Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Dangerous Democracy and Fundamental Freedoms

Posted by Jerry on August 13, 2007

[I posted a modified version of this post earlier. But it warrants resurrection as we approach the day of India's independence.] 

Democracy can be a very dangerous thing. Indeed, Aristotle described democracy as a “necessary evil,” but an evil nonetheless. A democratic country can be a threat to its own citizens as well as to other nations. Consider the threat of democratic, nuclear-capable Iran; or that of the democratically elected Hamas government of Palestine; or even that of the largest democracy in the world–-India.

Democracy, translated in practice, means that the majority gets to decide what the rules of the game are. If the majority of Indians are not “comfortable” with legalizing homosexuality, for example, well then the human rights of the homosexual minority can and should be trampled.

As Farah Baria, a writer for the Indian Express, stated in her article on the criminality of homosexuality:

“Replying to a petition filed in the Delhi High Court by Naz Foundation, an advocacy, AIDS control and gay outreach organization, the Government claimed that Indian society was “not ready” for the practice of homosexuality. In fact the 42nd report of the Law Commission opines that society’s disapproval was “strong enough to justify it being treated as a criminal offense, even when adults indulge in it in private.” The penalty? Imprisonment for ten years or even life.” [emphases mine]

At some point in the future, if the majority decides that they do not like eating broccoli, they can simply pass a law criminalizing its growth and consumption. It would be a strong enough justification to treat it as a criminal offense.

Democracy is the political application of Utilitarianism–irrelevant of all its variations–as the greatest good for the greatest number–and they are both equally evil. Morality is contorted into a statistical game of numbers, where the standard of good is the number of people that can be gathered on any one side; thus, exterminating the Jews in a majoritarian Nazi society would have to be a good thing by such a moral code.

What is the better alternative to democracy then?

In my opinion, the democratic institutions in India as they currently exist are instrumentally causing the decline of liberty and the move towards the fascism of a vocal collective. These legal and democratic structures need to either be dissolved entirely or reformed radically. A new legal structure needs to be introduced—one that is based on the recognition and guarantee of fundamental human rights, not on the guarantee of a majoritarian democracy, a thuggish minority, or one that is based on the expediency of the moment.

One effective and immediate way to achieve this would be to introduce a constitutional amendment declaring certain laws based on objective, fundamental principles as off-limits to a democratic vote. For example, laws such as the guaranteeing of the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, freedom of speech and individual expression (including artistic expression or romantic expression between consensual adults), the strict separation of religion and state, and the repeal of institutionalized discrimination based on caste, religion, or race should be taken off the voting table regardless of popular opinion.

We must outrightly reject the current idolization of democracy as the “sacred” voice of the people. We must reject the current, long-winded Constitution that seeks to enumerate every application of law in every concrete situation; instead, we must call for and adopt a parsimonious moral framework based on objective, fundamental principles that are common to all applications of moral laws and human rights. The current judiciary system more often acquiesces to the laws created by the “representatives of the people” rather than examining the legitimacy and constitutionality of those laws.

Fundamental freedoms, rights, moral laws should be off-limits to the voting of legislators or the public. For example, the recent voting in the legislature based on caste, religion, and origin of birth–including on all the issues surrounding the disgustingly institutionalized terms of discrimination such as “muslim quotas,” “backward classes,” “other backward classes,” “scheduled castes,” and so on, should have been declared illegitimate by the courts and in violation of the right of an individual to choose and express his self-identity without having to be oppressed under the accidental identities of his birth. These are not matters to be put to vote–neither in the legislature nor in the general election. These do not fall within the domain of democracy. No man has the right to label another man as a member of a “backward class.” Man is a self-made being; he should have the autonomy, liberty, and right to not associate with his religion, his caste, his race, or his tribe.

In every election cycle across India, political parties campaign on explicitly religious grounds, with campaign promises that are religious-based (like building this or that temple). Such campaigns should be banned outright–without vote or debate–and such political parties should be barred from elections until their manifestos clearly reject all religious references. The principle of separating religion and state should not be a matter of debate or democratic vote. The government has no right nor any freedom to practice its own religion.

