To Save Democracy We Must Critique it

Political Philosophy and Economy 17 min read

Critiquing democracy , paradoxically, strengthens it. In a perspective spanning continents and 70 years, we gain insights on how to cope and adjust to Democracy's flaws, are reminded of its strengths and enables us to persuade those who don’t believe in it.

In contrast, in the West currently Democracy is treated as axiomatic. This makes us blind and vulnerable to its flaws, we forget historical lessons and is thoroughly unpersuasive to those who don’t already agree with us.

Photographer: Julius Drost | Source: Unsplash

Democracy at its worst…

Democracy can be ugly. Let’s start with the most egregious examples. In 1932 Hitler secured the greatest share of the vote in two elections: July 1932 and November 1932. This wasn’t a majority, but the Nazis and the Communist KPD between them won about 50% of the vote; thus, half of voters supported parties committed to ending Weimar democracy. As Ian Kershaw writes, Hitler himself was hugely popular in the Reich. In one of two free elections in Eastern Europe from 1945 to the collapse of the USSR, Czechoslovakian voters gave the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia the largest vote share in the country’s history in the 1946 elections, which set the stage for the 1948 coup d’état.

There are many present examples of less egregious but nevertheless extremely worrying cases of populist leaders who gain democratic support despite being tarnished with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, oppression of the media and human rights abuses. For examples of this, see Victor Orban’s control of the press, and his anti-Semitic tarnished attacks on leading Jewish figures in Hungary and on George Soros; or the Law and Order Party of Poland attempting to annex the judiciary, with the European Court of Justice fortunately acting as a stopgap on the most egregious cases; Human Rights Watch reports that ‘President Rodrigo Duterte has plunged the Philippines into its worst human rights crisis since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and 1980s.’ with extrajudicial killings, a violent war on drugs and targeting of political opponents; Human Rights Watch also reports erosion of judicial independence, the free media and other Human Rights in Turkey.

These examples are meant to be indicative that there is nothing intrinsically special about democratic majorities, and in many instances they have provided poor choices. The axiomatic approach is clearly unsatisfactory in these cases, and I will show its limitations in more nuanced examples.

Democracy’s Strengths

Democracy works best when it gives politicians an incentive to make policy in line with people’s interests.

Here we immediately run into our first problem. How can a nation of millions of people be said to have a ‘shared’ interest?

The first answer is in competency. Almost all voters want to avoid corruption. Here voting is most beneficial when it is iterative. A party which govern incompetently or descends into infighting can be punished. Regular elections keep politicians on their toes.

The second answer is that, in broad terms, there are shared interests. In the most limited case, most would admit agree that some services of essential shared importance should be provided by Government. Milton Friedman, viewed as free-marketeer par excellence by many, argued for a limited role for Government. In fact, he makes the point about the need for the State to define property rights quite nicely: ‘There is no natural meaning of property; it’s all a question of convention. If you fly an airplane over my house, 10 feet above my roof, are you violating my property rights? What about if you fly it 10,000 feet? What about 30,000 feet? Obviously that’s not natural and therefore if we are going to cooperate with one another in a voluntary way, we have to know what the rules of this game we are playing are, what are the terms, what rights do I have, what rights do you have. And one of the very important and basic functions of government in a free society is to define those rules of the game and to adjudicate disputes among people.’

However, even countries which are not democracies provide police forces, armed services, healthcare systems. The more controversial elements, such as income redistribution, involve the majority interest forcing a transfer of income from others. I will not delve deeply into these issues, but in short provided there is a sense of community or of shared responsibilities then these programmes can be justified. Taxation differs from theft because living within a society requires obligations and responsibilities, of which care for the less fortunate can be one. Theft is the opposite: it steps outside the society’s rules and obligations and rights to decide for itself what one ought to have. The truth of these is more obvious in smaller communities; if you think that national identity and community are a myth then national decisions inevitable become some Nietzschean ‘will to power’ in which people struggle for their wants without due considerations of societal obligations to others. The rich man avoids taxes, the poor man always votes to increase taxes on those richer, the sophist manipulates assemblies for their own benefit.

(In a minor diversion, Friedman makes another interesting point: with greater diversity of values, the more strained and divisive Government action becomes. This is because Government action inevitably means the use of coercion to make a policy apply, and with greater diversity in values this will cause more upset. I am less convinced that this means such actions shouldn’t be taken; in Britain there has been a recent controversy about children being taught about LGBT issues while in primary school in a predominantly Muslim area (see this article). I am not well-informed enough to know whether this was pedagogically appropriate, but if it was I imagine the protests still would have occurred. If you think children shouldn’t be taught about these issues between the ages of 4 and 11, then a different example neatly highlights the problem here. What if parents don’t want children to learn about evolution? What if parents, given the choice, would only teach their children a sacred text, or wouldn’t let daughters go to school? There is a conflict between the values of our society and what we consider to be not only good for children but also their rights and individual autonomy of families.)

