In politics, as in life, few people bother thinking beyond the familiar. So to suggest that our current system of government is a failure and needs to be replaced is to strike at what they hold familiar and dear.
But however sacred a cow Democracy is to many, that shouldn’t stop us imagining alternatives. There are manifest faults not just in the basic philosophy, but most especially in the practical application of the principle of Democracy to our current political processes.
On the other hand, there are identifiable virtues as well. When Winston Churchill said that Democracy is the worst possible system of government – except for all the rest – he isn’t far wrong. The history of the world is a story of the attempts at finding the best system of governance (unfortunately they have all ultimately failed the test of time).
The virtues of democracy include:
- One man, one vote: is better than one man one gun… and let the winners claim the prize.
- A social contract whereby power can be peacefully transitioned bestows a legitimacy to the rulers.
- It can provide a venue for the competition of ideas and a marketplace for deciding on a consensus or majority.
- Democracies can and have thrown up unexpected results that are better than would otherwise be expected – there is a wisdom in the collective judgement of the people.
Unfortunately, there can equally be a stupidity in the collective judgement. “Democracy” is not about deciding to run deficit budgets. That it may allow such things and worse, is at best a fault, and at worse a fatal flaw. My opinion is that such comes substantially as a result of system capture by sectorial interests, and normal human nature and failing. But consider this quote:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the Public Treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the Public Treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by dictatorship.” ~ Alexander Fraser Tyler.
The truth of that assessment is self-evident before us. The majority has indeed fallen for the lies it wants to believe, and voted into power the liars and the crooks. So while there will be elements and forms of democracy we might wish to retain, what we currently practice will have to be stopped – before it stops us all. The road to hell will be most certainly paved with good intentions – and democracy.
That said; what alternative is there, especially if every previous concept and attempt at sound government has failed? Perhaps our presumption and question is wrong(on one level at least), there is no solution or system which will bring us nirvana. Whatever we devise is eventually and ultimately doomed to fail, to be subverted and suborned by ambition, arrogance and ignorance.
However, that is not a reason to not attempt a better system. And in building or imagining an alternative, we create the space for improvement to happen. Certainly continuing on with the current situation will do us no good. When you are in a hole, it is time to stop digging. When you are in a deep hole it is equally important to be able to see a workable means of escape. Holes, if you have ever been in one, are insidious and fearful traps, and quite possibly a fatal one at that. But if we can change what we do, then at least we give ourselves the opportunity of escape and a brighter future. To do nothing is to guarantee an already predictable fate.
So what alternative is there, what system is there that hasn’t been tried, tested and failed already? Am I so smart that I am able to come up with something that no-one else in the history of the world has managed to achieve. The odds would suggest not, although on the other hand it does have to be some-one who eventually comes up with a new idea. It might as well be me, yes? At the very least I can put forwards my thoughts (incomplete as they may be) and they are then available for consideration and criticism.
So, here it is: Democracy – yes, and no. Both and neither. Where it is appropriate, and not otherwise. Democracy is not sacred – it is a tool. For achieving specific and appropriate results. And it needs to be subservient to a greater good.
At this point we truly do need to be having a very serious discussion as well about what we want as individuals, communities, societies, and even as a species.
But before we get too far into the metaphysical and spiritual, and debating whether we should or could all be entitled to own a superyatch if we so desired – lets limit ourselves to imagining a ethical, equitable and trustworthy political system. That is plenty ambitious enough to be getting along with.
In a previous Post (Logic) I discussed some of the limits of our capacity as humans to think clearly. It came down to being able to think about what we want – but beyond that we struggle. On one level that is fair enough, politics should be about what we want. But some parts and processes of how we govern ourselves should not, and must not, be determined by whatever we want. Democracy, a majority vote, is entirely appropriate for some things, but Public-Policy is not one of them. In fact there are many things where the outcome should not be dependant on a vote, and particularly not one that is influenced by sectarian agendas.
Particularly, power and money should not, and must not, be delivered into the hands of people and ideologies with selfish interests. Easier said than done of course, because one thing we know for a fact; humans are not rational beings, we are rationalising beings. We have always got an explanation and excuse for our own self interest, no matter how destructive that may be. We are always in the right, and the others wrong. “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” ~George Carlin
So where do you find the mythic-being who can be a wise and just ruler? Well you don’t of course, you use what you have got, and you put in place constraints to prevent inappropriate behaviour. Back when the American constitution was being drafted there was a lot of thought put in by a lot of smart people about how you stop abuses of power by the powerful. One of their ideas was the concept of separation of powers. An Executive, a Legislature and a Judiciary. And it substantially worked for quite a long time. Right up until the point where enough people found enough ways to subvert the intentions and letter of the rules so that corruption becomes the norm, and America became a Kleptocracy. Others in their time have also attempted to write down on paper the rules that were supposed to prevent or moderate the unfettered exercise of power, from the Magna Carta, to even the Theses of Martin Luther.
All well and good, but that is what they invented lawyers for isn’t it, to nitpick to death the letter of the law, and to find a way to get around it, to do what you want to do, inspite of any directive not to. It would be nice to imagine that if only we could educate people properly, they wouldn’t want to subvert the rules put there for the common good. But hey, if even God had to write down the Ten Commandments – and then inspire the writing of the Torah/Bible/Koran to hammer it home even more… then I don’t think we are onto a practical winner with that idea.
But if not that, then what – what will work???
We have to use what we have got, we have to recognise the limits or human virtue and altruism, we have to keep the rules as simple as possible, and make them enforceable. I read a great comment (~Karl Denninger?) that stated that any Law has to have an – or else – or it is meaningless. If there is no sanction, then there is no law, there is just words on paper. Ok, the rules will have to be written down, that is required; but they also need to be workable without intervention, without being subject to vagaries of interpretation, application or honesty. They need to work. Writing a rule, passing a law, that is unworkable, unenforceable and makes a mockery of the system is the thin edge of the wedge to perdition.
Actually Humans aren’t that complicated, put the right incentives in front of them and they are entirely predictable. Work within the limits, recognise peoples weaknesses (on all levels), align their personal ambitions with policy objectives; and there is a basis for a system that works.
Conversely, indulging the things we want to believe in, feeding the lies we would like to be true – that has to stop.
Lastly: there cannot, must not, be any money to be had in the exercising of power.
Well, maybe not… I will cover some Specifics in respect of all of that in another “Democracy” post.