Similarly, in the areas of art, media, television, opinions, blogs, etc., the government has no right or duty to interfere. Any interference must be swiftly restrained by the legal system in order to ensure the principle of freedom of speech and expression. Likewise, the acts of consensual adults–homosexual or heterosexual–are not matters for a democratic vote. These are private affairs of the concerned individuals, and their right to self-expression and autonomy should be respected by the government, upheld by the courts, and protected by the law-and-order system.

Democracy can be a very dangerous thing if let loose in the hands of the majority. Without the restraint of fundamental, unchangeable, irreplaceable moral laws guaranteeing the rights of the smallest minority in the world–the right of an individual–a democracy can be a threat to human life.

John Stuart Mill derided the “tyranny of the majority”; indeed, democracy can be dangerously similar to fascism in that there is no one single dictator but an entire mob that collectively dictates the terms of the existence for the entire population.

===============

Related posts:

The Contradictions of the Indian Constitution
What Can Indian be Proud of?
Indian Democratic Lawlessness

17 Responses to “Dangerous Democracy and Fundamental Freedoms”

  1. rambodoc said

    Bravo!

  2. DotMom said

    Interesting post. Democracy may not be perfect, but it is the best solution we have. I uphold the rights of the individual as fundamental but it takes time for a society to mature and see this point. Mistakes will be made but they are all a part of growing up, as a nation. There is no shortcut. In the end, a country is what her people are.

  3. mahendrap said

    Alas, how true!

    It is interesting that when illuminating the dangers of democracy, you choose to talk about India, and not the US?

  4. Ergo said

    I believe it’s because the Indian democracy is regarded as the largest democracy in the world, but is nothing more than the clamoring voices of the majority–and Indians seem to take some sense of pride in this majoritarian type of democracy. This is where it democracy becomes dangerous.
    Whereas, Americans are more cognizant and proud of their constitutional foundations, i.e., the letter of the law, upon which their system of democracy is anchored and regulated, rather than the mere fact of majoritarian representation.

  5. krishashok said

    It’s also interesting that you do not mention that the US also, at some point in its democratic past, had slaves, prevented women from voting and had a lot of problems getting the civil rights bill to pass in congress/senate. In fact till a few years back, Texas considered sex between 2 consenting men to be criminalized as Sodomy.

    I just want to know that from a historical maturity perspective, couldn’t India be going through those initial problematic phases of majoritarian democracy? Is there absolutely no chance that the amendments you rightly point out as being necessary will not happen in the future?

  6. Ergo said

    I’m glad you find something I’ve said interesting, Krishashok. :)

    The US also does not allow gay marriages, which is getting to be an increasingly common phenomena in Europe, and just north of the border, in Canada; however, I am against the State interfering to allow gay marriages as well.

    Incidentally, the point you mention about Texas is not properly accurate. The law criminalized *sodomy*, not “sex between two men.” In other words, even if it were a man and a woman engaging in sodomy in the privacy of their own home, it was considered criminal. Of course, that antiquated law has now been found unconstitutional. Now, consider the illegality of homosexuality in India; there is absolutely NO CONSTITUTIONAL GROUNDS to defend homosexual rights and argue for the repeal of that inhuman law. So, on what grounds shall we mount a defense? A recent judgment by the Indian Supreme Court decided very brilliantly in consonance with the principle of majoritarian rule of democracy by stating that the Indian people are “just not ready yet” for homosexual acceptance.

    This is the fundamental issue here–on what grounds is a democracy restrained from descending into the arbitrary demands of a vocal minority or a majoritarian rule? I’m not interested in concrete specific cases other than to illustrate these fundamental problems.

    It’s amusing that you raise the same issues about lapses in US democratic practices repeatedly in my various posts while consistently missing the main point of my articles. For instance, this article–like many of my other articles on India–focuses on the *foundation* (or lack thereof) of the Indian democracy. My article does not speak purely at the superficial level of concretes and merely express frustration at the realities of Indian democracy. My article dives deeper to the root, the fundamental, and points out that the Indian democracy has NO foundations–NO GROUNDING in an objective letter of law; that the Indian democracy consists of a clamoring coterie of pot-bellied politicians legislating on anything that strikes their fancy or in response to the demands of their majoritarian constituents.

