A brief history of democracy and its benefits
Democracy means people-power or rule by the people. The idea came from the ancient Greeks who combined the words demos (people) and krates (rule) to create the term. The term was coined during a period in Greek history when the city of Athens experimented with a form of government in which all citizens, rather than one king or a small group of wealthy men, made the laws of their state.
What is a democracy?
Democracy is a system in which people decide matters as a group. The term is typically used in the context of a form of government in which all the citizens have a vote. The principles of democracy are also applicable to other bodies, such as universities, unions, companies or other organisations.
In a democratic government, the people's views influence the laws and decisions made by the government. The development of democracy can be traced back to ancient times, particularly to ancient Greece.
Democracy in ancient times
Around 2500 years ago in Ancient Greece, the people of the city-state of Athens developed a way of making decisions that was different from the autocratic ways of the past. An autocratic system of government is a type of government where one person or small group make all the decisions on behalf of the people of the state. Citizens of the state have no say in influencing decisions.
Athens was the first city state to allow ordinary citizens access to government offices and courts. In theory, all Athenian citizens were eligible to speak and vote in the Assembly which set the laws of the city-state. In reality, Athens was not a true democracy as women were not included nor were foreigners, slaves or freed slaves. Also, according to the rules of citizenship both parents must have been Athenian citizens for a person to qualify to take part in the Assembly. The democracy therefore, was only a very small minority of the people living in Athens. It was, however, the closest any country had come to establishing a democratic society at this time.
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Democracy in the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages was a period of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD) until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD. It is also known as the Dark Ages.
Although there was not a democracy directly in place during the Middle Ages, Christianity was widely followed and so many democratic ideas were understood and followed by many of the people. Christianity taught that all men were created equal.
Another form of government, known as feudalism developed during this time. Feudalism stressed that all people had certain rights and developed a system of courts to defend these rights.
The Magna Carta
In medieval England, in 1215, King John had total control and his subjects had no freedom or say whatsoever. The Magna Carta took some of the king's power away and gave some rights and freedom to the people.
The Magna Carta is a historical document that means 'Great Charter' (great paper) in Latin. It was written by the barons of England who were unhappy that the king was abusing his power and increasing taxes.
The Magna Carta contained 63 clauses promising all freemen access to the courts and a fair trial, eliminating unfair fines and punishments and giving power to the Catholic Church in England instead of the king.
The Magna Carta was an important milestone in British Law and would become the basis for many international constitutions in the future, including the Australian Constitution.
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The American Revolution
The American Revolution is an important event in history that marks a turning point in democracy. The first step was the creation of the Declaration of Independence, written by the American President, Thomas Jefferson in 1776. In this document many ideas were taken from two famous philosophers of the time, Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, which outlined freedom and equality.
Modern democracies developed throughout the 20th century. Democracies have resulted from wars, revolutions, decolonisation and economic circumstances. The number of democracies continues to grow and it has been speculated that this trend may continue in the future to the point where democratic nation-states become the standard form of human society.
Development of representative democracies
Putting the idea of democracy into practice is not easy. In ancient times the idea of a democracy meant that the community would be run by meetings and attended by every citizen. After examining the facts and discussing what needed to be done, the people would make the laws, decide every act of government policy and judge every dispute that arose in the community.
This system, known as direct democracy, could only work for a small state with few inhabitants and a very simple way of life. It is not a realistic situation for the modern world where even small countries have millions of citizens and are faced with complex problems.
Many present day democratic societies are known as representative democracies. Australia is a representative democracy. Under this system, the people elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Every few years an election is held and the people are given the chance to vote for the people they want to represent them. The candidates (people wishing to be representatives) are usually members of a political party.
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The elected representatives are expected to operate in ways that benefit the community as a whole. These representatives can be removed from office during new elections if people are unhappy with them.
Benefits of democracies
Throughout history, democracies have been the exception rather than the norm. In the present day world, about 60 percent of the world's nations are democracies. Other nations have rulers assigned by heredity or have used the military to take leadership by force or rule by wealth or charisma. There are however, fundamental benefits of a democracy.
The main benefit of democracy is that every adult person regardless of race, religious belief or gender has the same political rights as each other. People living in a democratic society are protected from oppression by laws and limits on governmental power. Democratic governments put laws into place to protect their citizens and to ensure a safe and fair society. The people who lead a democratic country have to obey the same laws as everyone else.
More democracy leads to less internal violence, fewer wars and less mass murder by governments. Democracy aims to reduce political uncertainty and instability and assures citizens that they will be given a regular chance to change those who are in power, or change policies with which they disagree. This makes it preferable to a system where political change takes place through violence.
Democracies allow for information to be more readily available to the public. Resources are able to be managed better and there is higher economic freedom in democracies. People have more freedoms and rights in democracies.