Oligarchy Is Not Democracy

The first and second definitions of democracy in Webster's dictionary are:
1: "a government by the people;
esp : rule of the majority -
2: a government in which the supreme power is held by the people."

Now, this sounds very appealing to people who are interested in freedom and justice for all. Indeed, it is a great a concept, one held by the majority of enlightened cultures that have appeared in the past 2,500 or so years. Unfortunately, life has not been so utopian, and in many places and eras, power has been held by what have been called tyrants and despots, feudal lords and egomaniacs who sat in power because of "divine right to rule." Contrary to such a flowery notion, most of these "leaders" came into power through physical force and an array of atrocities. This trend continues to this day in too many parts of the world, with banana-republican dictators scattered here and there like so many weeds. In the popular version of history, the righteous human struggle has been to destroy these autocracies and replace them with the ever-liberating "democracy," so that civil rights will be mandated and enforced, and all people will have a chance to lead a decent life.

This urge to create some sort of governing body and principle that will provide for the participation of individuals and hoi polloi in their own destinies is indeed a noble and righteous one. It is absolutely on the right track, and it has been supported throughout the ages by the most exalted thinkers that this planet has produced. There can be no argument there. So, knowing this, these venerated minds have consistently set about first planning such a government and then finding a way to execute it.

Democracy is Ideal and Idealistic Thus was born the idea of democratic government, which calls for a majority of people to vote on how they wish to be treated rather than having it decided for them. In this day and age, the common perception of such a democratic government is of a structure that has a variety of levels from local to state to federal. On the local level, there can be boards of supervisors, boards of education, boards of selectmen, etc. On the state level, there can be legislatures and representatives. On the federal level, there can be a parliament, senate and/or house of representatives. These divisions are set up to share the power so that no one aspect becomes out of balance, so that no one individual or group holds the reigns for the rest and can make decisions for the whole. This is the ideal of this governing structure, and on paper it may be virtuous. But in real life, because of a tendency in human nature, it often happens that this noble ideal becomes warped and distorted such that the governing structure turns out to resemble what it was designed to replace.

The Needs of the Few or the One Outweigh the Needs of the Many? When a small group of individuals wields a large portion of power and dictates the lives of the majority, it is called an "oligarchy." According to Webster's, oligarchy is "a government in which power is in the hands of a few." To those who have been educated to believe in the ideal of a democratic government, i.e., one that ostensibly spreads the power around even to the smallest "little person," the idea of an oligarchy seems abhorrent and straight out of the Dark Ages. After all, "all men are created equal," so how dare anyone else attempt to dictate how someone should or shouldn't lead his or her life? Ideally, citizens of a democracy would never allow a handful of individuals dictate policy for the rest.

Yet, what is held on this planet at this time to be a democratic government is, upon inspection, in reality an oligarchy, with a small percentage of citizens establishing and enforcing policy. Although many citizens of so-called democratic societies may believe they are living under a majority rule, they truly are not. In fact, in large communities, this direct democracy would be impossible, even with the best voting techniques and technology, because every day there are hundreds of decisions that governing bodies face without the input of the "common people." The sheer volume of the decisions required to keep a governing system together is so enormous that it is not viable to take into account the opinions of each and every citizen of that government. So, in these systems of representative democracy, citizens ostensibly elect people to fairly represent their individual opinions. In truth, they have no choice. They cannot do it themselves. Is representative democracy, then, a truly democratic process? Not exactly, but, as they say, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest."

Indeed, a better question would be, is the electing of one person - usually but not always a man - to head or lead a country or governing body a democracy? In other words, what is so democratic about having a president or prime minister or any other singular head of state? Is this not the definition of at least an oligarchy, if not an autocracy? How can one man be representative of a million or a billion others? Indeed, he cannot, and this form of government is not really a democracy in its highest ideal. It may attempt to approach the mark, but it falls short.

Fortunately, the "democratic" singular-head-of-state governing system has generally been designed with a system of checks and balances that carefully weighs and incorporates the opinions of others, so the rabid and egregious abuse of power inherent in a true autocracy is not usually found within such a system. However, even this "democratic" system is flawed, in that there are loopholes that do allow for a concentration of power in the hands of the few. Paradoxically and fortunately, at the same time there are so many vested interests, corporate juggernauts and the like, that the top people in authority really don't have the concentrated power that they or the citizens they supposedly represent believe they do. What this means is that the "democratic" singular head of state is not truly in charge, as he is constantly influenced by aggressive self-interested outside parties.

Since it is the case that these so-called leaders do not really have the ability to enact either their own will or that of the people, the question arises, "Why maintain this type of system?" Indeed, why would a "democratic" government have a president or prime minister in the first place? Why wouldn't it have a council of elders, in which a larger number of people are considered heads of state? This concept has been practiced in a variety of cultures around the globe throughout history. To be truly democratic, this governing system would include representatives of both genders and all ethnicities within a given territory, regardless of class or financial status.

Elected Official or Egomaniac? Considering all of this, don't the offices of prime minister, president and the like seem rather egotistical? What is the motivation to become president, something most mothers and fathers fantasize about for their children? Is it because it would be in the best interest for all the people involved, because the little chip off the old block is a fantastic visionary whose wisdom and knowledge would vastly improve the lives of his or her constituents? Or is it because it would make Junior, Mummy and Daddy feel very good to have Junior be a leader of peoples? Since Junior has hardly proven himself a great and wise leader by the age of two, when Mummy and Daddy are already planning his illustrious career, such ambition cannot be motivated by an altruistic desire to save the world but by egocentricity.

In truth, for the most part, "democratic" countries do not elect the wisest or best qualified, as those individuals usually do not wish to lose their privacy and be inspected under a microscope. To become wise and gain depth of soul and mastery over life, many people have experienced events that are not within the boundaries of the commonly held perception of morality. Hence, they would not be considered squeaky clean enough to pass public muster. Unfortunately, that means that those who do pass muster are often robotic and dull, having lived strictly according to society's rules and laws - no great daredevils here but fearful geeks. Until they do actually inhale (or at least admit to it), we will not see any great visionaries in office. And until we stop esteeming egotistical positions of power, we will not have a true democracy. Indeed, it might be best if we established a "meritocracy," whereby individuals would earn a position, rather than buy or inherit it.

© 2001 Acharya S

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