The word democracy is derived from the Greek words “demos” which means people and “kratos” which means power or rule. Democracy therefore means rule by the people. Many countries that claim to be democracies have systems of government that differ widely. They include various forms of direct democracy and representative democracy, with the latter being most prevalent.
In a direct democracy, people make their own decisions on matters that affect them, on an issue-by-issue basis, without the intervention of representatives to act on their behalf. This is real democracy and occurs in parts of Switzerland and the USA. It is also consistent with traditional African consensus decision-making processes. Technological advances make direct democracy practically possible even when the population consists of many millions of people.
In a representative democracy, people appoint representatives to act on their behalf. A representative is an agent. In many countries, the relationship between agents and the people they represent, their principals, is governed by common law. The purpose of the common law of agency, shaped over the centuries by experience of human behaviour, is to ensure that representatives actually do represent the interests of the people who appointed them and do deliver the services they undertake to deliver. There is therefore every reason that the relationship between the people and their representatives should be governed always by these common law principles. Any constitution or statutory law that prevents this has the effect of detracting from democratic processes.
Typically under the common law, agents are required to perform their duties, fully and faithfully, according to the instructions given to them, which are known as their mandate. Agents must be honest. They must conduct affairs in the interest of those they represent and not in their own interest. They may not make secret profits and there must be no conflict of interest. Agents must use the necessary care, skill and diligence required in the performance of their mandate and carry out their duties exactly according to instructions. Finally, they have a duty to account to the people they represent. Those who appoint them may terminate the agent’s authority for reasons such as dereliction of duty. The principals, in turn, have a duty to pay the agents for their services.
If the common law of agency does not apply to politics, the people have little power to do anything about those representatives who look after their own interests instead of those of the people. The type of government in such a case could best be described as a ‘politicracy’ – government by politicians, and not a democracy.
A well-functioning democracy provides a way for the people to make decisions in a peaceful and non-violent manner. When violence is reduced to a minimum and peace and stability prevails, it creates conditions that allow the economy to flourish. To ensure peace, a truly democratic constitution is necessary to protect the rights of the people against each other and particularly against the government.
When drawing up a democratic constitution everyone must have an equal right to contribute. Politicians do not have an inherent right to dominate and control the constitution-making process. History has clearly demonstrated that when politicians draft the constitution, the resulting constitution disempowers the people and places power in the hands of the politicians.
One of the ways in which they do this is by centralising government so that decision-making is far away from and out of reach of the people. In a truly democratic country, government is decentralised and close to the people. Another way politicians concentrate more and more power in their own hands and political parties keep themselves in power is by giving themselves the authority to pass laws and to change the constitution without the permission of the people they are supposed to represent. .
In a ‘politicracy’ the people can vote in a referendum only with the permission of the politicians. In a democracy it is the right of the people to hold a referendum when they wish to. They should also have the right to insist that the latest technology be in place to facilitate the holding of a referendum whenever they, the people, wish to hold one. After all, it is they who, through their taxes, pay all the expenses of government.
The principles in the common law of agency should be entrenched absolutely in a democratic constitution. This would give the people a greater say in the decisions affecting them and avoid having their democracy turn into a ‘politicracy’ – a fate that has regrettably befallen most democracies.
Author: Ken Davie is a geneticist by training and a student of evolutionary processes. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.
FMF Feature Article / 28 October 2008 - Policy Bulletin / 17 November 2009