How far can a democratic government go?

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Isn’t there some important feature of democratic countries, called the separation of powers?

  1. legislative power
  2. jurdicative power (or whatever it is called in English)
  3. executive power
    Endquote **

Isn’t the US frustrating 2. above right now by holding prisoners in Guantanemo bay (and thus away from Habeous Corpus writs)? I know they’re terrorists and probably deserve worse than they’re getting but…it shows that democracies, even great ones, can find ways to bypass the niceties, or even fundamentals of their own legal system if the neccessity arises.

God knows, the Irish government has done some pretty unfair things in their time under the Emergency Powers acts, likewise the British.

That’s a good point Dogface. Was Oliver North a “rogue element”, even if Reagan really hadn’t known what he was doing? Look at the pattern of events in the Six Counties, and incidents such as the Stalker affair - somebody important was authorising those murders, and it’s hard to imagine they could have been doing it on their own.

Check out the Pat Finucane Centre’s pages on the Force Research Unit, for starters.

I disagree with erislover and 2sense and others. What you all seem to forget is that in a democracy democratic rights are protected by the Constitution (or should be). Bypassing these rights by taking out a suspect who is not firing back, nor posing any other serious danger at the time of an arrest, cannot be justified within a democracy. This goes for both suspects and innocent bystanders.

IMO the OP is not confusing democracy with the “rule of law”, since the rule of law is founded on core democratic rights.

However, I think history has proven that whether citizens would object to such actions or not, is based on whether citizens think that the “bad guys” got what they deserved, in other words how the bad guys were judged by public opinion in advance. Which raises another interesting question: What impact does governments have on public opinion, and to what degree may governments form/steer such opinions?

A sidenote, but I disagree. NSDAP did indeed win the July 1932 election with 37% of the vote and became the strongest party in the Reichstag. It’s correct that they lost a few seats in the November election later the same year. (Hitler became chancellor of the republic on January 30, 1933). In March 1933 they got 44% of the vote. The victories were not true majorities, but such majorities rarely occur within multiparty systems. And the parliamentary situation was extremely difficult in Germany at that time.

However, Hitler did illegally close the parliament banning other parties without a required two-thirds majority in 1933, because the Communists were excluded from participating.

Anyway, the failure of democracy wasn’t that Hitler rose to power through democratic elections, the failure was that he was given broad executive powers, and he used these powers (and violence) to put his own people in important positions, in effect controlling the nation, - and then he dissolved democracy. This lesson in history shows us the importance of the separation of powers, as well as importance of the cut-off limit for small parties within multiparty political systems.


I guess I read the historical record differently. To me it seems the lesson of the rise of the National Socialists is to prevent the breakdown of the rule of law in the first place. The Nazis should have been brought to heel when they turned to violence or at least when it became clear their terror campaign was something more than the usual rowdyness at the polls. I don’t call that a failure of democracy; it was a failure of authority. It certainly isn’t an example of a tyranny of the majority.

As for moral justification within a democracy, it is decided democratically of course. If the majority cries out, “Bring me the head of Ronald McDonald!”, then beheading the bozo is completely justified… democratically. You as an individual are free to make your own judgement but it is the sum of those judgements which decide right and wrong for the democratic state.

I do agree, that most people do not care as long as they think that the bad guys deserved their fate.

What suprises me, is that people don’t seem to be able to think one step further: if the government can do that to them without trying to prove their case, they might do it against them. It could be everybody’s turn!

IMO that is the point: if you want to try to convince the people of the wrongness of the governments action, it doesn’t make sense to try to prove the innocence of the bad guys. You need to make clear the inherent injustice of these actions.

This seems to assume what should be proven: you define democracy as being a system where rights (including democratic rights) are (constitutionally) protected: that is tantamount to rule of law. So you say a democracy necessarily needs to have rule of law. You should prove that: there have been democracies where rule of law was not respected.

In your second statement you reverse you claim, now rule of law is founded on core democratic rights. Care to elaborate? You can have a rigidly maintained paternalistic state with rule of law where the people do not have any vote in the decision process. It need not even be a bad place to live in, as long as those in power have a benign attitude. But it sure is not a democracy.

You may be right, but you have to demonstrate it. Positing mere definitions or claims isn’t sufficient.

Yes, but NSDAP’s path to power wasn’t easy and shouldn’t be blamed on a single factor. This was very difficult times in Germany. Social unrest because of a deep economic depression, the constant failure of the parties in the parliament in forming a majority (resulting in frequent elections), the wish among the public and the influential to restore Germany as a strong nation, the new media and NSDAP’s propaganda machine, these are all points that have been raised in the past.

From what I’ve read, NSDAP was also considered the last stand against the “communist wave” by the middle class and the military. Maybe this is the reason SA was able to roam so freely. It’s hard to “bring somebody to their heel” if the alternative appears even worse. But Hitler’s position wasn’t really secured until 1934 when he did away with his opponents during The night of the long knifes in 1934. Prior to that, and after he became chancellor in 1933, he was threatened from both the moderate right and leading military officers, as well as from forces within hos own party (the “second revolution”).

