Re-posting from August 2011.
”The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill
Economic backbones of the western world are shaking. A second struggle for ‘freedom‘ is raging in India, attacking the basic democratic legislative process. We cannot find a better time to question and dissect the most popular concept that rose to prominence in the last two centuries. Are the recent developments good indicators of intrinsic flaws in democracy itself, as we know it?
Embedded within the democratic principles is the immense importance accorded to human equality and individual liberty. The power of the vote lies with the people. The importance accorded to these principles in the modern world together with extreme examples of non-democratic leaders in recent history have led to a unilateral perspective on things. Democracy has acquired a pseudo-sacred status. It is almost taboo to question it in today’s world. If not accepted by choice, it is often forced down upon by war. But is it really morally superior? Democracy has many ethical defects. Some are clearly evident in practice. Others can be easily illustrated using hypothetical examples. But what facets of democracy are good, and what are arguably questionable?
The precondition to a functional democracy is an informed electorate. However, most voters today are uninformed about the vast majority of political and economic issues. Most of them are strongly biased about a select few issues. Not all voters have access to information and even those who do are not educated enough to interpret and analyze it. There is no reason to believe they will choose the best alternative for the greatest good.
Plato illustrated this with the metaphor of a ship. For a ship to reach its destination, it needs a captain. The captain is an expert navigator who knows the intricacies of leading a crew. He is aware of the capacities of his vessel. He knows his way around the sea. He has experienced the fickle sea weather and waded through storms. A bad captain is a bane for passengers and the crew alike. Plato argues that people are unfit to choose their captains since they have themselves never learned how to commandeer the ship of the state. Everyone believes that they have a say in the right to steer but they have never learnt anything about navigation. The vast majority of the ship’s crew and passengers are not inclined to acquire the required knowledge – a task which takes persistent and dedicated effort.
Citizens are ignorant about the measures to be taken to reach certain goals, and the goals themselves. The democratic election of a leader who plans to replace democracy with a fascist warfare state is a good case in point. Hitler is a shining example of how a blindfolded electorate sways to the whims of an appealing but deadly idea. Yes, Hitler was elected – of the people, by the people, for the people.
Let us not confuse freedom and equality with democratic principles. Democracy in itself does not propagate equality, but majoritarianism. A purely democratic system can only exist until a majority of the electorate realizes that they can vote themselves into power and then abuse the minorities. On the other extreme end, the political parties focus to please the unified minorities ignoring the interests of the dispersed majority. Caste or religion based politics in India is a good example of this. It is the constitution which eventually safeguards the interests of the minorities by establishing the basic rules and guidelines for governance.
We’ve touched the tip of an iceberg. Questioning ideas that we have embraced for a lifetime is tough. But democracy is idealistic. The electorate is anything but aware. How can we improve it?
“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, 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.” – W. Churchill.