Saturday, December 03, 2005

Post No. 42: Musings on Democracy (I)

“A democracy in which the majority exercises its powers without restraint may be almost as tyrannical as a dictatorship. Toleration of minorities is an essential part of wise democracy, but a part which is not always sufficiently remembered.” – Bertrand Russell (excerpted from “Freedom And The Colleges” in “Why I Am Not A Christian”)

Before I begin, I would first state for the record that, despite what I may write below, I remain a believer and supporter of the concept of Democracy. However, though I am a believer & supporter of it, being a thinking individual, I do not have blind faith in Democracy. In fact, it is my opinion, and of many others who are more enlightened than me, that blind faith in anything is almost certainly a bad thing as it would, with a high likelihood, develop into fanaticism. What I meant by me not having blind faith in Democracy is that while I do recognise the strengths & merits of Democracy, I too recognise its inherent flaws. Like everything else, Democracy, as a form of political system, isn’t perfect. It also has its own flaws (or weaknesses, if you all prefer a less ominous word). It saddens me to observe that while champions of Democracy as a perfect cure for all ills are hailed and revered by many, critics of Democracy whom have recognised its inherent weaknesses, on the other hand, are often criticised as being anti-democratic and/or being apologists of authoritarianism. In my opinion, there is a difference, though it’s not obvious to many, between recognising the fact that Democracy isn’t perfect and being against it. One can be a critic of Democracy but also, at the same time, be a friend of Democracy. For it is only by recognising its weaknesses that Democracy can be strengthened and improved upon. Hence, with this in mind, the critics of Democracy may perhaps be doing a greater favour for Democracy than those whom champion it as a perfect cure for all ills. These critics, like Socrates, serve the important role of being the gadfly of Democracy.

The merits & strengths of Democracy as a political concept should be familiar and obvious to many. And to me, the most important & valuable strength of Democracy would be that it gives people a sense of participation & ownership in the political affairs and fate of their respective countries. Hence, recognising this and other strengths of Democracy, I am a supporter & believer of Democracy.

However, like what I have said above, Democracy, while having its strengths & merits, also has it own set of weaknesses & flaws. These weaknesses & flaws have been recognised by many astute and enlightened thinkers & observers, like Plato, Nietzsche and Tocqueville, but sadly, in today’s world where Democracy is the dominant political ideology and serves as the yardstick to judge whether a country is a rogue state or not (a yardstick used especially by the world’s sole remaining superpower and/or hyperpower; something which I will discuss more about in another essay), the ideas & works of these enlightened thinkers are little known, rarely read and frequently neglected by many.

So what are these weaknesses & flaws of Democracy which I keep going one about? Well, if I was to talk about all of them, it is most likely that the following three things would occur. One, this essay would become very very long. Two, the ink inside my pen would run out before I finish this essay. Three, I would most likely lose the attention of those with a short concentration span and/or have a limited interest in political philosophy (assuming that they even bothered to start reading this essay after seeing its title) and also bore many to sleep. Hence, with these 3 factors in consideration, it is my decision that instead of talking on & on about Democracy’s weaknesses, it would be more appropriate & effective for me to concentrate on what, in my opinion, is the most critical and worryingly weakness of Democracy, a weakness, aptly termed by Tocqueville, as the “tyranny of the majority”.

Majority rules. This, in a nutshell, is the most common understanding of Democracy that most people have. In other words, faced with an array of possible choices, the decision, for it to be democratic, should be to go along with the choice chosen by the majority. The logic behind this, as observed by Tocqueville, in his “Democracy in America”, is that since everyone’s opinion is equal, the accumulated weight of the majority opinion should be the proper & right opinion to abide by. However, is this really always the case? Well, I beg to differ. From my point of view, the idea that a majority decision should be the proper & correct decision to follow is based on a few assumptions which are a little bit shaky, to say the least. One of these assumptions is that every person, inclusive of those behind the majority decision, is rational. Another assumption is that every person has complete & perfect knowledge about the situation and is aware of the consequences of their choice. Well, it should be quite obvious to you all that these 2 assumptions cannot always stand. For the sake of those who do not see why these 2 assumptions cannot always stand, I would be explaining why in the next few paragraphs.

Let us first look at the first assumption of that every person is rational. Well, to use an extreme example, let us suppose that a doctor is trapped in a room filled with insane patients, now if a vote was held to decide whether the Moon is made out of green cheese, I suppose the majority decision would be that the Moon is indeed made out of green cheese and the doctor would perhaps be alone in voting otherwise. However, is this majority decision a correct decision or even a rational decision? Of course, this is an extreme example I’m using. Yet, it must be considered that while we are most of the time rational, there are also times when we slip into irrationality. Hence, it cannot be always assumed that we all are rational when deciding on something of importance.