You might call it a failure of authority, but IMO a democracy that cannot handle unrest and cannot properly balance the separation of powers is a failure on its own.

Well, I slightly disagree, see my upcoming reply to Tusculan

Why isn’t this a peril of representation? If there are no representatives proper, we can’t give them all this power accidentally… But perhaps this comment is better suited for the other democracy thread.

I have the impression that my thread got slightly hijacked into the general direction of the other democracy thread.

Actually, the subject was whether a democratic government can get away with a situation described in the OP, and whether it is morally justified.

The subject is not, how Hitler came to power.

Anyway, reading the postings I got the impression, that most of the teeming millions are not really shocked by the hypothetical situation that a government assassinates people without justification and trials.

Perhaps it’s already done too often.

Hitler was made Chancellor by a series of back-room deals done under the authority of Presidential decree. The Weimar Republic’s constitution permitted the President to rule by decree, dissolve governments at will, etc. This is how Hitler got into power. He made sure that the rule of law was attacked whenever possible and then presented himself as the only way for a to call off his thugs.

He was not “popular” in the sense of “having majority support”. He had some popularity, but had the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats stood shoulder-to-shoulder and put their feet down, removing corrupt judges and purging the military of old-line influences as soon as they got started in power, they would have sent the little Austrian bogging off once he showed up.

Unfortunately, the SD and CD were run by men who may have had virtue but they lacked both vision and backbone. When men came along who had both vision and backbone, they were not in the least bit virtuous.

All valid points, Tusculan. The question should be, what is really a democracy? Is it simply one-man-one-vote and whatever-the majority-wants-they-get, or is it something more balanced? Is it democracy to deny citizens who hasn’t reached the “proper” age to vote? How often should election be held? Must voters register beforehand? Must they pay very much money to register as voters?

In a very simple form, democracy is people gathering at the town hall voting on issues. Here, what the majority wants they gets. But in a modern democracy the majority gets to play while the minority gets to speak, meaning the majority cannot do away with their political opponents to increase their majority. Which brings me to my main point, that I believe certain principles has to be in place before democracy can be said to exist: freedom of speech, equality before the law, one wo/man one vote.

In my opinion, these principles are universal, and both the concept of democracy and “the rule of law” is based on such principles. They are usually written into the Consitution, and cannot be changed with a simple majority - you would need 66%, 75% or 90% to change them. However, they do not have to be part of the Constitution. erislover said “Democracies can vote themselves into any number of absurd positions”, and he’s right, but I maintain that if a country does away with freedom of speech even with a 99% majority, they cannot call themselves a democracy anymore.

Surely democracy isn’t needed for “the rule of law”, neither does “the rule of law” guarantee democracy. But freedom of speech, one man one vote, equality before the law… these are principles which democracy and the rule of law both stems from; in fact they are needed to combine democracy as a political system with the rule of law.

But no cite :slight_smile:

You asked a difficult question, because its easy to assume that whatever a majority wants they are justified in having, even doing away with criminals or opponents. I disagree with that, and my answer to both of your questions still is: no.

Thanks for you elaborate reply, Alien. I’m glad you didn’t mind my skepticism. In fact I’m inclined to agree with your argument for a ‘thick’ concept of democracy that includes respect for rule of law. Sadly, actual democratic politics at times do diverge from such a concept.

I notice that your argument only goes as far as maintaining democracy goes: if it can be proven that respecting rights of specific individuals or parties would be the end of the democracy state, the state would not be hindered by your argument in violating these rights. That need not be a problem (the Rome Treaty actually works in this way), I just wanted to point that out. It means that such rights are not absolute, even from a democratic perspective like yours.

flonks, I’m not sure whether people do not find such things shocking. In this thread posters have only stated that it can be democractically (in the sense of majoritarian will) justified. There may be other reasons for opposing such actions. Alien’s argument is a convincing one, that has the advantage that it goes beyond morals and ties in to the very concept of democracy itself.

There is nothing about democracy that prevents bills of attainder. If everyone votes to go over to Flonk’s house and execute him, that’s democracy. It doesn’t make it wise, it doesn’t make it good, it doesn’t make it right. However, it does fall within the definition of democracy, the ancient Athenians used to do it all the time.

I understand that nowadays “democracy” is used to mean BOTH democracy and the rule of law. But the two are of course logically seperable. A democratic government does not logically require a constitution, a bill of rights, freedom of religion, freedom from bills of attainder, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, etc.

We might recognize that if the democratic government can do such things that it is vulnerable to takeover and will soon be hijacked into some form of tyranny, but it is still (for the moment) a democracy.

I am of the opinion that sometimes government officials have to do things that are against the law, all for the greater good. However, the laws must be in place, or else we have tyranny. In my mind officials that commit these extralegal acts must also pay the price for commiting the acts.

If the only way to save New York from a nuclear bomb is torturing some terrorist, then torture the terrorist, turn yourself in and submit to a jury trial and serve your time in jail. If the government official isn’t willing to spend 10 years in jail to serve the public good, then perhaps they should stick to strictly legal means in that particular case. If it isn’t worth ruining your career and going to jail over, then don’t do it.