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Who Rules?

How much do you believe in democracy?

The ancient Greeks who invented democracy really did believe in it. In their democracies the citizens themselves gathered in huge open-air meetings to pass laws and decide policy on everything, from taxation to the conduct of wars. They did not simply vote for a government every three or four years; they were the government. They held their meetings every nine days, and more often if required.
Greek democracy

Of course in our large societies it would be impossible for the citizens to meet together in one place. The Greeks managed this because their societies were tiny and most adults were not citizens. Women were not citizens, nor were slaves who did most of the work, nor were migrants. Democracy was a club for native-born, free men. Still it was a very large number of male citizens who were eligible to come to meetings. At Athens, where democracy operated in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, there were over 20,000 citizens. An important meeting could only begin when 6,000 showed up.

What a crazy idea to make a crowd into a government! Surely the real decisions were made elsewhere. No. Wouldn’t different people show up to each meeting? Yes. Wouldn’t meetings change their minds? Yes. Wouldn’t citizens be swept away by emotion? Yes, sometimes. And yet this system of government lasted for almost two hundred years. It did work. The citizens of Athens were committed to making it work.

It came to an end because Athens and the other tiny Greek states were incorporated in 338 BC into an empire run by Philip of Macedon and then his son, Alexander the Great. Later, all of Greece became part of an even larger empire, the Roman Empire. Democracy was snuffed out and did not reappear for two thousand years.

The ancient Greeks would not call our system a democracy. Democracy means literally rule by the people. Our citizens don’t rule; they elect other people – politicians – to rule. Greek democracy is called direct democracy; ours is representative democracy. Since the number of our citizens is so large, we have to persist with electing representatives, but we could make our system more like Athenian democracy. We could allow citizens a more direct and regular say in governing. If a certain number of citizens wanted a new law or if they objected to a law that parliament had passed, the issue could be settled by the people voting at a referendum. With new communications technology, it will get easier and cheaper to take the opinions of the people.
Direct versus representative democracy

But would this improve our system of government? What if the people should vote against taxation and in favour of more government services? If Australians had had the power to overturn laws, the great migration program after World War II might never have begun. Could it be that our politicians are more responsible, less prejudiced and more far-sighted than the people? Is it better not to have too much democracy?
Weaknesses of direct democracy

The Greek philosophers from whom we learn a good deal about Greek democracy were opponents of it. They saw the people as fickle, ignorant and selfish. How could giving everyone a vote produce justice and good government, which require wisdom and experience? If you want a shoe mended, you ask a shoemaker; if you want to steer a ship, you find a pilot; if you want to govern, any Tom, Dick or Harry will do. The idea’s absurd. Since most of the people are poor, democracy will become an oppressive system: the poor will use it to rob the rich, to everyone’s cost.

The philosopher Plato considered government such an expert craft that he suggested a small group of people needed to be chosen for the job. Most people are of limited capacity and are fit only to be workers and to be governed. The few good people must be carefully educated to be rulers. They must not have personal possessions and their children must be taken from them. Justice can only come from detachment. It will never come from the hurly-burly of democracy.
Plato’s rulers

Plato’s pupil Aristotle was also an opponent of democracy, but his method of determining what was good government was not to draw up schemes for perfect states. Instead he looked at governments as they actually operated. He divided the Greek states into three categories: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Each had their virtues, but each tended to degenerate: monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into mob rule. He thought a mixed government, which combined the three methods and guarded against their failings, would be best.
Aristotle’s mixed system

Our system is a mixture. It was not developed according to democratic principles. At no stage was it designed in order to give the people the maximum possible say. We have added a democratic element – giving every citizen a vote for parliament – to a much older system. Some say that is why it has worked so well. Some of the best things about our system – individual rights, fair trial, a government that has to obey the law – were established well before everyone was allowed to vote.

These principles of individual rights and a limited government are called liberal principles. Our democracy is a liberal democracy. Those who are content with it fear that more democracy might endanger its liberal elements. If the citizens ruled directly they might be careless about the rights of minorities or not be too fussy about how they got things done; they wouldn’t want governmental power to be limited. Other people say that if we want to call ourselves a democracy we must ensure that citizens are more directly involved in governing. They don’t want to give up on the standard set by Athens.
Liberal democracy

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