You will often have been told that you live in a ‘democracy’ and that this is wonderful, something which should be exported all over the world. But what does ‘democracy’ mean and how does it work?
There are, in fact, two meanings. One is what I shall call ‘Democracy’, with a capital D. This is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as ‘government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people’. It means that one person has one vote, with everyone over a certain age having such a vote. In practice it should mean that there is a choice. One-party Democracy is something of a contradiction in terms.
The second I shall call ‘democracy’ with a small d. This is defined by the same dictionary as ‘a social state in which all have equal rights’. The Oxford Reference Dictionary suggests ‘an egalitarian and tolerant form of society’. So this ‘democracy’ implies a feeling of freedom, equality before the law and equality of opportunities.
The system of Democracy, or the sovereignty of the people, is opposed to ‘autocracy’, rule by a few, which has many forms. These include oligarchy (rule by the few), plutocracy (rule by the very rich) monarchy (rule by a single ruler or King). ‘Democracy’ itself can take several forms, including republicanism, as in the United States or France, or limited monarchy, as in Britain.
Was Democracy expected?
Since Democracy is now the aspiration of many and the most popular form of government on earth, you may think that it has a long and successful history. Not at all. One hundred years ago no-one lived in a Democracy in the strict sense of the word. In the middle of the twentieth century the few existing Democracies were nearly wiped out by fascism (the ideology of state power) and communism (the ideology of abolition of the state and private property).
Until 1980, Democracy was still a minority form of government. The majority of governments, and the majority of people, lived in autocracies. Only with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 did Democracies outnumber autocracies. So why have many countries gravitated towards other forms?
The difficult thing in politics is to tread a middle path. At certain points in the history of civilizations there is too much chaos and factionalism. We find the ‘disintegration of the state’ over much of Europe after the fall of Rome, in China after the Opium Wars, or in eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Local chiefs, lords, commissars and war-lords increase in power and bandits roam. The State is dismembered and cannot maintain a monopoly of the use of force. This is deeply unpleasant for most of the inhabitants, trampled over and pulled this way and that.
If wealth and technical efficiency increase and temporary alliances turn into permanent ones, everything changes. Political power increases at the State level and local resistance is crushed. Often this coincides with the banning of all alternative groupings. So a movement from disintegration to over-integration, or at least attempted total control, is the normal pattern.
Very rarely does an alternative emerge. In small city states or in the early history of empires this alternative is often called republicanism. Citizens, that is the free members of a republic, whether in Athens, early Rome, the Florentine Republic of the fifteenth century or the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century, although usually a minority of the population, share in government. There is no single ruler, no King or dictator.
Yet this is an unstable arrangement, which soon drifts towards some form of monarchy. For instance, it took only a few years for the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell in England to drift back to the unpopular idea that Cromwell’s successor should be his son. It took little time for Napoleon to set himself up as ruler and establish a new dynasty after the French Revolution had established a Republic in France in 1789.
Power is soon concentrated in the hands of a single ruler, his family and close circle. Republics are not only short lived but are usually only found in small political units. Until the later eighteenth century, there is no case of a large state (the size of France, Spain, Japan or China) being a republic for more than a few years. In the twentieth century new forms of autocracy took power away from traditional rulers (in Russia and China ) or the people (Germany, Italy, Spain) and placed it in the hands of the Communist Party or the Fascist State. The present swing to Democracy is strange and unprecedented.
Why is Democracy so fashionable?
Some say that Democracy has temporarily triumphed because it is economically successful. Democracy is part of a package which ensures that individuals can pursue their economic goals in safety and indeed are encouraged to do so. So it tends to generate economic and hence military success. Yet there are difficulties in this argument.
It is clear that Democracy does not automatically generate economic growth. It is possible to point to periods in the history of Democratic societies, including the recession in the United States in the 1930’s, where there has been economic decline. Secondly, there are forms of autocracy, as in China today with its amazing economic growth, which are temporarily more successful than most Democracies. There are one-party, bureaucratic, states such as Singapore or, some would argue, Japan which have had extraordinary growth without Democracy in the normal sense of the word. So Democracy is neither a guarantee of growth nor is it the only path.
Others suggest that Democracy is successful because it wins the affections of people who feel empowered by their right to choose their leaders. They treasure the feeling of liberty when they can, through such choice, run their own lives. There is clearly something in this. Yet the speed with which people abandoned Democracy when it failed economically, as Hitler and Mussolini showed, makes us pause. The fact that most people in Britain now do not bother to vote in local and European elections, and that the number voting in national elections in the United States is shrinking so dramatically, suggests that the emotional appeal is less strong than might be assumed.
