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The Problem with Democracy



Present day lawyers would define democracy as the form of government in which the sovereign power resides in and is exercised by the whole body of citizens directly or indirectly through a system of representation. Put more simply, the above definition means that democracy is a system where ordinary citizens have a meaningful and compelling role in the affairs of the State, including the formulation of policy and the development and implementation of legislation.




Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

(April 26, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) This article is not intended to denigrate the genuine, erudite and substantial statesmen in a democratic political system. It is, however, meant to point out the ominous dangers of the use of “democracy” by those who are absolutely unaware of the true meaning of the word.

The initial problem with democracy is its self serving parochialism and the monotonous regularity in which it has evolved as a condescending social construct between the affluent elite and the poor masses. No one doubts that democracy is an ancient concept, but not many would know the disturbing truth that ancient Greek and Roman civilizations practiced a democracy that was deeply reliant on their sustenance through slavery and an expanding slave population that they needed to control. In ancient Greece the Athenian government which was governed “by the people” excluded many categories on non-citizens such as slaves, women, foreigners, prostitutes and others of questionable morals and birth from the process of “democratic” governance. William G. Gardner, in his book “The Trouble with Democracy” makes the clear statement that democracy is just a technique for deciding the distribution of power in society. In other words, it is a tool for deciding which individuals and institutions would be sharing the fruits of power by coercion. Gardner calls democracy a theory of power where once an election is over, there is nothing said about the rights or freedoms of those who voted for the losing party, except that they have the right to grab power the next time in the same manner.

One worrisome example that has been cited is that of two neighbouring countries where one is rich and has 10 million people and the other is poor and has 100 million people, mostly subsistence farmers who can barely meet their daily expenses. The harvest fails. Starving, the poor country asks the rich country for financial assistance. The rich country, eager to help, holds a referendum with three options: Option A - a sharp increase in taxes, to pay for large-scale permanent structural transfers to the poor island. Option B - some increase in taxes, to pay for immediate and sufficient humanitarian aid, so that famine will be averted. Option C - no extra taxes and no aid. When the votes are counted, 100% of the voters have chosen Option C. After all, who wants to pay more taxes?

This is classic democracy at work. The poor country starves. Yet, all electoral procedures on both islands have been free and fair. The media has been given absolute freedom to publish; all political campaigning has been free; there has been no political coercion or repression of any kind. Democratic theory demands that the outcome of this democratic process must be respected. Two perfect democracies have functioned perfectly. However, there is clearly something fundamentally wrong with the democratic process if it allows this outcome. The problem is not hard to find: the people most affected by the decision have been excluded from voting.

So what is Democracy?

Another problem with democracy is that one is never certain whether some who are “democratically” elected have an understating of the philosophy of democracy and how it has evolved. Such persons inevitably attribute to themselves power on the tendentious basis that the wining of an election bestows on them godly powers to decide for all the people without consulting them when necessary. In this perspective, the meaning, purpose and evolution of democracy through centuries of philosophical thinking warrants serious consideration.

Interpreted literally, the word “democracy” means rule or governance by the people (from the Greek demos, which admits of the people forming their own government in which the right to take political decisions rests with the people and therefore by the whole body of citizens of a territory, following procedures of majority rule). In its pristine purity, decision making by the majority of the body of a people directly was called “direct democracy”. However, democracy is a generic term which has its own derivatives, and the more commonly practiced form of democracy at the present time is one such derivative where citizens exercise their right of decision making through elected representatives. When this practice is applied to the exercise of public power and the administration of government, a practical dilemma presents itself to the rulers, in the form of a central political choice between ways and means of deploying or limiting public power on the one hand, and the effective maintenance and enhancement of the quality of human life on the other. Translated to the current global situation where many nations are in the process of conciliation, peacemaking and national revival, this dilemma takes us to basic political philosophy. One must distinguish political philosophy from political and administrative organization. The former is theoretical and normative, calling for the convictions and assumptions of past political philosophers of the past. As a normative discipline, political philosophy is concerned with what an ideal society ought to be and how this pursuit can be achieved in practical terms.

The basis of modern democracy is Hobbes’ Leviathan, which begins with the premise that the supreme power, whether it be a man, woman or assembly, is called the sovereign. Hobbes (1588-1679), recognized initially that the powers of the sovereign are unlimited, untrammeled and unchallenged. The sovereign has the right of censorship over all expression of opinion, on the basis that the main interest of the sovereign is the preservation of internal peace. Therefore, a true sovereign will not use the power of censorship to suppress the truth, because a doctrine which is at variance with peace cannot be true. Hobbes emphasised that the laws of property should be entirely the purview of the sovereign, for in absloute nature and in its pristine purity, there is no property, as property is created by government.

Hobbes believed that, even if a sovereign were to be despotic, the worst despotism was better than anarchy. The interests of governments become singularly identifiable with the interests of the subjects. Above all, rebellion is wrong : not only because it usually fails; but also, if it succeeds, it sets a bad example.

The most noble of the great philosophers - Spinoza (1632-1677), derived his political philosophy from Hobbes, but differed with Hobbes on the subject of freedom of opinion, which should not, in Spinoza’s view, be subject to governmental control. But both Hobbes and Spinoza held the common view that any kind of rebellion was bad against a sovereign.

