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One cheer for democracy and no cheers for real democracy

I like this, towards the end of a long comment from Michael Strong, on this piece by Clay Shirky:

Democracy is a fabulous way to prevent the most horrible errors such as the massive famines, death camps, and large-scale wars of aggression that are characteristic of totalitarian regimes, but one should no more imagine that democracy is a finely-tuned instrument for determining the public good than that a hack saw is suitable for brain surgery.

“Deliberative” democracy, i.e. the sort less like a hack saw, doesn’t work beyond about 10,000 people, he says.

See also Amartya Sen, who also admires what the hack saw can do.

Being an American with a knowledge of history, Strong does not claim that democracy prevents civil war. But I would say that democracy does make civil war far less likely, provided certain other conditions are also met, like a relatively static political entity and not too much tribal voting (i.e. a willingness of at least some voters to vote this way or that way, depending).

In many ways (but not the most important ways), democracy is civil war. Which is precisely why it works as well as it does as a substitute for civil war. Whoever wins the democracy civil war would probably also have won the real thing, using not unrelated methods – bribes, threats, propaganda barrages, opinion polls, friendliness towards turnable enemies, treachery towards dependable friends, and so on and so forth. That being so, the losers take their defeat. Instead of contesting the result of the election by force (i.e. starting a real civil war) they wait for the next round.

Which, by the way, means that the reasonable certainty that there will be a next round is crucial to democracy’s effectiveness. It is often said of Hitler that he was impeccably democratic. He was indeed democratically elected, but promptly cancelled all subsequent elections. At best, democratically speaking, he scores one out of two. Other political strong-arm men, who got power by old fashioned civil warlike methods, but who then left a democratic legacy, that is, they contrived (or at least permitted) the circumstances which would allow elections in the future, get denounced as “totally undemocratic”, when they also score one out of two. And which election matters more, the last one, or the simple fact of the next one, when it comes to how safe and sound life would be right now?

None of which means that I love democracy, merely that I prefer it to civil war, famine, concentration camps etc.. Cue clichés about democracy being the worst system, except … More to the point, here’s what looks like another quite good link to the sort of notions I and Michael Strong agree with.

One of the many reasons why I would like to live for more like the next two centuries, rather than the mere two decades which is my likely best shot, is that I would love to see what happens to democracy in the next little clutch of decades. Currently, it is just growing and growing in strength, for all of the above reasons. I’m not the only one who wants a quiet life, and will settle for a disappointing one if that’s the price to be paid. But, will democracy last? Will it, for instance, attach itself to the emerging government of the world which I believe we are now witnessing in our time? If it does, will it then do anything to prevent global civil wars? If democracy fades, what might replace it?

When I say “democracy” please understand that by that I mean big noisy elections deranging regular television for weeks at a time, political parties, legislative assemblies of self-important bores, lying, cheating, thieving, grandstanding, moral self-aggrandisement and relentless disappointment for almost all concerned, bar only a tiny few particularly rapacious and particularly lucky winners. I do not mean that fatuous construct of political malcontents known as “real democracy”, as in: everything the malcontent wants from democratically elected politicians, however far fetched, such as financial security for all (especially him), equality for all (ditto), openness of decision-making (by others rather than in the unlikely event that he is deciding anything of importance), environmental perfection, and immediate answers to his mad letters or emails to politicians, telling him that his mad arguments, no matter how numerous or how many CAPITAL LETTERS they may contain, have all triumphed.

Speaking of political malcontents, what I want is free markets in everything, a cheap internet connection, a cheap digital camera with a twiddly screen which takes perfect pictures with just the one (mega-mega-zoom when I want it) lens, and to stay comfortably alive for at least the next two centuries (see above). But, I never refer to these desires as “real democracy”.

8 comments to One cheer for democracy and no cheers for real democracy

  • RRS

    Presumably most who come here would accept that Democracy is a process and not a condition.

    It is a process of variants affected by many factors, but it’s principal function is to achieve some desired (or necessary) form of representation for those affected by the exposures of, or within. a particular social grouping.

    In that regard one might look at the more recent works of Douglas North, et al., with respect to “Violence.”

  • Mat

    Democracy is a system of two halves: the method by which a government is chosen and the method by which is removed. Indeed, I would argue that it is the latter which is the more important. For therein lies its principal benefit: the method by which rulers may be removed from power without a fight/coup/civil war. It is therefore entirely misleading to characterise Hitler as even half a democrat.

  • Rich Rostrom

    [democracy[ is just growing and growing in strength

    I disagree. Both here in the U.S. and especially in the EU, the unelected elite of bureaucrats and “statesmen” and rent-seekers have subverted democracy and substantially eliminated it.

    Authority has devolved to judicial bodies and regulators. In the US, legislators have adapted the electoral system to render popular sentiment largely impotent. Not by fraud, but by manipulating district boundaries (while still rigidly following 1-man/1-vote rules); and by not doing anything too obviously rotten.

    It’s a natural result of adaptation to selection pressure – like bacteria developing antibiotic resistance.

  • RRS:

    it’s principal function is to achieve some desired (or necessary) form of representation

    Representation is only a technical aspect of it, with the substance being influence (or pressure, in more extreme cases).

