Consider the following idea: In the modern democratic form of government where the person or group in power are chosen through elections, and in a situation where the current elected government is actually doing the best it can in a given situation, there is an inherent contradiction between the opposition's desire to get elected and the overall good of the country. Here's an example:

  • The country was in a conflict that could potentially escalate into a war.
  • The current ruling party avoids military action and instead negotiates a diplomatic solution. In terms of outcome, this is the most positive outcome for both nations.
  • There is an election coming up. The opposition party cannot agree with the ruling party, if it does, it bolsters the ruling party's claim that it is doing a good job, so in order to remain competitive, it has to oppose the ruling party's diplomatic solution and argue that an armed escalation is the best option.
  • Any rational observer would see that a non violent resolution to the conflict is better than an armed escalation, so in effect the opposition party's interest and the best interests of the country as a whole go against each other.

But modern democracy doesn't work unless there are parties or individuals opposing those who are in power, so is this a unavoidable flaw in democracy?

I know that Plato discussed similar conflicts of interest in democracy, but have any modern philosophers discussed similar flaws to democracy?

There are many critics of Modern democracy (Habermas for example) but from what I see they all consider that a purer, more authentic form of democracy is possible.

Has any contemporary philosopher argued that democracy is inherently flawed, in the same way that Marx has argued that Capitalism is inherently flawed? That democracy cannot be reformed, and some other for of government is necessary if one truly wants to achieve the greater good for society as a whole.

  • I do not know of contemporaries (perhaps too unpopular to be published?), but Carl Schmitt famously held this position, e.g. in his Verfassungslehre (Constitutional Theory). – Philip Klöcking Aug 8 '16 at 9:03
  • It's worth noting that the American democracy was very deliberately set up as NOT a pure democracy for that very reason, among others. – Chris Sunami Aug 11 '16 at 13:58
  • This is basically what neoreaction is on about, maybe look at Nick Land? – Joseph Weissman Aug 12 '16 at 20:09
  • It seems all too obvious that all systems of government are flawed. Democracy, according to Churchill, is the 'least worst' of them. – PeterJ Apr 9 '18 at 10:52

I don't know philosophers who've argued that democracy is inherently flawed, and I think such an argument would be naive (given the right population with a right culture, democracy might be good), but Alexander Guerrero is spearheading a sophisticated proposal he calls lottocracy (see sortition).

You can read his own popular summary here, while a paper on the topic is behind a paywall here. His argument is that democracy, given certain contingent facts (which he argues are true in the United States), is flawed and should be replaced by a lottocracy wherein people are assigned political positions based on chance, and are educated on their jobs by specialists in a period leading up to their term of service.

The contingent facts in question are straightforward and include: that people are by and large ignorant of much of the relevant political issues; that elected officials cannot easily be held accountable for how well they've represented the interests of the public; that elected officials often lack the qualifications to perform their duties effectively; and so on.

Guerrero argues that his lottocratic system, given the above conditions, can do a better job. It is maximally egalitarian, in that leaders are chosen completely by chance. It solves the problem of ignorance, since those chosen are educated by experts, and the remaining ignorant masses can trust that the people in charge know what they're due. It renders the question of accountability irrelevant, since there is no electoral process, and in the same way it solves the problem of pandering.

It's important to note that Guerrero is reluctant to recommend applying the lottocracy to other nations. I first became familiar with his theory in a talk he gave, and he mentioned being terrified that members of foreign governments had contacted him to ask about implementation - he deems it crucial that the contingent conditions be met, and he disclaims sufficient knowledge of, say, assorted Middle Eastern politics to say whether those conditions in fact hold. If they don't hold, then another system, including democracy, might be more ideal.

So while this philosopher doesn't consider democracy "inherently" flawed, he does discuss its flaws pretty seriously.


very interesting question.

If you want to show that democracy is inherently flawed you first have to ask yourself what is inherently democracy. That is a pure logical issue. Your objective is to "axiomatise" democracy i.e. find what are its axioms.

You mention the existence of an opposition. I am not so sure this is an axiom per se. For example as discussed above Greek democracy was a lottocracy which can be regarded as a random selection process among a pool of law-people.

We can imagine how that process can be generalised to the whole population. Randomly selecting people who know enough about law does not seem incompatible to democracy and yet doesn't involve any opposition. Indeed as there is no election you don't have to be "competitive" or have a hidden agenda, you will necessarily act for your own opinion and NOT to win a (non-existent) election.

Now that seems to mean that the existence of different opinions is not even an axiom either! Theoretically nothing prevents a democratic country where absolutely everyone would agree at a certain moment in time from existing. The least you can say is that a democracy has to tolerate freedom of expression. Indeed if you assume that random elections can be considered as democratic, then the only thing you have to assume is that diverging opinions (as long as they respect the other axioms of democracy) are allowed. They are not necessarily out there and explicit, but they could be. Otherwise there is no point in changing your ruler.

