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Democracy is the Worst Form of Government…

In Constitutional Spotlight, Ideology on July 9, 2010 at 11:33 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Democracy (1 of 3)

My previous blog post about the recent Belgian elections has generated more interest than I thought it would (i.e. a comment). I considered replying to that comment on the comment string beneath the article, but what the comment desired was an expanded debate on the role of democracy, and how I would define it, and what ends it achieves in the state. This is a big, potentially meandering, philosophical question, and I intend to address it over three posts. This first will consider democracy’s history and various implementations in the past, with particular reference to Classical Athens and the criticisms that arose from the Greek philosophers. The second will deal broadly with Aristotle’s question: “What is democratic behaviour: that which preserves a democracy or that which the people like?” The perceived wisdom on this question undulates through the ages, and I hope to show the strengths and weaknesses that arise from any one-sided response to the question, rather than produce a cast-iron answer. The third post (if anyone is still interested) will then consider how the current crop of UK leaders and the UK political system looks in the light of these two more philosophical discourses, and more broadly, exploring what I think – generally – has been a waning of idealism in the Western democracies, and why the left wing, particularly as encapsulated by New Labour and the Cleggite Liberals, doesn’t ring as true as people on the right (like me) want it to, although the right, as embodied by John Bercow, Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy, is by no means exempt from the criticisms I may make.

So then, what is democracy? At its root meaning, it derives from two Greek words: ‘demos’ – people, community; and ‘kratos’ – power, might. Consequently, we can infer that it’s about a system that gives power to the people. But we already knew this. We know that democracy, in some form or another, is the preferred form of government in most of the world’s countries, and it is probably a very ancient form of government, as it seems to intuitively come to children. But if one of the ancient proponents of democracy, say Themistocles or Pericles, were to emerge from a wormhole into Westminster or onto Capitol Hill, they would not term the UK or US as democratic states.

“Where are the people?” they would ejaculate. The thing is, democracy at Athens was much more immediate, and is only modelled accurately in about 4 Swiss cantons. Every citizen had a right to speak, to promulgate, to attempt to rescind any item of legislation in the Ekklesia – Assembly, the equivalent of Parliament. Every citizen served in rotation, chosen by lot, on the Boule – Council, the equivalent of Cabinet. Every year, there was a vote on an act called ‘ostracism’ where the citizenry would expel from Athens for a period of ten years a leading citizen, regardless of whatever office he might be holding, simply because he was too prominent. It was carried roughly every ten years, and many great Athenian patriots were ostracised; Themistocles, Cimon, Aristides, Thucydides. I wonder if Blair would have survived an ostracism vote after Iraq, or whether Mandelson would have returned to Cabinet only to be instantly ostracised.

Obviously, the system was riddled with flaws. On a randomly selected Boule of 500, you could not guarantee that this would represent all the concerns of various groups in Athens, nor that any one of them had an aptitude for government. The reality was that certain men, such as Themistocles and Pericles, became very prominent, being able to manipulate the assembly by speeches. The Assembly itself wasn’t very democratic; it often didn’t include the farmers from areas around Athens (as they were busy working) or travelling merchants. It was guided by the burgeoning Athenian middle-class of craftsmen and the urban poor. Wealthy aristocrats, such as Pericles, were very able to extend and exercise patronage among these groups, as well as to essentially be unchallenged leader, though not elected to any position, for long periods of time. The Assembly was not unknown to discover a reverse gear very quickly under threats from Pericles, or according to the seasons; it would sometimes repeal a law made during the Summer in the late Autumn, as the farmers found more time after planting to attend assemblies than during the harvest.

An interesting event is recorded in the life of Socrates, that irritating man who inadvertently invented the modern discipline of philosophy. Once, when presiding over the trial of ten generals (strategoi) who had left a victorious naval battle to escape a storm without picking up those who had fallen into the water, he pointed out that a motion to execute them would be in violation of a resolution passed some years ago in the Assembly. He was nearly lynched, not because he was an infernal busybody or a pedant, but because he had sought to but limits on what the people could do.

This ‘democracy’ is quite unstable, and eventually led the premature collapse of the Athenian Empire at the hands of the backward Sparta, which fielded a citizen army of about 3000 as against Athens’ combined forces of 30000. Very few of Athens’ subjects liked the idea of democracy in this style, and most ended up revolting against the oppressive commitments demanded of them by the Athenian Assembly. Ancient philosophers of all cultures and views would point to Athens as the clinching proof that democracy worked incredibly well, as long as the people weren’t allowed a say. We must bear all this in mind, however, and note the ancients meant something different, and more radical, when they said democracy. They meant a system which transferred power away from magistrates (elected or not) and institutions to the people. It is fallacious to consider that the UK or US system is anything strictly democratic in its original sense.

Two of the foremost of these philosophers were Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s politics varied over the course of his writing, but he consistently expressed concern that the great mass of people, without education, knew nothing about the virtues that needed to attend government. He preferred a government by ‘guardians’ or ‘philosopher-kings’ – beings who had transcended normal intellectual boundaries, and could govern benevolently, while being accountable to each other and to those they governed. Aristotle was a Macedonian biologist by trade, but lived in Athens and had a prodigious interest in everything. His ‘Politics’ is (or, at any rate, should be) a seminal textbook for any student of Constitutional issues and politics more broadly. In it, he argues that there are fundamentally three forms of good government, and three corrupt forms. The ‘good’ or ‘ideal’ forms are: monarchy, which degenerates into tyranny; aristocracy, degenerating to oligarchy; and democracy, degenerating to mob rule. His idea is that each of these forms are in conflict, since they seek to augment their own role, but conversely, so long as all the elements exist in the state, each will arrest the degeneration of the other forms. How can a monarch be a tyrant if he is checked by a council of the best men, in turn checked by those under them, who are checked by the monarch? And likewise, and backwards and sideways; the best state for Aristotle – and this is an idea implicit in other ancient authors such as Plato and Cicero – is one where various elements of the constitution check others.

