Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The advantages of modern representative democracy

Before we can properly start this discussion, there is an important concept that needs to be explained, that most of the industrial world is not in fact a democracy in the way that term was historically defined. The Greek's are normally used as the originators of democracy and we can safely assume that is correct, but their democracy was very dissimilar to ours. In the ancient world the closest approximation to modern representative democracy (what we have) was the Roman republic and why is quite important. Greek cities tended to have pure governments, only a dictator, only an aristocracy or only a direct democracy (roughly speaking). The Roman republic's system was very different in that it wasn't a pure government. The modern Western world effectively having an improved and more democratized  form of the Roman republics political system can easily count as one of its better ideas.

At its the time the roman republic (note, not the empire) was the most complex democratic government system that had ever existed. It included the representative system, which ranged from various elected minor officials (whose roles ranged from running markets, commanding troops and collecting taxes) to the twin consuls who had a huge amount of power and were supposed to check one another. Then there was the direct democratic component of the plebiscite (laws which bound all citizens) and the passing of laws proposed by the minor officials. Then their was the senate, which technically have no internal (it generally controlled foreign policy, couldn't declare war) power, which was composed of former magistrates  (to be a magistrate you needed a certain amount of wealth as well a be a Patrician) and whose recommendations carried large amounts of influence (their consent was traditionally needed to pass plebiscites), they functioned as a form of aristocracy to moderate the whole system. So right there you have a democracy of the plebiscite and assemblies, an aristocracy of the senate and what counts as a dictator in the two consuls. It's a mixed government and it is similar to what we have. More so than the Greek system which normally was composed only of direct democracy and with limited representative democracy, when it was democratic (fairly rare in Athenian history).

There is a problem of semantics/definitions which should also be addressed, because what dictator, aristocratic and democracy mean under this discussion are distinct from what they normally mean and their meanings have also changed over time. Aristocracy and dictator are also interchangeable (to a degree) with republic and monarchy respectively.  Before representative democracy became a common idea, democracy meant direct democracy only. The roman consuls were seen as dictators because while they were voted in, they made the decisions not the plebs or patricians. It basically means a sole ruler who has a large amount of power and is at the top of the political system. Presidents are dictators in this sense, in Australia the role is supposed to be filled by the queen and governor general (its a really weak form). When Machiavelli says Prince, the proper translation is simple ruler, Presidents would have been called a Principe for example. So lets go through the broad description of what these terms mean for this discussion.

As the above paragraph described, Dictator in this instance just means someone who is at the top. In most modern democracies this role is filled by the President (or equivalent) though in Australia that's not the case. The Queen and Governor general fill that role even through their power is fairly limited, but the Prime minister can also be considered in this category. In Australia this section is incredibly weak compared to other democracies and it will probably remain that way until we become a republic (but not necessarily). Their are multiple models of republics that Australia could choose from, most would involve a President (or equivalent position) and so far having that extra component works out fairly well.

While republics now mean something that is democratic, before they only meant a system in which the aristocrats (generally the top 10%) of society could vote and participate in politics. So this section is the aristocratic component since there's a restriction on who can participate and vote. Since the ideas changed, the Senate sort of fills this role but the judiciary and bureaucratic sections of government do. It helps to regulate the whole system and stop wild swings of public opinion from wrecking everything (why only half the senate is voted for every 4 years).   
The meaning of democracy has changed a great deal over the last few centuries. Originally it only counted as democracy when every citizen voted on decisions directly, like the Roman plebiscites, and so when power was invested in a figure it wasn't democratic even if the power was invested democratically. Now that restriction has been mostly removed and this section includes elected representatives. As it stands, it simply means a system in which the majority (never all, enfranchisement has never been completely universal) is enfranchised and can participate in politics. Normal limits on enfranchisement are over a set age (like 18), not in prison and considered a citizen (what this means tends to vary) of the relevant country.

Just to be clear, here we're going with the thin understanding of democracy, that the term democracy has no moral content.  You can easily argue that democracies are better to live in , but that is not a necessary element of the term. All it means here is a specific procedural decision making tool that allows the majority to have a large say in the political process. A democracy can pass illiberal laws, kill large amounts of people, oppress minorities and such, those actions may be immoral but as long as the decision were arrived at via some democratic mechanism (either representative or direct) they count as democratic. So the USA and Europe are still mostly democracies, even through their responding to overshoot with austerity and bad long term decisions (in the short term their mostly good choices) and despite many claims the recently overthrown Islamic regime in Egypt was democratic. Also a low voter turnout doesn't disqualify a democracy, it makes it a weak democracy, the political stance of "I don't care who rules and what they do" (which is what a no vote effectively is) is after all a valid political stance. Mind you, if your using that as a metric of a democracy's strength, then in the Anglo-sphere only New Zealand and Australia's democracies are strong. That's why functioning democracies have checks and balances, to limit the bad outcomes when it does go wrong (as everything does at some point or other).

