Democracy is broken – but WE have to fix it

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June 3, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

Adrian Woolridge’s outstanding article in the Independent last week in which he asks whether Ukip’s success in the European elections proves that democracy is a flawed way to choose a government has really struck a chord with me. I have become increasingly frustrated with the way the electorate, with the support of the media, has contrived to produce a political culture that is so short on responsibility. It’s worth going over and summarizing some of the points that he makes because they are extremely thought provoking. The truth is that democracy has many flaws – but, as Woolridge points out, and I agree, it is still the best of all of the flawed options.

If politics is “broken” we the electorate are to blame – we have maxed out our credit cards, voted for social programmes we can’t afford, and called for more spending and lower taxes. Jean-Claude Juncker – in the running to be the next Head of the European Commission – put it brilliantly when he said that politicians “all know what to do; we just don’t know how to get elected if we do it”. Hence many people voted for a populist party who would rather rail against the system than try to reform it – hence voting to leave the EU. Meanwhile – many people don’t vote as they think it will “make no difference” because politicians “break their promises” – well of course – they can only get elected by making undeliverable promises – of course they break them. Membership of mainstream political parties have collapsed from 20% of the electorate in 1950 to 1% today. Furthermore – only four out of 34 OECD countries have a government with an absolute majority, which means coalitions have to try and deliver to the public’s expectations – which is much harder given the consensus needed. We have a toxic mixture now of dependency on our governments as well as disdain for them.

Democracy is the “rule of the ignorant over the wise” – This is what Plato worried about in “The Republic”. He said democracy encourages people to “live from day to day, indulging the pleasure of the moment”. They can vote for contradictory things – voting for the politicians who produce the prettiest speeches and the juiciest promises. Which is why he called democracy a “theatre-ocracy”. Voters want to enjoy the fruits of prosperity without the necessary sacrifices. They will drive their reliable car to an anti-capitalism protest where they eat avocados out of season whilst tweeting revolutionary thoughts on their latest Ipad – all the while moaning about the World Trade Organisation lowering trade barriers, EU rules that harmonise qualifications and corporate strategies that allow companies to create global supply chains which make their journey, meal and tweeting possible.

Democracies neglect long-term investment in favour of short-term projects – Countries in the West invested 5% of GDP in infrastructure in 1960, now its 3%. China meanwhile boasts gleaming airports and first-class motorways. In order to appease powerful interests groups in the short term Spain has kept a rigid labour market that leaves 25% of the workforce unemployed and France has kept retirement age at 62, despite lengthening life expectancy.

Direct democracy is even worse –  In California they allow ballot initiatives, where citizens get a direct say in taxing and spending. They have voted for more spending and less taxes – resulting in a cascade of financial disasters. Entire cities have had to declare bankruptcy and cut back on essential services. The city attorney of San Bernardino recently advised residents to “lock their doors and load their guns because the city could no longer afford enough police”. Direct democracy also allows majorities to tyrannize minorities and ride roughshod over individual rights. People claim our systems of representative democracies cause a “democratic deficit” – but, as the possibly over 40% of the Scottish population who lose the upcoming referendum (either way) will attest – direct democracy is not always the answer.

Yet Democracy is still the “worst form of government apart from all the others” – Winston Churchill said this because he wanted to remind people that despite all the problems, it beats all alternatives. People can express their own opinions and let off steam – giving constant feedback to the governing class – which is why democracies are much less likely to be rocked by revolution).

But democracy needs to be constantly fixed – this is particularly important to make sure the electorate doesn’t create catastrophes. Democracy needs to be designed carefully – read Alexis De Tocqueville (here and here)and John Stuart Mill about this. The aim should be to harness human creativity whilst checking human perversity. People should never take it for granted. They should never assume that it is a permanent feature of political life whilst loathing their leaders and regarding them as corrupt and inefficient. We need therefore to persuade Brussels to take its commitment to subsidiarity more seriously, the EU Parliament to become more frugal and for the EU as a whole to be more about smoothing the relationship between nation states who value their own sovereignty instead of continually pushing to create a United States of Europe.

Democracies need to stop bribing their electorates – We in Europe have become sloppy and self-indulgent, overloaded with obligations and distorted by special interests at the same time as China has produced an increasingly attractive alternative model. Our politicians are allowing current voters to rob future generations by not following the Swedish example of pledging to balance their budgets over an economic cycle.

The solution is not to give up on democracy but to revive and retool it – it is looking a little threadbare, and this is damaging the spread of democracies abroad – particularly in places like Egypt and India. Let’s not forget that two democracies are extremely unlikely ever to go to war with each other, so there is a big prize to be won. We may need to tie our hands a little so as not to squander our children’s inheritances and reform any institutions – such as the one in Brussels – which have become self-indulgent and lazy.


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