Portland’s November ballot will likely be dominated by a slate of progressive economic proposals. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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When was “democracy” a dirty word?

Ancient Greece.

Aristotle was one of the preeminent philosophers of antiquity. One question he struggled with was the “best” form of government. In his estimation, there were three “pure” types of government: by the one, by the few or by the many.

Each of these  had “correct” and “deviant” forms. For example, with rule by “one,” the correct form was monarchy, like Plato’s “philosopher-king.” The deviant form was tyranny.

When it came to rule by the many, the deviant form was “democracy.”  

Now, there are miles of complexity in Aristotle’s philosophy. And trying to apply his thinking 1-for-1 to modernity is a fool’s errand.

But there is wisdom in his writings. We could use some of that wisdom with referendums running amok.

Take a step back. Imagine you have a 5-year-old child who has a really bad rash on her leg. You have no idea what is causing it. Could be poison ivy. Might be an allergic reaction to some soap. Or is it an infection?  

What do you do?

One option is to ask some Facebook group. You might get someone telling you to rub yak blood on a healing crystal during a new moon.  

Option two is to go to the quick care clinic and get seen by a medical professional, who will probably try to diagnose the malady and recommend a remedy.  

Now, you may get some solid, cogent answers by querying the wisdom of the (internet) crowd. And doctors can certainly be wrong. But on average, you are likely going to get a better result checking with people who dedicate their professional lives to the practice of medicine.

That brings us back to referendums.

Portland voters are going to face 13 ballot questions this November. Four citizens’ initiatives are pushed by the Democratic Socialists of America, while the other eight  arise from a charter commission that was created following prompting by the Democratic Socialists of America. One question was advanced by Airbnb owners.

Statewide, an amalgam of different left-leaning groups are pushing their own referendum question concerning paid time off. Nevermind that the Democratic majorities – and Gov. Janet Mills – just enacted a new, compromise paid leave law in 2019. And forget the fact that a legislative commission is currently trying to work through all the complexity inherent in an economy-wide mandate.

These paid advocacy groups throw all that to the wind. They want what they want.

There is a reason Aristotle worried about “democracy.” To recast things in the language of John Adams and Alexis de Toqueville, it presents a very real danger of a “tyranny of the majority.” There is no inherent rightness in a large number. “If all your friends” do something stupid, their quantity does not make them correct.

The Framers had read Aristotle. In the latter’s estimation, the best possible government was “mixed,” taking elements from all three “pure” constitutions. That is what they gave us.

We have a government “of the many” – or “of the people” – in terms of the voting power. We use that power to elect “the few” to take an additional step and dive more deeply into complex issues and make the value judgments on the myriad tradeoffs. And we pick “the one” to serve as head of state to serve as a unifying – or at least specific – voice.

When someone in your family is sick, go to “the few” – medical professionals – to try and get the right answer. Sometimes they will be mistaken.

But neither medical advice nor incredibly complex policies should be decided by popular vote.  Sometimes, you need to just let others do their work.  

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Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.