Does Democracy satisfy?
There are good reasons why people fail to vote. In ancient Athens, ‘Democracy’ while proclaimed, was largely incomplete. Only a very small part of ‘the people’, that is the free male citizens, had any say in government. Full suffrage in Britain took a long time to achieve. It was not until 1928 that women got the right to vote in parliamentary elections.
There are other dangers. One is known as the ‘tyranny of the majority’. According to the logic of Democracy, the government should obey the will of the majority. This majority may well be fickle and have illiberal views. It may be swayed by newspapers or orators to be intolerant, bigoted or even, as in Maoist China or Hitler’s Germany, very unpleasant. Minorities can suffer badly from the majority view. This has been found historically by the Jews. In many parts of the world asylum seekers, homosexuals and gypsies have also suffered from the intolerance of the majority.
An equal danger lies in politicians doing what they feel is best for the country, even if most of the people who elected them did not vote for their specific actions and may not agree with them.
Another difficulty lies in reducing the complexity of life to a single decision between opposing political parties. At national elections the parties put forward their ideas in a manifesto. Many people agree with bits from each of the opposing party programs. But you can only vote for one side. When they come to power the politicians may refer to their manifesto (which most have not read) and then pursue policies which those who elected them did not anticipate. People consequently feel cheated and there are allegations of ‘elective dictatorship’.
Furthermore, the party in power often brings in new ideas, after a year or two, with which someone who voted for them totally disagrees. They fight a war, bring in new taxes or criminal legislation which are unacceptable to even their strongest supporters. People can write to their Member of Parliament, but they feel this has little effect. As the British labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee candidly admitted ‘Democracy means government by discussion but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.’
What is the strength of Democracy?
Many think that the only real virtue of the system is that the politicians are accountable at the end of a limited term in power, through the need for re-election. This tempers the arrogance of power. The fact that there is an almost automatic swing against whoever is in power, who soon appear to be the source of our present discontents, means that the government is periodically purged. After a while in office, every government appears shabby. This may save a country from the drift to autocracy.
The fact that almost all our leaders appear to us as fools once they are in power, pathetically inadequate or seriously deceived, shows that the system is working. On a recent visit to China I met many young people who had recently discovered that their leaders were old, stupid and corrupt. These young Chinese were cynical, and yet upset by this realization. I reassured them that it is this very cynicism, rampant over the last three hundred years or more in England, which is one of the glories of Democracy. Those in power should never be trusted fully. We should always remember the novelist Daniel Defoe’s short verse: ‘Nature has left this tincture in the blood, That all men would be tyrants if they could.’ The British Prime Minister Winston Church suggested that ‘It has been said that Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ It is often a sham, a mask for power, but it is difficult to think of a better system.
Should our rights and freedoms be enshrined in writing?
People have suggested that we would be better protected against our rulers and the tyranny of the majority through a written constitution. Certainly the American Constitution was a noble document, guaranteeing individual liberties and freedom of conscience. But it has worked because the principles it enshrined were very vague and general truisms, a statement of the obvious ideas transferred from the unwritten British political system. It could be, and has been, interpreted in entirely different ways by different people.
Written constitutions, in themselves, are no guarantee of liberty. The French, Italians, Germans have had many written constitutions over the last two hundred years but this has not protected them against tyranny. Attempts to introduce a European Constitution are causing considerable alarm since there is a feeling that it is too open-ended, too easily amendable, too undermining of subsidiary powers, hazy about the level of responsibilities. The new order will soon be overburdened by trying to specify too much. By its silences and omissions it may destroy rather than increase liberty.
What is liberty?
There are two types of liberty, negative and positive. Negative liberty is the core of the English tradition. There are certain things which others, including the State, cannot do to you. They cannot seize your body or your wealth without due process of law. They cannot take away your freedom of speech, action, right of association with others without legal warrant. A very few negative rules cover most of life. They are encapsulated by the philosopher John Stuart Mill when he wrote that the ‘liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.’
Positive liberty on the other hand is the right, and often the duty, to do certain things. The right to health care, the right to be employed, the right to schooling. This sounds fine, but the problem is that much more has to be itemized. Anything not specified explicitly can be assumed to be absent as a right.
Positive liberty is the essence of the past Continental European tradition. It tends to end up in over-blown bureaucracy and much extra work for lawyers. With well-meaning attention to minute details it can stifle true democracy and even Democracy.
Many have felt that laws and politicians should not tell you how you should behave. That is the province of religion. Fascism and communism are an attempt to bend the will of the people towards what the leaders think is the moral way, they combine the roles of religion and politics. Others feel on the contrary that the law and politicians should stick to stating what you must not do.