Now what do you need to express a personal opinion (within the axioms of democracy)? This seems quite obvious. You need a language (a logorrhea in Greek) which everyone can understand and use to debate with you at the forum for example. This language can initially be quite vague and in case you need to cope with more technical questions or enact laws, you can turn to specialists or philosophers who would define unequivocally (scientifically) the terms you need to address your issue. So rather than a formal opposition you need a formal language.

There is another axiom you cannot avoid. A democracy has to serve a purpose. Be it the greater good, freedom of the people, economic or political supremacy over other countries, maximum wealth, social equality... Throughout the world there is a great deal of purposes democracies try to achieve. In fact any system seems respect that axiom. Even the Third Reich served a purpose. Not only that, but the Third Reich served the same purpose as democracy: in that case it was to maintain the living standard of the German people (through Lebensraum) [1]. This seems quite obvious too: if there is no purpose, there is no project and therefore there is no choice.

Now having a purpose and a formal language is equivalent to saying you want to maximise a certain objective function through a deterministic plan. In modern politics we would call that a program, i.e. a set of formal propositions. Why is it deterministic? Because everyone has to understand that plan in advance it is something which can be written down with plane words with no obvious contradiction. It strikes me for example that so many politicians nowadays say they have a plan to increase GDP growth or productivity. Was there such a plan, GDP growth would not be an issue: everyone would know what to do from inception, do it, and forget about it. We would see 100 percent or 200 percent growth everywhere around the world. And also, growth or productivity gains would never slow or go negative. Obviously in the real world they do, which proves that they cannot be completely captured by any deterministic plan.

Anyway we have two axioms for democracy: a formal language which people can use to express their opinion. And a purpose. If you are happy with these axioms, i.e. if you think they would capture any democratic system in the world, you can start digging what can possibly go wrong with democracy inherently.

Are you happy with that Alexander? If you are, I will post the second part of my comment which will address the heart of your question.

PS: About Commando's answer

I don't know philosophers who've argued that democracy is inherently flawed

But Alexander you are right there, Plato and Socrates explicitly said Democracy was inherently flawed. Although they seemed to think it was due to an issue with the Greek institutions I am not using that assumption here as I don't think institutions are an axiom of democracy.

[1] Note the Third Reich had no formal language, as it is not possible to define in an unambiguous non-contradictory way what Arian means, or what a Jew is; also there was no logical connection between Jews and Germany's problems, and a formal language requires formal logical connectors


More generally, we should start by determining what we mean by "democracy". In my view, there are two very different meanings for this word, which are often confused, and even strawmaned against each other.

First, "democracy" is a method for decision taking.

The method is simple, though its application may be problematic. The steps are,

  1. determine what the decision is about (let's say, should we build a wall along the Mexican border, yes or not?)
  2. the relevant stakeholders discuss the issue freely, pointing out the pros and cons of the proposal (how much does the wall cost? will it solve the problem it is designed to solve? what collateral effects might it have?). This is where the concept of "freedom" intertwines with "democracy"; if some points are not allowed into discussion, you cannot have a "democratic decision", for not all aspects of the issue will be considered.
  3. once the relevant stakeholders can agree that the issue has been cleared, they take a vote on it, and the "side" that has more votes gets its proposed policy implemented. That is, if more people vote for building a wall along the Mexican border, then we build the wall; otherwise, we do not build the wall.

There are however some problems to this method:

  1. the delimitation and priorisation of issues: what is a wall, what is a boundary, what is Mexico? In this case it may seem obvious, but it is not always so, and it is necessary to ensure that all sides, for and against, are discussing the same thing. Then, should we vote on the issue of the wall before or after voting on the issue of whether policemen should wear a videocam attached to their uniform?
  2. the delimitation of stakeholders: since the wall is on Mexico's border, shouldn't Mexicans have a say about it?
  3. the delimitation of the discussion period; if there is no minimum/maximum time for the discussion, it is always possible for the majority to force a vote even if the issue hasn't been properly discussed, or for the minority to postpone the decision indefinitely, systematically arguing that the issue is still unclear.

There is seldom any earnest criticism of "democracy" as a method, though there are many attempts, with varied degrees of success, to circumvent, pervert, or corrupt it. The latest that had any historical importance seems to be the "Fuehrerprinzip" put up by the NSDAP, both internally in their party workings, and externally, in the German State issues, once their Machtgreifung succeded. This was, of course, intertwinned with their racialist vision of a "superior race". But such racialist views which, in themselves, are utterly anti-democratic in the sense that they necessarily deny the participation of part of the stakeholders) have also stood alone, as for instance in the intellectual defense of American Southern slavery, with no relation to any Fuehrerprinzip.

Previous alternate methods seem to stem from theocratic practices which were in place before the rise of modern "democracies" in the 19th century; as such, they weren't designed as a criticism of the democratic method (rather, the democratic method arised within a criticism of these practices), but they evolved into the traditional conservative/reactionary opposition to democracy (Burke, Chesterton), consisting, at least in part, in a criticism of democracy and markets as dissolvent agents of a proper order of society.

More modernly, there is some talk (and a lot of confusion) about "meritocracy", which is an ill defined term, which may coalesce around some kind of post-democratic criticism of democracy, but, as of now, it doesn't seem to sum up into a consistent ideological tendency.