The main weakness of the current systems is that they're all built on the same democratic base, every one votes for the upper and lower houses for example. Now this is a fairly understandable result of the spread of enfranchisement and its certainly better than the alternatives that have been tried such as having separate bases. Your supposed to have populists (which shouldn't be a dirty term) elected and working alongside people who are openly supporting (and being supported by) businesses and the rich. At the moment only a few major tinkerings are needed, quite a few minor ones are obviously needed as well. Some way of keeping the senate partly democratic but restricting voting could be a good idea, say take the idea from Starship troopers and only grant votes for it when some service criteria (certain professions, military work etc) is met for example, there are others though it should be noted that its not a needed change and as their untried could easily backfire. Figuring out a way to weaken the ties between the dictator figure and any political parties would be another (in order to increase the competition between the democratic and dictator parts). As it stands, the systems we've built works just as well and in most cases better than other political experiments.

I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.
  • John Adams, letter to John Taylor (15 April 1814).
That's from Wiki quote on democracy and in it he is referring to pure democracy. If your unaware of that fact, then even through he was a founder of the USA and supported the republic, then it sounds as if he is against democracy completely. Since he's one of the founding father's who was heavily influenced by Machiavelli he's most likely arguing in favour of mixed governments and against having a pure democracy. So he's talking about the Greek version of democracy, while our current systems are more closely based of the Roman political system. To see the practical end result differences, the Greeks only ever united under foreign rule (Macedonia and Rome) and couldn't easily project power outwards against Persia (their main enemy) due to continuous political instability and war. The Roman republic on the other hand managed to conquer the entire Italian peninsula, give us the phrase Pyrrhic victory and destroyed the far wealthier and (initially) more powerful Carthaginian empire. Next they built one of the largest and longest lasting empire's despite major disadvantages; such as the Celts originally having better iron workers and the Mediterranean being a horrible transport route back then because of poor sailing technology along with slow land travel

Modern representative democracy starts with the premise that investing power in a figure via elections is democratic and thus overcomes many of direct democracies downsides (such as rapid swings in policy and limited coverage). As an overall system, it is in a way a refinement of the Roman republic in that it is more of a mixed government, isn't like the Greeks in that only one government type was in use at any time and the power of the upper house is set in stone rather than based of tradition. Considering that anacyclosis took centuries in Rome (in Greece you could potentially live through the whole cycle) and in modern democracies anacyclosis doesn't destroy the whole system and force it to be rebuilt, this is a good thing.

Also, for all the would be or actual revolutionaries, the meaning of revolution is going around in circles. Anacyclosis is effectively a circle (that's how it's visually portrayed), so to have a revolution can be thought of as to follow the cycle of anacyclosis. Russia certainly followed that pattern, while it wasn't that democratic, democracy was becoming stronger until the revolution hit. Alexander II of Russia, the third last Czar, emancipated the serfs, thus spreading democracy. Unfortunately for him, the revolutions towards Authoritarianism had already begun and the day he was to form an elected Parliament (Duma) he was assassinated by anarchists and this caused a massive suppression of civil rights along with anarchists advocating for the violent form of propaganda of the deed. Later on a revolution happened and the Soviet union came into being, one of the more dictator focused governments of recent history. Guess it's ironic, but anarchists in a way were responsible for the Soviet Union.

Since this post is on the advantages of modern representative democracy and the Archdruid already listed 3 of them in Democracy’s arc, I'll simply quote him.

"First, democracies tolerate much broader freedom of speech and conscience than countries ruled by other systems. I can critique the personalities, policies, and (as here) fundamental concepts of American government without having to worry that this will bring jackbooted thugs crashing through my door at three in the morning; in nondemocratic countries, critics of the government in power rarely have that security. Equally, I can practice the religion I choose, read the books I prefer, carry on conversations with people in other democratic countries around the world, and exercise a great many other freedoms that people in nondemocratic countries simply don’t have. These things matter; people have fought and died for them, and a system that makes room for them is far and away preferable to one that doesn’t.

