15 Oct 2015

On Democracy

As of late, my efforts in the blogosphere have been somewhat lackadaisical. I do apologise, dear readers; but the work of a writer is varied, and my upcoming novel—the Ark—is no small endeavour. Not only am I continuing with writing it (Chapter Six, as of present time) but I am also receiving feedback from a secret beta-reader.

Furthermore, I have also applied for the annual Jefferson Prize, hosted by the Missouri Review. This has involved a careful consideration of my current poetry, and certain improvements: the Necromancer, for example, has received changes in language and expression to certain strange or overly archaic sentences; other poems, such as Essence and Objet D’Art, have also been edited.

But no matter. Today I shall be writing a relatively brief (but hopefully informative) essay on democracy.

The matter is naturally very complex, and the following assumes basic familiarity both with current political events (such as Osbourne’s ‘Charter of Cuts’) and the principles of political philosophy as elucidated on by the likes of John Stuart Mill, Hobbes, etc. There will also be some matters of economics being debated; but I shall explain those with (I hope) sufficient clarity to avoid prior knowledge requirements.

Anyway: down to business.

Against Democracy—Part One: Tyranny

In any debate concerning systems of government, one must firstly consider what one wishes to achieve and the priorities thereof. Let’s take some basics—good government should be the following:

  1. Just. It must act in a manner that is fair to all members of society: tyranny is something best avoided.
  2. Effective. Not only is effective government desirable generally (no one likes a government perpetually frozen in gridlock, like the American one, or tending to compromise to the point that it pleases neither side) but it is also imperative in meeting the condition above. Bad government results in corruption, incompetence and economic meltdown. A government that wastes its citizens’ money, or reneges on its citizens’ trust, is fundamentally unjust.
  3. Pleasing. It is desirable for government to please all those who differ in opinion; for dictatorships and (to lesser extent) monarchies are often found lacking in engagement with the all opinions present. It is also to some degree necessary for condition 1, since a government run by the few tends to be… for the few, and is once more unjust.

For condition 1, democracy initially seems a good idea. After all: tyrannies usually develop in non-democratic nations—like Syria or Saudi Arabia—due to, in theory, the fact that government is run by a small and very specific minority (typically old, wealthy, religious and powerful men) and not by the people. Hence, the answer is democracy: demos (the people) and kratia (power). Right?

Well, no. Firstly, it is quite plausible for the majority to act tyrannically towards the minority. Uganda is a democratic country, but it behaves tyrannically towards its gay citizens; the US, also a democracy, behaved tyrannically towards black people. Democracy is no guarantee of justice—and the sooner we dispel this myth, the better.

But democracy doesn’t just suffer from the problem coined ‘The Tyranny of the Majority’; it also suffers from the tyranny of the minority. Yes, you heard that right. Governments are highly able to deceive their citizens using outright lies or, more commonly, sophisticated misinformation and obfuscation.

The Commons recently voted against the Assisted Dying Bill by a 2/3 majority. But 80% of the populace supported the Bill, according to the polls (which have predicted general election results quite reliably, for example). Why is there such a disparity? Well, it seems that the House is composed disproportionately of a minority, that is both more religious and has very little experience of what it means to be in hardship.

But suppose the UK was a direct democracy, and not a Republic. What then?

There are several practical problems with direct democracy: the majority of people are busy with work and family, and don’t have time to consider and debate complex issues of government.

But even if the UK was more like Switzerland, there will be other instances when the majority still manage to vote against their own interests. One such example is to do with taxation. Watch the following:

Notice, after around 2:30, the lady who believed the rich should not pay more tax; and yet was on £16K herself? The people earning enough to pay the top rate of tax in this country are on £150K: this is nearly 6 times the median wage, and only 1% of the populace earn it. If the lady were actually making decisions based on her self-interest, she would want the rich to pay more taxes. If they pay more, she pays less. Likewise would the other 99% of people earning less than £150K.

So why doesn’t this occur? The cause lies with ignorance and misinformation. Firstly, the lady may well have been ignorant enough to simply not know this simple fact. But the Tory government and its proponents are also very good at misinformation generally: they claim ‘trickle-down economics’ as a basis for their policies. The trouble is, if the rich get richer everyone else stays where they are. ‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’ may be good rhetoric, but it isn’t good economics.

