Dec 022009

The relationship of the political class to democracy is always tricky, what with the need to pretend that the people have the power, and the opposite need to make sure they don’t get to exercise it in disadvantageous ways. Democracy has taken a real kicking over the past couple of days, for reasons I’m not entirely sure I understand, except that suddenly the demos have been giving, like, the wrong answers.

First, there’s that thing in Switzerland where the Swiss, by a majority of both people and cantons, voted to ban the construction of any more minarets in their country. Apparently this sort of plebiscitary urban planning tramples all over religious freedom and freedom of expression. Wrong answer, demos! Some things, like minarets, are too important to be left up to democratic whim. Everything else, like your property, privacy, due process, etc., is well within the democratic purview and free to be meddled with whenever the demos please.

Second, there’s the Lib Dems who, despite their bedrock desire for electoral reform and their manifest belief that the demos all deeply desire it, will not be supporting any call by the Government for a referendum on PR. Why? Because it might help Labour win the next election (bad), and people might vote ‘no’ simply because they hate the Labour party and any policies it backs (also bad). So never mind what the demos want, eh? They might, y’know, keep on voting for Labour. (This is similar to the contempt for the almighty demos anytime a section of it votes for the BNP.)

Third, there’s this opposition to freeing MPs from the whip of…party whips. Apparently this will actually reduce citizens’ power, because MPs might vote the way their constituents want them to instead of for what the party has determined is best for the country as a whole. So that’s representative democracy down the pan, then. Constituents are actually equated here with lobbies and special interest groups, none of whom deserve a say about legislation. The counter-intuition involved is brilliant. Allowing MPs to vote however their constituents want them to will actually disempower those same constituents. So we find that, in this case, the demos are right and should be listened to, except when they’re wrong (which is whenever their wishes don’t accord with what party leaders think is best for the party country.) Examples of issues on which the demos might be wrong include, in this piece, abortion and membership of the EU.

Here’s the hierarchy of importance, then:

1. Building minarets
2. Abortion on demand
3. Membership of the EU
4. Party maneuvering
5. Whatever is ‘best for the country’
6. Democracy
7. Everything else

Items 1-5 are too important to let the flighty, tabloid-reading, ill-informed demos interfere; democracy, and what the wise, well-informed, reasonable demos want, trumps everything else.

So when the demos vote to ban minarets or vote for parties you don’t like, it’s outrageous. But when the demos vote to pick your pocket, store your DNA on a database, lock you up for a month without charge, or demand you prove you’re not a paedophile every time you step outside your front door, that’s totally fine.

[long pause for thought]

Oh wait, I get it now. Democracy is great, but only when the demos agree with me. Right on, brother. Speak truth to power!

  8 Responses to “Democracy in the doghouse?”

  1. //Democracy is great, but only when the demos agree with me. //

    Trapped between a rock and a hard place – tyranny of the majority, or tyranny of the minority.

  2. I’ve been struggling with this one, too. Still not sure what the answer is, though…

  3. “Still not sure what the answer is, though…”

    I think it’s because there probably isn’t an “answer”, just constantly shifting trade-offs between the benefits and drawbacks of any approach.

    IMO, the ideal government would be an absolute monarchy ruled over by someone wise, incorruptible, totally benevolent and altruistic, either omni-competent or able to simulate omni-competence through perceptive use of many advisors. There appears, however, to be a severe shortage of such people on this planet – maybe none? – and the very few folks I’ve heard of who might even approach that ideal, are the types who would run away in horror and hide if you tried to set them up as ruler over anything.

    In the meantime, democracy may be a mess, but at least it’s occasionally entertaining (in between bouts of being infuriating).

  4. //someone wise, incorruptible, totally benevolent and altruistic, either omni-competent or able to simulate omni-competence through perceptive use of many advisors//

    Have you been reading my CV? 😉

  5. Mike S, from my philosophy A level (don’t ask) I seem to remember that one particular philosopher came up with the idea that the “benevolent dictatorship” was by far the most effective form of government. Of course, the only problem being that there is no guarantee that the person in power is any of those things that you described, or if they are, will hand over the reigns to someone who is. History tends to lean towards it not really working doesn’t it? Like most philosophy i’ve read, it’s great in principle, but doesn’t take into account one thing-human nature.

  6. Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem

    Mathematical economist Kenneth Arrow proved (in 1952) that there is NO consistent method of making a fair choice among three or more candidates using a preferential voting method . This remarkable result assures us that there is no single preferential election procedure that can always fairly decide the outcome of an election that involves more than two candidates or alternatives. This result does not apply to nonpreferential voting systems.

  7. The very existence of a government negates democracy: It means the rule of a few rather than the rule of the people.

    Neither true democracy nor its opposite would be tolerable, but the rule of a few would seem to be acceptable to most, even if the cost is the loss of liberty and freedom.

    The best that can be hoped for and achieved is some semblance of a representative form of government in which power is spread so widely that the resulting structure is too weak to cause a great deal of harm. (Americans, reference the Articles of Confederation, a charter thrown in the garbage because it did not sufficiently centralize power in a national government.)

    I can do without democracy. Give me liberty, instead.

  8. Hayek described democracy not as a means of ever finding a good government, but a means of getting rid of the worst tyrannies. With an implicit shrug of the shoulders at the prospect of escaping from tyranny altogether.

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