    Given that focus, to raise up concrete and specific instances of failures in the US democratic system is to miss the whole point, to focus on trees while ignoring the forest, rivers, hills, and all! :)

    So, I guess, I’ll spell it out for you. India has no foundation to anchor its democracy and hold it back from collapsing into mob-rule (if it has not already); the US does.

    Therefore, in answer to your question, Is India going through an initial problematic phase? No. This is not a phase. By definition, a phase refers to momentary shift from normal conditions. It is more proper to say that the US underwent phases of the Red Decade, rising socialism, emancipation, the sexual revolution, etc.

    India began on this foundationless system of democracy since its inception as an independent nation; Indians have ignorantly gloated at the size of their Constitution (which is a heap of contradictions) and have been deluded into thinking that somehow all this chaotic, clamoring, rioting marauders and mobs are part-and-parcel of a democracy! The height of this mass delusion is incredible!

    Can change be possible in the future–yes; but not without a total upheavel of the Indian political system. How can this be achieved? Gradually, and only through the introduction and defense of rational ideas across all levels of discourse. Note that a government system is not the cause but the effect of ideas. The culture of ideas in India has to change first before its political sytem begins to reflect it.

  7. rambodoc said

    This comment was possibly even better than the article! :-)

  8. Arunk said

    Very good post and a very good blog! I think I get your point – citizens of the US generally view the basic tenets of their constitution like the ten commandments (ha! a strange, devious thought :)). I also think they truly respect and honor them, and use them as a reference point for many issues. I can believe that Indian consitution is now a heap of contradictions, although I don’t know for sure (don’t live there),

    However, I sort of will ask the same question as mahendra and krishshok. In spite of this very good foundation (and it is indeed very good), the US’s democracy in many ways is no different from India’s. It has the same problems you mention. Perhaps even those strong bones in the form of fundamentals don’t matter if there is enough fat on top. Mob rule? Oh – it is very much so in the US. It is called lobbyists, special interests, and two party system. They may not look like a Indian or Italian mob, but they are very much in control.

    But good foundations are very essential – no question. BTW, I have no idea how much of this is true, but I heard sometime ago that Indian constitution took stuff from both US and British i.e. in the early days. I don’t know where I heard it and from whom. You are calling it foundationless – I would like to know if what I heard has any historical truth to it.

  9. Ergo said

    Arun, thanks for your comment, but I’m not sure what you’re question is. I couldn’t quite glean it from your comment.

    Regarding the inspiration behind the Indian Constitution, to my knowledge, the Indian Constitution does not derive anything from the US Constitution. Meanwhile, the UK does not have a written constitution as such; in the UK, at least in principle, the highest arbiter of the land is not the letter of the law (i.e., a constitution) but the monarchy.

    Again, my point is not to sidestep the failure of the Americans in consistently implementing the US Constitution. That’s not a point I’m even addressing my post. My point is to reveal the ideological foundations (or lack thereof) of the two cultures–the United States and India. And if you believe that ideas have consequences, then you would realize how important it is to examine the ideological roots of a culture to make sense of the practical trends in that society.

  10. Jacob said

    “Similarly, in the areas of art, media, television, opinions, blogs, etc., the government has no right or duty to interfere. Any interference must be swiftly restrained by the legal system in order to ensure the principle of freedom of speech and expression. Likewise, the acts of consensual adults–homosexual or heterosexual–are not matters for a democratic vote. These are private affairs of the concerned individuals, and their right to self-expression and autonomy should be respected by the government, upheld by the courts, and protected by the law-and-order system.”

    Disagree fundamentally. Let me give you an analogy- So if two consenting adults decide to marry their underage children, that should not b a crime under the application of the above logic. Extrapolating this if an adult has the consent of parents of an underaged girl that would not be considered as a crime either nor should it be sujected to law under your own argument. If an adult decided to torture an animal in private, neither will that be a crime. What about cannibalism where an adult donates his body to be eaten by another after death?

    Are we not forgetting social norms? Freedom of expression is fine and wonderful but with freedom comes responsibilities. One cannot forget responsibilities before harping on freedom. Does that mean that we should always conform? No, we should have individuality but within reasonable legal limits. I think it is dangerous to practise “freedom” that would offend everybody else around you.

