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On Democratic Behaviour

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Ideology on July 24, 2010 at 5:00 pm

 By polarii for the Daily Soapbox

Democracy (2 of 3)

Democratic behaviour has always been a contentious issue. The question first arose after the collapse of democratic Athens, by the noted philosopher Aristotle: “What is democratic behaviour: that which preserves a democracy, or that which the people like?” This is a difficult question. Evidently, the two things overlap. People want to elect their representatives, and this strengthens the democracy if they do. People (broadly) want the state’s finances to be balanced, and this will preserve the financial stability of the democracy. However, we cannot immediately say that they are the same thing. For example, in Britain during WW2, the government took several repressive measures which were not popular with the British people, such as press censorship. Some of those measures were likely necessary to protect the democracy in the UK from the evil Nazi dictatorship. Also, more recently, Tony Blair believed it necessary to invade Iraq to, in part, preserve Britain’s democracy by reducing the threat from Saddam Hussein. But this move was deeply unpopular among the British public, as shown by a sudden upsurge in support for the Liberal Democrats, the only party to oppose the war in 2003.

However, the example of repressive measures in WW2 should give us pause for thought. Undoubtedly people did not ‘want’ them, or ‘like’ them. Yet they may have seen them and accepted them as necessary for the preservation of what liberties they enjoyed. Here, we have to question what Aristotle means by ‘what the people like’. Aristotle, who tutored Alexander the Great and preferred monarchial and aristocratic forms of government, wants us to take the line that the people do not really know what is good for them; such was the case at Athens – where democracy was first tried, rather unsuccessfully – and it arguably still is. However, the British have shown themselves to be very good at accepting compromise and nuanced positions to attain some of what they ‘like’. In WW2 they were prepared to sacrifice some liberties to preserve others. The British people show us that simple selfish urges governing a body politic are not overriding.

Therefore, it is very easy to understand Aristotle’s issue that, if people are essentially selfish and stupid, giving them what they ‘like’ can easily undermine the state. After all, who wouldn’t ‘like’ to spend more on public services while abolishing tax? In the Greek world, it was broadly assumed that the common people were essentially selfish and stupid. Due to the enduring notions of Christianity and the Enlightenment, we now accept that people are not essentially selfish and stupid. They are essentially good and intelligent, and this should affect how we treat them in government. This is what, ultimately, is behind Cameron’s Big Society idea; if there are 60 million people broadly working towards the best outcome possible for the state, let’s use government not to restrict what they can do, but gear it towards enabling them to do what they want. This radically suggests that it is better to let the people choose what they like, on the not unreasonable assumption that this will help preserve the democracy.

But we shouldn’t dismiss the question so lightly. Aristotle, for all his prejudices, raises an important point. If we consider it rightly, the UK is different to what Aristotle would have considered a democracy, and indeed true democracy is modelled in only very few places in the world. Aristotle challenges us to separate that which is democratic from that which benefits the state. The answer implied in Big Society is one response to unify the two. Another response is one that Marx gave; namely that democracy should be suspended until the people understand what is best for them. There are a range of nuanced responses that I can’t possibly hope to encompass. But the question does bear some serious consideration.

A month ago, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, having led his party to a landside victory that changed the Japanese political landscape, resigned from office after less than year. The key issue was that of an US military base on the Okinawa Islands. Japan was bound by a 2006 agreement to move and downsize this base, but the vast majority of the Japanese public wanted the base dismantled altogether, due to the high instance of crimes arising from the US Marines. This was despite a generous rent paid by the US government. Hatoyama, understandably, wishing to retain good relationships with the US, allowed the base to remain. This good piece of statesmanship cost him his office.

Of course, there were other factors that affected his going. But the point remains that a democratic leader had performed an action that benefitted the people (as far as every analyst outside Japan and several inside it were concerned), but was not in their will (and the issue is contentious. For the sake of this argument, it will be easier to accept that Hatoyama made the best decision for the polity of Japan. The point is not whether it is by any financial or military standpoint, but whether this undermines democracy in the Japanese state, or is undemocratic, or shows democracy to be flawed). For the Japanese, this required his resignation as leader. This is Aristotle’s question being played out on the international stage.

Using 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 the people, binding them into another long-term contract that they couldn’t end on whatever terms they wanted. Hatoyama had passed up on an opportunity to increase the democratic power of the Japanese people. On the more progressive definition of democracy, that which has more ideas of representation, Hatoyama’s action is not undemocratic. He has been elected to represent the interests of Japan in the wider world, which reasonably extends to maintaining its budgetary integrity (such as it exists) and relationship with its major export partner and military guarantor. He has made a good decision for the country, without impinging on the fundamental rights of the Japanese people. Here, we invite an answer to the question that says the democratic behaviour is more to do with preserving the democracy than actually being democratic in the strict sense.

In the final wash, it is actually a difficult question to answer. Obviously, capitulating to every whim of the people is not a sensible way to go about government. But then, nor is saying that people are absolutely incapable of making any good decision, and so they should not have a say in their own future. New Labour began to take steps in this direction with the notions of ID cards and the Treaty of Lisbon – for the people’s own good, they said, this legislation had to be enacted. The people could not possibly understand (or even know about) the threats posed daily by terrorists, and could not possibly care about the immensely complex wranglings of the EU. They understood. They cared. Labour could at least have put these important questions to referendum (as promised with Lisbon) or made ID cards a central plank of their election campaign. Then the people would have at least been consulted.

