbed to the voters' demand for "bread and circuses."  Voters decided that they'd rather have the government feed and entertain them than work for a living.  Politicians found that they could buy votes by promising benefits.  Sound familiar?

Edward Gibbon’s famous series The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire explained how the army budget was spent on “essential services”:

A large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.

All this government spending to support special interest groups had the expected result - Rome went broke.  Their society collapsed and was replaced by tyranny.  The Emperors may have been mean guys, but they were able to balance the budget successfully for far longer than America has existed as a nation.  As Margaret Thatcher explained the problem with buying votes by promising benefits, "Eventually, you run out of other people's money."

Our Founder's Fixes

As the Romans tried to make democracy work by changing from direct democracy to representative democracy, our founders tried to learn from the Roman collapse and set up our government to prevent federal spending from getting out of hand.  They introduced four critical improvements to the Roman model:

  1. Knowing that government can't grow without money, they limited the federal government's ability to tax.  Although courts allowed temporary income taxes during time of war, government's income was limited to customs duties in peacetime.
  2. They set up the US House of Representatives to represent the people, just as the Romans had.  Representatives were elected directly by the voters and each state was given representatives in proportion to its population.  This was classical "representative democracy."
  3. Knowing that only governments are powerful enough to control other governments, they set up a system with state governments having more rights and powers than the federal government.
  4. Knowing why Rome fell, they created the US Senate.  Senators were appointed by the legislatures who ran the state governments.  Their job was to represent the interests of the state governments against the interests of the Federal government.  State legislatures wouldn't want the federal government to reduce their powers, so their senators would keep the feds in check.

These innovations constituted the American republic.  Our founders knew enough history to know that deviating from these principles would bring disaster.  That's why when Benjamin Franklin was asked what sort of government the Constitutional Convention had designed for the United States, he replied, "A republic - if you can keep it."  He didn't claim to have created a democracy because he hadn't.  The republic was fragile because the central government would always want to claim more and more power at the expense of the state governments.  Once the central government gained the power to spend lots of money, it would start the same old disastrous "tax and tax, spend and spend  elect and elect" cycle we've seen throughout history.

We The People Blew It

So what did We the People do with our shiny new republic?  We preserved it carefully until 1913.  During the Civil War, President Lincoln violated the constitutional ban against involuntary servitude by instituting a draft and he violated the constitution by imposing an income tax.  The courts went along with both in the interest of prosecuting the war, but both ended as soon as the war was over.  Limiting the amount of money the government could take limited its reach.

The 16th amendment to the Constitution, which permitted an income tax, was passed in 1913.  Those who opposed the amendment claimed that the government would take more and more money once it received the power to take any.

Fears of a government run amok with too much money have proven to be well founded.  By 1917 the top income tax rate, for all those making over $1.5 million was 67%.  This was viewed as fair - after all, the wealthy could afford to pay.  A $40,000 income was taxed at 16%.  A year later the top rate was raised to 77%.  Although rates have gone up and down over the years, the total government take has expanded as the economy expanded.  This funded an increasingly intrusive government.

1913 was a particularly bad year for another reason - We the People were suckered into passing the 17th amendment which called for US Senators to be elected by the voters instead of being appointed by the state legislators.  Instead of representing state governments, Senators now represented the people just as congresspersons represented the people.  It's no surprise that state governments have lost power - there's no longer anyone representing their interests.

Senators go along with the house in requiring states to provide services without matching federal funding.  Courts have often ruled that the states must raise taxes to pay for such "unfunded mandates."

Nobody cares about cost.  The feds don't have to pay and the state governments simply point to federal law when they raise taxes.  In the earlier system, any senator who voted for an unfunded mandate would be run out of office by the state legislators.

Too Much Democracy

It's interesting to note that the European country which is in the worst trouble due to the government spending more money than it takes in is Greece, the cradle of democracy.  Modern Greek voters are as eager to vote for politicians who promise benefits as their ancestors of years ago.  Germany, the country which is in the best financial share, is a federal republic with strong state governments as we once had.

There's a saying, "Be careful what you wish for."  Citizens wanted more democracy in 1913 and gave up the republic Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues had given us.  Now that all politicians get votes by bribing voters with taxpayers money, we're sliding into the Confucian Abyss.  There's not enough credit available in all the world to fund the Obama deficit.  We're technically bankrupt because there's no way we can pay all the obligations we've taken on, but none of our politicians will admit it.  When the Chinese stop lending, we'll know we're broke, but it might be too late to do anything about it.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments

The article is one that should be taught in school, all the way from the 1st grade through the process of acquiring a PhD. Why this is not done is lunacy given the very clear history of democracies.

That brings about the question, "What is the solution to the problem?". Unfortunately there is no easy solution and it may well be too late to turn the tide. I am a simplistic guy with simple solutions, none of which can occur in this political climate. The climate will have to turn much worse before my solutions could even be considered, much less enacted. They are as follows:
1. Educate the children as mentioned in paragraph one.

2. Return the senators to the state legislators.

3. Repeal the income tax amendment and replace it with the Fair Tax with the ultimate goal of the amount collected below 10%.

4. Develop our energy natural resources.

5. Sell all federal lands to private enterprise.

6. Close the departments of Energy, Education, HUD, etc.

7. No deficit spending.

These are all dreams of mine which in my opinion would help every single American to have a more satisfied, productive life.

September 20, 2012 10:35 AM

Excellent. Just excellent. Add all public education (not just the unconstitutional Federal education department) to your list and I think this is about sums up the sources to our problems. Who can resist a "free" education, regardless of how pathetic and destructive it has become?

@Bassboat If you find the planet where your list of dreams is a reality, sign me up for the next flight there. My only edit is that all public schools should be unconstitutional. Just another source for an insatiable government monster.

September 20, 2012 4:24 PM
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