Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"What's gone wrong with democracy?"

That was the title of an essay published in The Economist a few weeks ago.

For the most part I think the essay is quite good. That judgement wouldn’t surprise anyone who has read my book, Free to Flourish because the main points in the essay are similar to those in Chapter 8 of my book. The biggest challenge to democracy comes from the tendency of governments to overreach – by creating entitlements that they cannot pay for, or by waging “wars” that they cannot win “such as that on drugs”. The solution lies in finding ways to ensure governments and electors accept appropriate restraint.

However, the essay has got me thinking that there is something odd about the argument that democracy is such a good thing that it needs to be restrained in order to be preserved. I suppose what we might be saying is that democracy is, in some respects, like wine - it is good, but you can have too much of it. If that is what we are saying then we should probably admit that we view democracy as a means to achieve more fundamental objectives, rather than as an end in itself. If we think it is possible to have too much democracy we must be saying that too much democracy would conflict with some fundamental objective that is important to us.

The introduction of The Economist’s essay suggests reasons why people prefer “rules-based democracy” to “corrupt, abusive and autocratic governments”. But, why do we need reasons? If a “rules-based democracy” enables us to avoid or remove corrupt and abusive government, that would have to be better than living under corrupt and abusive government. The end we want to achieve is to enable corrupt and abusive governments to be replaced peacefully. Democracy provides a means to that end. The fact that the democratic systems used in southern Europe don’t seem to have been capable of replacing corrupt governments with non-corrupt governments might suggest to us that those systems of government are deeply flawed.

The reasons given in the essay as to why people prefer democracy are as follows:
“Democracies are on average richer than non-democracies, are less likely to go to war and have a better record of fighting corruption. More fundamentally, democracy lets people speak their minds and shape their own and their children’s futures”. 

Perhaps those are reasons why many people say they prefer democracy, but it is far from clear that democracy causes all those things to happen. The assertion that “democracy lets people speak their minds and shape their own and their children’s futures” seems to me to be more a statement of what should happen rather than what actually happens.

Democracy requires that candidates for election have sufficient freedom in presenting their views to enable electors to choose between them. That doesn’t necessarily mean that democracy “lets people speak their minds”. For example, just last year, the former Australian government was proposing to introduce laws that would make it illegal to, among other things, “offend or insult” people on the basis of their “political opinions”. People elected to power via democratic processes do not always support free speech.

Similarly, the idea that democracy lets people “shape their own and their children’s futures” seems to me to be more a statement of what should happen, than a statement of what actually happens. Governments have become far more involved in shaping the lives of people since the advent of democracy. The governments that are attempting to shape the lives of people through their wars on drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gambling and, more recently, fat and sugar, are democratic governments.

When we ask ourselves what has gone wrong with democracy, we tend to begin by convincing ourselves that democracy is good for us because all other systems would be worse. We then proceed to worry that the self-destructive tendencies of democracy are becoming more evident and to consider how democracy can be constrained in order to be preserved. The message is important, but is complicated.

We might have more hope of moving toward a better system of democratic government if we were to adopt a more straight forward approach. What I have in mind is that we should approach the issues by considering the characteristics of good government and how our existing systems of government would need to be modified to have those characteristics to a greater extent.

At this point I might be well advised to elaborate what I mean by good government and then spend the next few years researching what others have written about the characteristics of good systems of government. But the essential characteristics of a good system of government seem fairly obvious. It would:
  • defend the lives and property of individuals and their right to live as they please, provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of others;
  • ensure widespread opportunities for individuals to flourish by using their personal resources for purposes they value in mutually beneficial endeavours with others; and
  •  provide a mechanism for peaceful removal and replacement of governments that do not defend individual rights and ensure widespread opportunities for individual human flourishing.

So, how can we move further toward a system of government that has those characteristics?

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