The theory has already been debunked even by such conservative bastions as the IMF; but let’s briefly examine the claim a priori. How can the rich getting richer make life better for the poor? Why, by buying things from them! If there are more rich people going to the restaurant, the waiters get more tips. Right?

Wrong. The theory fundamentally misunderstands the workings of a trade economy. When the rich buy something from a poor person, they exchange money (a proxy for wealth) with a resource, e.g. being served food. But so too does the poor person exchange money with the rich when they, for example, buy a computer with Microsoft Windows. Is this to say that the poor make the rich richer, and the rich make the poor less poor?

That’s one way to think about it. More correctly, a trade economy is one in which one good is exchanged for another; the goods are equal in value (theoretically, at least) and so all that happens is that one agent exchanges a good they consider less useful with another agent in the same situation. To take an example: consider a baker. He has baked 100 pieces of bread that day; but since he cannot eat 100 pieces of bread, he exchanges 95 of them for a new coat. The taylor, for his part, gets bread for the coat he doesn’t need.

The point is: neither is materially worse off, or better off, following the transaction. All that occurs is that one good, of equal value, is exchanged for another that the persons involved find more useful to them personally.

The Tories use many more such myths to lie to the population. Jeremy Hunt would have you believe that taxing the rich makes them work less; but the empirical evidence doesn’t support him. Not only is there no connection between marginal rates of taxation and earnings in the data, but even countries like Denmark are still highly wealthy despite (it would seem) having marginal rates of taxation in excess of 50%. Indeed, the UK had higher rates under Thatcher, and higher rates still under Churchill. This and other claims I address in further detail here.

Which leads me onto…

Against Democracy—Part Two: Ignorance

The above has shown us that democracy often is tyrannical, either because it is majoritarian or because its citizens are ignorant.

But ignorance is problematic not only for the cause of justice, but also for the cause of effective governance. One prime example is Osbourne’s ‘Fiscal Charter’—or as Labour call it, the Charter of Cuts.

Osbourne’s piece of legislation effectively requires governments to run surpluses under ‘normal times’. The rationale? ‘Saving for a rainy day,’ or, perhaps more fittingly, ‘fixing the roof while the sun is shining.’

All of which is very relatable for the general public. But the general public doesn’t have a degree in macroeconomics; and this is poor economics.

Why? Because it belies an irrational aversion to debt. Debt is not all bad; a business, like for example Apple, borrows money to hire software engineers, to buy processors for their first machines, to build factories, and so on. Should they give all of that up because they have to go into debt to do it? Of course not! We’d never have economic growth otherwise.

And why is it a good idea for Apple to borrow? Because the profits they make from selling their machines far outweighs the cost of their loan.

The situation is precisely analogous in the case of the government. Should the government not borrow to build roads, and allow our manufacturing to grow, our transport to be faster, and the goods from Tescos to be shipped more cheaply? Should the government not borrow to build schools, and teach the engineers and writers and accountants of tomorrow?

But Osbourne’s charter effectively outlaws this. And that, frankly, is stupid.

Furthermore, there is also a great deal to criticise about Osbourne’s little piece of Keynesianism. The idea that governments can save money to pay their way out of future recessions is tempting for the household economists—but national economies are not households. If a government runs a surplus, it is effectively taking resources out of the economy. It is taking schools away, it is taking roads away, and it is taxing everyone to breaking point. Government savings won’t bring us out of recession; it will take us there.

The real way to prepare for recession lies neither with Osbornomics nor with Gordon Brown’s fictitious ‘light-touch’ regulation. The solution lies with preventing the causes of recessions: insane and stupid risks taken by banks.

But I digress. The problem with democracy is that voters simply have no idea of the complexity behind issues of governance. They vote in ill-qualified and dangerous politicians that run bad governments. And the irony? The voters can’t even see it. Until it’s too late.

For Democracy

I make no secret that I have a somewhat dim view of democracy. But there are important reasons to consider for why democracy may be the least inadequate of the many inadequate forms of government (to quote Winston Churchill).