And its weaknesses

Regular elections can cause short-term policies (stop-go in 1950s Britain); self-interested voting can lead to punitively high levels of taxation (France’s short-lived ‘supertax’) or the countervailing force of corporations and rich individuals funding their favoured politicians (US ‘Super PACs’ in 2012 election); pork-barrel politics can become the norm as can special interest lobbying ; vote-seeking can act as an impediment to needed international action (US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement)

And what is so special about a majority? If I get 50.00001% of the vote and my opponent gets 49.99999% then why is my claim to represent the people so much better? Perhaps a dozen or so people more prefer him, but within half a year that’s may well have switched. In fact, it might be that over the course of many years who is favoured switches multiple times. Perhaps the people who voted for you are younger, and hence the decision will affect them more so should be given a greater say, or perhaps the people who voted for me are older and have greater wisdom so should be given greater say. If I get 55% and you 45% is it so different? Perhaps 55% of voters will get better off and 45% worse off, but maybe the 45% are made far worse off than the 55%. And if we are using people’s votes as a way of ascertaining what the one ‘right’ decision is, a 55%-45% split is quite convincing if they are all independent unbiased estimators of the ‘right decision’ in statistical terminology, but this is obviously not true. For starters, their estimates are correlated (e.g. if you see polling that one party is ahead it influences your vote), and furthermore it is unclear why voters are especially well placed to predict economic outcomes or be informed on climate science. (Although it is unclear whether Economists are much better on economic outcomes!). Statistically speaking, the theory as to why democracies will promote better decision making is far from clear. As the winner of the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics and psychologist Daniel Kahneman pointed out in this podcast there is no guarantee that democracies in the West will overcome short-termism to be more effective than nations such as China in tackling climate change. For instance China has been particularly proactive whereas the US pulled out of the Paris talks.

Democracy and Liberalism

The evidence on Democracy and Liberalism in Economics has shown that it is Economic Liberalism – broadly the upholding of human rights, rule of law and protection of property rights – which is most important in promoting economic growth. For an example, see ‘Democracy and Growth’ by RJ Barro. Having read these papers, I am moderately sceptical of the methodology involved, and would treat the results more as indicative than conclusive.

In broader human wellbeing, Democracy can be a crucial element of liberalism. Checks and balances are needed to limit the ability of a present-day majority or Government to do what it likes, but likewise democratic systems have been more successful at involving the centralisation of political power that occurs in one-party states. In the Western democracies today there is nothing close to the cruel mass incarceration in Chinese Uighur Camps, something which persists largely because the Communist Party goes unchallenged.

(As an interesting side note, the economic literature has not shown statistically noticeable improvements to growth from democracy, but has found that democracies avoid famines more, link)

Application to the Present Day

In the United States something particularly bizarre is occurring. Given the use of democracy as a pointer to politicians, a break on corruptions and a check on the centralisation of power, the United States scores poorly. The gerrymandered seat system means that politicians win based on their local party and donors (see this article and this infographic by 538 to get a feel of the gerrymandering problem). The dependency on donations is a corruption in all but name when it buys influence; the United States may divide power but the appointment of judges and other positions has become increasingly partisan.

In the UK the referendum result on Brexit is treated as ‘the will of the people’ and irreversible by many politicians. In light of this essay, this special emphasis put on a 52% majority seems bizarre. Unlike general elections, which normally occur every 5 years, this is a decision which will effect generations, and this razor thin margin was based on a snapshot of the electorate’s opinions on a X% turnout on a single day. I don’t say this to endorse a second referendum either. I think at this point reversing the result would be very toxic for British politics, given the number of committed Leave voters. Moreover, just because Majority Voting isn’t ideal doesn’t mean there is a better alternative. However, the mantras of ‘the People’s Will’ miss the nuance of democracy’s value.

There is another interesting example in the UK. The Labour Party saw an influx of new members who elected the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn. Commentators such as Owen Jones support the rise of party democracy and activism. And in many ways these forms of political engagement are to be celebrated. Yet the end result in this instance has been that the UK electorate has an opposition leader with terrible approval ratings, whose Chancellor is probably a Marxist and wants to overthrow capitalism, and many of whose closest allies are tarnished with anti-Semitism, see this archive for an impressively large documenting of instances over the last year or so. The issue of silence and denial of Labour’s antisemitism problem is also troubling, see this article. An unfortunate side-effect of this increased Party democracy and activism has been a less competent leader of the opposition, giving the public a less than palatable choice between Labour and the infighting Conservatives.

