People in Western societies speak frequently about ‘democracy’ as a word, a form of government, that’s uniquely identifiable to everybody and therefore holds the same meaning to everybody. Commonly it is thought of as allowing citizens of a country to have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. In this article I will try to illustrate why I’m not so sure that this is always the case in the countries commonly thought of as having a democratic government. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist myself and not a big believer in evil plans to submit humanity to some evil entity. I do however believe that sometimes even the right ideas can lead us onto the wrong paths and even while many people may see this, it’s not always easy to get back on the right path again.
Aside from this process, which is mostly organic in nature, meaning that it grows without a clearly identifiable reason, there are also some very common misconceptions about democratic governments. A good example of this is that a lot of countries thought of as being democratic in fact have a constitution of some sorts. A constitution is typically a founding document through which the People in a country state, partially, the limitations on it’s democratically elected government. This part of the constitution, in the United States called the Bill of Rights, state a number of unalienable rights the people in this country have which the government cannot ever touch, even if the majority of the government wants to change it. In the United States for example, such unalienable rights include the right to bear arms, the right to the freedom of speech and the right to freedom of religion.
These unalienable rights are intended to protect a minority from a democratic majority, in this context also often called ‘the mob’. The founding fathers of the United States acknowledged that mob rule, or purely democratic rule, is not always a guarantee for a happy life and freedom for it’s citizens. Americans tend to often think of this idea of having such a constitution and a bill of unalienable rights is one of the founding fathers greatest merits and a strong foundation of their democratic country. In fact the framers of the U.S. Constitution were influenced by the Constitution of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces, A republic which was founded after the revolt led by William I of Orange because of high taxes and persecution of Protestants by the Spanish-led government. A form of government which protects minorities from democratic mob rule is in fact not a democracy, it is a republic!
A democracy and a republic are not only dissimilar, they are in fact antithetical! A pure democracy supports ‘The Majority Unlimited’, giving the majority full political power without any legal safeguards of the rights of the individual. A republic supports ‘The Majority Limited’, giving an equal vote to all but legally protecting the rights of the individual and the minority.
Political vs. Economic power
In most democratic countries people think that their government rules supreme. This is not to worship the institute of government in an absolute way but in fact a translation of people’s beliefs that through their vote for their government they do in fact control their lives somewhat. In many ways this holds ground as government as a lawmaker controls what is and what is not allowed and has the means to enforce it through law enforcement. What people in a country want their government is, while always relevant, not always possible.
An often used saying ‘It’s the economy stupid!’ was a phrase in American politics widely used during Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign. It indicates very powerfully that not everything is always controlled by the government but economic realities play a part in what’s possible as well. A country may well want to have perfect education for it’s children, may well want to have perfect healthcare, may well want to take care of all it’s elderly people, but there isn’t always enough money for it. Sometimes this saying however also indicates a passive role in this economy which nobody can really change and therefore the people just have to accept the reality as-is. This is an extremist point of view though, as much as thinking that the economy is controlled completely by certain entities.
So while ‘the economy’ is sometimes seen as something that moves in almost autonomic ways beyond everybody’s control, particularly that of government, nothing is further from the truth. In fact the economy gets changed constantly by key players such as banking institutes and global cooperations. Today banks and global corporations sometimes reach such incredible scale (often because we choose to let that happen because of the economy of scale) that they become more powerful than the governments of entire nations, even more powerful than the government of the United States.
Some examples of the power of financial institutes can be seen in the recent economic problems Greece is in. Greece has some rather large debts incurred by it’s previous and current governments; this debt has in fact made the whole country subject to economic power to control its behavior. Greece is in a position where it requires money to reorganize but in order to be able to get this money it also must continue to pay its debts. Failure to do so will most likely cause an immediate downgrade of the whole country’s credit rating, which will make more borrowing more expensive and therefore much harder to do.
Global corporations are also known to pressure governments into a corner by their acts. To a lot of people of the capitalist mindset, the concept of outsourcing for example seems like a logical thing to do. Most companies exist with a primary ‘for profit’ goal and more and more often, anonymous stock holders demand from a company that it maximizes its profits. Maximizing profits can be done through finding cheaper labor or through pressuring local government to provide better operating conditions with an implicit ‘or else….’.
So we can see that while there is a political system in a country, there is also an economical system. A country’s economic system is not always in unison with it’s political system, in fact often its not. I earlier mentioned the capitalist mindset; Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit by the owners. The paragraph before this one made some assumptions of capitalism being the economical system. Partially through it’s successes as an economical system it has enabled some of the owners of the means of production to become as successful as they are, but thereby also handing these owners the power to pressure the political system. In order for a country to ‘do well’ it seems vital yet near impossible that both the political system and the economic system strive for similar goals.
As an individual I often enjoy bitching about the performance of politicians and their so often broken promises. The above shows quite well what are the real consequences politicians are faced with after they’ve been voted into office. It is one of the reasons why my previously mentioned midlife crisis resulted in me choosing for continuing my technology career as opposed to pursuing a political career. I strongly admire some politicians who consider it their real duty to live up to the promises they made to their electorate while trying to stay within the constraints imposed on them by the economic reality.
Direct Democracy vs. Representative Democracy
Most western democracies these days, for as far as they are in fact democracies and not republics, are not democracies in the sense the Greek ’inventors’ thought of it. In early Greek societies there was a concept of ‘direct democracy’ where some citizens (slaves, women and foreigners were excluded from voting) could vote on political issues frequently. These kind of votes nowadays are often called referendums and in a lot of democracies the outcome of a referendum is strictly taken as not even binding. A good example of this is a referendum which was held in the Netherlands on June 1st, 2005, asking the citizens if they would ratify the proposed constitution of the European Union. Nearly 62% of the Dutch population voted a resounding ‘No!’, yet the EU Constitution was passed in only a slightly altered form.
The Netherlands, like most western democracies, has what it called a representative democracy. In this type of democracy, the citizens typically organize elections once every few years. Political parties then present their party program and citizens get to vote on a party. When the party gets a sufficient amount of votes, the party may become part of the actual government. In the Netherlands however there’s a plethora of political parties, none of which gets enough votes to govern by itself. So after the voting round, parties need to sit down together in a process called the formation. During this formation parties try to bargain with other parties which political program issues are most important to them. If the parties can reach some form of consensus, they go together and form a government.
Direct democracy, by some also called ‘pure’ democracy, sounds like a preferable form of government. There are are anecdotal evidence of large groups of people always knowing better than the smartest among them, such as Francis Galton’s observation regarding the wisdom of crowds. Galton was surprised that the crowd at a county fair accurately guessed the weight of an ox when their individual guess were averaged. The average was closer to the ox’s true butchered weight than the estimates of most crowd members, and also closer than any of the separate estimates made by cattle experts. While this is annecdote factually unreliable, James Surowiecko wrote a book ‘The Widsom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Then the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economics, Societies and Nations’ in which he dives much deeper into the subject and describes the criteria under which crowd wisdom is applicable. The criteria are quite strong and it seems unlikely that they are applicable to our current democracies.