The influence of the early philosophers on the modern philosophers becomes apparent with the thrust of Aristotle’s Politics, which fundamentally held that a government is good when it aimed at the good of the whole community, and bad when it cared only for itself. Aristotle was emphatic when he made the distinction between oligarchy and democracy by using the economic status of the governing party as the only criterion for the distinction: oligarchy is when the rich govern without consideration for the poor; and democracy is when the sovereign gives power to the hands of the poor and needy in initial disregard for the interests of the rich. Aristotle argued that monarchy was better than aristocracy and aristocracy was better than polity. The greatest political sin, according to Aristotle, was the corruption of the best in a political society. He placed tyranny as the worst form of government, next to oligarchy, and placed democracy over both categories. Aristotle concluded that, among actual governments, democracies were the most liked and beneficial.

The Utilitarian School, of which Jeremy Bentham was a protagonist, recognized democracy as being composed of four essential and basic elements: subsistence; abundance; security and equality. According to Bentham, a good democracy had to ensure these elements for its community. Bentham observed: “ wars and storms are best to be read of, but peace and calms are better to endure”. The two fundamental postulates which Bentham attributed to good government were equality and security, which to Bentham formed the cornerstone of a balanced sovereign.

The above philosophical beliefs bring one to the inexorable conclusion that democracy is government for all - in equality and unity. The inevitable question which follows is: can a community which, in its constitutional essence, favor a few and require the majority to be content with the second best? Plato and Aristotle answered in the affirmative, purely to support intellectual independence, which was essentially a flawed perception of the era they belonged to, if one were to take their positions literally. If however, one were to interpret the position of these two philosophers as giving the few in power the discretion to decide for the betterment of the entire community with the ultimate aim of ensuring its safety and security, it follows that democracy should focus on a lean executive charged with this task. This interpretation is wholly consistent with religious philosophy and democratic ethics which incontrovertibly hold that the most valuable assets of human life are power and property and that a political system which is unjust in these respects is unacceptable.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who wrote in his Perpetual Peace in 1795, recommending a federation of free States, bound together by a covenant eschewing war, was more emphatic about prohibiting war than considering the virues of the political clustering of States. Kant viewed war as a problem which only an international government could quell. The group of States, according to Kant, should be republican in civil constitution, with a distinct separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. Kant attacked democracy on the ground that a democracy gave overt and unjust powers to the executive which were invidious to a State. Of course, Kant’s theory against democracy, favoring a community of States under one international government, fell into disfavor in his own country in 1933 and has not gained official acceptance since.

John Locke (1632-1704), a moderatist philosopher, deviated from dogma, whilst essentially retaining his faith in the goodness of positive morality. This led to Locke’s abiding faith in religous tolerance and parliamentary democracy as the two necessary elements of basic governance. Locke is believed to be the father of empiricism - which was founded on the premise that all knowledge is based on experience. There is evidence in philosophical history that Locke applied the theory of empiricism to parliamentary democracy, ascribing to democracy a certain imperative which brings to bear a compusive element to democracy. Accordingly, democracy, although reflecting the overall will of the people, would succeed only if practiced with empirical dependance upon past experience. Political negoitiations, according to the empirical democracy doctrine, should therefore not be destitute of past experience, whatever the overall will of the community may be.

The wisdom of Locke’s empirical democracy is perceived in its application to democracy in the modern context, which is also consistent with the Aristotlean view, that the highest virtue is for the governing few, who could, if the interests of the community dictate, subject conservative and theoretical ethics to political necessity and prudence. Although Aristotle required a president or prime minister to be magnanimous in this regard, the modern interpretation and context of good government does not necessarily require a leader to be magnanimous, but to be different from the average citizen; and to have certain merits connected with his or her status.

The essence of modern practical democracy is to curb unnecessary power of the central government and not to buttress the authority of the State to the point of corruption and self service. The end result is personal freedom and a society which precedes the State. Also, there is a compelling need in a functional democracy for a loyal opposition which does not portend a real threat to national security. This does not, however, mean that democracy should make the executive impotent. On the contrary, a strong and lean executive, as Aristotlean philosophy recommends, is an essential tool of a workable democracy.

From a strictly conceptual perspective, democracy is a cocktail that has resulted from philosophical thinking over the ages.

Present day lawyers would define democracy as the form of government in which the sovereign power resides in and is exercised by the whole body of citizens directly or indirectly through a system of representation. Put more simply, the above definition means that democracy is a system where ordinary citizens have a meaningful and compelling role in the affairs of the State, including the formulation of policy and the development and implementation of legislation. A typical democracy as enunciated by the Western philosophers whose views have already been discussed, would separate the State and its instrumentalities from the Church or other religious body. It would be composed of three separate and intrinsic powers, i.e. the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. This separation of powers in a democracy facilitates the sustenance of fundamental human rights of the individual by giving legal protection to a citizen through an independent judiciary. In a social democracy, the protection of the social and economic rights of a person could be very strongly entrenched as an essential principle of the philosophy of government. 

Arguably the most disingenuous aspect of democracy is that any Dick, Tom, or Harry can get himself elected into power. It matters not whether one is a criminal, half wit, illiterate or just plain simpleton and ignoramus. He may not be the best one for the job. He may not necessarily know or care about the cumulative effect of his wisdom or lack thereof on the affairs and destiny of the nation. Another defect in democracy is that in most instances the motives and manifestos produced prior to an election vanish with the intent to win an election, which compromises the integrity and good intent demonstrated earlier by a candidate. The all consuming desire to hold office and power defeats the purpose of governance of and service to the people. Above all, the elected persons may come in with promises they cannot keep to a people who may not have the intellectual capacity to evaluate the integrity of the person they are voting for. 

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