August 12th, 2007 by Hafiz Noor Shams
Democracy in its purest form is a mere majoritarianism and a society built on mere majoritarianism is a society built on pure populism. There is nothing in populism and by extension democracy that guarantees liberty. Yet, democracy has proven to be an effective decision making tool, allowing differences to be ironed out peacefully instead of by force. For this reason, libertarians — for the sake of simplicity, liberals — prefer moderated democracy and a tool that offers that possibility is a liberal constitution which guarantees negative rights. The merging of the two tools results in a system known as liberal democracy. Unfortunately, any constitution may fail under heavy populist pressure for a constitution itself is not free from revision. Here is where another moderator of populist sentiment comes into play: bicameralism.
How is that so?
Bicameralism is simply a system of two legislatives chambers divided into the lower house and the upper house.
In the name of democracy, the lower house is sensitive to popular opinion. Representatives elected into the house have only one interest at heart and that is the people. Whenever popular opinion sways for better or for worse, so does the opinion of the lower house.
There are moments when public opinion exhibits excessive instant gratification quality with little regard to future outcomes. More often than not, such moments are filled with emotion or are made possible with limited information. It goes without saying that opinion or decisions made with incomplete information may not produce the best of all possible outcomes. Worse, in times of great distrust, some groups may try to oppress the weaker communities and the weakest of all communities are the individuals. Those are the moments when democracy looms menacingly, when tyranny of the majority is most relevant. This is why liberals are distrustful of democracy.
If placed on a two-axes graph which the horizon axis represents time and the vertical axis represents public opinion through some numeral values, short term-based public opinion sways wildly as time progresses. Extreme values toward one side or another – for instance, authoritarianism or anarchy – that prevail for only a short time frame may have destabilizing effect and undo years of progress. When emotion subsides and rationality dominates, the mob, and the society in general, may regret its actions as complete information becomes available only later.
The upper house functions to smooth out the crests and troughs of public opinion. In order words, it is less sensitive to crass democracy with farther perspective in temporal horizon. For liberals, the upper house is more interested in protecting the liberal constitution rather than kowtowing to the mob.
This however does not mean the members of the house – senators – are not elected into their seats. Democracy still plays a role in the makeup of the house but its effect is far moderated than that in the lower house. This alignment of interest is achieved by granting senators longer term compared to the members of the lower house. Through this itself, the atmosphere in the upper house is calmer, where rationality overcomes emotion, emotion that appeals to the mob. In this environment, discussion could be carried in a more productive manner.
The insensitivity to public opinion however creates another problem. Due to the longer term, upper house members – or senators – do have considerable power compared to their counterparts. This is where one must tread carefully since senators are less responsive to the people. Conferring the senators with too much power may create powerful oligarchy relatively unanswerable to the people. To reasonably eliminate such possibility, a upper house of a liberal democracy practicing bicameralism has only the power accept or reject law proposed by the lower house. The upper house itself cannot introduce or amend any law. It is not an agenda setter.
It has to be noted bicameralism itself suffers from status quo bias. Whatever the status quo, bicameralism in the form expressed here is still a moderator of democracy. Like democracy, it is a tool and it is not an end. For liberals, the only end is liberty.