Under What Circumstances is Democracy Legitimate?

In his essay The Charade of Participatory Democracy, written in 1991, Ridgway K. Foley Jr. writes the following:

“Remember the fundamental question that must be asked of any proposed governmental or public activity: Does this constitute an appropriate state function? If the answer lies in the affirmative, the town meeting may afford an acceptable, if not superior, method of determining and implementing public policy. However, if the answer is negative, no amount of “citizen involvement” procedures will convert an improper act into an ethical and acceptable one. Unfortunately, almost all the instances of participatory democracy assume the propriety of the end sought, concentrate on the superficial means employed, and avoid this central issue which should be studied and answered.

Elsewhere, I have suggested the test to be applied to the central question: Does the proposed state function reasonably concern (1) the protection of nonaggressive persons from acts of force or fraud, (2) a defense of the realm, or (3) the resolution of otherwise insoluble disputes? If the function falls within these limited boundaries, it provides a ripe source for public concern and the exercise of the coercive force we term “government”; if the function lands outside these narrowly circumscribed perimeters, human conduct ought to be left to the individual choices of the people involved.

Deplorably, omission of this seminal question serves to obscure the fact that most, if not all, public hearings relate to matters properly relegated to private choice. Land-use planners don’t consider whether or not the state, or any individual or group of citizens, ought (philosophically, morally, and empirically) to dictate to other, unwilling neighbors the uses of the real property belonging to the latter. Instead, they hold witless hearings (ignoring the basic question or assuming its answer) designed to carve up the countryside into brightly colored blocks and blobs on a map, representing the (presumed) community calculation of how land ought to be employed. Likewise, advocates of mass transit never examine whether taxpayer-residents (1) want a bus system or (2) if so, desire to pay public monies for a municipally owned system as opposed to a private enterprise; instead they ignore the indispensable disquisition and spend citizen time, money, and energy in a search for ways to implement their grand design—through street closures, residence relocation, mandatory ridership in the name of energy conservation, and the like.”

Read the entire essay here, http://www.thefreemanonline.org/columns/the-charade-of-participatory-democracy/.

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