Thursday 30 July 2015

The Problems of Democracy

Winston Churchill famously said to the British House of Commons on the 11th November 1947 "Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time" Interesting the sentence before reads "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise". But actually I believe he is wrong on this point, if you criticize Democracy you will find that many do consider it perfect and all wise. I'm not ordinarily a critic of Democracy as I do tend to agree with Churchill's first quote. But Democracy does have a number of problems and I am going to list some of them here.

Social and Economic Leveling
The spread of the idea of Equality
The tyranny of the Majority
The tyranny of the Party system
Who is really in Charge?
Bribery of the Electorate
Anyone can be the Leader.....even You!

Democracy says that everyone is equal and that everyone should get to decide who governs them, but we do not have the Democracy of Ancient Greece, even though ours is inspired by it. We do not have Direct Democracy, instead we have Representative Democracy. We do not vote on issues or policies in most cases, in most cases we vote for someone to represent us. To represent our views and our interests. We do not get to make many decisions our self, instead nearly all Government decisions are made for us, in that respect Democracy is no different to any other political philosophy. Lets now look at each of the problems individually.

Social and Economic Leveling
 One man, one vote was how Democracy was once described. And indeed it is presented as a good thing that each vote has exactly the same power, only one vote for each voter. But what that means is every wiseman and every fool gets the same vote, every informed voter and every ignorant voter gets the same vote, every sober voter and every drunk voter gets the same vote. It is a massive force for social and economic leveling.

The spread of the Idea of Equality
If each vote is exactly the same, then each vote is equal. That is how it is presented, but in practice it doesn't quite work that way. For complex electoral reasons some voters in some areas are much more important than others. For example someone who always votes for the same party is rarely as important as a swinging voter. For it is really the swinging voter who decides most elections, not the loyal voter. But of course the idea that everyone is equal, that everyone is the same is there at all times. That no matter who the voter is they are like every other voter, no matter what divides them.

The Tyranny of the Majority
This has been called the Dictatorship of the 51%. If 51 % of the electorate votes in favour of something than it must be good, if they vote against it it must be bad. This has a certain logic to it when it is an absolute majority, but when you start to see such tiny victories you do wonder at the logic of it. For example in any US Presidential election, only something like 30-40% of voters actually vote for the man who becomes President. Because voting isn't compulsory it means that a minority gets to decide who becomes President. A Tyranny of the Minority.

The Tyranny of the Party System
When modern Democracy first came into being each electorate voted for someone to represent them in Parliament, a local who would present their side of any argument. No Parties existed as we know them. Only loose groupings of people that believed in more or less similar things, but there was little organisation or discipline. In the early 1800's that started to change and political parties as we would know them began to appear. They brought with them, organisation, discipline, money and agendas. something missing from earlier groupings. It detached the local Member of Parliament from his community and attached him to a new group based not on location, but on ideology. Over time ideology and money replaced all other considerations. I'm not saying that earlier Parliamentarians didn't have political beliefs or that they were above money, neither of those things are true. But everything was tempered by their connection and in most cases having to live after they retired from Parliament in their local community. Today a Parliamentarian, at least theoretically,  doesn't even have to visit their electorate, let alone retire there. Today the Parties provide that support. What the Party wants is much more important than what the electorate wants. Today the electorate gets to pay for what the Party wants.

Who is really in Charge?
President Lincoln said "By the people and for the people", but if the people are in charge why did they need a President? If the President is in charge what are the people there for? In a Democracy who is in charge? Is it God? The Head of State? The Head of Government? The Parliament? The Courts? The People? To answer this the idea of the separation of powers came about. It's not a bad idea, in fact I quite like it. But it still doesn't answer the question, who's in charge?

Bribery of the Electorate
This is quite a big problem and getting bigger. If a Politician gave you cash, you'd be more than likely outraged. "Does he think he can bribe me!". But the reality is that Democracy is all about bribing people, not individuals, but entire groups of people all at once. The best thing of about bribery in a Democracy is that it isn't the Politicians money, it's the voters money. Higher wages, tax cuts, welfare are all great areas for bribery, because it seems like it is about doing good. Hey maybe some good will be done, but often it's about making sure the right people get the right incentive to vote the right way. It makes Democracy sound seedy, I wish I could say that it wasn't so but it is. And most people know it, it's why most people don't like Politicians, they know there is something not quite right about them. Some have even worked out that much of the time they are bribing you with your own money.

Anyone can be the Leader....even You!
This is the greatest of all the conceits of Democracy, that you too can be in charge. Democracy's wonderful, anyone can be Prime Minister or President. Of course when you have a closer look at who does get those jobs you find that they tend to have things in common with each other that stop you from ever getting the job. The idea that you can be in charge is an ego boost, it makes it feel, like if I made a few small changes I could be there too. The Leader of my Country and I are so alike, I could be him with a few small changes. But it's a lie, it takes quite a bit to become the Leader, dedication, ambition, ruthlessness, even skill. It's quite an exacting business and most fall, but it's not always a case of survival of the fittest, it's often a case of everyone else tripped and I'm the only one left. But the idea that often in politics the Leader is the most ruthless, or the most dull, everyone interesting got knocked out, is one we find a little uncomfortable thinking about.

So with all of the problems of Democracy should we replace it? To be honest I don't know what there is to replace it with, either better or worse. Of course that doesn't mean it cannot be replaced, I just don't see a better idea. Democracy certainly has it's flaws and I find much to criticize. I do not believe it it is destined to survive, it must constantly prove itself and I believe it's biggest enemies are the political parties that are like vampires sucking the life out of it. It is not immortal, it can die. And if it does die, what then?

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  1. For example in any US Presidential election, only something like 30-40% of voters actually vote for the man who becomes President.

    Or in the case of the recent British election I believe that something like 24% of those eligible to vote actually voted for the Conservatives.

    You're quite correct to point out that there is a crucial difference between representative democracy and direct democracy. While I personally have serious doubts about any kind of democracy, if you must have democracy then the only safe way to have it is to insist that any significant change in government policy should be decided by referendum, and that in order for a referendum to be carried it must be carried by more than 50% of those eligible to vote. That of course would make it extremely difficult for governments to make major changes - and that would be a very good thing.

    Governments should exist to administer the laws of the land, not to change them. At the beginning of the 20th century we had a perfectly good and workable system of law based on the common law, Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights of 1689. That system should never have been tampered with. It did not need to be tampered with. We do not need hundreds of new laws.

    We need to be protected from democracy. Democracy, apart from its many flaws which you've pointed out, represents the whim of the mob at a particular point in time. That is a frighteningly dangerous thing. There are two very effective ways in which a nation can be protected from the whim of the mob - by insisting that major changes must be decided by referendum as outlined above, and by having a strong monarch with real powers rather than the useless figurehead that our monarchy has become.

  2. There's a lot to be said for the idea that those who vote should be those with a stake in the country. Married people with children have a bigger stake in the country than those without children. They have to consider long-term consequences.

    There's also a lot to be said for the idea that those who are paid directly by the government, such as public servants (and parliamentarians), should not be permitted to vote. That would mean for example that anyone who works for the ABC or for any quango should not be allowed to vote. They have a clear conflict of interest. University students whose studies are subsidised by the government should not be allowed to vote. Anyone who owns a business subsidised by the government should not be allowed to vote. Voting should be confined to those with no conflict of interest.

    And obviously the minimum voting age of 18 is absurd. 21 would be marginally better, 25 would be better still, and 30 would probably be ideal. Voting requires maturity.