What are the Limits of Democracy?

Pavel Yakovlev,

Release Date
February 24, 2012


Democracy and Voting

People often associate freedom with electoral democracy. According to Prof. Pavel Yakovlev, the freedom to vote is an inherently limited tool for fostering a free society. Although majority vote can serve as a useful tool for expressing the will of the people, it can be taken too far.

Imagine a world governed entirely by majority votes—including your personal decisions! Would you be happy if a majority vote determined who you could date? What you could eat? Now consider the world you currently live in, where you make decisions and purchases in the context of a marketplace. In a market, you can choose goods, services, and activities that diverge from majority trends. Moreover, markets also provide a greater number of choices.
Free markets and limited government depend upon and facilitate individualized and decentralized choices; they create the conditions necessary for a truly free and democratic society.

What are the Limits of Democracy?
When people hear the word “freedom” they often think of electoral democracy. But freedom to vote is a very small portion of all individual freedoms we enjoy in a truly free society. While majority voting in a democracy is a valuable tool for expressing the will of the people as a whole, it can be taken too far. Imagine if everything in society was determined through a majority vote. Would you be happy if the majority of the voters determine what goods you can consume or what people you’re allowed to date? I don’t think you will be happy with that outcome.
You are better off, much better off, if you are in charge of your own life. This is why most decisions in life are done at the individual level rather than collective level. Let’s compare how people vote in a political sphere to how they vote in a marketplace. Every day, millions of people in a free market economy vote with their dollars by buying the things that they like independently of each other. And every dollar spent benefits those who spend it and rewards those who earn it by serving the needs of others.
The marketplace is also very pluralistic because it allows people with very different tastes and preferences to get what they want and coexist peacefully with the rest of society. In contrast, when we try to make decisions collectively by voting, we are far more limited in our options.
Let’s look at the major elections in the United States. Most of the time our choice boils down to choosing between either Republicans or Democrats, and many people aren’t happy with either one of those choices. Compare that to how much innovation and product differentiation exists in a free-market economy. The amount of new products developed every year is staggering. By this measure, the political sphere looks positively static.
Ask yourself, what are the freedoms you cherish most? Many people cherish the freedoms of their daily lives: watching whatever they want, eating whatever they want, enjoying the company of friends who share their interests. A free-market economy that is based on individualized and decentralized choice is what makes these freedoms possible. Therefore it is important to remember that individual choice, limited government, and free markets are the necessary conditions for a free and truly democratic society.