Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Are you qualified for Democracy

Keeping your head in politics
Every nation gets the government it deserves (Toute nation a le gouvernement qu'elle mérite), so said Joseph de Maistre after the French revolution. Plato (see, I always get him in) argued that not all of the populace are qualified to participate in democracy, in fact to include all people in democracy was degenerative. Of course, he had seen his mentor, Socrates condemned to death by a four-hundred-strong democratic court of peers. Then, Thomas Jefferson added that (When a people fear their government, there is tyranny,) when a government fears their people there is liberty. So, who had it right and what is the future of democracy, if any.
Now, as far as de Maistre is concerned, I think he got it right but we must first define a couple of words in the translation. When we talk about the nation we must assume that he meant the country as a nation, it is far too convenient to interpret this as the people. I cannot agree that the people get what they deserve unless we agree that they have free will and informed decision. Now, informed decision has never been an abundant resource in any nation. I would argue that informed decision of the masses prior to the education initiatives of the 20th century was at best limited and after Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s nephew) revolutionised public relations and advertising using his uncle’s discoveries to drive people’s choices, it was completely thwarted. In order for the electorate to make informed decisions and thus elect a government they deserve, they must first objectively understand the bigger picture and secondly be able to count on the manifesto promises of the candidates, neither of which are tenable. I am not being derisive of the abilities of the people, effectively understanding the mechanisms of government and economics takes a lot of time and most are just too busy getting through their lives. Instead candidates campaign on emotive issues that people can feel rather than contemplate. This is a very general statement but if we can agree that democracy is the decision of the masses, it is also a very general decision. So, while many cast their votes based on social class affiliations (I am working class, therefore I vote left), personal gains based on the manifesto promises of the party or on an overall feeling about the character of the candidate, few are making a truly informed decision. So, the people getting what they want or deserve is a highly dubious proposition. However, as far as the nation is concerned, there is a different perspective. The nation administers education, it also regulates the democratic process, party funding, media exposure etc. So if government and politics is not taught in schools, manifesto promises are as ephemeral as marketing slogans and funding is accepted from sources with vested interests in less than democratic decisions, then it will get a pimped administration that whores itself to anyone with enough dollar to pay to ride the people of the nation. Of course, ‘deserves’ could also have positive connotations but seeing as the race to the bottom is invariably the faster and easier direction, it tends to win the day. Creating an upward spiral would necessitate investment in education, security and integrity, something that most nations don’t have the stamina for. So finally what they deserve is what they get, a self-serving bunch of politicians that bleed the nation of its resources in order to maintain their power, status and standard of living.
Be careful what you wish for...
Jefferson was bang on with the tyranny part, no people should fear their leaders. Just as children should not fear their parents, pupils their teachers or workers their bosses. When we get onto good wholesome god-fearing Christians things get decidedly muddy and unpalatable so we’ll leave that one well alone for the time being. As for the liberty part, here I must differ. Governments have the job of managing the biggest and most complex operations, nations. Like any any management team, they must often make decisions that will not be popular, many of you will know this all too well, but for the prosperity of the company and the many, some will need to put up with some results of hard decisions that were deemed to be ‘the least bad’ option. However, if the government fears the people, they will endeavour to appease them as much and often possible, often at the detriment of long-term plans and strategies. But according to Jefferson, liberty will be achieved. Bull! Liberty ends where another’s begins (a paraphrase from a quote originated by Voltaire If memory serves. Although I like another version: my right to swing my arm ends at your nose). So for each citizen there is a revision of the definition of liberty. This, however does not inhibit candidates from promising it and the electorate from demanding it, along with a number of other things such as higher wages yet lower prices and lower taxes yet better public facilities. When candidates and governments fear the people, popularism proliferates which creates demagogues and Trump. In order to have functional liberty, there must be respect from all parts and respect is tough to earn and harder to maintain. The recent wave of popularist candidates trade on, at best promising the electorate what they want and at worst distracting them on emotive polices from what they need. And while they may not fear the electorate, they do fear their disapproval. Children will prefer the adult that promises no school and ice cream for dinner everyday and the adult will revel in their popularity. Ayn Rand in her book Atlas Shrugged painted the picture of a nation that pandered to the needs of the people to the point where people realised that developing their needs was more lucrative than being productive and creative. Ms. Rand’s philosophies have a hugely devoted following among industrialists and while I personally find them a little too extreme, there is some merit to them. Especially when you consider that consecutive Greek governments have created public positions for the voting faithful to the point where it has one of the most bloated and bureaucratic civil services in the western world and is twice the OECD average in the Worldbank’s ‘ease of doing business’ ranking, where higher is more difficult. In order to curry favour with the electorate, it has scuppered the private sector’s ability to do business successfully and often legally. Governments should treat the interests of the people as priority but fear is never good counsel.
So, as for Plato, he argued that if you need a captain for a ship, you should choose someone well experienced in navigation. He gave a number of other examples but you get the idea. He said that the people in a democracy would make poorly guided, self-serving choices that would devolve into demagoguery, not dissimilar to Ms. Rand. But, what is the alternative. Businessmen have great insight into the workings of large-scale organisations but ultimately will make choices based on the needs of their business, profits and stock value. Academics have a deep understanding of the theories of government but often fail to appreciate the human condition. John Maynard Keynes, eminent economist, once tried his hand at the stock market (no-brainer, right?) but lost fortunes before realising that stock trading is not an exact science but driven by emotive decisions. So, a plutocracy and a scholarly aristocracy are as flawed as the system we have. Should we then do away with democracy all together. Entrust our nation to philosopher kings who work tirelessly for the greater good, unencumbered by petty desires and emotions. I fear that this Utopian dream is untenable and we could end up relinquishing authority to an AI system once we discover that such citizens could only be created in a lab.
The best alternative then must be to improve the existing one. To educate and inform the populace better and give them real choices. Force candidates to consider and realise their manifesto pledges better, control their funding better. Maybe even force voters to qualify to vote. This could not be achieved in a climate of fear, one way or the other. A nation is similar to a family, when the parents provide a secure, nurturing environment, the children will rest easy and get on with their job of developing into healthy well-adjusted adults. If the parents do a very good job, they will instill ambitions to improve on their own upbringing. If, on the other hand, the parents are weak and flakey, the kids will become insecure and rebel. They will become frightened, nothing scares a kid more than to look up at he people who should have everything in hand to realise that they are more clueless than them. And as I have already stated, fear is never good counsel.
Getting it right
So, how to make such improvements. In order to maintain a democracy, you need to invest in the people. Not just giving them good education and security but also encouraging them to take part in the whole democratic process. Many countries still have national military service, why could this not be adapted to national political service whereby everyone of voting age should in some way serve on local or national government for a mandatory period of time. The recent Brexit referendum in the UK illustrated the results of complacency. The young did not vote because they either did not engage with the issues or felt that as usual nothing would change for them. They were wrong. Many did not make that mistake twice and the recent general elections brought out record numbers of those who would inherit the results. This, I hope, was a turning point. If as many young voters were to make the same effort to vote for their government as they do for X-Factor we may see some change. If education was afforded the same investment as seducing high-tech companies that desperately need higher educated employees. If the health service were to get the same support as misbehaving financial institutions. If the parties were forced to concede that the electorate could no longer be bought with promises of less foreigners and lower taxes while hanging out with rock stars and comedians. This may result in a nation getting the government it deserves, finally.


“In a hyper-real postmodern world, fact and fiction have become confusingly indistinguishable” Hunter S. Thompson

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