On Whether Government Actions Toward the People in a Democracy Involve Force

In my post “A Foundational Argument for Libertarianism”, I presented the premise that government actions involve force.  In more specific terms, governments exercise power over individuals by taking individuals’ property, restricting individuals’ movement, and in some cases resorting to physical violence.

But one may ask whether this a fair characterization of all governments.  A tyrannical dictator might regularly employ force against his or her subjects, but can the same be said of, say, a democratic government?  Perhaps in societies that utilize “government of the people, by the people, for the people” [1], government actions toward the people do not involve force.  An argument for this position might be sketched as follows:

 

Premise 1In a democracy, the people control the government.

Merriam-Webster defines “democracy” as “government by the people” [2], which seems to imply Premise 1.

Premise 2If the people control the government, then government actions toward the people are essentially the people’s actions toward themselves.

In other words, if the people control the government, the government is basically just a tool that the people use.  So if the government takes action toward the people, the people are basically just using the tool on themselves.

Premise 3If government actions toward the people are essentially the people’s actions toward themselves, then government actions toward the people do not involve force.

Force is the exercise of power over another person, not over oneself.  For example, if John were to lock Sam in a room, his action would involve force, but if John were to lock himself in a room, his action would (despite its possible harm) not involve force.

ConclusionIn a democracy, government actions toward the people do not involve force.

This clearly follows from Premises 1, 2, and 3.

 

To determine whether this argument is sound, let us first examine Premise 1.  While this premise appears straightforward at first, some of the terms require clarification.  For instance, to what extent do the people in a democracy “control” the government?  Do they write, debate, and vote upon each law?  Not in any modern society.  Rather, the people in a democracy normally entrust such tasks to elected representatives, and in doing so, they forfeit direct control of the government.  Thus Premise 1 would be more clearly stated as follows:

In a democracy, the people indirectly control the government.

This formulation of Premise 1, although improved, still leaves an important question about the precise nature of the people’s indirect “control”:  Do elected representatives always reflect the preferences of their constituents?  The realistic answer is no, for several reasons.  First, in any modern democratic election, very few candidates have a significant chance of winning [3], so the people often feel compelled to choose from among a tiny sample of non-ideal candidates.  Second, most people do not communicate their preferences to their representatives, especially regarding relatively minor issues.  Third, even when facing a major issue, elected representatives often choose to rely on their own judgment instead of their constituents’ preferences [4].  Therefore, since elected representatives do not always reflect the preferences of their constituents, it is misleading to say that the people in any way “control” the government via their representatives.  Premise 1 would be more accurately stated as follows:

In a democracy, the people indirectly influence the government.

In this amended formulation of Premise 1, the focus now shifts to the word “people”.  Do all people in a democracy influence the government?  Not without restriction.  For example, the vast majority of modern democracies have established minimum voting requirements with respect to an individual’s age, citizenship, and/or criminality.  To reflect this fact, Premise 1 should again be restated:

In a democracy, the voters indirectly influence the government.

Even this formulation of Premise 1 merits closer scrutiny.  Does each of the “voters” in a democracy influence the government?  Not usually.  It is not the case that each voter elects his or her own personal representative, as this would defeat the purpose of representation.  Rather, each voter casts a vote, and a small number of representatives are chosen based on those votes, according to a particular voting system.  While many types of voting systems exist [5], they all lead to a result in which some of the voters have little meaningful influence.  So Premise 1 deserves a final, more precise restatement:

In a democracy, many of the voters indirectly influence the government.

Now that Premise 1 has been revised, Premise 2 must also be reworded to preserve the argument’s validity.  The new version of the argument would be stated as follows:

 

New Premise 1In a democracy, many of the voters indirectly influence the government.

New Premise 2If many of the voters indirectly influence the government, then government actions toward the people are essentially the people’s actions toward themselves.

Premise 3If government actions toward the people are essentially the people’s actions toward themselves, then government actions toward the people do not involve force.

Conclusion:  In a democracy, government actions toward the people do not involve force.

 

In this updated version of the argument, New Premise 1 is clear and convincing, but New Premise 2 seems false.  The fact that many voters indirectly influence the government does not imply that government actions toward the people are essentially the people’s actions toward themselves, but only that government actions toward the people can occasionally be somewhat affected by the people.  The government no longer seems like a tool in the hands of the people; the government now seems like an independent body that sometimes acts upon the advice of some of the people.  On this latter view, the government is perfectly capable of acting toward the people with force, by taking individuals’ property, restricting individuals’ movement, and occasionally resorting to physical violence.

To summarize, in the original argument Premise 1 was unclear, but in the updated argument New Premise 2 is unconvincing.  This strikes me as a fundamental flaw in the argument, because of which I do not accept the conclusion.  Perhaps a better argument for the same conclusion can be made, but for now I see no compelling reason to exclude democratic governments from the general rule that government actions involve force.

 

[1] Description of the United States government in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

[2] <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/democracy>

[3] In the United States, for example, every President since 1852 has been either the Republican party candidate or the Democratic party candidate.  <http://www.theamericanpresidents.net/political_parties.html>

[4] For more context, see the dichotomy between “delegate” and “trustee” models of political representation.  <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/political-representation/#KeyComPolRep>

[5] For more information, see <https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/polit/damy/BeginnningReading/types.htm>.

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