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Debate: Democracy

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Is democracy, as is so often assumed, really the best form of government?

Background and context

Democracy is best defined as government of the people, by the people. In the West, especially after ideological conflicts such as the Cold War, we can tend to assume that democracy is the only valid form of government. However, this assumption must be justified. The classical example of a democracy is that of Ancient Athens, where the whole populace would meet in the marketplace to vote on decisions. It can be argued form this position that modern ‘democracies’ are not in fact democratic.

A common variation of this motion is Vox populi is a relic.

Contents

Politics: Does (and should) the vox populi matter?

Yes

  • Democracy prevents unjust mob rule. Democracy allows the people to have a direct say in who governs them, via the votes cast by every adult member of the population. As such it ensures that a government is made up of those whom are truly representative of the people, and ensures that no minority, military power or elite is able to oppress them. If we accept that we all have the same rights, then it follows we should all have an equal say in who represents us in choosing how we are governed.
Additionally, decisions must be made by the will of the people, otherwise we have no protection against abuse of power. The people are kept informed by newspapers, academics and scientists, and are thus fully capable of making an informed decision. What is more, the will of the people is far more representative of different groups in society than the condescending rule by elites, who have no understanding of different ways life.
  • Modern democracies are constantly striving to make themselves more representative, by increased use of consultative sessions, such as MPs surgeries in Britain, referenda (especially in Switzerland, but also issues such as over Scottish and Welsh devolution in Britain and EU membership in Denmark) and proportional representation (e.g. in the Welsh assembly).

No

  • Democracy doesn't allow for effective leadership. Real, effective leadership must come from above and not from below. The people as a mass are capable of being manipulated, and are unlikely to possess skills or training in confronting problems a state might face. As such, expecting them to elect the ‘best tools for the job’ is unrealistic. Government from above can see, by virtue of its position and advantages, what is better for the people than the people can. For example, the abolition of the death penalty was at first deeply unpopular with the British public when it was pushed through by the government, but is now broadly supported as correct and humane.
The ‘will of the people’ is likewise a sham. In actual fact, very little public opinion is arrived at independently, by rational application of logic to facts. Public opinion is controlled, directed and inflamed by the gutter press, whose content is controlled ultimately by newspaper barons belonging to the very elite that controls the country. This is the way a country must be governed - an elite who provided firm and effective leadership, and directs the public in the ways best for them.
  • Democracy is just an illusion. Such devices as referenda or initiatives are intended not to bring government closer to the people, but to give undemocratic government a veneer of democratic respectability. Real power is still with the elites, who decide who will stand for which seats, and thus who is guaranteed to be elected via ‘safe’ seats. In Britain, we even have an undemocratic second chamber, the House of Lords, which is able to interfere substantially with the process of passing laws. These Lords are appointed directly by the political parties. ‘True democracy’, we repeat again, is an unworkable system on the scale of a country, and we should abandon pretences at it for a more practical system.

History: Does history prove democracy to be the best form of government?

Yes

  • Modern democracy has been advocated for hundreds of years as the best form of government, and was taken as the model by societies we take as the founders of modern liberties, such as the French and American Revolutionary states. It has been proved by history as the best form of government.

No

  • Modern democracy doesn't work well. Modern democracy ( as opposed to classical, Athenian democracy ) is a facade. ‘True’ democracy can only be practised on a very small scale. In Britain for example, whilst people may vote every five years, they have no input into decision beyond this. This is the desirable state of things, but it is not democracy. Our current state of government would be far more effective if it abandoned its pretences at representativity.
  • "Democracy has never endured in countries with mainly non-market economies. The existence of an overweening state machine that meddles in everything can tempt leaders to use it against their political foes. Total control of the economy also sucks the air away from what Istvan Bibo, a Hungarian political thinker, called “the little circles of freedom”—the free associations and independent power centres that a free economy allows." The Economist, "Crying for freedom", January 16th, 2010

Economics: Does democracy promote economic growth?

Yes

  • Democracies tend to progress faster. "A study by Morton Halperin, Joseph Siegle and Michael Weinstein for the Council of Foreign Relations, using World Bank data between 1960 and 2001, found that the average economic growth rate was 2.3% for democracies and 1.6% for autocracies." The Economist, "Crying for freedom", January 16th 2010
Many case studies can e found in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria.

No

Governance: Does democracy improve decision-making?

Yes

  • Medium- and long-term stability. "Although democratic politicians spend a lot of time vacillating, arguing and being loud and disagreeable, this can reinforce stability in the medium term; it allows the interests and viewpoints of more people to be heard before action is taken. On the State Fragility Index, which is produced annually by George Mason University and studies variables such as “political effectiveness” and security, democracies tend to do much better than autocracies. Tito’s Yugoslavia was stable, as was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—but once the straitjacket that held their systems together came off, the result was a release of pent-up pressure, and a golden opportunity for demagogues bent on mayhem." The Economist, "Crying for freedom", January 16th 2010
  • Avoiding catastrophic mistakes. "A culture of compromise—coupled with greater accountability and limits on state power—means that democracies are better able to avoid catastrophic mistakes, or criminal cruelty. Bloody nightmares that cost tens of millions of lives, like China’s Great Leap Forward or the Soviet Union’s forced collectivisation programme, were made possible by the concentration of power in a small group of people who faced no restraint. (...) poor autocracies [are] at least twice as likely as democracies to suffer an economic disaster (defined as a decline of 10% or more in GDP in a year)" The Economist, "Crying for freedom", January 16th 2010

No

  • Populism. Unlike in totalitarian regimes, politicians in democracies have to secure their mandates. Every time elections are held, politicians do not aim to come up with reasonable proposals that would benefit the country, quite the opposite. They either need to show that no matter what, their opponents are always wrong, or the politicians have to present such policies that make them (or, at the very least, their political party) popular. That means that unpopular policies such as tax increases, or public spending cuts almost never get on the agenda, which can lead to disillusionment of voters, unsound monetary policies or other disasters - right after the elections.

See also

External links and resources:

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