Second, "democracy" is the name for a kind of political regime

Which kind, it is much more difficult to define than the method discussed above. But a regime that goes by the name "democracy" necessarily has to employ the democratic method for at least some decisions. We usually define it, minimally, as a regime that holds democratic methods for the choice of Executive and Legislative magistrates, and that employs democratic method in its legislative decisions, on the legal fiction that the legislative magistrates "represent" the population at large.

Thus, we also require, for a regime to be called "democratic", that the choice of magistrates is responsibility of a wide array of stakeholders, ie, "citizens". We wouldn't call a regime "democratic" if it doesn't allow women, Blacks, Jews, or left handed people to participate in the process of electing magistrates (but this is historically variable; we did consider the US a democracy in the 19th century - or Athens in Pericles' time -, though it blocked women and slaves, who were overhelmingly Black, from voting).

Also, we require, for a regime to be called "democratic", that it allows extensively free political discussion; if some political positions are not allowed, or if some issues cannot be addressed, we will probably deem the regime that excludes them anti-democratic or "semi-democratic". These precise limits are fuzzy; the military dictatorship in Brazil, which forcibly reduced all political activity to two parties isn't usually considered "democratic", while the idea that modern Germany, which bans neo-nazi parties, isn't "a democracy" for that reason isn't popular except among, well, neo-nazists.

It must be noted that no political regime allows for "democratic decision" on all decision making processes, or all kinds of decisions. We don't vote for what professions people embrace, nor (usually; there are exceptions) for judges and justices (who are more often selected by a "meritocratic" procedure). It may even be that the extension of the "democratic method" to some kinds of decisions is contradictory with the "democratic regime" as a whole (and so, talks of "pure democracy" are disingenuous, as such "pure democracy" cannot exist as such in practice).

Criticism of these regimes is nowadays mostly restricted to whether they are excessively or insufficiently "democratic", and is often rooted on the problem of which kinds of decision are proper subjects of the democratic method. It is deserving of particular notice that conservative/reactionary criticism of democracy has been superceeded by, or transformed or merged into, this kind of criticism: instead of arguing against women's right to perform abortions, they argue in favour of extending "rights" to the unborn, which is, in itself, as Žižek notes, an ideological capitulation to democratic principles.

It is also notable that we seem to be undergoing a general crisis of democracy-as-a-regime, as underlined by the growth of undemocratic neopopulist political tendencies in Europe (and the United States, let's not forget Mr. Trump) and reactionary tendencies in Latin America, but there is no increase in intellectual production of alternatives, the conservative/reactionary thinking having been subsumed into a right-wing tendency within democratic regimes, racialist and outright "authoritarian" ideas being outdated and demoralised, and a possible "meritocratic" alternative being, for the moment, embrionary at most.


I think there is a basic problem with your reasoning.

Party A and party B are not, in principle, just different cliques that want power, and, from this basic desire, would create policy disagreements to the end of demanding power for themselves. The way the system is designed to be, party A and party B are groups that have policy disagreements, and for such reason want power, in order to enforce their own policies and prevent each others from being enforced.

And if so, in the issues that matter, it would not be true that "any rational observer would see that [policy A] is better than [policy B]", or if that is indeed the case, then policy A versus policy B would not be the point of contention on which parties disagree and stand on different platforms in order to win elections. True, each party would probably argue that other parties interests and the best interests of the polity as a whole go against each other. But this is only partisan opinion and rhetoric, not something that any rational observer should agree with.


I don't know if the following answers your question; but you might find it might throw some light on it. Heidegger in an interview in Spiegel, published in '76 said the following:

During the past thirty years it has become clearer that the planetary movement of modern technology is a power whose great role in determining history can hardly be over-estimated. A decisive question for me today is how a political system can be assigned to today's technological age at all, and which political system would that be? I have no answer to that question, I am not convinced that it is democracy.

This suggests not that actually existing democracy or democracies are flawed, but rather it's world is being refashioned by technology - technology has become world-historical - and democracy and what it means to be democratic needs to rethought under, so it remains adequate to a technological age.

For example, how does one respond democratically to global warming? Are the institutions of actually existing democracies sufficient to tackle positively a problem of global magnitude?

Democracy after all has radically changed its form before; consider for example how democracy was instituted in the city states of Greek Antiquity - direct participation by a class of free citizens, to representative democracy today instituted in a nation-state, whose people are all citizens.


Democracy in spirit is government by the people, in practice is majority rule. However, experience has shown that the majority is not always right; more often than not, the majority is wrong.

In the realm of opinions, anarchy is definitely preferable than democracy because, as J.S. Mill puts it:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

Source: Mill. John Stuart. On Liberty. 1859

Notice that Mill's argument is utilitarian. That is to say, Mill prefers freedom of speech because he thinks it is profitable, not because he thinks it is an inalienable right, like your neighbour's right to bear firearms.

Empirically, most people who have long enough experience on SE will develop serious doubts about vote-based systems.

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