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Arguments Against Democracy – Dissecting the Holy Cow of the West

“Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” - Sir Winston Churchill

In many ways democracy has become the 'holy cow' of the west – a thing that we put up on a pedestal which is considered to be beyond all criticism. It is the primary uniting ideal of the west, which draws us together into a broad global allegiance of nations, defines our national culture, and informs our sense of identity. It is the banner under which the United States implements imperial policies, fomenting revolutions and toppling governments alongside her allies under the supposed moral superiority of spreading democracy.

Even within western countries themselves a lively and varied political debate may exist, but it rarely if ever gets so far as to critique the democratic system itself. To criticize democracy itself is almost unthinkable for us. But I would like to suggest that this is not a healthy situation to be in. Nothing should be beyond criticism and everything should be thrown into the ring as part of the debate if we are to truly find the best path forward.

I would like to make it clear, however, that I am not writing this article because there is some other, alternative form of government, which I think would be better. I am not arguing here for us to abandon democracy in favour of a dictatorship, theocracy or anything else. Rather, I would simply like us to recognize the limitations of our current system of government in order for us to be able to improve it. Apart from anything else there are many different ways to create a democratic society, and by acknowledging and understanding the limitations and flaws which democracy can suffer from it may be possible for us to more effectively discern between these various options to create the best possible democratic government. After all, the kind of democracy we have now is very different from the original 'direct democracy' of the first democratic government in ancient Greece, in which citizens voted on individual issues. By the same token, it is likely that the democratic governments of the future will be very different from the ones we have today. Technology, for example, could enable a revival of direct democracy if we chose to take that route.

The Rule of Ignorance

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” - Sir Winston Churchill.

Running a country well is actually quite difficult. It requires a hell of a lot of expert knowledge to even begin to understand the immense complexities of foreign policy, or economics and tax policy, or crime and anti-social behaviour – or any one of the many other things which government claim responsibility for.

Even if you were to spend a lifetime studying one of these disciplines you would often find your level of knowledge and understanding to be insufficient for the job at hand. But in our democratic governments we do not put the responsibility for these things into the hands of people who have spent a lifetime studying them – we put it into the hands of people who generally know nothing about it and probably don't even care anyway.

This begins with the voters. With the best possible will in the world, we cannot all be experts in everything. The average voter spends much of their time working, taking care of children or other family members and maintaining relationships, and taking what little time they can find to relax and enjoy their life and to pursue their own personal interests. They just don't have time to become experts in foreign policy and economics even if they wanted to, and it must also be noted that the vast majority of people simply wouldn't want to anyway. We are therefore putting the most important decisions into the hands of people who would happily tell you themselves that they don't have the foggiest idea, or even worse – who have that little bit of knowledge which is more dangerous than none and who, having come to a conclusion based on limited and possibly faulty information, will forcefully argue their position without even recognizing their own ignorance.

But although this begins with the voter, it does not end there – it even extends to our leaders themselves. In every democracy which I have any significant knowledge about, the leaders who run the nation's government are usually professional politicians. So even at this highest level, our economy is not being run by economists, and our foreign policy is not being run by foreign policy experts. Instead of working their way up through a department of government and succeeding based on their knowledge of the issues and ability to achieve the goals of that department, our politicians succeed based on their rhetoric and ability to communicate the party line, their popularity with the public, and their allegiances and connections within the party. They tend to switch from one department to another because of political manoeuvring and as a result will often find themselves running a department which they, like the public themselves, know next to nothing about and may have very little interest in.

Political polls themselves do not determine who is right about any given issue, and in many cases they do not even determine who has the most commonly held opinion – they simply determine who is the most popular candidate. Think back to your days at school – were the clever kids ever the most popular ones? Were the popular kids the ones who treated their peers with the most kindness and respect, or were they just the most good-looking, confident, and good at promoting and aggrandizing themselves?

The Power Behind the Throne

When people are asked to make important decisions about issues which they do not know much about, they look to trusted opinion makers to tell them the best course of action, and then simply adopt these popular opinions wholesale. Insofar as it is true that the democratic system put the real power in the hands of the people rather than a ruling political elite, it is actually more correct to say that it is these opinion makers who hold the real power to control our government. This power is also dangerously insidious, in that the general public thinks it is them who are exercising this power when in actual fact it is the people who inform their opinions.

This puts a massive amount of power in the hands of the media, through which most people are exposed to these popular opinions. Even today, the traditional 'mainstream media' can exert a great influence over the direction and form of our political debate, and hence the political decisions which we make. Much of this mainstream media is composed of national broadcasters who receive state funding, such as the BBC, Al Jazeera, RT, Voice of America, and so on. Can we trust these to act purely as providers of unbiased news and independent opinion, without being influenced by the interest of the politicians who fund them? Meanwhile, most of the rest of the media is controlled by a very small number of international media empires owned by wealthy oligarchs who have vested interests in the political decisions which our governments make.

Of course the power of the internet, with its 'blogosphere' and social media, has been touted by many as a solution to this problem. But the ability of blogs and social media to challenge the hegemony of this small number of opinion makers may have been overstated. The fact is that social media and blog posts often repeat these same popular opinions, often linking to the original source within the mainstream media. Alternative media outlets have popped up, but they lack the finance to engage in high quality journalism or to compete with state sponsored propaganda channels or media giants. What's more, social media is just as capable of disseminating untruths as it is capable of disseminating suppressed truths or alternative perspectives. Rumours run rife through social media, and flawed analyses which strike a chord with readers who simply skim through things without devoting the time to check them out with a critical eye are more likely to 'go viral' than the dull truth.

