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Last updated: Sep 30th, 2014


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A democracy is a form of organization of power, governing, command, or decision-making in which decisions are made by popular vote. Democracy is often discussed as a form of government, but it can also be viewed as a more general type of organizational structure, because democracy can occur in systems other than groups of people.

Because the ultimate decision-making power lies with the people being ruled in a democracy, democracy can be seen as a "bottom-up" form of organization, as opposed to a "top-down" form of organization (like hierarchy). It is also to a degree decentralized because power lies in the hands of a large number of individuals.

Where do democracies occur?

Democracy exists primarily in legislatures, governing bodies, or decision-making boards like school boards or boards of directors. Even 18th-century pirates used democracy. It is also common for small groups of friends or family to decide certain things based on casual voting.

But democracy can exist outside of the human realm, like computer algorithms or social insects. Artificial intelligence in a computer game with a large number of agents under the control of a computerized player can use voting to determine a course of action. And something like voting exists among social insects, like bees or ants making decisions on where to establish a new colony. Whether or not these constitute "democracy", some elements reminiscent of democracy or voting can be found in systems other than human ones.

A video where I discuss the limitations of democracy.

Pros & Cons of Democracy

Pros / Advantages of Democracy

Better for more people? Democracy is often seen as a fairer and less arbitrary form of government or ruling as it allows the "will of the people" to become enacted into law. To some degree, this prevents scenarios like a small, powerful minority exploiting a large, disenfranchised majority.

Decentralization of Power: Another advantage of democracy is that, at least in theory, no one individual holds much power. This advantage can be reduced to some degree by control of information; the media for example wields a great deal of political power in most democracies.

Cons / Disadvantages of Democracy

Even in theory, democracy is far from the "holy grail" of structures of governing bodies due to a number of serious deficiencies.

Inefficiency and Impracticality: The larger democracies get, the more difficult voting and vote tallying becomes, and the democracies become subject to voter fraud. Also, democracies can suffer from voter intimidation or retaliation, thus taking away from their true democratic nature. The biggest problem, however, of democracy seems less heinous but is actually more problematic: inefficiency. The larger a human system gets, the less realistic it is for each person to vote on a decision. Even in small democracies, there can be a serious problem with keeping people informed of and interested in the issues at hand.

Exploitation of the Minority: In pure democracy, there is nothing to keep the majority from exploiting a small minority. For this reason, the checks and balances of the United States government balance democratic structures (electing officials to congress and the presidency) with non-democratic structures (executive and judicial appointments).

"Least common denominator" rule: Even when everyone is well-intentioned, a poorly informed majority can make bad decisions that hurt everyone. This can be a particular problem whenever there are policies to enact that have subtle and complex implications. Since the majority is by definition not the most highly educated group, education of the masses becomes a limiting factor in the effectiveness of a democracy.

The "Tyrrany of Time" - In organizations with open board meetings run by direct democracy, an interesting problem arises, which is that the people who have the most free time are able to influence the organization the most, for the simple reason that they can show up to more meetings and participate more. People with other responsibilities, on the other hand, cannot. I saw this phenomenon at the Occupy Philly movement, where the meetings tended to be dominated by unemployed people without children, because people working full time jobs, people in school, and people with children were unavailable to attend as many of the meetings.

An incentive for polarization - One problem with democracy that I only became aware of when I started working with consensus-run organizations, was the way majority-rule voting systems create incentives for people to reach out most to undecided, uncertain, or "moderate" voters, and have weak incentives for people to converse with the people whose views differ most strongly from theirs. In consensus-run systems, the incentive is reversed. I think this is a downside to democracy because it leads to increased polarization, whereby groups with opposing viewpoints tend not to talk to each other and tend not to resolve their disagreements or work together.

Alternatives or Complements to Democracy

Combining Voting with Other Structures

Because of the problems discussed above, democracy is usually combined with other structures to achieve a better form of governing. This is especially true in organizations. Most legislative bodies have a complex system of rules which regulate the democratic process. In addition, most governments have multiple layers of democracy: a republic, for instance, adds a layer by having people vote directly for representatives, who then directly vote on issues.

The United States of America has a complex government in which there are multiple layers of democracy (far more than two layers), and in which there are other structures, such as hierarchy within the executive branch, complex relationships between state, local, and federal governments, and various "checks and balances" between different branches of government.

Decision-Making Alternatives

One alternate form of governing, which is sometimes more desirable for small groups, is consensus. When people think of consensus, they usually imagine a consensus process based on unanimity, a process which requires that each person in the group agree to something. Such processes tend to be slow and at times intensely frustrating; these approaches can also give too much power to extreme or fringe viewpoints, in some cases allowing a single individual to prevent a decision that everyone else wants.

There are, however, other types of consensus processes which can be both efficient and sustainable. An example is Wikipedia Consensus, which does not require unanimity and in fact, can even involve a majority disagreeing with the outcome. I personally prefer Wikipedia's consensus process as it is based on reasoning from a set of agreed-upon guidelines and policies.

A new and novel organization using consensus for decision-making, in which I am a co-founder, is Why This Way. Why This Way is a consensus-based belief system and organization, subject to continual questioning and revision. It is somewhat like an analogue of an organized religion, structured and run more like Wikipedia. It is more oriented towards values and ideals and less towards political activity, but I see no reason a governmental entity or political party could not use a process or governing structure more like what Why This Way uses.

Tweaking / Improving Voting in a Democracy

Democracy can be tweaked somewhat with alternative voting methods, of which there are many. In some cases, voting is weighted.

Corporations, when voting to elect a board or adopt certain resolutions, generally hold voting on a per-share basis, giving proportional voting weight based on the portion of the corporation that each party owns.

Some organizations weight votes by the number of years of membership, which has the advantage of preventing hasty takeover attempts.

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