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I've been thinking of late that democracy simply doesn't make as much sense as we think it does, in its present cultural context. Let me explain...

Let's assume that for every problem there is a set of optimal solutions. For example, if we were to debate whether a particular dam is to be constructed, we would go into all the benefits and costs (both economic and social) associated with this. To reach any sort of consensus, at least one party would have to compromise or make a sacrifice. Now, liberal democracies are big on individual rights, but don't venerate individual sacrifice. To me, this is a fatal flaw which puts arriving at an optimal solution into jeopardy. In a system of honor and sacrifice, there would be an incentive for compromise.

Perhaps in making one's individual happiness the end goal of democracy, it is shooting itself in the foot?

  • Focusing on reticence to sacrifice is excellent. What does a culture have to be like in order to value sacrifice as well as individuality? Put another way, how can sacrifice be promoted without certain people or classes of people becoming de facto expendable? One way I've heard this discussed is whether a nation's culture provides soldiers with sufficient reason to die for their country. Is their country worth dying for? – labreuer Jan 15 '14 at 19:01
  • What do you mean exactly by democracy? The US, for example, has popular elections of its leaders. But the laws are still constrained by the Constitution, which is designed to protect the rights of the minority. The right-handed people can not vote to kill the left-handed people. It would be helpful to me if you would clarify what you mean by democracy, and where you think it is practiced. The US is a constitutional republic, not a democracy. – user4894 Jan 16 '14 at 2:20
  • @user4894: I'm not sure of the nuances that you mention, but by democracy I mean a system where people, either directly or indirectly, get to decide how to solve important issues. I believe a lot of people do think that the US is a democracy in this sense, and maybe what you're bringing up is a technicality that doesn't void my original question. Hope this helps! – Joebevo Jan 16 '14 at 3:18
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There are lots of problems with representative democracy as a means of finding an optimal governance solution.

  1. Voting drops the distinction between strength of preference, so 6 people who mildly prefer A to B can outvote 4 people who would be devastated by A.

  2. Representation requires one to select from a small number of options that may not allow one's preferences to be represented.

  3. There is no requirement for expressed preferences to be based in reality; people may prefer things based on confusion and misunderstanding and thus not even want what they would actually prefer if only they paid attention.

  4. There are few mechanisms for long-term consistency of goal, so short-term interests capture an excess of attention.

In addition to these, I think you're correct that there's an inherent tension between individual happiness as the metric of success and any sort of government or social arrangement (democratic or otherwise) since sacrifice can improve overall happiness at the expense of individual happiness. If the culture admires sacrifice, the individual who sacrifices can regain some measure of satisfaction; if not, they are culturally perceived as a loser. Studies have backed up that cooperation is more difficult to achieve in a more individualistic cultural tradition.

Despite this, it's not clear what alternative might be superior. It is hard to beat individualism for an easy way to motivate people, and with regard to Democracy we must remember Winston Churchill:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

  • I really like your #4. I've been told that the previous procedure in America of having folks other than the public vote in senators was supposed to help accomplish #4. – labreuer Jan 15 '14 at 18:58

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