It is also true that our politicians must craft 'media friendly' policies. A complex issue will often require a complex an multi-faceted solution - but such solutions do not fit well into a media soundbite. This puts pressure on politicians to come up with over-simplified solutions and may mean that the best slogan, rather than the best policy, will ultimately be the one to win over public support.

Stealing from the Future

Representative democracy, in which we elect representatives to govern on our behalf for a fixed term, suffers from one major problem – a problem which may well destroy our economies and lead to a collapse of western civilisation. The problem is this – nobody is ever fighting the election after next.

When politicians stand for election they must formulate policies and make us promises which cover the next few years. Whoever can promise us the best deal for those few years stands a good chance of getting elected. The problem with this is that it creates a strong incentive to sacrifice long term stability and success for temporary short term gain. When politicians formulate their policies and decide what they are going to offer the public, they often do not care what the impact of their actions would be in 10 years time: that is the problem of another government and other politicians.

Because of this the vast majority of democratic nations have, for many years, been stealing from the future in order to pay for unsustainable promises in the present – and as a result our future is rapidly becoming bankrupt.

This trend can be clearly seen when you look at levels of government debt. Take the US public debt as a percentage of GDP, for example:

It can be clearly seen from the above graph that, although there have been peaks and troughs, there is a very long term and well established trend of rising levels of government debt, whichever party is in government. The same trend can be seen in most democratic countries. This cannot continue much longer without us eventually reaching a point where the debt repayments can no longer be met.

Personally I suspect that the same principle of sacrificing long term success for short term gain is not confined to government borrowing, but is also at play across every other department of government.

Entitlements – Bribing the People

A related problem which may also be adding to our bloated government debt is the issue of entitlements. If people are asked to vote for which option is best for them, they will always vote for the person who will offer them something in return. They will rarely vote to pay more themselves, however. What's more, once a government has given something to people, future generations often consider it to be something they are entitled to, and will react angrily against any politicans who tries to take it away from them. Human nature means that we are more likley to vote in order to protect our own entitlements and win more benefits for ourselves, than to take them away from other people.

This means that there is a constant pressure for governments to give people more and more, without asking them to pay for it.

The Tyranny of Majority Rule

Democracy as it is structure today is the rule of the majority. In the past, and today in dictatorships, you would see the oppression of the majority by a minority. Today we have simply switched that around – minority opinions and minority interests are subjugated to the will of the majority.

This is particularly true in democratic systems with a small number of parties who you can vote for. In this case two visions of the future which have the greatest majority backing are presented to the public. This leaves many people with a choice between two options, neither of which represents their own opinions or desires.

Because this majority rule extends across a wide range of issues, and because there is such great diversity amongst people, this leads to a situation in which most find themselves in the minority on most issues. This turns elections into a choice between the lesser of two evils, rather than a genuine expression of what people want. The ultimate minority, after all, is the individual.

Corruption

Democracy is often presented as a panacea for corruption. Indeed this is one of its greatest strengths compared to most other systems – because if a politician acts in their own interests rather than the public interest while they are in office they can simply be kicked out at the next election (or even before then sometimes) and replaced with somebody better. Because of this corruption is less of a problem in the west that in countries such as China. But it is wrong to think that democracy solves the problem of corruption, because it does suffer from its own unique corruption problems.

The first issue, which is more prevalent in some countries than others, is the fact that in order for a politician to win votes he must get his message out there to be seen and heard by the public. This costs a massive amount of money, most of which is usually provided by wealthy donors. Of course this leads to a suspicion that the politician receiving these funds will end up 'in the pocket' of those wealthy donors, acting in their interest rather than the interests of the public wherever they can get away with it. There are indeed examples of this happening, but there is also a broader and more structural problem. An individual politician doesn't need to change their policies to please their donors for the wealthy political backers to exert a great control over the government – because that individual politician wouldn't have got the funding they needed to get elected in the first place if they didn't want the same things as those wealthy backers.

The fact, mentioned above, that our politicians are generally career politicians rather than experts in a specific field of government also means that they will often look to expert advisers and other outside guidance to inform their decisions. Giant corporations are all too happy to pour huge amounts of money into providing this advice, which may not be impartial (to say the least).

Another form of corruption unique to democracy is 'clientism', in which a politician promises extra money for a key demographic or constituency which they need to please in order to win an election, at the cost of others, in order to effectively buy their votes.

Democracy is Impossible Anyway

We may call our governments democratic, but in actual fact no country has been able to come up with a way to establish a full democracy.

Firstly, a true democracy would require completely transparent government. All state secrecy would have to be swept away, because if people are not provided with the full facts about what their government is doing and plans to do in the future, they cannot possibly make a free decision about whether their representatives are doing a good job or which politicians to vote for in the future.

Also, in a democratic system, your vote only counts if you pick the winner – all other votes count for nothing. These 'wasted votes' leave a large section of the population having had no say in what their government does. In some systems with more than two candidates it also encourages 'tactical voting', in which people vote for the only person who can beat their least preferred candidate, rather than voting for what they actually believe in themselves, in the knowledge that a genuine vote for their favourite candidate would become one of these wasted votes.

Categories: Politics


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