Is Democracy A Good Thing?

Greek Democracy

If the question had been Is majority rule A Good Thing? then the answer would have to be ‘not necessarily.’ If we can imagine a political unit where all the citizens are interested in, and well informed about, politics, economics, sociology and foreign affairs and each citizen is intelligent and possessed of good judgement then a majority might agree to the best possible policy on a given matter. This of course is by no means guaranteed and in any event there is no political unit blessed with such a citizenry.

Democracy, however, as an idea at work in the modern world has become a shorthand word for a number of related principles which should work together within a polity. These include-

  • Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of the Press
  • Freedom of Assembly
  • The Rule of Law
  • Periodic multi-party elections

The purpose of these things is not so much to give effect to the will of the majority on any given topic as it is to hold those who wield power to account for the way in which they exercise that power. Where power is abused or used in an incompetent or inefficient way then democracy is the mechanism which allows people to denounce these things, publish that denunciation widely, organise to bring abuses to an end and, if necessary, remove those inefficiently wielding power and replace them with others.

There are a number of unspoken assumptions here. Firstly, that a consensus exists as to how power should be used. Secondly, that the disruption caused by replacing the inefficient or abusive is less harmful to society than allowing them to remain in place. Thirdly, that the freedoms will be exercised responsibly, that is, denunciations, publications, organisations and elections shall focus on telling truth to power not on stirring up dissent and hostility for reasons unconnected with good governance.

None of these assumptions are fully true under all circumstances in any democracy which has ever existed. The model does not take into account how deeply divided societies are and that, therefore, some groups are so antagonistic to other groups that they will oppose each other without any regard to truth, to agreed values or the greater good of society as a whole. Victory or defeat is seen to be a more important value than the tranquillity of order. Such groups will not only abuse power if they happen to hold it they will also  abuse opposition if they find themselves powerless. Which is to say, they will denounce imagined abuses, publicise lies, distortions and half-truths, organise campaigns with hidden agendas and contest elections with the weapons of deceit and misrepresentation. Democratic forms, then, can be used with equal facility to replace bad governance with better or to replace good governance with worse.

In a divided society where the bulk of the population finds better things to do with its time than worry about politics then democratic forms do not necessarily work towards holding power to account. They work rather towards gaining power or retaining it with voters being viewed by activist minorities as being the instrument which they must work upon to achieve their own narrow objectives. Since all societies are divided all democracies are flawed in this way.

It is an undoubted truth that power corrupts and that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Therefore it is in the interest of each citizen within a given polity that effective mechanisms should exist to prevent this corruption from becoming endemic and ineradicable. Before such mechanisms can be constructed, however, it is necessary to make an accurate analysis as to where power lies and how it can be abused. The model for democracy which we currently have was, in its essentials, constructed in the eighteenth century and rests upon suppositions which were arguably naive from the outset and certainly overdue for re-examination in the twenty-first century.

It is a mistake to think that the national State is the unique centre from which dangerous power can be exercised. It is one of the most important centres no doubt but in complex modern societies it does not have anything approaching a monopoly of power and in some ways is a subordinate centre. International bureaucracies, transnational corporations and financial markets, for example, often make decisions to which national States can only acquiesce. Within the boundaries of a nation there are powerful sub-groups whom the State for one reason or another is afraid to challenge or control. Democracy itself creates institutions- the Press, political parties, lobby groups- which accrue power to themselves by virtue of the influence they can bring to bear on voters, that is citizens can be moved to cast their votes on the basis of misinformation, disinformation and outright lies in the absence of accurate counter-balancing information.

What is of most material interest to citizens is that those who wield power over their lives can be held to account for how they exercise that power. A system which does not hold every centre of power fully to account fails to meet that criteria. Everyone who exercises authority must be open to scrutiny by people who are not afraid to report what they have found and who have some prospect of having their reports widely disseminated. Such reporters themselves must be open to scrutiny also. Where abuse of power can be demonstrated consequences must follow. Elections in a multi-party democracy are not by themselves any guarantee against abuses occurring or being sustained over decades since the electoral system itself can be abused by the powerful who are able to negate the effect of scrutiny.

