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Friday, March 4, 2011

Why do we assume that "democracy" is a good thing for everyone?

This Post is the result of my exposure to a tangential string of comments to a discussion on the web about whether democracy was growing or shrinking in the world.  While the views expressed below are mine, many come from thoughts which originated with others.

One of those other posters, commenting on recent events in the Middle East, particularly Egypt, asked if our (America's) insistence on the inherent virtue of western style democracy was not a form of cultural "imposition".  Why is it important or desirable that the Egyptians choose a western style democracy?  Shouldn't the choice be theirs? To quote the other poster, "I am uneducated, parochial, starving, homeless, and unemployable but I can vote, I can vote??! "

A second poster pointed out that:  "Many ancient civilizations - Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, for example, did quite well (at least in terms of their contributions to Civilization, and their economic wealth) even without democracy. On the contrary, the largest democracy in the world, India, is saddled with an effete coalition government incapable or unwilling to rein in corruption. Is it really good to have a democracy wherein one's vote can be bought for say, the equivalent of 10 USD?"

A third commented that:  "From a philosophical perspective, Rousseau's Social Contract should give one pause in promoting pure democracy. When these views were applied in France, they got the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety and the genocide of the Terror. What is the end of a more democratic government? An opportunity for the Legislator to dictate our true interests? More freedom of action for the majority? More liberty for individuals?"

Other posters expressed serious dissatisfaction with our own government, with the prevailing theme of  "the best legislators money can buy."

I like democracy (or republics) as a system of government.  Intellectually, however, I think democracy should be thought of as a means and not as an end.  Emotionally,  I feel like democracy (not necessarily "pure" democracy) is an end in itself.  Realistically, modern (more on that in the next Post) western style democracy is probably close to being my religion.  It was how I was brought up, at home, in school and elsewhere. I feel that it's "good" for each adult individual in a political entity to have some say in or control over what that entity does, because it may affect him or her, and that the "fairest" (there's a slippery word) way to give them (us) that say is by letting them vote, either on issues or for representatives.

After all, what government does is "govern" (more or less) the lives of the people within its ambit.  Who should determine how those people (us!) should live their lives?  It seems obvious that we (or those we elect to do so) should decide our own fates.  But why?   How about a philosopher/king?  Or a group of our "smartest" people?  Or God?  Or the Church?  Or whoever has the most guns?  Or the most money?

Democracy seems to be the best form of allowing self determination (assume for the moment that self determination is good) by the members of the community about what their government will and will not do.  Further, self determination by voting rather than by guns (the more common alternative) seems less subject to abuse.  But what about when the people choose something or someone that limits or eliminates future self determination, whether they realize they are doing it or not?

Democracy does not guarantee a better outcome in any situation. It does not even ensure further democracy. It is certainly not close to being the most efficient method of government. I believe it does offer the best chance of "better" (also culturally subjective) outcomes/ends (such as reasonable order and general standard of living for most citizens) in the long run, but that  may be just wishful thinking.

In short. my attachment to democracy is largely emotional/ moral, and is a product of my own culture and upbringing.

Of course, this idea of democracy as a universally desirable goal has been a part of American political culture since (and even before) the Nation was founded. Thus far, the historical evidence on that idea seems mixed.

So just why do we all seem to think that democracy is such a good idea for everyone?  First, it empowers us - the unwashed masses.  Unless you are very rich and/or very powerful, a Monarchy or Oligarchy is not going to leave you with as much personal power, at least in theory.  Even Communism, Theocracies and other theoretically egalitarian systems have developed a much earned reputation of creating narrow groups which control "everything", limiting social/economic mobility, and not tolerating dissent.  They all want "us" to listen to someone or some group of other people who "knows better".  To me this "empowerment" reason is a very good one; it's one reason I like democracy.  I think it's also consistent with human nature; most of us seem to want as much freedom as we can have to do what we choose to.

A second reason, however, is more of an unstated assumption:  that democracy is both a "higher" state of political system, and also one that, given enough education of a people, is inevitable in the long run. This assumption does not seem supported by any real evidence.

Democracy is, first of all, a system of governance , devised by people who thought it a desirable or appropriate way in which to govern the community and its affairs.  Common belief is that it was originated by the ancient Greeks, but it has certainly not been "fashionable" for most of human history.  Unlike Kings or various religious figures, leaders of democracy have never been generally thought to be anointed by God.  I remember (from Jr. High?) Rousseau and other proponents of democracy writing about "natural law", but I really did not buy that then, and I don't now.  In fact, it seems to me that this "natural law" idea is inherently dangerous.

Whenever someone references "Natural Law" in terms of human political systems, I immediately think of the Marxists, and their belief that the triumph of Communism was preordained as the inevitable result of the inexorable forces of history.  And, of course, particularly in its earlier years, Communism presumed that it was an international/universal inevitability.  Well, it certainly hasn't worked out that way so far, and I see no reason to believe that it ever will.  Although Communism has generally failed as a system for a large number of reasons, I submit that two of its basic philosophical weaknesses were its reliance on patterns of economic relationships that were true in the late 19th century but not thereafter, and its insistence on a "one-size-fits-all" political model, which made no allowances for different political, economic, and cultural patterns.

Communism was a product of the industrial revolution, and the assumption that modern society would become more and more divided into those who worked in factories (a majority) and those who did not.  A second assumption was that those who owned and/or ran the factories would oppress the workers with the support of the State until there was a violent revolution which would overthrow both the political authorities and the economic masters.  Well, history turned out to be not so simple.  The capitalists and "their" governments were able to compromise with the unions  (but tune in next week), factory workers have shrunk as a part of the population of the industrialized world, technology has made manufacturing less labor intensive, ordinary people may own stock, and people seem to work harder and more efficiently in a largely capitalistic system.

As to the "universal revolution" - that idea just did not happen in 1918 and 1919,  And, after that, the only countries which seem to have adopted Communism (from the inside as opposed to being on the wrong end of Russian tanks) have been those who have combined it with an openly nationalistic movement based on an awareness of local differences.  (Yes, I know that's simplistic, but you really want me to stop here - trust me on this).

"So, Jeff", the Reader says, "what the Hell does this have to do with whether democracy is good for everyone?"

Just this - our belief is that it is good is based partly (and only partly) on assumptions about history, on how the world used to work, on how everyone "should" react, and on a tendency to believe that "one-size-fits-all" - that what works for us is best for everyone else.  Moreover, some of these assumptions are based on old information. particularly about "alternate" systems, and on the idea that "democracy" itself is a definite and fixed idea. It's not, which will be the subject of my next Post

Unexamined assumptions may or may not be correct, but they are dangerous to act upon.


1 comment:

  1. I would like to expand on your remark about democracy not being "efficient". As I'm sure you know, I think that that's one of its major selling points. Efficienty in government is a way of saying that only a few people get a vote.