Can Democracy be Moral?

The following is a slightly edited version of a previously published essay by Canadian thinker and author, William Gairdner. Discourse Online is pleased to have Bill’s permission to reprint significant pieces of his work that appear on his website.


I have been thinking a lot lately about the distinction that seems to have been lost between a democracy conceived as a corporate body of individuals devoted to the good of all, and a democracy conceived as a collection, or an aggregate of individuals concerned mostly for their own good.

The most fundmental principle of direct popular democracy is that even if the will of the people runs dead against a Member of Parliament’s personal conscience, he or she must nevertheless express that will.

Such logic compels us to ask: So why not just pick a rep out of the phone book? For that matter, why pick anyone? Why don’t the people just send a letter to a vote-counting parliamentary computer by overnight courier? The answer leads straight to a conflict between two irreconcilable views of truth under democracy:

Permanent Truth
Politicians who consider themselves leaders, rather than delegates, will take the classical conservative view, as outlined from ancients such as Plato to moderns such as T.S.Eliot. As distinct from their modern finger-in-the-wind counterparts, such conservatives believe that the greatest moral truths of life are absolute, permanent, and unchanging. There are enduring values that must be discovered through reflection and experience, and relied upon by wise leaders. Once discovered, and only then, the proper political and moral judgements can be made, unaffected by how many might vote this way, or that, on Monday or Tuesday. Moral truth, in other words, like “two plus two equals four,” cannot be altered by voting.

Popular Truth
Unlike a leader, the delegate sees him or herself as empowered to express the will of the people, which is equated with what is desirable and good. Soon, pleasing the masses at every opportunity by removing all restraints on their will becomes the highest priority; not incidentally because it results in reaping a corresponding popularity. Technical methods such as electronic town halls facilitate such direct expressions of mass desire.

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