Furthermore, even if we assume that the majority decision is a rational decision, does that necessary mean that the majority decision is also a correct decision? In my opinion, it is not totally impossible that when a majority of people makes a rational decision, the decision can be an incorrect one. In other words, the fact that a decision is rational need not necessarily prove that it is a correct decision. For example, let us suppose that the issue of whether all taxes should be abolished was put to the vote. Well, I suppose that the decision by most rational people who desire to keep their entire income to themselves would be that all taxes should be abolished but would that be a correct decision? If all taxes were abolished, where would the government get the money to run the country or to provide essential public services? Yes, you all may dispute that this is an extreme example so let me refer you all to a more moderate example. Let us now imagine that the issue of whether COE prices should be lowered was put to the vote, the rational majority decision would most likely be that prices should be lowered but what would that mean in the long-run? If it was cheaper & easier to get motor vehicles, the likely result would be that quantity of motor vehicles on the roads would greatly increase and in turn result in greater traffic congestion and greater air pollution arising from the increased amount of exhaust fumes created. In this case, though the majority decision to reduce COE prices is a rational one, it turns out to not be a correct decision.

Having examined the first assumption and why it cannot always stand, I will now move one to discuss the second assumption that everyone has complete & perfect knowledge of the situation and of the possible consequences that can arise from their decision. Can the second assumption always stand or, similar to the first assumption, is it also flawed? Well, I’m afraid that the second assumption also cannot always stand. This is due to the fact that it is rarely possible for people to obtain complete & perfect knowledge and that they usually lack the necessary foresight to see what the consequences of their present choices would be. Also, though it may sound elitist, it cannot be denied that there are issues, as pointed out by Plato, that require “expert” knowledge for a proper decision to be made regarding them. For example, in issues related to a country’s economy, such as CPF rates, there is perhaps a certain amount of economic & financial knowledge required before one is able to judge what these CPF rates should be set at so as to ensure that local employees have enough to retire on. Such knowledge is not possessed by many and/or cannot be understood by many, hence if it was put to the vote on what level the CPF rates should be set at, it is my speculation that the rates would not be at the necessary (i.e. correct) level. In addition, the possibility remains that a significant majority would find it difficult to give up their short-term benefits for benefits in the long-run. Thus, it is quite evident that the second assumption also cannot always stand.

Furthermore, remember that we are, after all, mortal beings. Thus, we are susceptible to demagoguery. Earlier on, if you all have read carefully, I said that there are times when we slip into irrationality and now I would point out that these periods of irrationality are most likely to occur when we face an insidious demagogue. To those who don’t know what a demagogue is, it refers to, usually, a political leader who appeals to people’s emotions rather to their reason to win power. A good & infamous example of this would be Hitler. Though we hate to admit it, we all are, to different degrees, susceptible to some form of herd mentality, that is we tend to “join the crowd” in that they are doing, instead of being the odd one out. Think about this: if you’re in the midst of a clapping & cheering crowd who have just finished listening to a speech, are you able to control yourself from clapping & cheering though you don’t fully agree with the speaker? Indeed, it is this herd mentality and our raw emotions that demagogues tap upon to win us to their side. No matter how well-educated you are, when your raw emotions are appealed to & your herd mentality exploited, you would too make irrational decisions. Just think about the number of well-educated Germans who fell under the spell of Hitler and how Mark Anthony swayed the mood of the Romans against Brutus with his “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” speech (as depicted by Shakespeare in “Julius Caesar” Act III Scene II). Equally vulnerable are we too to promises of “bigger carrots” such as tax cuts & more welfare spending, and threats of “sticks” such as War, loss of income, death and delayed property upgrading. Also, it should be remembered that it is most difficult for political leaders to win the people’s favour for painful but necessary decisions.

In addition, if Democracy is the rule by the majority, what happens to the minority? Are their interests & opinions to be neglected so as to placate the majority? In a Democracy, where power comes from the majority, who’s going to represent the minority? Is the minority going to be persecuted by the majority? As pointed out by Bertrand Russell (please refer to the quotation at the beginning of this essay), the “toleration of minorities is an essential part of wise democracy, but a part which is not always sufficiently remembered”. Of course, I’m not advocating that the interests of the minority should over-ride those of the majority but that these interests shouldn’t be neglected or even sacrificed for the sake of placating the majority. Also, if the minority is a small one, then the problem wouldn’t be that critical but what if the minority is a sizable one (a 60%-40% split)? Hence, though I recognise that not everyone’s interests can be given equal treatment, it should never be a case of “Majority wins, minority suffers”.

In conclusion, I reiterate that Democracy, though it may well perhaps be the best political system ever devised, it is not without its weaknesses and it is only by recognising these weaknesses can Democracy be improved upon.

1 comment:

johnn said...

i understand the flaws of democracy that you elucidate so intricately, however you must realise one thing. that the whole idea of democracy is that it has the STATE'S interests at heart (not all governments, yes). thus why would the government, operating on the majority-wins-minority rule, put into place any enactments or laws etc at the expense of the masses (assuming the governing body is judicious; perfectly sensible and rational)? even when the interests of the minorities are neglected, there is the option of initiating the involvements at the community and individual levels so as to facilitate and quicken the process of the rectifying of misrepresentation. democracy in a governing body must therefore always be coupled with a brilliant dissemination structure, and a practical understanding of the current situations at hand.
if the democratic leadership foregoes the needs of the minority group for the sake of the majority, that's outright irresponsibility. and if the democracy has to make critical decisions which involve a process of voting, what would serve the outcome much better than a mechanical battle of numbers of votes, would be blending these two together: welfare provided where and when it is being needed most; AND deprivation of benefits where and when it is being needed most. perfect scenario here, but nevertheless worthy enough to strive toward.

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