(I will issue 12 post under this heading over the next days – inspired by a list compiled previously by Professor Robert A. Dahl. Comments and discussion most welcome.)
We humans are a dangerous species. We are dangerous to each other. If we can, we will trample on others, or damage or kill them, for our own good. If they can, those who are stronger will supress or abuse those who are weaker. If they can, majorities will persecute minorities and élites will exploit those lower down the ladder. We need to be governed. We need protection.
Orderly social and economic life depends on governing authority. There must be defence and there must be police. There must be laws, regulations, courts and prisons. There must be infrastructure and public services. There must be taxation. For order, societies need governments with power. Modern societies and economies have governments with vast powers.
All governments are themselves dangerous to the people who live under their rule, the more powerful the more dangerous. Power corrupts. We depend on authorities with power for protection but we must also have protection from their potential excesses. The danger is that the governing we need turns into tyranny. Writes Robert A. Dahl (in On Democracy): “Perhaps the most fundamental and persistent problem in politics is to avoid autocratic rule.” That tyranny is an endemic danger in government is abundantly clear from history, and clear enough today when we look to, for example, China or Russia. In all autocratic systems – absolutist monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, outright dictatorships – there is an overwhelming risk of tyranny.
Under democratic constitutions, the governments that rule over the people are themselves under the control of the people they rule. The people can dismiss those who have the power to govern them, and they can threated the government of the day with being dismissed tomorrow. That counter-power is in the hands not of an aristocracy or some other minority, but of the people themselves. They exercise their counter-power by acting collectively, such as in elections, with equal right of participation by all, rich and poor.
In democracies, then, the combination of government above and safety below is possible. It’s ingenious: we get both protection and protection from the protectors. Without democratic checks, that combination is unlikely. Autocracy can provide the protection of stability, as now in China, but it cannot provide the combination with also protection from the protectors.