Democracy: Ideology and Reality

By Randall G. Holcombe, The Independent Institute

A romantic view of democracy is that it gives citizens control over their governments. Citizens decide who holds power, and if those who are elected do not carry out the will of the voters, democratic elections provide the mechanism to replace them. Elections provide the discipline that pushes elected representatives to represent the interests of those they govern.

The political elite have every incentive to push this propaganda about democracy on the masses, because it legitimizes their use (and abuse) of power. They make the claim that they are carrying out the will of the people, as revealed through the democratic decision-making process.

In fact, elections are simply the mechanism that determines which members of the elite have the power to impose their mandates on the masses. The idea that somehow the political elite are accountable to the masses is an illusion. The masses have no power, even though they far outnumber the elite.

Public policy, by necessity, can be made only by a small group of individuals because the group of people who make public policy must be small enough for them to negotiate with each other. To use economic jargon, for political bargains to take place requires low transaction costs, which means small numbers of negotiators. The masses face high transaction costs and can never be members of the group that makes public policy.


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