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Monday, 10 October 2011


"Politicians are like nappies. They should be changed regularly, and for the same reason."  - Ken Dodd

It is beyond argument that democracy is the best form of government that humanity has implemented so far.  It may not be the best possible form of government (see here, for example), but it's the best we've tried.  Democracies are the richest societies on Earth; their populations have the longest life expectancy; and they have the worst immigration problems (which is another way of saying that everyone else wants to live in them).

But there is a superficial paradox: democracies are intrinsically inefficient compared to, say, dictatorships in the same way that a mob is less efficient than a disciplined army, and for the same reasons.  So why should an inefficient form of government work best?  The obvious answer - that government in itself is a bad thing and that less of it is therefore better - falls at the first counterexample: Somalia has no government at all, and it is one of the most unpleasant places to live in the World.

Democratic politicians are no less venal and corrupt than politicians working in other forms of government (read any newspaper for proof); indeed it is reasonable to suppose that much the same people would be running the government regardless of the political system under which they found themselves operating.  Think of any minister in your government and visualize him or her serving under Robert Mugabe ("I think it's best to work for change from within.").  It's not a big leap of imagination, is it?

No.  The reason that democracy works is not because it puts the right people in government.  There are no right people to be in government because no human being - you, me, Barack Obama, Wen Jiabao; none of the seven billion of us - has the faintest idea how to run a country.  (We merely all have opinions about how it should be done, which is not the same thing at all.)  The reason that democracy works is because it has a solid mechanism for removing people from power.

Having no government is bad (Somalia).  Government by the same people for a long time is bad (Zimbabwe).  But high turnover among governors is good.

It follows that, in an election, we should all ignore the record of the incumbents, we should all ignore the policies of the candidates, and we should all ignore their personalities.

We should simply vote in the way that is most likely to remove the current lot (whoever they are) from office.


Rachel Park said...

This makes a great deal of sense particularly when reflecting on my own paradox, namely that since I have been eligible to vote I have found politics; or rather political groups for which I can vote; hollow and pointless, however I feel privileged and therefore compelled to cast my vote.

4ndy said...

Reminds me of Marx's old idea that people should be rotated frequently through any bureaucratic posts, so that "people don't spend long enough as a bureaucrat to become one" (paraphrasing).

The separation of debate and voting on the old article is a nice idea too, though I'm inclined to agree more with Peter on this one (, that we're better off scrapping anything pretending to be 'democracy' if we want to avoid conflicts within humanity in the future, as even a fairly rigorous selection of random jurors can often come to irrational conclusions due to popularly-held misconceptions, fallacious appeals to emotion, etc.

I find it very telling of the flaws in representative democracy when scientific advisers are sacked for telling politicians some truth that they don't want to hear (e.g.
When it comes to designing infrastructure, the scientific method consistently gives us the best solutions, and when it comes to meeting human needs, attending to some people's needs but not others based on an old game (numerical musical chairs aka money), is pure insanity.

I find voting pointless when politicians are given responsibilities that they are incapable of managing, when only the rich can afford to run for office with any success, and the easiest thing for them to do once they get there is be corrupt.
If representative democracy worked for the greater good, it would be illegal to sell food in plastic packaging that does not have a fully comprehensive recycling system waiting to take care of it. If the free market worked, people wouldn't have to be told not to pollute our planet in the first place.

Sarastro said...

As a die-hard democrat, I would normally have agreed with your opening sentence, Adrian, but now, after three years of Dubai life, I am not so sure.

The UAE, I should perhaps explain, operates what is, in essence, an undemocratic democracy - for want of a better phrase. The rulers of each emirate are chosen by the ruling families, who, if they got it wrong, will choose someone else. In effect, a democracy with a very small electorate. The ruler and the family then pick the ministers, who, provided they perform and toe the line, have jobs for life. The ministers are typically family members who tend to be experts - for example, the health minister is a doctor. Compare that with a doctor who, until recently, ran defence in the UK....

The result is that 'grands projets' here tend to happen. Building a new airport, or a tower 848m high, or a brand spanking new metro system all happen, and quickly - and I wonder if in part that is because the ruler, or the appropriate minister can see themselves cutting the ribbon, and them getting the credit, not a political opponent.

There are no changes of emphasis, or changes of direction, to suit political whim, or ephemeral public opinion. People here are well fed, well clothed, VERY well educated, and have access to world class health care. There is no demand that I have ever seen or heard for an election, the ruling family is loved and respected.

Is this a better system than democracy? Having seen the shambles in the UK caused by short term politicians, I would have to wonder if it is.

I'm not sure I agree with 4ndy about the packaging problem - I suspect we come at this from opposite ends of the political spectrum! My take would be that we are seeing litter and pollution because people aren't paying market prices to dispose of the stuff; if they were forced to, perhaps they would demand less packaging, which was easier to dispose of? WWASD, as they may have said c1776....

Adrian Bowyer said...

But how well would the UAE system work if the per-capita income were equal to that of, say, Bangladesh?

Sarastro said...

An interesting question; assuming they were as poor as Bangladesh, would they be better off as a democracy?

Bangladesh is a democracy (albeit prefaced with the worrying 'Peoples' Republic' bit, which means, most of the time, the exact opposite) - perhaps they would be better off with a UAE style system?

(/Devil's Advocate)....

Assaf Ater said...

Democracy is a big word, there are a lot of countries that have Democracy as their government but its a lacking Democracy. There are clear example that everybody knows such as Iran, Turkey, Egypt but there are also some other lacking democracies.

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