It has become annoyingly commonplace for republics, whether they are the United States or the State of Nevada, to be referred to as democracies, without regard to the meaning of the word or the implications it brings with it.
What is a republic? What is a democracy? And why am I so angered that people use the words interchangeably? I’ll answer the last question first. It is illogical to use two words that mean two different things to mean the same thing. This would be like me using the words orange and apple to mean the same physical object. I would be derided as an idiot and rightly so. This situation is the same in principle to the republic/democracy problem, but the importance of the orange and apple comparison is infinitely smaller.
A republic is a government in which a restricted group of citizens form a political unit, usually under the auspice of a charter, which directs them to elect representatives who will govern the state. Republics, by their very nature, tend to be free polities, not because they are elected by the citizens of the polity, but because they are bound by charters, which limit the responsibilities and powers of the state. The fact that people vote for representatives has nothing to do with making anything free. The logical consistency and rationality of the charter, as well as the willingness of the people to live by it, is what keeps people free.
A democracy is government by the majority. There is still a restricted group of citizens in a democracy, but this group rules directly and personally runs the state. The group may delegate specific tasks to individuals, such as generalships and governorships, but there is no question that the ruling force in a democracy is not a charter (if there even is a charter), but the vote of the majority. Democracies are free only if the people know what freedom is and are consistent in their application of it. If they don’t know this, or more appropriately, if a majority of the people don’t know this, then a democracy could be just as tyrannical as the worst dictator (see Socrates’ forced suicide by the Athenian democracy.)
As should be plain, there is a giant difference between the two systems of government. One of the main fears at the Constitutional Convention of the United States was that the government they created would be too democratic (causing Alexander Hamilton to suggest a restricted monarchy), because it was quite obvious, then and now, that any majority could vote itself anything it wanted, be it property or executions. That is why it irks me so much when politicians (who have no excuse not knowing what kind of government they serve in) and ignorant people say that this country is a democracy; it does a tremendous disservice to all of the people whose thought went into creating our republic.
But the more pernicious effect is that people actually begin to attribute and incorporate tenets of democracies into our republican structure. Things like referendums and ballot initiatives. These are not only irresponsible but entirely illogical. Why should we be making decisions we elect people to make? What legitimacy is gained from getting a majority of voters to pass anything? If 70% of voters vote to ban gay marriage, does that make it right? If 51% of voters vote to ban smoking, does that make it right? If 99.99% vote to redistribute property, does that make it right? The answer to all of these is “NO!” absolutely not. Truth isn’t determined by how many adherents one can get to go along with you. This is why democracy should be fought off wherever it shows its ugly face, it can and will be used to justify anything a majority of voters wants. Theoretically, a majority could vote for selective free speech, or to have certain unpopular people thrown out of the country or killed. There is no law in a democracy except whatever the majority of people say is the law.
Why is it so popular then? Because idiots think they will benefit from having “more of a say in how things work.” True, if you’re in the majority that is. Advocates of democracy are either those who are really advocates of republics and are ignorant of the difference, or they are those who think they will be in the majority and will be able to vote themselves benefits. A quick example would be wealth. Those who admire people like Michael Moore and Ralph Nader would advocate a democracy because then they could steal the money of the rich and give it to themselves (Moore and Nader wouldn’t support such a scheme, because then they would no longer be rich.)
In the long run though, a democracy will always become a tyranny, either by majority, or if the majority screw things up so badly and a tyrant seizes power from the ensuing chaos. The overriding characteristic of democracy is subjectivism and that is its fatal flaw. In other words, reason is irrelevant, whatever the majority wants, it gets and regardless of how unprincipled or objectionable it may be. Rights cannot exist in such a system in the long run because they can be voted away on a whim at any time. So if you’re interested in freedom at all you must cast away an ugly term like democracy and accept that freedom requires reason, objectivity, and law, which can only be satisfied by a republican government.