Monday, July 02, 2012

Government, Freedom, Democracy

This is a brief thought relating to the current proposals for House of Lords reform which have been brought forward by HM Government.  The plan, basically, is to move from a mostly appointed upper house to a mostly elected upper house.  I won't comment on the way the appointments system has been blatantly abused by successive governments, except to say that, well, it has been blatantly abused.  What I do want to do is offer some pondering on the point of democracy.

It seems to me that the proposed reforms are predicated on the assumption that 'democratic'='good'.  I would want to unpick that assumption a little bit, and ask 'if democratic=good, then what is it good for?'  In other words, why is democracy good, and is it good in all circumstances?

I suppose the answer will depend on what you think government is for.  I basically want two things from a governmental system.  I want it to preserve, and ideally further, liberty, and I want it to offer responsible and accountable government.  It is worth mentioning straight up that these two goals are not necessarily 100% compatible, and there may well be some tension between them.  It is also worth putting in some definitions.  By 'liberty' I mean the absence of restraint on personal belief and behaviour.  Obviously at some point liberty has to be curtailed in order to preserve liberty; i.e. my freedom has to stop at the point at which it critically endangers another's freedom.  By 'responsible and accountable', I mean being forced to behave in a way which, if brought into the light, will stand up to scrutiny.  The virtue of responsible and accountable government is simply that it impedes the tendency of government to become its own special interest group, governing only for its own good rather than the common good.

I would argue that democracy is good if, and in so far as, it fosters these two priorities in government.  I would further argue that in fact the relationship between democracy, liberty, and accountability is actually quite ambiguous.  On the one hand, it can be assumed that democracy presents a very direct form of accountability; the government is literally scrutinised by the electorate, who have the ability to throw them out if they don't like what they see.  Government is responsible to the electorate.  However, we need to recognise that in practice governments need only to please a larger number than they displease.  That is to say, democracy does not prevent governments from acting in the interests of a small group rather than in the common interest of all; it simply means that the small group must be large enough to outnumber all the other groups.  And in fact this is likely to mean that democratically elected governments are more likely to act in the interests only of a particular group, because this is the best way to ensure the loyalty of that group.  The other guys probably wouldn't have voted for you whatever you did, so why care about their interests?

On the liberty front, the impact of democracy is even more problematic.  If we had a populace who, as a whole, valued liberty very highly, then presumably democracy would mean that governments which threatened liberty would be swiftly removed.  But in fact we have a society that is fragmented into different sections, each of which would be happy to see the liberty of others impinged upon in order to further their own sectional interests.  It is therefore not necessarily in the interests of those in government to preserve liberty for all.  In fact, democracy allows government to hide behind the rhetoric of the 'vox populi' to argue that because 51% want it, the people as a whole want it.  This kind of argument makes slaves of the 49%, but who cares?  So long as you please the majority, you can tyrannise the rest.

Now, I'm not dead against democracy.  I think we'd be better off under an enlightened despotism, but I don't think despotism tends to be enlightened, and you always have the problem of who will take over.  We need to have elected representatives who will hold government to account.  But I think there are good reasons not to have a wholly democratic system.  Within limits, democracy can foster liberty and accountability.  What it cannot provide is the necessary technical know-how to govern well.  To that end, an appointed revising chamber seems to me to be a great idea, so long as appointments are controlled and principled.  Democracy also cannot provide a symbol of permanence and allegiance, which to my mind is the role in the British system of the Monarchy.  Moreover, democracy is unable to provide governments who will be thinking about the long term, common good of society rather than the short term need to appeal to just enough people to get re-elected.

There being three kinds of government among men, absolute monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, and all these having their particular conveniences and inconveniences, the experience and wisdom of your ancestors hath so moulded this out of a mixture of these as to give this kingdom (as far as human prudence can provide) the conveniences of all three, without the inconveniences of any one, as long as the balance hangs even between the three estates, and they run jointly on in their proper channel (begetting verdure and fertility in the meadows on both sides) and the overflowing of either on either side raise no deluge or inundation.  The ill of absolute monarchy is tyranny, the ill of aristocracy is faction and division, the ills of democracy are tumults, violence and licentiousness. The good of monarchy is the uniting a nation under one head to resist invasion from abroad and insurrection at home ; the good of aristocracy is the conjunction of counsel in the ablest persons of a state for the public benefit ; the good of democracy is liberty, and the courage and industry which liberty begets.


  1. Some excellent points here. Not sure whether or not I agree that democracy is there primarily for liberty - will ponder.

    However, I am nothing if not a pragmatist, and I am also very against the reformation if the house of Lords, for the simple reason that they tend to make very sound decisions and are less 'whipped', so tend to make decisions by what they think will benefit the country, rather than what they are being told to by the party whip. Why make two houses of commons? The House of Commons is no more representative of the country (in terms of the decisions it makes) than the H of Lords.

    I would love to get rid of party politics somehow. As you so rightly point out, the majority is often a small percentage of the populace. (Plus the majority of ppl are stupid and swayed by the media and make bad

    I love being able to make sweeping declarations like this.

    What alternative? Benign dictatorships don't tend to fare too well. I'd like a meritocracy, where people who know about the issue coming up for debate are given a platform and then we vote (lots of referenda) - but then, people may just be swayed by the presentation. Ho hum. People are evil...

    1. "Why make two houses of commons?" is a very good question, IMO. Presumably the upper would be much as the lower, and would follow party lines in roughly the same way. Pointless.

      People are, of course, not much good (hurrah for sweeping declarations!) I think that is why having a system made up of multiple elements, each putting a check on one another, is a good idea.

      But people do love to feel that they are in control and that their opinions, no matter how ignorant they are, are extremely important. I suspect that is the real reason for the prevalence of the 'democracy=good' paradigm.