There are, I think, only two bulwarks of accountability which can exist and sustain themselves to some extent within the context of a divided society and a mostly disinterested electorate. They are, firstly, the Rule of Law. The principle of equity underlies Law, each person is formally equal before it and accountable to it. The doctrine of the separation of powers is crucially important to the administration of Law, it must be independent not only of the executive and the legislature but also of political parties, the press and any institution national or international, open or secret, which wields power. The question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (who guards the guards) applies to the Law itself of course, it is as open to corruption as any other human institution.

This brings us to the second bulwark. Morality. Divided societies are not necessarily divided about everything. The possibility exists for common values to exist and to be strongly affirmed by each member of an otherwise riven community. Justice, fair play, doing the right thing even at a personal cost to the person doing it and so on. The universal acceptance of shared fundamental values of this kind means that within each institution which wields power there will be some people at least with an ethical commitment to something more important to them than victory or defeat and these people will be the sources of information about abuses of power. It is of utmost importance that such a universal morality be adopted by democracies and that formation in such a morality be an essential requirement for anyone practising in the legal system, that is, ethical training should take up at least as much of the curriculum as legal training in the law schools of a democracy.

The answer to the question Is Democracy A Good Thing is, I think, ‘an ethical society is a Good Thing and to the extent that democracy fosters that it is A Good Thing too but to the extent that it does not it is not.’

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent post, clear and well stated. It’s always struck me that the UK went too far simply because a PM in the Commons is simply (almost) anyway an elected dictator, if he can convince his party anyway. The superlaw of our Constitution and its subdividing of power (both de jure and de facto, until recently anyway) not only amongst the three federal branches both also with the plenary states and their legislatures is about as good as could be devised, and even it has become corrupted, more or less, depending on who you listen to.

    Be careful though, politics can be addictive, and ultimately be hard on the psyche, i ended up getting away from it after our 2012 election and am only now starting to write about it again. 🙂

    Like

    1. Thanks for your comments NEO. I was political before I was philosophical so I think of myself as revisiting the scene of the crime but this time better equipped with more tools. As far as systems go some, like the USA, are better in theory than in practice and others work better in practice than you would think they would based on their theory. All systems though have two great problems-

      Time- societies change more rapidly than institutions. Often changes happen in small increments so that they are not really noticed at the beginning but the cumulative effects can be huge. Political systems can be slow to adapt and sometimes adapt to something which has already itself nearly become out of date.

      People- no system exists or can exist which is not corruptible in some way and no human society is free from corrupt people. The longer the system exists the more chance there is that every possibility of corrupting it will be discovered and exploited.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No problem, and I agree completely, and for that matter, so did our founder’s. They tried their best, and it was a very good best, but they also warned us that we would have to work hard if we were to maintain it, and Adams particularly had much to say about morality, almost treading into declaiming on original sin himself. You’re also right, so much of this is done so gradually that hardly anyone notices. I think in many way Obama has been a blessing, he’s so overt that a goodly many people simply woke up. Now if they had been taught some history, we’d have a better chance, but those damned Germans and the ideas in education for the industrial age are hard to beat down. 🙂

        Actually, the UK works far better than theory says it should, it seems, and the US has abrogated a bunch of our protections, we’re sort of meeting in the middle, The ‘Great Experiment’ in both its forms, continues. I often echo Hannan that one of the great strengths of the ‘Anglosphere’ (although I’m not overly fond of the term, it is short) is that we run on to more or less parallel paths, sometimes we do better, sometimes you, or something.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I used to belive in Democracy until I went to Heythrop and Campion Hall, where I had to really think about it, and my mind slowly changed, as I realised I had been braiwashed by my society to belive in the goodness of Democracy, in a ‘knee jerk’ way.There are better ways of running society and democracy as it is practised seems to benefit the few rich at the expense of the poor and those above them who can just about make ends meet with the ‘long hours culture’.Whips ensure party conformity, so that MP’s do not represent their people but merely a ‘party line’. The people in most democracies don’t get any real choice but rather an ersazt choice – mere tinkering at the edges in different styles, no real choice or different agenda on offer.I no longer belive voting is a political choice but rather, a moral choice.

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