Universal Ethics > Research > Democracy


It's an old saying that "in a democracy, people get the kind of government that they deserve." That's because they choose their leaders by voting, and in participative democracies they may also have opportunities to vote on other things as well.

The other alternative is an autocracy. There are various forms, such as a monarchy, where each king is raised from birth to rule as his father did, or a miliatary dictatorship, which rules by power of force. There is also a single-party system, such as found in China today, where the party is an exclusive club where membership is screened. In all these cases, the leaders may claim that they are well qualified for the job. And indeed, they may have smart people. The problem is that over time, they tend to become self-serving rather than ruling in the best interests of the citizens.

There is an old saying that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." That is very true!

In an autocracy, the only means the citizens have of instituting change when they are dissatisfied with their leaders, is revolution. That is something they will hesitate to do, unless they are extremely dissatisfied, because of the great amount of death and suffering that it brings. Democracy is a much better solution, because it holds the leaders accountable and does so without killing.

Democracy acommodates the wishes of its citizens, in order to make choices that will enhance their happiness. It's not just a peaceful replacement for war. It's a method that can be employed to make mutually beneficial rules, as an improvement over the slow evolutionary process of making rules. Also, it can be used to make collective value judgements that improve the odds of each person being satisfied with numeric choices made by governments, such as speed limits, taxation levels, expenditures on public works, etc.

A well functioning democracy rules with the goal to enable every citizen to be happy. It's not surprising, therefore, that democracy has become a very popular idea, and many nations claim to be democratic even when they are not. There is a misconception that the holding of elections is all that is necessary in order for a country to be a democracy. But actually, true democracy is not just the holding of elections (click to find out more).

One limitation of democracy is that it only holds the leader accountable to the nation's citizens, but not to the citizens of other nearby nations that may be affected by their leader's decisions. It is necessary for the leaders of nations to act in ethical ways, much as individuals are expected to act ethically toward each other. That's not quite the same as holding the leaders accountable, however. Often the electorate in a nation may not be aware of their country's decisions affects nearby nations. One nation could be harming another nation via spread of pollution, unfavorable trade policies, or other means that only the citizens of the affected nation would notice. This can give rise to conflicts between nations.

A favorable solution would be to extend democracy so that one overarching democracy serves all nations, as a kind of federated state that has democracy at multiple levels: internation, national, provincial, and local. However, currently many nations haven't achieved an effective democracy even in their own nation, which is a pre-requisite for a wider democracy.

Even within the reasonably effective democracies, there are lots of improvements possible. It's a continuing matter of research and invention to make democratic methods better.

Democracy is a concept that is closely tied to ethics. Ethics, as described on this web site, serves to "spread happiness." That's what democracy should be about too. It's consulting with the people who are affected by political decisions, to ensure that those decisions serve that purpose for them. If the people themselves have a good understanding of ethics are are well informed about the situation around them, it will achieve that result.

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