I think this analysis is sound. Consequently, I view the role of democracy as somewhat different to that which some would ascribe to it. It does not help the stability of the state to become ‘more democratic’ in the ancient sense, because it unbalances the constitution. Democracy is only part of a number of concepts and institutions that keep the state stable, and so to disregard other things in order to enhance democracy is actually not as virtuous a quest as might at first be thought.

A brief word here on some voting reforms. The Greeks would have considered the UK system to be essentially aristocratic, though they would not deny a democratic element in selecting which aristocrats had power. They would also have used different descriptors of certain policies. UKIP’s plans to make chief constables directly elected they would have considered democratic. They would have considered the radical voting reform of a regional list system to be undemocratic; by voting for many candidates at once, the faint democratic element of being able to get rid of representatives the people don’t like becomes even weaker, since it is almost inconceivable in any region that one of three major parties should not return at least one delegate. They would consider that reform to actually augment aristocracy rather than democracy. Looking at AV, they would question why those who voted for the losing parties got their vote counted twice. Moreover, they would question why those men who were successful or virtuous or noble did not necessarily receive two votes, while those sordid elements that vote for the BNP or Communists had their votes counted twice. In voting, which was almost always done publicly in the ancient world, you firmly nailed your colours to one mast or another, and stuck with that choice. There was no room for being wishy-washy; you had to make a decision one way or another. You could not permanently fence-sit, or specify ‘anyone but him’ – well, you could, but that meant concertedly backing another, specific candidate.

Ideas move on, undoubtedly. We now express in democracy not the people actually having power, but the people distributing power where they see fit; 2000 years of history, at least in the Western tradition, confirms Plato’s analysis that the people do not see themselves as fit to govern, but they would like leaders accountable to them. This is ultimately why we have constituencies with members returned by plurality; it’s a very simple way of making this accountability. It’s not a form alien to the ancient democrats either. During the ostracism, it would be the candidate who had the most ostraka after one round of balloting who was ostracised. The ancients did not care about ‘wasted’ votes or STVs or AVs, or acquiring a majority. As far as they were concerned, each citizen had one vote, and they cast it how they thought best. How can a vote be ‘wasted’ in this system? If people needed or wanted more people to vote their way, they should simply stand up and persuade others of the merits of their case, and if they couldn’t, there clearly weren’t enough merits to make it worth voting for.

This obviously ran up against the fact that the wealthy could afford training in rhetoric, whereas many citizens could not. But in this age of universal education, this is much less of an issue. The point about ‘wasted’ votes is important. If we believe that democracy is about empowering the people, enabling them to make decisions, as many on the right take it, then, so long as every vote counts equally, there are no wasted votes. If, however, we accept the non-classical definition of democracy, and say, like many on the left, that it is about ensuring representation of the people, wasted votes become more of an issue. Being a classicist, I take democracy in its classical, literal and radical sense of giving power to the people. I don’t get what’s so bad about disagreement in voting patterns, nor do I fully grasp how a vote which has been counted has been ‘wasted’; for that person has spoken how he wills. Now it is incumbent upon him to accept the decision of the ‘demos’ by any plurality that might arise, even if it was not his preferred option.

The progressive sense of democracy – the one that accepts that the people should not actually exercise any governance, merely chose those who do – is actually an amalgam of the classical democracy and the classical aristocracy. It is not a bad or harmful amalgam, but we must be careful when talking about democracy, whether we actually mean giving power to the people, or making those in power more representative of the people’s views. The Lib Dems want to have their cake and eat it in this respect; saying that more representative methods of voting will give more power to the people. In any appreciable way, it won’t make much difference to how much authority over government the people actually have; in fact, it may even lessen it, for the reasons given above.

My MP, for whom I voted, believes in legalising cannabis. That is not true of most people in my constituency, and so he does not represent our views in this instance.  That doesn’t make him an undemocratic or bad MP; it’s just an example of how our system doesn’t actually rest on democracy proper, or even democracy in its purely progressive sense. It’s a mixture of the Aristotelian forms, and it has prevented civil war in this country since the 1600s. Democracy, as far as I see it, is a means in concert with other forms of government, not an end of itself. Perhaps this is where FPTP-ists come into conflict with PR-ists. And for proper democracy to work, ordinary people must choose between parties or candidates or policies and trust them to implement them, rather than relying on the parties to emerge with a grey-wash; because government is not about abrogating decisions to another party.

I hope this makes somewhat clearer why both supporters of FTPT and PR can both claim to be democratic; they are talking across purposes. I hope that, even if you, the reader, do not agree with me about the function of democracy, or even its nature, that I have got you thinking. I shall continue some of these themes in my following posts; next, we examine the question of democratic behaviour, a question which is tied up in our understanding of what democracy is, and what role it has in the state.

Oh, and by the way, Belgium is still without a government… more on this as it breaks in 2011.

This is part of a series of posts examining democracy on a more abstract level, and the questions that arise from its application in the West and the UK in particular. In my next on this topic, I shall give more detailed consideration of whether a democratic leader is properly so when he does what the people want, or when he preserves the democracy in the state. Click here for the next article in the series.

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  1. […] the strict classical definition of democracy (see Democracy is the Worst Form of Government… ), we would say that Hatoyama had not made the democratic decision. Instead, he blatantly ignored […]

  2. […] a while I’ve been wanting to write something equivalent, or at least in response to polarii’s analyses of democracy, not just to outline differences in opinion but also to cover issues which, I feel, were not […]

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