Second, democracies don’t kill anything like as many of their own citizens as most other forms of government do.  The history of the twentieth century, if nothing else, should have been enough of a reminder that authoritarian governments come with a very high domestic body count. All governments everywhere kill plenty of people whenever they go to war, and all governments everywhere go to war when they think they can get away with it; imperial democracies also tend to build up very large prison populations—the United States  has more people in prison than any other nation on Earth, just as Britain in its age of empire shipped so many convicts to Australia that they played a sizable role in the settling of that continent.  Still, all other things being equal, it’s better to live in a nation where the government doesn’t dump large numbers of its own citizens into mass graves, and democracies do that far less often, and to far fewer people, than nondemocratic governments generally do.

Finally, democracies undergo systemic change with less disruption and violence than nondemocratic countries do. Whether we’re talking about removing a failed head of state, coping with an economic depression, dealing with military defeat, or winning or losing an empire, democracies routinely manage to surf the wave of change without the sort of collapse such changes very often bring to nondemocratic countries. The rotation of leadership hardwired into the constitutions of most successful democracies builds a certain amount of change into the system, if only because different politicians have different pet agendas, and pressure from outside the political class—if it’s strong, sustained, and intelligently directed—very often does have an impact: not quickly, not easily, and not without a great deal of bellowing and hand waving, but the thing does happen eventually.

All three of these benefits, and a number of others of the same kind, can be summed up in a single sentence: democracy is resilient. Authoritarian societies, by contrast, are brittle; that’s why they can’t tolerate freedom of speech and conscience, why they so often murder their citizens in large numbers, and why they tend to shatter when they are driven to change by the pressure of events. Democratic societies can also be brittle, especially if they’re newly established, or if a substantial fraction of their citizens rejects the values of democracy; still, all other things being equal, a democratic society normally weathers systemic change with less trauma than an authoritarian one.

One measure of this greater resilience, ironically enough, may be seen in the lack of success radical groups generally have when they try to delegitimize and overturn an established democratic society.  Rhetoric that would bring a brutal response from authoritarian governments get little more than a yawn from democratic ones. A few years back, the phrase “repressive tolerance” was the term for this on the American far left. I doubt those who denounced it under this label would have preferred to be dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, shot through the head, and tumbled into an unmarked grave; the rest of us, certainly, have good reason to be thankful that that’s not the way America generally deals with its dissidents."

For the other advantages, assume I mean only for a functioning political system. America's political system is still functioning, maybe not for much longer but at the moment it is, so is Europe's and Australia's system works fairly well. Non-functioning or failing political systems would include Afghanistan and Iraq, quite a few African nations (like Somalia and Darfur) and various others. Here by non-functioning I mean cannot carry out the basic functions of governance, not what radicals mean of not fulfilling some goal/value or failing to take action on something which isn't a core part of what governments are for.

One of the more advantageous aspects is that their aren't civil wars or rebellions built around who should rule. The American civil war wasn't fought over if Lincoln or Jefferson (heads of the respective sides) should rule the country, as most civil wars throughout history have been fought over. During the decline of Rome's empire there was over a century of 'rolling' civil wars fought solely over who would become the emperor. That part of politics has been almost completely removed and different rulers are instead chosen peacefully. That has saved countless lives and made it far nicer to live in modern societies than if we still had civil wars over rulers. This doesn't mean that civil wars don't happen but they are far less common than before and over more edifying goals than which bum sits on the throne.

Then their's the fact that it has done what direct democracy hasn't been able to do across the several thousand years its been around for, and that's to encompass an entire country (instead of the norm of a single city at most) while also giving a far larger proportion of the population a voice in politics. You can't do that with direct democracy, no matter how much you try and tinker with it. Even the democratic city states had a limited coverage, most of the time only aristocrats could vote and rural people often didn't have any say at all. Considering that states larger than a single city are fairly common in history, keeping the ability to have democracy of that size and inclusiveness is a good investment.

To give you an idea of the change that representative democracy brought to the reputation of democracy, no one thinks of it as a hopeless utopian system anymore and democracy is the default option in the West. Basically, even a few hundred years ago, the idea of democracy applied to anything above a city, and then it was rare to have even all male enfranchisement (generally it was only the head of a household, male or female), was seen as a ridiculous and stupid idea. And it was, because direct democracy can't be applied on that large a scale, it still has trouble on a city scale. Representative democracy can and has successfully proven (see all of the latter 20th century European and American history) it's worth as a political system that is worth using and can function in the real world over extended time frames. Contrast it with communism which has proven to be a failure and any of the other radical systems out their that for the most part haven't even been proven to work even on a small scale (where it's generally the easiest), others like anarchism (there were anarchic communes in the medieval ages) or small communist communes have proven to simply not be competitive with other systems over the long term or able to work on a large scale (above a village). Mind you, anarchism is practiced consistently in one area, it's called international anarchy and it's how anarchies work in real life rather than in ideology, informal power structures spontaneously appear, like the US hegemony, the British empire and so on.

