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29 November, 2012

One and a Half Cheers for Democracy

Democracy is under attack. Almost every regime claims to be democratic, even the most tyrannical, with the inevitable consequence that the manifest failings of such regimes tarnish the name they have appropriated for themselves. Who would enthuse about the GDR (German Democratic Republic)?

 It is partly the result of the Second World War.  It was reasonable then for Britain and America to portray themselves as democracies (and avert their eyes from the totalitarianism of Soviet Russia) in the battle against Nazism without enquiring into what precisely were the democratic elements in their systems of government, and what was owed to a long tradition of constitutionalism and the rule of law. But now precision is needed. Churchill's defence, that democracy is less bad than all the alternatives, lacks cogency unless serious consideration is given to the possible alternatives. And Americans who look back to the founding of their constitution are made uncomfortably aware that many of the founding fathers distrusted democracy and devised the constitution to avoid its dangers.

But democracy does have real merits. It confers status on each voter, and enables him to identify with his country, and to feel that what it does is something that he wants done.  It also provides, peculiarly well, for peaceful change of government.  Churchill could be voted out of office. The Americans, though often bitterly divided during a presidential election, nevertheless accept the verdict of the vote.  Had that principle been accepted, nobody need have died in the Arab Spring, since a simple count would have revealed whether the protesters were merely a minority, as the regime claimed, or whether they had the public support they claimed to have.

 But these merits are hedged about with qualifications. To vote a government out is to vote another government in.  But would that be an improvement?  The choice is limited, usually to just two political parties. The choice between the Ins and the Outs is a choice within a duopoly, with the two parties having a lot in common. A ballot paper does not have a box ``For none of the above''.  In an election one cannot simply vote against: one must vote for.  In many cases the voter is left with a choice between two members of the political elite, both pursuing their class interests rather than those of the people who elect them.  A French observer once noted that a Socialist Deputy had more in common with a non-Socialist Deputy than either had with their constituents.

 Still, having a vote is a good thing.  It is a mark of being a citizen who has a say in the law, and not just a subject to be bossed about and simply told what to do. But it is a stylized say.  At the end of a discussion, if no consensus has emerged, we may take a vote, which gives each person a voice, but only to answer the question put to him.  As the number of voters increases, the opportunity of framing the question decreases. Hence the very limited choice available in a general election.  The inverse relation between size and say is of general application.  In most families, everybody has a say, and in a jury each juryman has considerable clout.  A governing body or cabinet of twenty has less power than one of only twelve, and when the number reaches sixty, most of the power has leaked away into the hands of the chairman and administrative staff.  If citizens are to have an effective say on anything, it must be through membership of relatively small bodies---juries, parish councils, local voluntary groups, and the like, where each person's voice can be heard and heeded.  Small is participatory, as well as beautiful.

Having a vote is a good thing, but not all that good.  he trouble is that others people have them too, and may outvote me. They may think that Jane would be a good wife for me, and that I should marry her.

But I don't want to. Although I can live with being outvoted on some public issues - whether to come out of the Common Market or not - I cannot live with a wife not of my own choosing. (Of course, I cannot have a complete say - Jane may be wooed, but not won; she must be as much entitled to say "No'' as I myself.  It is not a sole effective voice I crave, but a one-way veto.)  I, and Jean, must be allowed to say "No'' to things that peculiarly concern us.  Vetoes are more important than votes, and although having a vote is a good thing, it does not by itself convert a form of government into a democracy we should admire. Tyrants regularly describe their regimes as `"Democratic'', and often stage-manage elections.  When in the past half century Imperial powers have invaded foreign countries, they have tried to make them into Western-style democracies with real elections; but the results have been disappointing, and dubiously justify the initial incursion.  Democracies thus characterized, have no more divine right than kings.

If we are to give a serious defence of democracy, we need to think of the people as composed of individuals, and though what the people collectively want is important, what individuals need is important too, and on some issues more important.  The rule of law, the respect for life and liberty come first.  It is good also to be a recognised participant in the affairs of State, but in the nature of the case such participation must be only occasional and limited.  For the individual to be able to fulfil himself as a social being, he must have some say in many smaller groups where his voice will be heard and carry weight.  And although a vote is a sort of voice when it has proved impossible to reach general agreement, it is only if there is a general atmosphere of valuing consensus and seeking to achieve agreement if possible, with a concomitant readiness to hear and heed the arguments put forward by those who disagree, that casting a vote has a sustainable significance.

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