For one, it is true that other forms of government are not without problems. Hereditary monarchies tend to give ill-qualified and unsuitable individuals high office; while hereditary dynasties can lead to oligopolistic and dangerous groups of people controlling the fate of the nation.

Dictatorships have a nasty tendency to lead to tyranny—few men can hold absolute power without temptation. Furthermore, dictators are still human; and individuals are more likely to make errors of judgement than groups of individuals, particularly diverse groups that can disagree.

It seems that the perfect form of government would allow the people to make their own choices, except where they are stupid; after which a benevolent, omniscient governor will intervene. Or perhaps the people may be wise enough to avoid making stupid decisions to begin with.

Since the former is implausible, and other forms of governance are yet even more inadequate, there is only one conclusion to be drawn here. We must continue with democracy. But it must be a better democracy. For the key behind good democracy—or indeed good governance in general—is in defeating ignorance.

Ignorance: The Root of Bad Democracy

Democracy is a misunderstood idea. The purpose of democracy, as we have seen, lies not in populism and majoritarianism; indeed, these are the very vices of democracy. The idea behind democracy is really quite simple: it’s not as bad as the alternatives. And to make it any good, we must free ourselves of believing that decisions made by the majority are in any way sacrosanct.

No: good democracy lies with reason, debate, and evidence. It is therefore crucial that the general populus is well educated; that our information is accurate, and if not unbiased then at least from multiple points of view; and that we consider carefully the matter of who can vote, and how.

The UK suffers from poor governance for many reasons. First among these is education—or our lack thereof. The UK does not have any formal politics or economics taught in school; and this, quite simply, is a problem. A lack of familiarity with the basic principles of economics allows dangerous ideas to foment and spread. A lack of political awareness, and of historical awareness, can lead to citizens accepting political soundbites na├»vely and unquestioningly.

Indeed, many of our citizens seem to lack even basic education. They lack critical thinking; the ability to look at statistics and counter-check claims; and some of them are just plain ignorant.

The Tory government likes to implicitly feed the myth that there is a large number of illegal and spurious benefit claimants—the ‘scroungers’ to use their terminology—happy to leech off the hardworking taxpayer to buy flat-screen TVs. If our citizenry could actually read the statistics published by the government’s own agencies—the ONS estimates that only 0.9% of claims are fraudulent—or even apply basic critical thinking (are they still talking about how they’re going to make the benefits system fairer, after being in government for 5 years?), the situation would be very different.

The UK suffers from other problems too. The FPTP voting system is not only disproportionate—read this for more—but also has a nasty tendency to ensure that political parties always retain a share of power no matter what they do. If you happen to like much of what Labour says, but don’t like Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy; or if you happen to think that Cameron might be right on some things, but perhaps the railways should be in public ownership; hard luck for you then! New political parties in Britain cannot rise easily. Why? Because if you vote this new and exciting party—say, the Green Party—you’ll split the left vote. Then the Tories will get the seat.

The final cause for concern is called the ‘media’. Much of it is owned by a right-wing billionaire called Rupert Mudorch. He and his kind are responsible for why much of the public believes in ‘scroungers and skivers’. Why? Because they repeatedly publish the most egregious and infuriating stories of benefit theft their grubby little paws will catch—like this delicious gem:

Daily Mail Benefit Scare

The Mail publishes many more tales such as this. And they may be true. But they’re not the majority—not by a longshot. (I will repeat: 0.9%.) And if our citizens read this regularly—which they do: the Mail is the second most widely read paper in the UK (Wikipedia)—will their perception of benefit theft not be distorted? Will the family on £40k benefits not be on the forefront of their mind when they put the tick next to the Tory box?

Conclusion

My essay has indeed been substantial; nevertheless, I hope I have made my point. Accepting democracy as the least inadequate form of government does not mean accepting that the majority are sacrosanct; it does not mean accepting any ignorant and illogical argument or policy on the basis that it has been voted.

What it does mean? Education, evidence, and critical thinking must become the purlieu of all.

Very well; the Ark beckons. Until then—may the stars be with you…

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