Saturday, 13 August 2016

What Democracy Throws Up

In this morning's papers is the news that an extreme Icelandic party called the Pirate party looks set to form the next government. We Brits have had our own issues with democracy recently after the EU Referendum, as I'm sure will Americans if Donald Trump becomes President (unlikely as that is), and as have many other people in the Middle East and north Africa in the past few years.

There are lots of issues with democracy, but perhaps the main one is that predominant support means that undesirable things can come to pass if it is desired by enough people to make it democratically viable (stay tuned to the end and we'll ask one or two big philosophical questions about allowing the public to decide important things).

One thing democracy throws up is this. Suppose we have Tom, Dick and Harry and £100. A vote for Tom and Dick to have £50 each and Harry to have nothing could easily be favoured democratically on a 2 to 1 basis. Tom and Dick are happy, and Harry is not.

But now suppose Harry offers an alternative to Tom; Tom gets £60 and Harry gets £40. Dick is unhappy, he gets nothing, but Tom is £10 better off than before, and Harry is £40 better off. Naturally, this second proposal could easily be favoured democratically on a 2 to 1 basis too. In response Dick proposes a fifty-fifty split between him and Harry.

Now Dick is back up to £50, and Harry is now £10 up on the last proposal, which could mean a revised 2 to 1 vote, this time at the expense of Tom. As you can probably gather, this process could go on and on, as it follows the same rule: that predominant support makes situations come to pass democratically.

As the old adage goes, if democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch, democracy isn't great for everyone. And as I pointed out in this Blog a while back, in many cases of political policy in the present age the rich are quite often the lambs, and the rest of the population are the wolves with their tablecloths and knives and forks at the ready:

"While a rigorous intellectual enquiry reconciles discordances, democracy merely inflates them with a system of winners and losers. To rub salt in the wounds, politicians know that a huge number of the electorate are pretty ignorant about politics and economics, so they look not to what's good for the country but what is likely to be popular in terms of votes

Because of how our top earners raise the average wage, the majority of people in the UK earn below the average wage, which means they are going to be swayed by redistributionist policies targeted at the rich, and economic policies that hamper progress. Unfortunately, in terms of viable representatives, this means the public do not get what they need; they get what they think they want. Or to use a culinary analogy, instead of getting to choose between a fillet steak, a sirloin steak and a rump steak, the public instead gets to choose between several rump steaks with slightly different flavoured sauces.

Despite the increased human assent to democratic values, there is one key thing that will always provide a resistance; and it is that for all her picturesque backdrops and glorious natural scenery, nature is not very democratic at all. When it comes to health, looks, size, shape, talents, intelligence, sensory apparatus, opportunity and background, nature is far from democratic - there is a notable difference in all of these human qualities in each of us, as their attainment depends on undemocratic things like fortune and pursuit.

Further, there is no democracy in the qualities we try to attain either. Successful romantic love is not democratic: it reveals itself more to the faithful pursuer of monogamy than it does the uncommitted philanderer. Goodness is not democratic: it emerges more in those who seek moral probity than those who pursue selfishly bad ends. Knowledge is not democratic: it is the natural reward of diligence and effort, and absent in lazy-minded slackers. Good health is not democratic: it is contingent on the lifestyle chosen, genetic legacies, and other physiological factors too. And more generally, the achievements, the wisdom, and the fulfilments we secure are not democratic: they are the reward of hard work and an earnest pursuit of things that are good for us.

Our democratic leanings, then, are assented to in spite of nature not because of it. Those leanings are based on a popular view about equality - the view that it is fundamental to a successful society and peaceable co-existence. Our yearning for equality is in one sense a good thing - it is the recognition that we want everyone to make the best of their raw material, irrespective of genes, looks, intelligence and background. But in another sense, and sadly the predominant sense, it is pernicious in its fear of success and advancement. At its worst its proponents hate the thought of wealth stratification, superiority and divergence in achievement - they behave like starved organisms desperate to lament the oxygen of others, leading only to envy and resentment.

While the first tenet of equality is noble, the second is ignoble, and we must have no truck with it. Just as an education system that gave everyone the same grades would be unrepresentative, and a 400 metre race in which everyone crossed the line together would be pointless, similarly, a society devoid of wealth stratification, superiority and divergence in achievement would be a society in which those richest of human qualities - freedom to pursue talents, rewards for hard work, benefits to innovation, and positives that emerge from moral and intellectual excellence - were rendered meaningless."

Should we always trust the public?
So, to finish - what's been evident is that the Brexit vote has regurgitated issues about democracy that the Greek philosophers used to debate, but which have now taken on a modern context. The following, perfectly reasonable questions now loom large:

1) Are the general public always the best people to ask about big, far-reaching decisions that the majority are probably ill-equipped to understand?

2) When a national referendum is actioned, should democracy always be respected in terms of going with the majority opinion?

3) Under which conditions might we be able to justifiably argue to overturn a democratic decision made by the public?

Regarding question 1, knowing the general public I'd suggest the answer is, not always. However, political intelligence must also involve the mental adroitness to avoid placing the nation in a terribly precarious situation by not having referendums on matters where the 'wrong' outcome would be a disaster.

Regarding 2, I'd answer mostly yes, but I could conceive of occasions when the answer would be no.

Regarding 3, carrying on from 2, where I could conceive of occasions when we could justifiably overturn a democratic decision made by the public would be when the majority opinion was likely to be so harmful and damaging and idiotic that democracy needs a few voices of reason to straighten things out. For example, suppose we ended up with a scenario where the majority of the country voted to make the UK a protectionist nation with no outside trade, or a scenario where the majority of the country voted to ban all immigration into the country, or a scenario where the majority of the country voted for the UK to be governed by an Islamic theocracy - they are cases where even something like the quality of democracy shouldn't have ultimate primacy on the matter.

The upshot of all this, I suppose, is that the key to governments holding referendums is that the ramifications of either result should be intelligently and thoroughly thought through, and therefore referendums should only be offered to the public if one of the possible outcomes was not thought by (presumably) Parliament to be too disastrous for the country (which I admit is a subjective thing in itself).