Does freedom from interference help?
One advantage of the negative definition of liberty is that it gives greater flexibility in a multi-cultural world. If we examine games, we find that their openness come from the fact that rules are negative, not positive. In football there is just a minimal set of negative rules; you must not pick up the ball (unless you are goal keeper), trip people up, get ‘off side’. There are no positive rules telling you that you must be nice to anyone who smiles at you, always show courtesy, always shake hands with your opponents at any opportunity.
One of the greatest achievements of the United States has been the way in which, over the centuries, it has absorbed waves of immigrants. Although we no longer believe that it is a melting-pot, certainly many groups with different origins live moderately amicably together. They can be Americans because to be so does not demand their hearts and souls. There are things which you cannot do, to your fellow countrymen at least, as an American, kill people, steal their property, forbid them from saying things. But there are few positive things you have to do or believe. Even saluting the flag, or eating apple pie and Thanksgiving turkey is optional.
Likewise in the British Empire there were negative rules of a universal kind. But, with some exceptions such as banning widow burning and head-hunting, individual consciences and variations in belief and culture were not to be interfered with. This was different from the Catholic, continental European, tradition. This may be one of the reasons why many British look with such apprehension at the attempts to introduce positive laws and positive discrimination, positive human rights, a new political and legal order, by way of the European parliament and constitution.
What are the deeper roots of Democracy?
The British unease about the European Constitution can only be understood if we look at a thousand years of history. The English view is that modern Democracy was nurtured and grown in England in its early form, and only later exported. They argue that the social and mental under-pinning of Democracy, that is democracy in the wider sense of responsibility and power passed down to lower levels, is a very old affair.
These historians examine the workings of the unwritten English constitution. They note the balance and separation of powers, delegation of responsibility, set of intermediary institutions, that is things like the universities, companies, religious organizations, clubs and associations which lie between the subject and the state. According to the dominant ideas of the last thousand years, the ruler was not absolute, but first amongst equals. There were many loyalties or obligations, only some of them were to the State.
England was in some respects the most integrated and powerful State in history. Taxes were high, there were few over-mighty subjects, there were few banned institutions. Every subject was bound into the political system. Although only a few of the richer landholders for a very long time had a vote, thus disenfranchising the majority of the population and particularly women, many people had a say in part of the running of their own lives.
So there was relatively effective government combined with a good deal of delegated power. It was not full Democracy in the modern sense, but it was an unusually open and liberal society, there was equality before the law, with the partial exception of lords (Peers) and an unusually egalitarian and tolerant form of society, a ‘democracy’ of a sort.
Is Democracy the solution to the world’s woes?
People living in parts of New Guinea noticed that when the white people arrived, they often built airfields. Planes would then arrive to spill out huge quantities of desirable things or ‘cargo’. It seemed clear that the airfields were the key. They attracted the planes. So people hopefully built airfields and then waited for the cargo to arrive. They were disappointed.
We have become the same with ‘Democracy’. We have observed that democracy is often associated with consumer success and some forms of freedom. Democracies we feel deliver the goods. We conclude that if we set out and ‘build democracies’ around the world, by persuasion, bribes or force, the benefits linked to democracy will automatically follow. If we put out the ballot boxes, the rest will soon occur. We will be equally disappointed. We have forgotten that ‘Democracy’ is the result of many other things. It is as much the consequence as the cause of things we appreciate. We have become political cargo cultists.
Can Democracy last?
It may well be that economic growth is necessary for the success of Democracy. The Soviet Union collapsed largely because of its poor economic performance. Democracy has won because it delivers wealth. Yet Democracy, as we have seen, does not guarantee growth. Other systems may be more efficient, not just in the short-term as in many of the new nations in Asia, but perhaps in the long-term as in China.
Nor does Democracy guarantee equality. It may well be that equality before the law and the rule of law are necessary for Democracy. But Democracy and such equality do not guarantee any specific outcome in terms of actual equality. The extremes of wealth and poverty which are growing in the United States, contrast starkly with the extraordinary economic equality in the largely one-party Japan. This suggests that while individuals may be politically ‘free’ in a place with Democracy, they may be materially unfree – the poor being worse housed, worse educated and less healthy than the rich.
History has not come to an end, as some prematurely alleged. The triumph of Democratic capitalism is not assured for ever. Only vigilance combined with luck will ensure that the least bad of all political systems lasts for another hundred years in those parts of the world which desire it. Humility is the best way to ensure that it spreads to other countries which have as yet not enjoyed its blessings and its frustrations. Active participation by the people, combined with deep scepticism, may keep the system alive.