  11. Ergo said

    Jacob,

    You have it entirely wrong. I’d suggest you become familiar with the nature of rights and its philosophical basis, which permit *no* exceptions in any case absolutely. You might also wish to read my post “Rights and Responsibilities” in response to your comments.

    Freedom without the freedom to offend someone is no freedom at all!

    Regarding underage marriage and other “social norms” that you chide us for forgetting, I’d remind you that child marriages occur in large numbers in various societies in the world. Cannibalism used to occur likewise as well. The problem with your view is in deciding exactly *which* social norm we should not forget, which culture’s norms should we use as our moral yardstick or guide. The point is, social norms are for the most part rubbish, arbitrary, relative, irrational, meaningless, and most importantly, irrelevant in formulating an objective moral system.

    So, recheck your premises.

  12. Tim R said

    I recently visited South Africa for a few weeks, during my stay they passed a law that was new to me, banning kissing for those 16 years and under! (designed to stop the spread of AIDS!)

    I often explain to people that modern democracies around the world are vehicles for collectivism and populism. But while this horrifies me, I think it’s actually what most people want.

    Bad laws like bad money drive out the good.

  13. Favela Cranshaw said

    I wonder how the ban on under-age kissing is enforced. Dad calls the police on his daughter when he catches her enflagrante delicto? Note: Most people want to eat their cake and have it, too.

  14. Ramana said

    The point that people make today that rights come with responsibilities is necessarily false and wonderfully illustrated in your post “Rights and Responsibilities”.

    However, I am still wondering about your comment to Jacob when you were questioned about the rights with regard to child marriages. The following was your reply :

    “Regarding underage marriage and other “social norms” that you chide us for forgetting, I’d remind you that child marriages occur in large numbers in various societies in the world.”

    Your comment on “social norms” is definitely not doubted. It was the other part I couldn’t comprehend.

    The fact that child marraiges occur in various societies is no basis for rights. Rights come from the fact that man is a volitional being and has the capacity to choose his actions. To quote you from your previous post “Rights and Responsibilities” –

    “only humans can choose their actions and be held responsible for them.”

    When there is a question of choice which involves a long – range course such as choosing a job, a philosophy or pursue a marriage, a lot of complex concepts are to be grappled with to come to a valid conclusion. Rights presuppose that humans have a sufficient level of maturity (barring the handicapped) and the ability to choose their actions in their best rational self – interest. This is not the case with children as you quoted in post “The Target of Idealogical Outreach” when someone asked you “why the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) is not doing enough to educate children in the pre-school and high school levels on the ideas of Objectivism.” You answered in the later paragraphs:

    Objectivism is a philosophy: it needs to be processed by an intellectually capable mind, a mind that has reached a sufficient level of maturity to make sense of philosophical premises.

    Its in this respect that children don’t have the capacity to analyze ideas such as a philosophy or the conceptual faculty necessary to seek a partner having similar rational values or sense of life.

    The law in India as it stands today is that child marraiges are voidable but not void ab initio i.e the child who is married as a minor has the right to revoke the marriage when he/she attains majority. Similarly, The Contract Act also bars children from entering into a contract and even if entered into such a contract knowing the other party is a minor, then the other party has no remedy available if the minor defaults on his performance of his duty.

    I think it would be a gross violation of justice to permit minors to enter into a marriage until the minor has reached a sufficient level of maturity to choose and pursue his goals – long term.

    I apologize for not integrating my arguments very well as this is one of my first discussions on abstract principles. If I have missed a point or quoted you in the wrong context, I would love to be corrected.

  15. Ergo said

    Ramana,

    Yes, you have misunderstood my comment. I was making the point that “social norms” should not be yardsticks of morality, i.e., by which we decide the morality of an action. I agree with you that children should not be allowed to enter into contract–marital, business, or of any other kind. Here’s my comment from above, in full:

    “Regarding underage marriage and other “social norms” that you chide us for forgetting, I’d remind you that child marriages occur in large numbers in various societies in the world. Cannibalism used to occur likewise as well. The problem with your view is in deciding exactly *which* social norm we should not forget, which culture’s norms should we use as our moral yardstick or guide. The point is, social norms are for the most part rubbish, arbitrary, relative, irrational, meaningless, and most importantly, irrelevant in formulating an objective moral system.”

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