Friday, 22 September 2017

The Democratic Fetish

Democracy is, in its purest form, the philosophy that the mob knows better than 'experts'. However, modern society is a direct result of experts knowing more than the mob. Democracy depends on an educated electorate - sadly, much of the electorate the world over is lacking in political and economic education. I have read that evidence exists that as people become more educated their thinking aligns with that of most economists (the economic consensus) - but the mob vilifies the consensus of expert economists. That said, there's no denying that ideology affects some economists' predictions, as has been proven in the UK.

Should a democratic decision, even if morally wrong (due to the effects on people) or economically wrong (due to the detrimental effect on the economy), or factually wrong (most people at one time believed the earth to be flat) nevertheless be carried through simply because it's democratic? This is the government by numbers argument, in which quantity matters more over quality and sometimes prefers the worst over the best. It relies on the fallacy that one person's vote is as valid as another's - or that the vote of the uninformed person is as valid as that of the informed person, which is plainly ridiculous - especially in referendums affecting the constitution, the effects of which can be permanent. This is why, under normal circumstances, a referendum on constitutional matters requires a 2/3rds majority and not a simple majority.

Even if you believe all people are created equal, their environments can be vastly different, and thus their character. Also, people are tempted to vote for their team, as opposed to a dispassionate analysis of the issue in question - the 'my country, right or wrong' argument.

One huge problem with democracy is that the electorate is never held to account. If a candidate advocates curtailing the rights of a minority and, on finding him or herself elected, carries out that plan, those who voted for that politician are morally responsible, but not in law, especially if the law is changed in order to implement that plan.

In May 1945 the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, suggested holding a referendum over the question of extending the life of his wartime Coalition until victory was won over Japan, and he should be allowed to continue in office. However, Clement Attlee refused citing ‘I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum, which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and Fascism.’ implying that referendums were a totally unknown and alien device to British politics.

In March 1975 Margaret Thatcher also quoted Clement Attlee that referendums are "a device of dictators and demagogues" as Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler had exploited their use in the past.

The Duke of Wellington harboured an intense distrusted the mob - he believed they could carry you in triumph one day and be throwing stones through your windows the next. He never courted the mob and went out of his way to avoid popular demonstrations, even if in support of him.

The mob is highly susceptible to passion, demagoguery and populism, while being relatively immune to reasoned argument. Decisions should be based on reason, not passion. Reason produced science and the enlightenment - the engine of modern society; passion produced religion, superstition and dogma, which has an unenviable record of opposition to advancement and reason. Religion has tried repeatedly to harness rationality to support its dogma, but has failed at every turn. Populist politicians focus on emotion before reason and 'common sense', which more often produces bad ideas that will be defended with the obstinacy of a mule (ref. Trump).

Despite democracy's shortcomings, we have nevertheless fetishised it to the extent that we have raised it to the apogee of political philosophy. Winston Churchill said; "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others," implying therein that it has its faults, which is why we have a representative democracy, where an informed, political elite decides (hopefully) what's in the best interests of the country, bearing in mind the much overrated 'will of the people'. Parliament, not the mob, is sovereign.

What has happened in recent decades is that we have become very bad at selecting our elites. To quote John le CarrĂ© in a recent interview; "It’s extraordinary to realise that Clement Attlee commanded a regiment in the war. Even Heath had experience of the war. 'It isn’t the war that’s the defining factor, it was having to work with men and women of all classes. They were blooded, those people. They knew whereof they spoke. What we now have is the wrong set. Surely the definition of a decent society is: one, how it chooses its elite; and, two, how it looks after its losers. Now we choose our elite horribly badly and, as long as private education commands the scene, don’t talk to me about levelling the playing field - the social contract is bust in this country." I tend to agree with him.

Plato favoured rule by the reluctant philosopher, but we all know the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Romans instituted the concept of the dictator, who took control of government and the military during a period of crisis and was immune from prosecution, but for a limited term which could be renewed, depending on whether the crisis had been averted. A neat idea that worked for several centuries, but given the state and the military were led by the same individual, the opportunity for permanent dictatorship was ever present and finally realised in the shape of Gaius Julius Caesar.

Analyse and discuss.


  1. It was Cleisthenes who first introduced Democracy not Plato.

    1. But it was Plato in The Republic who suggested the reluctant philosopher, or rather, Plato put the words into the mouth of Socrates in the book.

    2. And I was not talking of democracy, but enlightened dictatorship.