I have an acquaintance who hates democracy. At least he says so, and I believe him. This is because he wrote “You have no right to use the state’s power of the sword to force me to pay for the education of your children.” He goes on, in effect (though I’m paraphrasing and you can’t read him for yourself because the article has disappeared) to say that as an individual he should only have to pay for those goods and services he actually uses. “If I want a Coast Guard to patrol a river near me, or a river I use, I will gladly pay for it. But the state has no right to decide that I need, or want, a Coast Guard, and to then tax me and all my neighbors to pay for that Coast Guard.
In Britain, we’ve heard all this before. A certain Mrs M. Thatcher once famously declared, “There’s no such thing as society.” But even the sainted (?) Mrs T. would not have gone so far as my friend does. For all her enthusiasm for privatisation, even she kept away from whole-scale privatisation of schools and hospitals.
All this has a bearing on the conversation that has been happening on this post. One of the gulfs between our economic life and our civic life is that democracy is accepted as normative in the latter, but rather sneered at in the former. Whatever some might say, the United States is a democracy. Its form may not be simple - the electoral college system makes me scratch my head - but democracy it is.
Unlike my friend, I do not hate democracy. I love it and believe in it. I do believe that governments have the right to collect taxes to pay for those things that collectively we say we want as nations. My friend says that he shouldn’t have to pay for the education of other people’s children. But if he should ever become an employer, he might be glad of an educated work force. He shouldn’t have to pay for the Coast Guard if he doesn’t want to - but might be glad of the drugs that are seized instead of finding their way into his neighbourhood. Taxes are a way in which we exercise our collective responsibility for one another. The poor, sick and lame, the helpless — and yes, even the feckless. We are “our brother’s keeper” and a tax system is just one way of addressing that.
Deeper still, in a democracy we are recognising the essential worth of others in our community. For all the variety amongst us, we are of equal worth, worthy of both respect and representation. That’s what democracy does. It can be very difficult to get right, as the election of Bush Jr surely shows, but I believe passionately that democracy is a foundational principle for all civilised politics. The precise form that democracy will take will vary. It always needs to contain mechanisms for the protection of the rights of minorities. It doesn’t have to mean three wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. In one of the co-operatives in which I have worked, we had a rule that we never made decisions by a simple vote. We would respect the minority, even the minority of one, such that any individual in the co-operative could veto a policy decision. By the same token, each individual understood that they should not exercise that veto on a whim. On many occasions individuals were content that, having had their say, they could live with the decision of the majority and would support the decision once made even if they disagreed with it. But there were times when points of principle were believed to be at stake when “democracy” meant that the majority was ruled by the minority. When it is put like that, it sounds like a recipe for endless meetings and never actually getting things done. You’ll have to take my word for it when I say it was not so. Operating that sort of system on a national scale is clearly impossible, but even so I’m certain that it is possible to make democracies which represent the people without being oppressive of the minorities. But it needs continuing work — it can never be taken for granted.
Democracy is about much more than polling booths and voting methods. It is an expression that human beings are communal animals. We were not made to be alone, but to be in community with others. This should not surprise us, since the Christian faith is that we are made in the image of God, who is himself not an isolated individual but a community of persons. “God in three persons, blessed Trinity”.