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Sunday, September 21, 2014

The problem with democracy

Last week's Scottish referendum has lit a match to other firecrackers in this country and elsewhere - Belgium and Spain, for example. But how far (and in what way) should the collective will of the people be sovereign?

The sense of being effectively disenfranchised by a remote political elite leads to calls for localism and direct democracy, an example of which is the Harrogate Agenda:

The trouble is, any system can be gamed. The strategy and tools merely vary according to the way the game is set up.

The birthplace of democracy is said to be ancient Athens, and the classical scholar Peter Jones in The Oldie magazine runs a column in which he often compares current affairs with how matters were settled by the Athenians, who voted en masse on everything, in their weekly assemblies. Yet this democracy excluded women, and the slaves on which the city's economy largely depended. Not everyone's interests were represented.

And even for those who had a voice, there was the question of how their decisions were influenced. The way to game a system based on debate and voting is to refine the arts of persuasion, so that emotion can sometimes not assist but overcome reason. Set against Socrates, who asked questions to get at the truth, were the sophists such as Gorgias, who held that nothing really existed and who gave answers simply to sway opinion. Socrates was forced by his enemies - who persuaded the Athenian assembly - to drink poison at the age of 71, when he was still in good shape; Gorgias lived to 108.

As well as his opponents, the skill of the orator can ruin his supporters, and even himself. Demosthenes, reputedly the greatest speaker in history, caused Athens to resist the Macedonians, and it was only by the earnest pleading of Phocion with Alexander the Great that the city was spared the destruction visited on Thebes. Phocion also persuaded Alexander to give up his demand for Demosthenes and other crowd-rousers to be delivered up to him, which gave the orator a few more years of life (until he had another go at the Macedonians).

A modern example of the deadly persuader would be Adolf Hitler, whose speeches were electrifying even though he was eventually off his head with the cocktails of drugs he took daily. In the latter stages of World War Two the Allied decided to stop trying to assassinate him, because we were more likely to win with him still ruling his roost and terrifying his general staff.

Ultimately, democracy can be used to annul itself. The French Revolutionary Assembly quickly turned into a reign of terror that consumed its own leaders. Democracy turns to mobocracy and the rise of cliques and strongmen, as the Communists - heirs of Gorgias as far as respect for the truth is concerned - well know. Those who advocate local democracy can look across to the USA and see how wrong it can go in some communities - judges and police chiefs making decisions with an eye to re-election - just as democracy is failing in the nation as a whole, with a developing media-and-law-buying oligarchy that even the Federal Reserve chairman Janet Yellen can't quite deny.

And those who think referenda are the universal answer might like to watch Peter Cook's 1970 film, "The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer". What the Wikipedia synopsis doesn't make clear is how the antihero becomes a dictator: he offers the public the power to take part in all law-making via referenda , so that the ordinary man finds himself fretting at home over proposed legislation while his tea is getting cold, and eventually the people decide to leave it all in Rimmer's hands.

Nor do the people speak with one voice. I think it's an American spin doctor who describes the electorate as "a bag of magnets", that is, groups of people who feel strongly on both sides about issues and about other groups, so that the art is not to please all but to get a small majority polarised in the direction chosen by the manipulator.

Majority voting is not only decisive, but divisive, as we now see north of the border. Members of the minority have become sharply conscious of the numbers that share their view, and there will be work to do in reconciling the two sides. It is not enough that the greater number should have their will; their defeated opponents must agree to abide by the result.

Debate continues about voting systems and how fair they are, and we saw in 2011 how the Establishment united and fought hard against proportional representation. This misleads us into viewing the political crisis as psephological. It is not.

Far more important is what unites the community through its differences: a sense of common identity, equality for all under the law, the preservation of individual rights and liberties, and the justified expectation that by obeying the law and applying oneself it is possible to better one's economic condition. In these aspects there have been grave failures by the political elites and the magnates within and outside the country who have their ear.


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The Arthurian said...

Excellent post.

People always seem to think that political solutions -- be they the dismemberment of a Union that works, or the binding together of separate sovereign nations -- can solve economic problems. They cannot.

A K Haart said...

"The trouble is, any system can be gamed."

Any system will be gamed by all players, even voters to some extent. The trouble is voters aren't very good at it.