The UK has a good system to deal with this question. We have MPs who are directly elected, and parties who form governments who are indirectly elected. The parties present positions on issues, and the people chose between them; and there is normally enough variation for the people to have a meaningful say. In this way, government does not truckle to the will of the people on every occasion. But nor does it ignore them, or patronise them. It allows room for radical answers to Aristotle, like the one implied in Big Society. It allows room for referenda. Ultimately, the people hold their aristocrats to account, ensuring that the aristocracy does roughly what the people want. It approaches Aristotle’s balanced polity.

I don’t know what you think of your MP. I was involved in three election campaigns during the general election. Different sorts of MPs were returned in the three constituencies. One was a parliamentary veteran, having served on the frontbenches. One was a diligent backbencher, who had not attained significant office, but was still committed. And one was a complete novice to politics, but deeply passionate about his local people and area. They all had a couple of things in common: they were all principled, but all prepared to listen to constituents’ concern. They were all prepared to deny their party whip when it didn’t fit their beliefs, though they broadly stuck to it. They all engaged more with issues than mudslinging.

These MPs, all of whom I consider to be the right sort of person to sit in the Commons, were not simple mouthpieces for the places where they came from, nor idealogues for their parties. But they were not deaf to and silent about the concerns of local people, nor were they unprincipled and spineless. They encapsulated the sort of nuanced answer to Aristotle’s question that democratic politicians must always have in the back of their mind. And they did it with understanding and integrity. And that has to be a good thing, regardless of which party they or you or I support. When you’re next choosing a representative, do not choose a spineless whelp, who will parrot whoever happens to control something he wants. Nor choose a deaf ideologue. Otherwise, we will end up at the undesirable extremes of Aristotle’s question. We need our MPs to have some independent thoughts; if we insist on classical democracy in everything, Aristotle’s question will undermine our state.

One last thought from the ancient world. In the Roman Republic, monuments and dedications were usually couched with the confusing initials SPQR – Senatus Populusque Romanus; the Senate and People of Rome. SPQR represents the tension in the question of Aristotle: that of a (notionally) elected body governing in the people’s interest, but not the people themselves. The Senate and People frequently diverged, but, as a form of government, it lasted from the fall of the kings (c 500 BC) to the rise of Caesar (c 50 BC). And it never really went away, even under the emperors. The last soldiers to fall in its defence died in 1453 AD. And it was resurrected in the US constitution, and the UK consciously used parts of SPQR. It is perhaps sobering to note that Aristotle’s question has such resounding implications even in the best the modern world could do in response.

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 and last on this topic, I shall consider (as I have begun to do) what the concepts and problems of democracy mean for our leaders in the UK. Click here to read the next article in the series.

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  1. […] (On Democratic Behaviour), we established that an elected representative in a Western democracy should walk a tightrope […]

  2. Only just getting round to reading this rather good series, kudos to you.

    The only issue I have so far, which I have no doubt you will cover in depth, is that there isn’t a differentiation between the “will of the people” at a current point in time, and the “will of the people” at a future date. It may be that a policy is unwanted by the people at the time it is implemented, but becomes tremendously popular a few years later; is it, then, democratic when a government performs a policy it knows will be unpopular now but popular later on?

    Furthermore, do you think we’ve gone too far in Enlightenment thinking in believing that people really are rational and essentially good, considering how irrational our behaviour actually is? Do current economic market theories for example, based on the rational utility-maximiser, really work? I would think the latest recession shows it does not.

  3. Thank you Stephen for that praise delivered in classical Greek style. I hope this goes some way towards clarifiying the underlying assumptions of ‘Belgian Elections are Barmy’, which you asked me to do.

    The reason I don’t draw the differentiation between present and future will of the people is that I don’t think it is possible to know the future will of the people. Maybe there are better augurs than me on this, but I think, for the purposes of Aristotle’s question, a leader saying ‘I am doing this because the people will like it, though they don’t yet, when they understand it’ is equivalent to a leader saying ‘I am doing this to benefit the state’. This works on the assumption that every citizen wishes to see his ‘polis’ – communtiy, which is the modern world may equate to anything from continent to village, benefitted, which in my experience is a reasonable assumption.

    Do I think we have followed Enlightenment thinking too far? Perhaps, which is a very Greek answer to give. Our current economic theories are couched in the essential intelligence but not goodness of humanity; it works on the assumption that humans are out for their own gain at all times, which charity prooves they are not (unless you are incrdibly cynical). I think, as John Nash’s game theory becomes better understood, and as people go back and read Adam Smith more thoroughly, people will realise ‘pure greed’ capitalism was not espoused by any of the great economic thinkers. Current economic theories are broadly correct, if we remember to hold two Greek paradoxical Greek maxims in our minds: Heraclitus’ ‘everything flows’ and Parmenides’ ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. Several economists were predicting major bust, they were just ignored. The economy has always had phases of boom and bust. It’s when we start cherry-picking the bits we like of one and the other theory and arrive at an incoherent mish-mash of things which sound nice and don’t work. That’s what Gordon did. But I’m not an economist, and the question of whether this Christian/Enlightenment assumption is true deserves yet another post. By the way, the ancients didn’t have economists. And on several occassions, they solved something equivalent to the banking crisis relatively painlessly. Check out Plutarch’s ‘Life of Caesar’ or the Bible’s ‘Nehemiah’. Sharp people, they were, and without calculators too…

  4. […] 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. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Honduran […]

  5. […] considering the nuances of democracy, intended as something of a response to polarii’s epic summer trilogy. Do take a read of that as well, if you have a spare […]

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