Monday, November 22, 2010

Democracy and its Preconditions

I have a gaming post mostly typed out, but I haven't quite got a way to tie it together quite yet.  I'm also considering an early post-publication overview of the Battleground Dark Elves, who are now out and slowly trickling their way through distribution, but I think that's not for tonight either, and I might wait until I'm confident that all parts of the world can buy them, rather than just those parts that shop at my store.  So my first dedicated gaming update will have to wait.  Instead, since it has already been over a week for various reasons and I don't want this blog to be too neglected, have some more politics.

It is quite trendy, it seems, to claim that your own political system is the best in the world.  There seems to be this idea around that there's some platonic form of leader selection*, and if we can just find it, we'll have discovered the governmental system that is ideal for all peoples, all places, and all times.  Being as this is the United States and we are already prone to flag-waving and overblown exceptionalism, it isn't particularly surprising that it is also widely taken for granted that our system, or at least a similar one, is the ideal.  

In fact, though, this is quite far from the truth - different methods of selecting leaders have different advantages and disadvantages.  If we are to be truly committed to democracy as the ideal form of government, then we need to be committed to certain things about society and our citizens.  Much as Kierkegaard pointed out uncomfortable truths about what it might mean to be Christian**, I'm going to use this post to examine some truths about what has to be true about society for democracy to be an ideal form of government.

First, let's talk about the core part of my argument: that democracy isn't inherently the best form of political system in the world for all societies.  This one actually isn't all that hard, but it is worth going over because it is drilled into us, or at least was in my day, so it took me some time to get over it.  Here goes: ultimately, democracy is a method of selecting leaders.  It doesn't say much about economic systems (you could have a democratic communist state, though of course it might not stay that way) or even about how the leadership is organized once they get there (you could elect a leader for life, for example, and assuming the elections were fair the system would still ultimately be democratic.)  In that sense, the major competition are things like heredity, oligarchy, and so forth.  In all these systems, though, the practical idea should be to get the best leaders possible.  (Of course, what makes a good leader could fill a series of posts, and someday might, but for the purposes of this post, it actually doesn't matter too much.)  In a hereditary system you use lineage, in an oligarchic system market forces, and in a democracy the will of the people.

Now, from the above, the basic issue should be pretty clear: the value of democracy depends on the political ability of your citizenry.  Let's consider an early state where, as often happened, the king of a city, through cunning diplomacy or brilliant conquest, united several nearby cities into an empire, then needed to pick his successor.  In this case, because of the inefficiency of agriculture at the time, the population was overwhelmingly agrarian and uneducated, probably illiterate, and not at all politically active.  Meanwhile, the king likely had a protege, probably a son but perhaps another close relative or a trusted general recruited from an allied state.  The king would be crazy to go to a vote there - his protege is a great bet to continue the policies that brought about his success and to build on them.  In short, if you have a competent ruler and an uneducated population, you'd be crazy to favor democracy over the will of the current ruler, or even over a diluted form like hereditary rule, given that the former monarch will train his or her son or daughter, and is certainly the most qualified to do so.

The practical down side of this, of course, is that eventually you get unlucky; either the ruler dies unexpectedly without picking an heir, or an heir turns out badly despite all appearances, and then the advantage of the system is catastrophically reversed: the power that a good ruler had to perpetuate the chain applies also to bad rulers, who can now apply their incompetence to the issue of the succession.  The great advantage, then, of every system that has laws preventing the current ruler from selecting a successor, is that those systems allow you to recover from bad rulers much more easily.  Of course, you still need to try to make sure that the people doing the selection are the most likely to pick good rulers.

Now, here's where the big risk and the big payoff of democracy both come into play.  If you go for true universal suffrage, rather than some limited form of selection, like tribal elders, or landowners (or white males!) you get the great benefit that your selection of leaders can reflect the will of the entire population.  Your process can hear every voice, and is significantly less prone to the tyranny of the majority and other abuses of power***.  If the majority of people voting, however, will do so in a way that is prone to abuse, or just prone to bad outcomes, then it still might not be a good idea to run a democracy.  I believe avoiding this problem requires a commitment to three things.

First, access to quality education for all people.  This is not surprising, nor need it be a matter of compassion or ethical commitment to education as a pure good, though both of these things are also desirable.  No, in a democracy providing universal quality education is a matter of self preservation - if our conceit is that the people should select their own leaders, then as a society we should be committed to providing our citizens with the tools they need to do so.  These tools are furnished by education, from the simplest, like the facts about how the system itself works, to the context and skills required to think about the complex issues involved in governance.  While some people will educate themselves, if all people are to be the basis for our system of government, then all people should be easily able to become qualified to participate in that government - just as suffrage is universal, so too should access to quality education be universal.

