2022-02-05 When does democracy work

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Ben & Fran Gilmore – Cofounders
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Thursday, February 10, 2022

This is a letter to our friends –

When does democracy work?

DEMOC̵´RACY, n. [Gr. δημοκρατια; δημος, people, and κρατεω, to possess, to govern.]
Government by the people; a form of government, in which the supreme power is lodged in the hands of the people collectively, or in which the people exercise the powers of legislation. Such was the government of Athens. [Webster 1828]]

“Government by the people” sounds like a good idea – but – it only works in a small group.

Let’s consider a New England colonial town. The city limits were set by how far one walked to the meeting house (usually a church). Every citizen voted on every issue. Think, “majority rule”.

The town’s only well needed an expensive replacement. Every citizen was required to share the expense. That was a real hardship on the widow Brown with her 9 children! She worked hard to care for her kids. The older ones did what they could to help, but the water tax would cause Mrs. Brown to make some hard choices. She had 10 tax shares.

The character of the town was good. Mrs. Brown’s share was quietly covered by neighbors.

Suppose I am wrong about the town’s character. Every time her neighbors pass the Browns’ house they see her kids, wearing ragged clothes and losing weight. Conscience is a powerful self-policing force. In small groups the majority is aware of the impact of their decisions upon the minority. Not so, when the group grows too large. The majority can become a mob, motivated by emotion.

REPUB´LIC̵, n. [L. respublica; res and publica; public affairs.] 1. A commonwealth; a state in which the exercise of the sovereign power is lodged in representatives elected by the people. In modern usage, it differs from a democracy or democratic state, in which the people exercise the powers of sovereignty in person. Yet the democracies of Greece are often called republics… [ Webster 1828]

In a republic, the minority has a representative to speak in their behalf. Once a group grows too large the minority is often overlooked. (In a lynch-mob, only one man objects!)

That is why our founders tried to break down the large groups into subgroups. Before the 17th amendment (1914), the two senators from each state were to be elected by their state legislatures. California has 40 state senators and 80 assemblymen. Thus originally, our senators were answerable to only 120 electors. But – Those electors, in turn, were answerable to smaller state districts.

Since 1914 our senators are answerable to the whole state-wide electorate! So much for Mrs. Brown! A senator answerable to 39 million voters is answerable to no one! Who is going to gather enough votes to challenge him.

These columns are archived since 12/10/09
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