Is democracy a means or an end?
Over the last two hundred years, and especially since the second world war, democracy has become a political ideal that is seen to have sort inherent goodness. This has been strongly reinforced with the end of the Cold War, seen by the world as a 'victory' for the cause of Democracy over Communism. To this extent, it would seem that democracy is a political end, a form of government to which all nations should strive. It has been seen, in many cases, that it is seen as justifiable to even enforce this political system on nations who, for some reason or another, are in need of a restoration of political and social stability.
This question, however, deals with a far more fundamental question. Not only must the consequences of the modern conception of democracy be examined, but this very conception must also be carefully scrutinised. The theoretical concept of democracy involves closer examination of the definition of democracy, and in order to properly answer this question, this definition shall be compared with the actual use of democracy in practise, and how this reveals the extent to which democracy is a means to an end, or an end in itself.
For a definition of democracy, the first place to look is the word itself. Literally meaning rule by the demos or people, the word democracy implies that final sovereignty must lie with the people as a whole. This is opposed to concepts such as autocracy or oligarchy, where power lies in an individual and a small group of people respectively. This is defining democracy in its vaguest possible terms, but this is necessary in order to not restrict the domain of this argument. Simply put, democracy is a system where the people have a certain degree of political power. This, admittedly, is not a very strong statement, but is one which can not be disputed. Any situation in which decisions, in one form or another, are put in the hands of the people, are democratic.
The reality of the use of the term democracy is far more exacting. It is common for debates to be held over whether one system is 'more democratic' than another. A true democracy would be one in which the wishes of the people are completely represented by the actions of government. Modern 'liberal democracies' are not true democracies, but there is still a degree to which power rests with the people. The method through which this is generally achieved is through elections, whereby the people elect representatives to sit in an assembly, usually referred to as a parliament. This form of democracy is commonly referred to as a 'representative democracy'. Apart from the obvious answerability this parliament will have to the people, there is a multitude of problems with the use of elections, and these are discussed below. Firstly, though it is important to examine the theory behind the use of elections as tools of democracy.
'Classical' democratic theorists, especially the utilitarian school tend to refer to a 'people's will', which is to be fulfilled through the use of democracy. The use of elections, therefore, allows this 'general will' of the people to be expressed, as the people select representatives who stand for the ideas which are closest to this general will. It is, however, a very weak justification of democracy. Upon closer scrutiny, there can be no such thing as a 'general will of the people' as utilitarians would have us believe, due to the nature of society being built up of many individuals, and it is often the case that these individuals will disagree as to the direction of public policy. It is therefore not possible to justify the use of elections as a form of democracy simply as a tool for expressing the 'people's will'.
The major problem with justifying elections is the question of majoritarianism. By nature, an election will elect the most popular government. This means that any minority opinion tends to be ignored. This would not be a problem if a population was made up of perfectly similar, equal individuals. The problem arises in modern society due to the realisation of the more fragmented nature of society. It is a common view that there is such a thing as a 'minority issue', where one issue or policy is more important to a minority of people, while the majority of the population care little about that particular issue. Although this particular issue may be very important to this minority, it will tend to be ignored by the government, as by nature, the government cares most about those issues that greatly effect the majority of people, in order that the government may be re-elected.
This clear is not an optimal way of representing all of the people, as a democracy should. Most of the government which are often in the forefront of trying to force their form of representative democracy upon other nations are actually advocating some form of tyranny of the majority. Indeed, some systems of voting actually favour this. Take for example the first-past-the-post electoral system in place in Britain. Under this system it is possible for a party who has won an election without a clear majority to have a vast majority of seats in the House of Commons. It is not immediately clear why a tyranny of the majority is necessarily a bad thing, but this will become clear when the implications of a democratic system are explained. This will be done below.
One way that some countries have tried to overcome this problem is by direct proportional representation. Historically, however, this system tends to create very inefficient governments, typified by hung parliaments, and inter-party compromise in order to create a majority for a government to be formed. This is especially true in countries where there are a larger number of popular political parties. In the end, however, even proportional representation is destined to fall into tyranny of the majority, as it is still based on an inherently majoritarian electoral system.
It is also possible, and has been seen to occur in some situations in Britain, to have a tyranny of a minority, even in a so-called 'liberal democracy'. In the case of general elections in Britain, historically in the post-war period, government has been dominated by two parties, each with a strong base of support on a class basis. In recent times it has been realised that in order to successfully win an election, the party must try to appeal to the 'floating voters'. Therefore, in manifesto promises and general policy decisions, the wishes of this 'middle voter' are valued more than either the governing parties base of support, or the views of strong dissenters of the governing party. This means the opinions of a minority of people are valued more highly than the opinions of the rest of the people, which results in an effective tyranny of the minority. This is clearly an undesirable state of affairs.
This becomes clearer when democracy is examined as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. The first question to be answered here is, to what end is democracy a means? By the fact that democracy is in theory 'the people ruling themselves', democracy will inherently prevent state coercion of the individual, at least on a large scale. This means that democracy should guarantee a degree of freedom greater than other political systems. Another end to which democracy is theoretically a means is a greater degree of equality. As in modern political systems each vote has equal value, this gives a democracy a degree of political equality - equality of individual political value. Also, it is usually the case that every citizen may attempt to run for political station. By implication, this also guarantees a number of political rights such as the right to vote, run for election etc. From these rights, freedoms and this level of equality, it is possible to derive a large number of rights and liberties that are inherent in a democracy. This shows the problem of majoritarianism, and the tyranny of a minority. It puts a greater emphasis on the political value of certain groups of people, thus degrading the level of political equality that should be ensured in a democracy.
This essay has been stressing the problems and inadequacies of modern 'liberal democracy' with its focus on elections as a means of voicing the will of the people. Problems such as majoritarianism, unequal value of group votes, and even the question over the existence of a 'general people's will', all raise questions over the modern conception of democracy. In answer to the question, the conception of democracy in today's society is seen as a political end - one which developing states should wish to aspire. On closer examination, however, democracy can be seen as a means to guaranteeing a minimal level of liberty, equality and some rights, even in the most diluted sense of democracy. Although rule by the people is not logistically possible, democracy in an impure form can go a long way in create a more just society.