Second, quality political engagement requires not only a good education, but an ongoing engagement with the issues.  People who are trained to be politically conscious and reflective are certainly better voters than those who aren't, but especially with frequent elections, issues change quickly, and keeping up with them is difficult and time-consuming. If people aren't able to remain current, then their ability to decide on the right course of action is damaged.  So a commitment to democracy entails a commitment to an economic system that allows those who work for a living to nonetheless have enough spare time to keep up with politics.

Finally, democracy benefits greatly from communication.  More than any other political system democracy is about building consensus, and about coming together to support ideas and policies.  For this, people need, as already mentioned, the education to assess views and the time to consider them, but they also need access to ideas, especially those they disagree with, and benefit from interaction with those ideas and those who can eloquently defend them.  This final issue then is certainly one of freedom - censorship is anathema to democracy because it denies those making the decisions some of the relevant facts - but also one of purely practical media access.  Whatever the technological basis, democracy requires everyone to have access to information, and ideally to the same information, so as to allow them to engage in debate easily.

In conclusion, then, a commitment to democracy implies a commitment to allowing all of your citizens to choose to be the kind of people you can trust to make informed decisions about the leadership of the country.  This entails three major components, outlined above: initial education, ongoing available time, and ongoing access to the issues and their supporters and opponents.  

If there's some measurable portion of the population that you are systematically denying those components, either as a matter of policy or as a practical upshot of their economic or social situation, then in practical terms your state would be better served by denying those people participation in the political process.

You might argue that in this day and age, for a first world country with access to the level of wealth that the United States has, it would be reprehensible to deny anyone participation in the political process.  I agree without reservation.  That commitment, though, isn't enough, because as shown, it is deeply unwise to include people in the political process who will only damage our ability to select good leaders.  There is, therefore, in my mind one inescapable conclusion: a moral commitment to the value of democracy requires practical commitments to the shape of society.

I think that in this country we are failing in all three of these regards, in some cases spectacularly.  But I am currently failing spectacularly to go to sleep in a timely fashion given I have work tomorrow, so I'm going to end this post here.  Next time, I'll talk about what I think society should look like if we want to have a responsible universal democracy.  (Which I think we very much do.)  Or maybe I'll talk about gaming, who knows.  But for now, I hope this post made you think a little bit harder about the interaction between an ethical system of government and the practicalities of applying it to the real world.

* As far as I'm concerned the whole idea of platonic forms of anything is ridiculous so whenever I say this you can bet I'm not in support of the idea.
** No, I'm not, so I'm afraid I'll never be able to hold American public office, sorry.  Though I did get an A in my bible studies in High School English, much to my teacher's confusion.
*** Assuming you don't have a dumbass first-past-the-post system like we do in the United States and instead insure that the losers still get some say in ongoing governance, but our specific democracy being bad comes after the discussion of whether democracy is a good idea here at this time at all.


  1. Nice post Niko - I'm wondering though, lately, if there isn't a good argument for state authoritarianism on the grounds of effective, decisive decision making capability. Of course, that may just be a question of the specifics of our malfunctioning democracy vs. a well functioning authoritarian state. China's doing well now, e.g. but 40 years ago during the cultural revolution it looked like a terrible idea... So I'm interested in the fundamental question about why is democracy a good idea... and somewhat related, the question of efficiency and decisiveness in a world of increasing complexity, accelerating change, and large scale environmental/resource constraints.

    Also, "First."

  2. Ok, so *this* is a comment I missed for ages because the software didn't notify me - guilt justified!

    Anyway, I think democracy controls certain kinds of excess of authoritarianism, especially with regards to succession and so forth. I'm increasingly convinced that the philosopher-king (or for the modern world, philosopher-civil-service) is the ideal goal: the best people doing what they do best. The problem is that selection methods for that are incredibly difficult because power is desirable to all sorts of people who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near it. Hereditary succession is pretty worthless and civil disorder around power transfers is disastrous. Furthermore, if you limit transfer-of-power to a certain class (for example the Aztecs, where various elders elected each emperor) then you basically just create a complicated lobbying system where people who want to concentrate their power take control of the system either directly or indirectly.

    In theory, democracy should produce the best results because everyone gets a say, so you get some negative feedback against the conflation of power and wealth that tends to result in aristocracy, something I've made note of the importance of before.

    But that's where my post comes in: it all falls apart if you do start developing an aristocracy, because they'll realize that the only way to keep power is to make sure the masses don't get the kind of education they'd need to realize they should under no circumstances vote for the aristocrats.

    Once you get to that point, you're better served with some other method of selecting a leader benevolent and smart enough to get you out of the spiral; within a generation or two you'd be in shape to write a reasonable constitution and go back.

    (I'm also actually pretty sure term limits and super-frequent elections are an awful idea because they lead to this cycle of campaigning where everyone's always waging the next election; good in theory, bad in practice. Much better would be longer terms with easier votes of no confidence IMO, but that ties in to a post I still plan to make sometime about what I'd like to see in a government, rather than what I don't like to see. I just find the "what's wrong -> what would be right" structure nice and elegant.)