Democracy was long considered by the best philosophers as a very problematic system of governance. Only James Mill (in the early 19th century) went into raptures about it, from the utilitarian school of thought. Over the past century mankind has become increasingly comfortable with it, to the extent that it now threatens to become a religion, overtaking liberty as the key social good.
Indeed, democracy has one overwhelming advantage over any other system: it minimises DIRECT killing of citizens by government (NOT, however, indirect killings, such as the killing of millions of people in India through socialist misgoverance). Rummel has a lot to say about such things, and I've commented extensively in DOF, so I'll move on for now.
But it is crucial that we recognise the in-built incentives in democracy for BAD decision making, sometimes decisions that will compromise our liberty itself. The median voter theorem gives this away: the tendency to pander to the median voter. This tendency leads to middle class welfare and a tendency to redistribute income. The ever-increasing welfare state of the 20th century is a classical implication of democracy. It can't but be otherwise.
I chanced upon an interesting article by Eric Hobsbawm, entitled, Democracy can be bad for you [NEW STATESMAN, 5 MARCH 2001]. Just a few extracts:
Democracy can be bad for you
There are words nobody likes to be associated with in public, such as racism and imperialism. There are others for which everyone is anxious to demonstrate enthusiasm, such as mothers and the environment. Democracy is one of these.In the days of "really existing socialism", even the most implausible regimes laid claim to it in their official titles, as in North Korea, Pot Pot's Cambodia and Yemen. Today, it is impossible, outside a few Islamic theocracies and Middle Eastern hereditary kingdoms and sheikhdoms, to find any regime that does not pay tribute to the idea of competitively elected assemblies or presidents.
The case for free voting is not that it guarantees rights, but that it enables the people (in theory) to get rid of unpopular governments. And here three critical observations should be made.
- First, liberal democracy, like any other form of political regime, requires a political unit within which it can be exercised, normally a "nation state". It is not applicable where no such unit exists. The politics of the United Nations cannot be fitted into the framework of liberal democracy.
- The second throws doubt on the proposition that liberal-democratic government is always superior or at least preferable to non-democratic government. Ukraine has acquired democratic politics (more or less), but at the price of losing two-thirds of the modest gross national product it had in Soviet times. Colombia has never been under the rule of the military or of populist caudillos for more than brief moments; it has had virtually continuous constitutional, representative, democratic government, with two rival electoral parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, in competition, as the theory requires. Yet the number killed, maimed and driven from their homes in Colombia over the past half-century runs into millions and is far larger than in any of the Latin American countries plagued with military dictatorships.
- The third observation was expressed in Winston Churchill's phrase: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. The case for democracy is essentially negative. Even as an alternative to other systems, it can be defended only with a sigh.
Thanks to the mass media, public opinion is more powerful than ever. We are all familiar with the so-called CNN effect — the politically powerful, but totally unstructured feeling that "something must be done" about Kurdistan, East Timor or wherever. All this confronts liberal democracy with perhaps its most immediate and serious problem.But what can and should governments do? More than in the past, they are under unceasing pressure from a continuously monitored mass opinion. This constrains their choices. Nevertheless, governments cannot stop governing. And public authorities today are constantly faced with decisions about common interests which are technical as well as political. Here, democratic votes (or consumers' choices in the market) are no guide at all. The environmental consequences of the unlimited growth of motor traffic and the best ways of dealing with them cannot be discovered simply by referenda. Moreover, these ways may prove to be unpopular, and in a democracy, it is unwise to tell the electorate what it does not want to hear.How can state finances be rationally organised, if governments have convinced themselves that any proposals to raise taxes amount to electoral suicide, when election campaigns are therefore contests in fiscal perjury, and government budgets exercises in fiscal obfuscation?
Few governments (as distinct from political regimes) today enjoy this fundamental a priori confidence. In liberal democracies, they rarely represent a majority of votes, let alone of the electorate. The mass parties and organisations, which once provided "their" governments with just such confidence and steady support, have crumbled.
In the omnipresent media, backseat drivers, claiming a rival expertise to government, comment constantly on its performance.
So the most convenient, sometimes the only, solution for democratic governments is to keep as much decision-making as possible outside the range of publicity and politics, or at least to sidestep the process of representative government.
In Britain, the centralisation of an already strong decision-making power has gone hand in hand with a demotion of the Commons and a transfer of functions to unelected institutions, public or private.
A good deal of politics will be negotiated and decided behind the scenes. This will increase the citizens' distrust of government and lower the public opinion of politicians.
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