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Why I hate democracy June 20, 2009

Posted by Michael Kowalski in whatever.
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Ok, I’m being slightly linkbaitish there. What I really mean is, why I hate “democracy”.  The word, not the concept.

Because actually, there are two quite distinct concepts covered by this word.

First, there’s “democracy” meaning a sort of fuzzy ideal of power by the people for the people, where each individual holds as much sway as the next.

Then there’s “democracy” meaning a system of government practiced in one form or another across much of the world.

It ought to be pretty obvious that these two concepts have very little to do with each other. Oh, they did back when the Greeks came up with the notion (if you discount women, slaves and foreigners). But they parted ways a long time ago. As far as I know, there is no country in the world that practices democracy in the 1st sense, though no doubt the technology exists to make it possible even with large populations.

Let’s take the specific case of the UK, where I currently live. In the UK, we have a multiple-choice election once every five years. Generally speaking, it’s a multiple choice without any correct answers. We don’t get to vote for the prime minister (the ruler). We don’t get to vote for who’s in the cabinet (the ruling body). Technically speaking, we don’t even get to vote for the governing party: all we get to vote for is our local representative, who may or may not toe their party line (mine doesn’t). What if you like the party but don’t like your representative, or vice versa? Tough. Most people (me included) live in safe seats, so the result of our particular vote is anyway a foregone conclusion. But here’s the killer: we don’t get to vote on any specific items of policy.

It’s hard to conceive of a voting system where your vote counted for less (unless the vote is actually rigged—more on that later). It would be much better if we all used a different term for this system of government, say “elective government”.

This reached farcical proportions for me in the last election. The key issue as far as I was concerned was ejecting Tony Blair, a man I regard as a war criminal. But my local MP is a noted “maverick” who no doubt felt much the same way. So, if I voted for him, was I voting anti-Blair (my MP), or pro-Blair (my MP’s party)? I couldn’t find a resolution to this puzzle so I didn’t vote. But that’s an extreme case. The norm is, I’m in a safe Labour seat so my vote is anyway worthless. Hey, once I lived in a safe Tory seat! Then my vote was worthless in a different way.

Some countries have slightly better systems than the UK, eg. with an element of proportional representation. But still, none of them are real democracies in that 1st sense of the word. They are all about allowing for minor, periodic changes in the ruling elite.

Would it be a good idea to introduce democracy? I’m not sure. I’d like to see some country give it a whirl, but preferably not Britain, which I expect would effectively end up ruled by Rupert Murdoch with the connivance of a slew of celebrities. The truth is (or we suspect it is) that our ruling elites are more progressive and liberal than the population at large: yes, even the rightwing elites (Bush the 2nd is maybe an exception here, which is why we in the rest of the West found him so disturbing). The poster child here is minority rights, where governments have lead the way and populations followed. Look at the rise of gay rights in the UK, pushed forward by the government while the general population was perhaps rather doubtful: but some years later, and the opinion polls show a big shift in public attitudes. If we introduced direct democracy now, I doubt these changes would be rolled back. But other liberalisations, down the line? Who knows.

What annoys me about all this is that people constantly confuse these two usages. They start waxing about democracy in a way that implies it is both this idealised good AND our system of government (random example from memory: the last chapter of Wikinomics was an offender)

OK, so yeah, I’m working my way round to Iran. Looks like the current elite rigged their election ineptly (though weirdly, it seems as if it was an election they would have won anyway). I find it hard to care much. Yes, it’s bad that they rigged the vote. You should at least abide by the rules of your farce: but that doesn’t stop it being a farce. I’d like to see Iran have a better government, just like I’d like to see our good allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt have better governments (hey, I’d like to see the UK have a better government, come to that). Specifically, I’d like to see Iran with a less religious government.

But it’s got nothing to do with democracy.



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