To quote Napoleon "A form of government that is not the result of a long sequence of shared experiences, efforts, and endeavors can never take root." Which is part of the reason that revolutions to change a governments system so often fail when theirs little tradition of the new system. Any sort of radical system (anarchy included) has this flaw, and it's not enough to simply have the ideology or the theory, in this practice and tradition matter far more. It can be overcome, but only via its application at a small scale over a period of time and a variety of conditions. The important point about having these systems applied in the real world (at a small scale to allow more adjustments and variety) is that they can actually be analyzed. A lot of theoretical systems sound great, see this, in theory but since they've never been put to the test we have no way of judging how accurate the theory is, except a cynical guess that it's probably not that accurate because it hasn't been tested. They are simple arguments from ignorance and until some practical experiments have been done, that's all they'll be.

More importantly, we can look at the choice of governments as an evolutionary process. Now this doesn't mean that their isn't a better government system waiting to be invented, but at this stage that isn't an appropriate response. Testing and creating such as system is a task for an age of progress and increasing abundance, not our current and near future situation unfortunately. So, without any theoretical work or discussions we can simply look and see which system work/ed well, and are likely to be the best options. Market based economies for example are tolerable common, so they obviously have something going for them despite their current failings. And it also points to issues that have to be answered for a theoretical system to be valid, such as why if your system is so great, it isn't the dominant system (especially if its been around for a while) and the issue of competitiveness with other systems. Quite a few ignore these issues.

The lefts (and sometimes the rights) bad habit of saying it shouldn't have to compete on a equal playing field is part of the reason this approach isn't generally thought of or applied. Here's an example from Wikipedia  "Marcuse believes that under such conditions tolerance as traditionally understood serves the cause of domination and that a new kind of tolerance is therefore needed: tolerance of the Left, subversion, and revolutionary violence, combined with intolerance of the Right, existing institutions, and opposition to socialism.[1]". Or in other words, the right should be disadvantaged along with people passively accepting political violence (terrorism), which is what revolutionary violence is while being intolerant of criticism to socialism. The tolerance he is critiquing is a level playing field, if the left (or the right) can't compete, it's their fault not that of manipulations by some elitist group or other.

Now there are authoritarian elements in the peak oil sphere, before I've mentioned a debate between Ashvin (Automatic earth) and RE (Doomstead diner) about whether to initiate a purge, which has authoritarian/(Dictatorial/Aristocratic) tones and would most likely destroy democracy (at best you'd get mob rule). From the same wiki quote page as the John Adams quote above is one from the club of Rome.

Democracy is not a panacea. It cannot organize everything and it is unaware of its own limits. These facts must be faced squarely. Sacrilegious though this may sound, democracy is no longer well suited for the tasks ahead. The complexity and the technical nature of many of today's problems do not always allow elected representatives to make competent decisions at the right time.
Straight out there, is an antidemocratic statement from the organization that funded the Limits to growth. The Archdruid mentioned this and the governments response, which was perfectly justified at the time.  The problem is that Authoritarian societies (like the Roman empire, Mayans etc) have been through overshoot and failed to adapted, with modern democracies at the very least the advantages listed above can be kept. That is well worth the cost, even if the current governments fail to adapt (fairly likely). The inability to adapt is not a problem with the political system, but more a part of human nature and our inability to easily adapt to chronic and very long term problems (which has evolutionary reasons to exist), its not impossible but it isn't easy. To say that this is reflected in democracy is true, but its also reflected in every form of government (even theocracies) tried for the simple reason that all governments are run by humans and some form of computer government is completely theoretical at this point. A computer government won't be solely theoretical until someone builds one and it successfully runs a country for at least 100 years or so and with the downward slope of overshoot looming that is time we don't have. To deny that all governments have this problem is to deny that governments are human constructs

For all its faults, modern representative democracies is one of the major achievements of the last 300 years. It is well worth preserving and has proven it can function in a non-fossil fuel world (the first forms pre-date industrialism).

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