According to Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives and the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

So autocratic governments violate human rights. But so do democracies. The U. S., for example, tortured individuals it termed non-enemy combatants after the 9/11/2001 World Trade Center attack even though Article 5 of the UDHR states no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Even in democracies, in other words, human rights activists have failed to put in place laws (including rules that govern how the laws are determined) and enforcement mechanisms that ensure no one’s human rights are violated.

What is the reason for the failure? Plato, as is well known, did not think the “will of the people” should “be the basis of the authority of government.” Rather, he thought the common people (or demos) should be ruled by Philosopher Kings. And more recently, in his book Against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2016) Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan argued an epistocracy, defined as a political system that distributes political power in proportion to knowledge or competence, would be preferred to a democracy in which everyone’s vote carries equal weight regardless of her or his knowledge or competence. ¹

Other scholars, stress that the problem is due to the failure of democracies to ensure income and output are distributed equitably (and hence relatively equally). Consequently, a large number of people in democratic countries are left without the ability to obtain a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their families including, as stipulated by Article 25 of the UDHR, “food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, old age or lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond [their] control.²

1 Others might add, in order to maximize the likelihood that everyone’s human rights will be recognized and respected in addition to knowledge and competence we must find a way to ensure the people who make the rules we live by are empathetic and bent on promoting the welfare of society as a whole as opposed to the welfare of any individual or subset of individuals. And as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton noted in the Federalist Papers, democracies need to be concerned with how a tyranny of the majority might undermine the rights of minorities. Finally, students bent on designing rules to ensure everyone’s human rights are realized should be aware of social choice theory ( and Nobel Prize winner Kenneth Arrow’s impossibility theorem which, as Chrisopher Achen and Larry Bartels point out in their book Democracy for Realists, demonstrates “with mathematical rigor that …a reliable democratic procedure for aggregating coherent individual preferences to arrive at a coherent collective choice” is unattainable.

2 Libertarian scholars emphasize the importance of incentives in motivating people to behave in ways that promote the welfare of others as well as their own welfare. Hence, they are prone to quote Adam Smith’s famous observation that: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” But other scholars maintain human rights are violated when democracies allow a few to accumulate wealth and income much in excess of the wealth and income of the vast majority. In On Democracy, for instance, Robert A. Dahl wrote that “historically, the development of democratic beliefs and a democratic culture has been closely associated with what might loosely be called a market economy…Yet…a market-capitalist economy inevitably generates inequalities in the political resources to which different citizens have access. Thus, a market economy seriously impairs political equality: citizens who are economically unequal are unlikely to be politically equal.” (See also The Price of Inequality by Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World by Samuel Moyn, and A Brief History of Equality by Thomas Piketty in which he writes “the free, uncontrolled circulating of capital, without any taxation or common regulation, radially biases national choices in favor of the most mobile and most powerful actors and thus constitutes de facto a form of censitary power to the benefit of the richest.”