Democracy for Dinner

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.” — Winston Churchill

It’s dinner time. You and your spouse decide to vote on dinner. Happily, you both love pizza with anchovies. The vote is unanimous. You’re both very happy with the result.

A new couple moves in next door. You invite them over for dinner. Happily, they also love pizza. But they don’t like anchovies. So you get pizza with pepperoni. Everyone is happy with the result.

Another new couple moves in across the street. You invite them to join you and the other couple for dinner. Unfortunately, they don’t like pizza. But they like hamburgers, and nobody objects. So you order hamburgers. Everyone is satisfied with the result.

A new family moves into the house down the street. At least, you think it’s a family. There are always strange cars parked in front of their house. You hear them come and go in the middle of the night. But you want to be inclusive, so you invite them to dinner — all six of them. Unfortunately, they don’t like pizza or hamburgers. They like tuna casserole, but nobody else likes it. So you take a vote, and it’s six to six. You end up ordering Chinese food. Nobody is very happy, but nobody is very upset.

Break-ins and vandalism start to appear on your previously peaceful street. Nobody can be sure who’s doing it.

A new group of people moves into another house. Unfortunately, they’re members of an obscure religious sect that believes dinner is the work of the Devil. They assume that anyone who eats dinner is a demon and should be thrown off a building. You and your neighbors decide it’s safer just to stop eating dinner. Nobody is happy — not even the sect members, who suspect that you’re all simply trying to hide your demonic tendencies.

You think about calling the police, but to tell them what? That you’re afraid of your new neighbors?

You start looking for a house in another neighborhood.

We tend to think that democracy is always a good thing. But what’s needed for it to work? Are there situations in which it can’t work?

The problems with dinner suggest that democracy requires:

  • General agreement about basic values and rules.
  • Willingness of minorities to accept majority decisions.
  • Willingness of the majority to enforce its decisions, values, and rules.
  • Willingness of the majority to accommodate minority values in reasonable ways — and only in reasonable ways.
  • Commitment by everyone to resolve disputes peacefully according to the rules.

If you haven’t got those things, then you can’t have democracy — at least, you can’t have it for very long.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Life, Political Science, Society and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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