Democracy

There seems to be no end of new twists to our ongoing political story. As this week’s chapter ends the dramatic tension has been raised to new heights by democracy itself, that most treasured and emotive of characters, being brought under threat of attack. But what do we know about this character? Before we start next week’s chapter I think it may be worth trying to examine Democracy a little closer.

Abraham Lincoln’s phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is often used to describe what we mean by democracy, even though he didn’t actually refer to democracy as such. But it’s a good starting point anyway. Democracy literally means government or rule making (…cracy) by the people (demos). Any group of people living and working as some form of collective, or having some degree of unity, require decisions to be made at a group level – decisions need to be made that affect the whole group. These decisions could be made by a single person who holds power by force or through some form of inherited right, but under a democracy these decisions are made by group members themselves.

There are a number of obvious advantages to such a system. First, because everyone (or nearly everyone) is involved in the decision making process the welfare of the population as a whole is improved, as opposed to just the welfare of a select few. Second, it is claimed that democratic participation enhances autonomy – that when an individual group member knows or realises that their opinion counts they are more likely to actually have an opinion of their own. And third, because democracy is the best form of government for enhancing equality. This last point is crucial. There is a very strong correlation between the wellbeing and flourishing of human life and the degree of equality the group lives under. So great. Democracy is undoubtedly the good guy and deserves the accolade of hero. Yes?

Well, not necessarily. There are also a number of problems associated with democracy that tend to go unmentioned. A dark hinterland, if you like, that makes Democracy’s character altogether more complex. For now, let’s focus on just two related issues that have been revealed by economists, and a third drawn from philosophy. First, individual preferences do not generally aggregate into orderly collective preferences. When an individual makes a decision or expresses a preference they usually do so for a multiplicity of reasons, reasons that come together in a single mind (their own). This single mind operates almost like a dictator over these multiple reasons. But his process cannot be scaled up to the level of the collective, for the simple reason that individual minds will not be silenced – well, not in a democracy anyway. Second, even if it was possible to produce well defined collective preferences, many, if not most individual motivations for action will always be incompatible with that preference.

A third problem relates to what is sometimes termed ‘the fallacy of collective intentionality’. Intentionality in this respect does not refer to a person’s intention of performing a certain action, but to the relationship of their thoughts and feelings to the objects of these thoughts and feelings. So, for example, I might say that I like red wine or that I consider myself to be European. Both of these are intentional relationships. But to do this at a collective level, to say that ‘we’ like British ale or that ‘we’ consider ourselves to be British, like is so often done, is erroneous. A collective mind does not exist to form such a relationship. All three of these related problems are well illustrated by the political consequences of the 2016 EU referendum, particularly the uttering of phrases like ‘the will of the people’. There is no collective will. All utterances of this and similar phrases are useful metaphors, not statements of facts.

These problems can, to some extent, be overcome by the type of democracy in operation. Referenda are examples of a direct democracy, the type of democracy that emerged (with limited suffrage) in ancient Athens. Because of the reasons outlined above, this type of democracy becomes more and more problematic as the size of the collective increases. It was problematic in Athens (with, say, a total population of 100,000), but by the time populations reach the level of modern states it becomes close to impossible.

However, modern states usually operate some form of representative democracy. Under this form of democracy the people vote to elect a person or persons to represent them at local and national government level. However, if just one person is elected to represent a large group of people (as is the current practice in the UK) then, for all the reasons outlined above, it is impossible for them to directly represent the views of all the people that elected them. Instead, based on their perceived political beliefs and character, that person is effectively elected to make decisions on behalf of the people, and then answer for their decisions at the next election. This problem could be mitigated by a more proportional voting system, one in which it becomes more realist for people to be elected to represent particular ways of thinking.

Winston Churchill famously described democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It is fraught with problems that largely get ignored – mostly because they are complex and hard to visualise. Instead it is easier to resort to metaphors. In this sense, Democracy may still be the hero of our political story, but its character is no where near adequately understood. And whilst not understanding the character of the hero may make for good drama, it seriously problematizes the making of good decisions.

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