In some countries, people identify most with sub-national groupings in a way which makes democracy less effective. In Kenya the recent elections were fortunately without violence, but the country has had violent elections in the past because voting is often done in tribal grounds with politicians giving benefits out to members of their tribal groups. See this article as a primer on the problem of tribalism in African politics.

Final thoughts on checks and balances

One of the most important checks in a country is the restraint of the politicians. In his book ‘Post War’, Tony Just makes the point that in the USSR the Communist Party had so successfully removed opposition that ending the mess it had created would require some will from within the Party to do so.

A multi-party system with a free press and speech enables one hugely important thing. The Party in office is always subject to criticism by other party, with the voters able to adjudicate. Without criticism it is very easy for individuals and political groups to slide into blindness to their faults and authoritarianism. Solzhenitsyn (yes, he was famous before Jordan Peterson) makes this point with brilliance when explaining how easy it was for someone in the Soviet Union to drift into and justify being in the ‘Organs’, the group responsible for the mass arrests, ‘trials’ and murder or exile of millions of innocent citizens.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? 

This is followed by a tragic and incredibly revealing example of how people can drift towards evil. I have put the most relevant bits in bold for if you’re in a hurry.

Or here's another. I had a platoon commander named Lieutenant Ovsyannikov. At the front no one was closer to me than he was. During half the war we ate from the same pot; even under enemy shellfire we would gulp down our food between explosions, so the stew wouldn't get cold. He was a peasant lad with a clean soul and a view of life so undistorted that neither officer candidate school nor being an officer had spoiled him in any degree. He even did what he could to soften my hard   edges in many ways. Throughout his service as an officer he concentrated on one   thing only: preserving the lives and strength of his soldiers, many of whom were  no longer young. He was the first to tell me what the Russian villages were like  then and what the collective farms were like. He talked about all this without resentment, without protest, very simply and straightforwardly — just as a forest pool reflects the image of a tree and all its branches, even the smallest. He was deeply shocked by my arrest. He wrote me a combat reference containing the highest praise and got the divisional commander to sign it. After he was demobilized he   continued to try to help me, through my relatives. And this, mind you, was in 1947, which was not very different from 1937. At my interrogation I had many reasons  to be afraid on his account, especially lest they read my "War Diary," which contained the stories he'd told me. When I was rehabilitated in 1957, 1   very much wanted to find him. I remembered his village address and wrote once, and then again, but there was no reply. I discovered one thread I could follow — that he had graduated from the Yaroslavl Pedagogical Institute. When I inquired there, they replied: "He was sent to work in the Organs of State Security." Fine! All the more  interesting! I wrote to him at his city address, but there was no reply. Several years passed and Ivan Denisovich was published. Well, I thought, now he'll turn up. No! Three years later I asked one of my Yaroslavl correspondents to go to him and personally hand him a letter. My correspondent did as I asked and wrote me: "Evidently he has never read Ivan Denisovich." And truly, why should they know how things go with prisoners after they've been sentenced? This time Ovsyannikov couldn't keep silent any longer. He wrote: "After the Institute they offered me   work in the Organs, and it seemed to me I would be just as successful there." (What did he mean, successful?) "I cannot say that I have prospered remarkably in my new walk of life. There are some things I did not like, but I work hard, and,  if I am not mistaken, I shall not let my comrades down." (And that's the justification — comradeship!) He ended: "I no longer think about the future." 

China has achieved blindly fast economic growth, yet the Communist Party is totally blind to criticism and denies its cruel repression and imprisonment of millions of Uighurs in ‘political re-education camps’. The right-wing dictatorship of Pinochet also violated human rights[1] horrifically. And so the list goes on.

This continual act of criticism and scrutiny cannot be emphasised enough.

Ideology, evil and democracy

From where does evil come? What makes people capable of justifying to themselves horrendous acts? Ideology. Solzhenitsyn writes that:

But no; that's not the way it is! To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good, or else that it's a well-considered act in  conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being  to seek a justification for his actions. 
Macbeth's self -justifications were feeble — and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even lago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. 
Ideology — that is what gives evildoing its long- sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes, so that he won't hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by  invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future  generations.   
Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago. 

To avoid a drift to being ideological diversity of opinion and criticism is required; in the political sphere multiple competing parties can play an essential role.

A last passing thought

‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’ ­– Winston Churchill

A careful examination of Democracy reveals flaws, but it also reveals why we hold it so dearly. Only then can we begin to heal our political systems: from understanding to diagnosis, and from diagnosis to cure.

The author of this article is Ethan Horsfall, an Economics student at Cambridge University. He was writing this when he should have been revising for examinations and/or sleeping.

To access the Gulag Archipelago for free, see . I copied and pasted the passages in this article from the following link. As I read it, I have been marking some passages I have found particularly insightful or moving. The passages in this article were chosen in this way.

[1] Pinochet’s indictment was complicated on grounds of illness.