  • David Lucas

    Truely insightful Brian. I am so fed up with people who decide democracy has failed because they don’t get the result they want. Like all the tedious anti-cuts student wunderkind.

    The most fundamental aspect of democracy is definitely facilitating the non-violent removal of a government.

    Not sure it is healthy though. When governments are being told they can’t do this or that because of expansive judicial interpretations of treaty obligations then there will be a constitutional crisis.

  • Whoever wins the democracy civil war would probably also have won the real thing

    I’m not so sure about that, Brian (not saying you’re wrong, just that I’m not sure). It depends on how one identifies the actual antagonists, taking care not to confuse them with their proxies.

  • Paul Marks

    On world government (or “world governance” – or other such things):

    Without cheap space travel (and realistic places to go to) world government (whether a formal state or a lot of “agreements” and “cooperation” by governments) will mean world tyranny.

    One need not worry about if it will mean tyranny – it will mean it almost automatically (because the basic reason that all governments do not expand without limit is not the wisdom of voters – but because people and business enterprises start to move to other places).

    Whether world rule was democratic or not hardly matters – government would become total (as there would be nowhere for people and business enterprises to move to) either way.

    By the way that is why a libertarian (just like a real reactionary conservative) should have opposed such things as the Italian and German unification movements of the 19th century – of course unification meant bigger governement, that is only natural (people who expected unfication to lead to a roll back of the state ignored both experience and reason). The American example is complicated by the fact (and it is a fact) of slavery – and also (almost forgotten today) the neo totalitarian politics of Jefferson Davis and co (they made Lincoln, a Henry Clay style Whig interventionist, look free market by comparison).

    Defending the independence of the Grand Dutchy of Tuscany or the Kingdom of Hanver is hardly the same thing as defending the “Slave Empire” (with its plans of conquest for the West of the United States – and on into Latin America…. a warrior elite maintained by slavery, the vision of how certain people viewed such ancient powers as Sparta).

    “Lenin” may have thought that people would “vote with their feet” for collectivism – but, in reality, that does not tend to happen.

    On the contrary people (even people with collectivist ideas) tend to go from areas of low respect for private property rights (by either governments or private criminals) to areas of higher respect for private property rights – for they do not tend to like the consequences of high taxes (high government spending, high regulations and so on) even if they do not understand what causes these bad consequences.

    Make it harder for people to “vote with their feet” and the pressure to keep government from becomming total is reduced.

    A world government?

    Bascially “game over”.


    Of course total government leads (eventually) to economic breakdown and chaos.

    In short the wonderful world state would not (in the end) lead to the sort of “Star Trek: New Generation” society that the left crave.

    It would really lead (after a while) to a new Dark Age (bloodsoaked chaos) and on a world scale.

    Actually there is no reason why things like the Republic of Andorra or the Princedom of Liechtenstein should not continue – even if humanity is a galaxy wide civilization.

    And it is essential that political diversity continues on this planet – whilst humanity is NOT in such a civilization.

    In fact there is a reason why the real (as opposed to notional) independence of countries should be eliminated – but only an ideological one.

    People who are ideologically offended by different regulations (and different tax rates and so on) applying in different places.

    And such people are rather unlikely to be friends of ours.

  • Paul Marks

    As for democracy…..

    Perhaps local experience should be observed.

    The Manchester liberals denounced the evil Tory Corporation of Manchester – yet when the great Muncipa Reform Act of 1835 arrived, local taxes went UP (they did in most other places as well). All the promises of less of a burden on local taxpayers (and under the Act of 1835 only local rate payers had the vote) vanished like snow in a fire.

    The one place where the Act did not apply was the City of London – which, by the admittedly low standards of government, has not been badly governed since then.

    Also evidence that this island was better governed after the various democratic reforms than it was when most seats in the House of Commons were under the control of local landowners, is not known to me.

    On the other hand I can think of large scale democratic places which are not very badly governed.

    For example (in Europe) Bavaria springs to mind.

    And (in North America) Alberta and South Dakota spring to mind.

    The key seems to be is to have the part of “the right” win every election (without a break) for many decades.

    Once the left are in power (either for a long period of time – or even just for one term) they will do terrrible things and these things will not tend to be reversed when and if they lose an election.

    Also when there is a contest – the leadership of the party of “the right” will tend to get the leadership of the party of “the left”.

    Heath and Wilson – Johnson and Nixon, Blair and Cameron.

    Both parties (in such a system) ternd, in some ways, to become like each other – and to concentrate on the short term (flashy high spending projects – and wild attempts at “modernization” in order to remain “relevant”) rather than maintaining stable conditions.

    Stable conditions so that people and private associations (not the state) can change and develop things. Efforts by the state to “lead society” are not good – and election contests do tend to be contests of such visions of “leading society” (the visions, at heart, often tend to have much in common).

    By the way – that is also a problem with strong monarchies.

    There is always the danger of a “reformer” comming to the throne – by accident of birth.

    Of course there is such a thing as real reform – i.e. getting rid of long standing abuses so that people are more free (as opposed to less free) to develop things. But modernizers are very unlikely to be interested in real reform – after all it makes them less important.