© 2004  Karen Selick
Self-Government, Not Democracy, Empowers the People
An edited version of this article first appeared in the February, 2004 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Self-Government, Not Democracy, Empowers the People


            “When you don’t vote, you let others speak for you,” said the full-page newspaper ads run by the Ontario government during the last provincial election campaign.  Federal, provincial, municipal—it makes no difference.  The same thing happens every time: people start exhorting one another to get out and vote.  Watch for it in the upcoming federal election.

Clichés will abound.  “It’s your duty to exercise your democratic rights—our soldiers died so that you could,” people will say.  Or, “If you don’t vote, you have no right to criticize what the government does.”  Then there’s:  “Now is your chance to demonstrate that the real power lies with the people.”

Baloney.  The truth is that whether you vote or not, others will speak for you.  The probability that your vote will affect the outcome in even your own riding, let alone the province or the country, is about equal to the probability of winning the lottery.  And even if you vote for the winner, there’s no guarantee he’ll will keep his promises.  Even if he genuinely intends to, other factors—such as the election of a minority government—may make it impossible.

After every election, there is widespread gnashing of teeth over the low voter turnout—less than 60 percent in the last Ontario provincial election and less than 40 percent in the last set of Ontario municipal elections.  The Globe and Mail, for instance, published an article headlined “Professor ‘can’t explain’ low turnout.”

But the explanation doesn’t require a Ph.D.  People have a zillion competing uses for their time these days.  It’s perfectly rational not to spend it boning up on election issues or going to the polling station.  When you vote, you don’t get the government you voted for—you get the government everyone else voted for.  Not a very rewarding way to spend your energies.

Contrast this with what you achieve when you shop for something other than a politician.  For instance, I’ve been looking for home exercise equipment lately. There are stationery bikes, ski machines, treadmills, elliptical exercisers, or steppers.  I can try out different models in the stores, read reviews on the net and get opinions from other fitness buffs.  When I eventually buy one, it will be the one that I’ve determined is best for me, not the one that 20,000 other people in my community have voted for.  It’s worth my while to do the research because I know I’ll get to make use of my findings.

In the marketplace, I get to live by my own choices and can decide how much time to devote to making them.  In the political arena, I’m forced to live with other people’s choices, whether those people are well-informed or utterly ignorant. 

As a consumer, I have real power—the power to select the products and services that are best for me, regardless of what other people choose for themselves.  Whether I fall into the majority or a tiny minority, I still get the items I prefer.  In fact, there may be an advantage to being in the minority because if the demand for my preferred items is small, the price may be lower.  In politics, if I vote with the minority, it’s game over.  The majority gets what it wants, and losing voters’ wishes are subjugated to it.

So it’s really not democracy that empowers the people.  In fact, democracy dis-empowers everyone who voted for the losing candidates.  In a multi-party system where a plurality can win, the disempowered may well comprise a majority of voters.

The institution that really empowers people is the marketplace.  Individuals get to vote daily on how to lead their lives—and they win every vote.  If they make mistakes, they bear the consequences.  This is truly a mechanism for responsible, accountable government—actually, self-government.

Anyone who really advocates “power to the people” should be campaigning for less democracy and more self-government.  In practical terms, this means we should remove from the political arena everything that can possibly be provided by the marketplace, so that individuals can obtain what’s best for themselves rather than having to put up with what their neighbours vote for.  Education, health care, housing and every other marketable product or service that government has encroached upon should be privatized. 

Critics will object that “the people” can’t afford to pay privately.  This is nonsense—the money the government spends on stuff comes from the people in the first place.  A big slice of it is spent just maintaining the bureaucracy that shifts it from one pocket to the other.  If it were returned to the people it came from, they could spend it themselves. 

Or someone will object that the government is better qualified to make decisions about these matters than individuals because it is a wiser, better informed consumer.  But you can’t have it both ways.  If people are so dumb that they can’t figure out what’s best for themselves, how do they suddenly acquire the wisdom to govern not only themselves but also their neighbours through the democratic process?


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April 18, 2004