Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Could Democracy Become Obsolete?

It has become the conventional wisdom that democracy has established itself as the only viable path for a nation to follow in order to attain a stable long-term future. China’s experiment, for example, has been deemed a failure waiting to happen. But the world changes: societies evolve, capitalism evolves, political philosophies evolve, individuals evolve—even religions change over time. Is there any reason to believe that what we call democracy today will somehow withstand all the turmoil about it and continue to be viewed as the ideal form of government?

To be more precise, we will define democracy as a political system in which citizens, via their votes and other means of expression, select representatives to run the government for them. It is assumed that these representatives are at least somewhat answerable to the will of those who elected them.

Two recent articles have raised questions about the stability of democracy in a changing world.

In the New York Review of Books there is an article: On Intellectuals and Democracy by Tony Judt. This short piece was excerpted from his book Thinking the Twentieth Century which has recently been posthumously published. Judt died in 2010 from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) which rendered him ever more physically incapacitated as the disease progressed. His wife, Jennifer A. Homans, provided a beautifully written companion piece in the same issue, Tony Judt: A Final Victory, that describes what he went through in producing that book and two others in the two years between diagnosis and death. Anyone interested in Judt’s life and his work will want to read this.

The second article is by Vladislav Inozemtsev (VI): The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy. It appeared in The American Interest.

Both Judt and VI agree that democracy, as defined above, is not a prerequisite for a free and stable society. From Judt:

"If you look at the history of nations that maximized the virtues that we associate with democracy, you notice that what came first was constitutionality, rule of law, and the separation of powers. Democracy almost always came last."

They also believe that democracy bears within itself defects that can corrupt a successful society. Again, from Judt:

"The Churchillian dictum that democracy is the worst possible system except for all the others has some—but limited—truth. Democracy has been the best short-term defense against undemocratic alternatives, but it is not a defense against its own genetic shortcomings. The Greeks knew that democracy is not likely to fall to the charms of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, or oligarchy; it’s much more likely to fall to a corrupted version of itself."

In Judt’s view, materially-satisfied citizens have difficulty focusing on the common good rather than on their own immediate interests.

"Democracies corrode quite fast....They corrode because most people don’t care very much about them....The difficulty of sustaining voluntary interest in the business of choosing the people who will rule over you is well attested."

VI takes this latter thought even further.

"The point is that a citizen’s basic rights in Western democracies are secured more by laws and norms duly observed than they are by democratic action. In such circumstances voting becomes less freighted and consequential an act. It becomes something to do with spoils, not principles. Democracy becomes less important as the gains it once helped to secure become firmly institutionalized."
"Democracy presumes, or it ought to presume, civic participation in the creation of institutions; that is what justifies a citizen’s acquiring benefits from those institutions. Instead, the contemporary meaning of democratic equality has acquired a sense it never possessed before. It has ceased to be tethered to any sense of obligation and, especially in the social welfare democracies of Europe, has become a foundation for a categorical demand for the redistribution of material and social benefits."

The emphasis is mine. How often do people actually vote to raise significantly their own taxes? Do they vote driven by principle, or by the spoils of victory—lower taxes on themselves. Will comfortable citizens vote for a universal healthcare plan because it will help others—or will they vote against it because it might cost them a little extra? There is plenty of evidence as to the answers to those questions.

VI also raises a concern about democracy and the potential for human fairness in multicultural societies.

" democracy likely to be stable or effective in a country divided into ethnic or religious communities, especially in a situation where one stable majority and many minorities coexist? Protection for minority rights is all well and good, but can majorities be expected to respect limits on their own power and minorities to tolerate subordination in perpetuity? In other words, isn’t democracy in such circumstances a formula for civil strife and state collapse?"

One might characterize the entirety of US history as a series of attempts to deal with majority vs. minority conflicts. European countries stabilized as democracies after ethnic groups were separated and swept back to their home nations after World War II, but now are having troubles contending with immigrants from Islamic cultures. As the US has survived, so will the European countries survive, but what do their examples tell a new country about the positives and perils of democracy?

VI’s most interesting concern about democracy is its inability to deal with the issue of competence in a complex modern society. Democracy assumes that the average citizen is capable of understanding the issues of importance to be voted on. It also assumes that the representatives that a voter might choose are also capable of understanding the issues facing the country they wish to run. One must spend only a few minutes listening to the current political discourse in the US to become greatly concerned not only with the future of the country, but with the future of the world.

The nature of political discussion has been fundamentally altered. There was a time when people learned about social issues through discussions with neighbors. Now information is imprinted in our brains by the one-way flow from media sources. Unbiased media are afraid to separate truth from nonsense, while the biased media seek to indoctrinate, rather than to enlighten.

Given that universal suffrage was not responsible for the modern states we live in, its demise would not necessarily alter the basic societal characteristics that allowed for the emergence of democracy in the first place. VI suggests that democracies may eventually have to relax to a system in which issues can be voted on only by those competent to understand the issues.

"Perhaps a new, more multi-tiered version of democracy can be produced wherein certain citizens earn the right to participate in certain more difficult and complex decisions."

This issue of competency is real, but VI can suggest no viable mechanism for addressing it other than raising the general education level to unattainable heights. He suggests that technocrats may be a better option for running a country than elected politicians. But consider the economic state of the Western democracies. Would it be possible to turn matters over to an exalted group of economic theorists to determine a plan of action? Which group of exalted experts: those that believe that up is down—or those that believe that down is up? Technical experts can adhere to unreasonable theories and hypothesis as adamantly as any partisan politician. Like everyone else in government, they must be answerable to someone—even if it is a politician. The system has worked for generations.

VI fears that most citizens are unable to contribute to complex issues, while Judt feared that they had lost the interest and the will to concern themselves with the details. Perhaps it is being faced with a contentious and complex problem that is necessary to arouse the interest of an otherwise complacent electorate. In that context, handing issues off to technocrats is perhaps counterproductive.

Judt sees inherent problems for democracies, but believes they can be overcome.

"And the reason why we need intellectuals, as well as all the good journalists we can find, is to fill the space that grows between the two parts of democracy: the governed and the governors."

VI is pessimistic about democracy (he is Russian after all!) and fears for the worst. He brings up valid points, Perhaps his most compelling argument is the one that convinces us that there are many ways to construct a society—and it need not look like our own. We who, 150 years later, are still trying to bring the Civil War to a conclusion, should hesitate to tell others how to run their nations.

VI suggests that others have taken a look at the Western democracies stumbling about and have decided to try other things.

"Then something strange happened: New electoral democracies arose that were unaligned with liberal institutions. Last year, Freedom House named 115 countries as electoral democracies, but only 87 evinced Western standards of rights and freedoms. This would have been unthinkable half a century ago. We now have electoral democracies that are not liberal and we have liberal societies, like Singapore, that are not electoral democracies."

Good luck to them all.

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