Christian Relaunch


The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government

United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 21:3 (1948)

Why postulate a collective will?

The word democracy means literally something like "rule by the people", but this is absurd. Individuals decide, groups do not. "Group action" is an outcome not a decision. "The people" cannot rule, only individuals can, and even if everyone has a role they will have different roles. The "consent of the governed" is not a decision but a statistic, an outcome, as is the balance of power in a legislature. People (selves) are real, of course. The falsehood is to imagine them as constituting a single being capable of having, and expressing, a single will. Unless the people happen to be in unanimous agreement on a point, "government by the people" becomes, in effect, government by some of the people, in the form of a state.

[The] public, shaped into personal unity by the magic of abstraction ...

S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria Chapter 3.

"Collective ownership is more human, a greater refinement of territorial instinct, than individual."

As explained above, it is nonsensical. In practice it involves dominance of some men over others, and that is less refined than diverse individual property, not more.

The question "how is the people's will expressed" has two popular answers.

(Astatist Democratism or Anarcho-socialism) "The People's will is expressed through diverse individual decisions with no central authority."

This is the more plausible answer, so naturally it is the less popular. However, by asserting such an elusive collective will it seems to dissolve itself into insignificance, so maybe there is good reason for its unpopularity. Those who think they uphold it are probably really consequentialists rather than true democratists.

(Statist Democratism or Collectivism) "The People's will is expressed through a state."

The question "how to judge whether an arrangement expresses the people's will" has two popular answers.

(Majoritarian Democratism) "An organisation represents the people if the majority of individuals express support for it. The vote of the majority is the will of the people, or near enough for most practical purposes."

"This will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures."

United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 21:3 (1948)

How seriously can we take the idea of "the people's will"?

"The British people have simple expectations; they want Scandinavian welfare on American taxes."

Ben Page, apparently. That is, they all want ample services paid for by someone else. So I think I might be excused from taking the majority's deliberations too seriously. But I'll explore further.

What folk think they want is not what they really want. Democratism postulates a collective will, not a collective opinion. Why associate the collective will with a majority opinion? Is the majority's opinion about the collective will even slightly better than the minority's?

And even if there is a clear and settled majority in favour of something, it is like two wolves and a lamb voting about dinner. A gang of robbers giving their victim a vote is still a gang of robbers.

The Parable of the Islands. Suppose individuals or groups A, B and C come to live on three identical islands. After a while, by working and investing (ploughing crops back in), A has grown richer than B and C. (Was it inability, neglect or chance, or some combination of them, that led to this relative poverty? This question matters for some purposes, but not for ours at present.) So B says to C, "Why should they be richer than we? Let us seize some of their goods." C says "Nice idea, but some would call it theft. It needs to sound respectable. Let's call it ... democracy."

The Parable of the Trees. Suppose there is no property. The only wealth consists of tall tree fruit that must be eaten immediately, by pickers or those they throw it to. Folk differ in picking ability. The strong few get much fruit, and thrive; the weak many get less, and live shorter lives. The weak ask themselves, "How can we get the strong to share their pickings?" Trees are too many to guard. The only solution is to bind the strong and force them to obey. This illustrates the fact that freedom is not ultimately about owning things but about owning oneself. The consistent majoritarian must support, in certain circumstances, blatant slavery. In more familiar circumstances it is less blatant but the principle is the same: "from January to May we are forced to work for the government, then we are allowed to work for ourselves."

The standard case for democratism is the Social Contract invented by Rousseau. Once upon a time a number of people got together and by unanimous agreement (the will of the people) decided to create a state ruled by majority decision. Their descendants were also to be bound by this decision. Henceforth whatever a majority want is the will of the people, since the original agreement was unanimous.

The social contract certainly never occurred historically, and to suppose that it could have done flies in the face of all that is known about how states actually arose, which is as routinisations of plunder.

Even if it had occured, the notion that it could bind posterity is risible, like any notion that I can impose duties on my descendants just by wishing it.

(Elitist Democratism such as Lenin's "Vanguard" Doctrine) "An organisation represents the people if it understands what the people wants. The few who understand what the people's will is must impose it on the rest, who may resist it because they are confused. Truth is not discovered by counting votes."

I agree about counting votes.

This was the view of the Bolsheviks who dominated Russia from 1917 to 1990, and of the Communist Party that has dominated China since 1948. The absurdities of Bolshevism have given it a bad name, but the Chinese experience has been far more promising. By most yardsticks, elitist China has in recent decades outperformed majoritarian India, but as to whether this will continue it is, as the Chinese themselves would say, "too soon to say".

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