Wax Seals & Democracy

Christopher Rath


Many years ago I worked in a restaurant where part of my duties involved making up the daily bank deposit. I was initially surprised to find that the bank deposit bag was made of cloth and was only kept shut with a zipper and a very simple lock. The explanation I was given by the restaurant manager was that the bank deposit bag was intended to keep honest people honest.

A bank deposit bag's security mechanism is like a wax seal used in previous centuries: the mechanism is trivial to circumvent, but bypassing the locking device will be evident to the person taking delivery of the bag; exposing the fact that the bag has been opened by an unauthorised person.

In conversation with my daughter last week regarding the nature of democracy and its competing political systems---communism, fascism, etc.---I was struck by that similarity between democracy and wax seals: both items only work if honest people remain honest.

In theory, the difference between democracy and its competitors is that democracy doesn't seek to coerce its citizens; that is, coercion is not a sanctioned tool of a democratic nation.

To begin, let's define coercion: "To compel or force someone to act or think in a certain way by the use of intimidation, threats or pressure." In essence, coercion is theft; by which I mean that individuals are forced to give up something they would not otherwise release: be it an attitude, their personal freedom, identity, privacy, hard-earned wages, etc. Whether what is stolen is tangible or intangible, taking something that doesn't belong to you is theft.

Before I continue, let me note that even democratic nations make mistakes and sometimes behave badly. It is not useful to judge a political system by "exceptions to the rule"; so, even though one may easily find examples of democracies engaging in coercion from time to time, these exceptions should not be treated (considered) as if they are the norm.

All nations, even democratic nations must have laws: a nation's people need to know what behaviours are acceptable. Where these laws are well formed and uphold the principles of democracy, these laws are not coercive; that is, they do not seek to unnecessarily and arbitrarily impose the will of one group upon another.

Within a democracy, no one gets everything they want; that is, everyone must give up something. We all enjoy a good holiday, but it is also necessary to work. Everyone likes to express themselves, but inciting a riot or encouraging someone to break the law is not allowed. We voluntarily moderate our behaviour to conform to society's standards, standards established through the democratic process.

Democracy's self-imposed restriction from exercising coercion does not mean that individuals and nations are restricted from defending themselves, their families, and their friends; but, it does intend to stop offensive (as opposed to defensive) action.

Where a nation's citizens have embraced democracy, coercive behaviour is immediately obvious to everyone (by way of independent journalism) and those whose bad behaviour has been exposed are embarrassed, at a minimum, and generally punished by the law. Even where these badly behaving individuals pretend they are not ashamed of their behaviour, their actions show otherwise: they generally lie about (that is, they deny) their coercive behaviour.

The key to democracy's success is individual voluntary compliance: each of us, of our own free will, abiding by the majority's decisions. We go along with decisions counter to our own desires because those decisions are constrained by a constitution or bill of rights. This system breaks down when the government begins to make decisions that are counter to that constitution.

Everyone can't have everything. A democracy's citizens and its government must exercise restraint and voluntarily conform to both that democracy's bill of rights and constitution, and to the laws enacted as an expression of those underlying rights. Coercion occurs when individuals---acting on their own or on behalf of the government take actions that violate these boundaries.

ęCopyright 2008, Jean & Christopher Rath
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Last updated: 2008/06/07 @ 08:21:01 ( )