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What Is Wrong With Democracy?

| by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( April 3, 2014, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) People in ancient Athens created democracy in the dawn of Western civilization circa 5th Century B.C. William D. Gairdner, in his book "The Trouble with Democracy" says: " In its earliest forms, it was (and many would say it remains today) a continuous struggle between elites and masses for shares and control of economic and political largesse and power". Gairdner goes on to say: " For me, the first and foremost deeply unsettling truth about the ancient democracies - both Greek and Roman - is that they were utterly dependent upon their existence upon the brutality and widespread chattel slavery"...in this way, democracy evolved as a kind of concessional pact between wealthy elites and the freeborn masses of farmers and poor, both of which were defending themselves against the growing slave population they needed to keep in place.

Does this ring a bell now? Maybe it does.

In the Twentieth Century, Democracy was the buzzword. And so it is in the Twentieth Century. The Ukrainian protesters wanted out of the prevailing kleptocracy into a rules-based democracy. Of course, democracies offer much, such as richer economies; minimal corruption; freedom of speech? But has a cry for democracy, from Egypt to Libya, from Greece to Argentina, from Venezuela to Spain and Brazil and of course the Soviet Union, totally succeeded?

The Economist of March 1st to 7th 2014 in its column "Getting Democracy Right" says: " The most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.

The problem with democracy might be that every once in a while the people of a nation vote for their leaders who they believe would represent their wishes based on electoral promises they make before a "democratic" election but after the election, the people disappear until the next election, and those elected have a free hand. It is as though the people are the landlords of parliament who rent their premises to the politicians who occupy their premises and make decisions on how to run those premises.

In other words, democracy is entrustment. In a manner of speaking therefore, it is the people who are guilty of negligent entrustment, if they entrust a nation to thieves and vagabonds. Perhaps that is why they take to the streets as they often do all around the world these days. In stark contrast is China which does not go into a fever of democratic elections. At least in terms of economic progress (which I believe is foremost in anyone's mind these days) the Chinese Communist Party has doubled living standards of the Chinese every decade for the past 30 years whereas the United States has only managed to do so every 30 years, according to Larry Summers of Harvard University.

Mind you, we are not talking now of other factors such as human rights, but purely of the need to elevate the economic plight of the people.

With all this argumentative hoopla, I am wondering whether Democracy, or Kleptocracy covered in the shroud of Democracy, or Communism which says, "we will make your life better, whatever it takes" and of course do what they say and say what they mean (particularly in China) does not boil down to decent governance.

Doesn't it all boil down to the social contract theory where people expect the government to do what is best for the people? The original theory of the social contract theory was that it was a contract between the people and the government. Modern perspectives argue it is a contract with the government and the future generation. Perhaps what we really need is neither Democracy nor Communism nor Socialism but good governance. As Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said, "To put it bluntly, democracy is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for good governance. And, yes, it is possible to have good governance without democracy. Anyone who doubts this should look at the record of China’s government over the past thirty years. It is not perfect but it has lifted more people out of poverty, educated more people, increased their life spans and generated the world’s largest middle class. No other society in human history has improved human welfare as much as the Chinese government. It would be insane to deny that China has enjoyed “good governance.”

Is this the answer? Perhaps it is...and then perhaps it is not.

I just don’t know. What I know is that I always wanted out of poverty and I have succeeded. And this matters to my family and children much.

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