Is Democracy Necessary?

The US and many other industrialized countries are based upon the premise that a democratic society is the best. Many arguments are brought to bear to prove this premise. I'll summarize a few further on.

The first question, though, is what do we mean by democracy? I think there are three possible meanings.

1. The political. A democratic society is taken to mean one in which the citizens of the state chose their leaders. Usually this is by means of universal suffrage, but there have been other techniques used in the past.

2. The social. In this case what is meant is that people can determine their own personal relationships without (excessive) state interference. This includes choice of locale, profession, religion and other forms of assembly, and, of course, mate.

3. The economic. In this framework people are allowed to set up whatever business they wish, provided it doesn't engage in the making or distribution of illegal goods or services. The rules for entering into business are very lax, the strongest being licensing requirements for certain professions. How the business is conducted once established is also the realm of the entrepreneur.

Now most people don't think of the latter two as being formulations of democracy. Instead they use constructs like personal freedom and laissez faire economics. But, without options determined by the will of the people the personal and business choices become limited by the state.

The history of political thought has gone through many twists and turns. There have been two principle trends however. The first is usually called the idea of "natural law". This is based upon the assumption that there is some external mechanism that controls human society. At various times this has been seen as emanating from one or more supernatural beings, or specific political leaders such as Kings or Emperors, or other special persons. Because of the natural law that underlies the world these people are to be followed without question. It's just "natural".

With the rise of the mercantile and industrial classes this formulation was discredited and replaced with one where man himself was source of authority. Various thinkers bolstered their theories by appeals to the "inherent nature" of man. Some think that man is basically evil or brutish and thus needs to be constrained by a formal system of control. Some thing man is basically good and rules of conduct are minimally required. A third group thinks that man is basically "pure", but gets corrupted by society and, thus, the power of the state should be abolished. A popular viewpoint in the 20th Century thinks that man is basically selfish and that society is a survival of the fittest or "dog eat dog" construct. In every case anecdotal evidence is used to "prove" that some part of human nature which supports the theorist's biases is the only one of any consequence.

In a non-democratic political system the power of the state is determined by arbitrary means. This can be hereditary, or by coup d'etat or by compromise by ruling factions. In prior periods such compromise was seldom peacefully agreed upon which is why many countries were divided into separately administered regions run by a Duke, Prince or the like. In the 19th and 20th Centuries the banana republics picked their leader from among the oligarchical families which controlled the country. Sometimes this was a peaceful transition, sometimes not. In the middle east and Asia families usually controlled succession, but were overthrown after some number of generations.

Extending these models of human nature to the personal sphere leads to the social control of human behavior. If the framework of natural law is combined with man as evil, one gets the authority of organized religion. The religious leaders are the only ones who understand the natural (or God-given) laws, and thus men, being basically sinful, need to be controlled by a (non-democratic) religious authority. In the 20th Century the state (or Fatherland or Motherland) replaced the church as the authority. This led to the creation of totalitarian regimes as seen in Germany and the USSR, for example. Some see this as a uniquely 20th Century development, but control over thought, as well as explicit dissent, goes back to the Inquisition if not earlier. What was new was the use of the mass media and recent psychological findings to make the brain washing process more pervasive and effective. These groups not only wish to control how people act, but how they think as well.

In the economic area, many people conflate capitalism with democracy, but this is a misreading of the theoretical basis. A democratic economic system, as I stated above, is one which puts few limits on entrepreneurship. How these firms are financed is a separate issue. The USSR had mechanisms for new enterprises to be established, but they were not owned by those who advocated for their creation. In modern China the state is usually a partner in new enterprises, but imposes little control on what new firms should be created. Even in the US there are quasi-public firms whose ownership and management could be seen as socialistic, the TVA is a good example.

Having established the three types of democracy (political, personal, and economic) we return to the original question: is democracy necessary?

Let's treat these in reverse order. Free enterprise has many things to commend it. For one thing it has been the most successful of all the economic models since the rise of the mercantile era. The feudal model worked well (if unequally) for most of the agricultural period. Capital investment was limited, the promise of economic security (or at least shared poverty) was better than striking out on one's own, and the scope for entrepreneurship was limited by the availability of arable land. With the rise of the industrial age, the need for capital and the burst of innovation meant that such static societies were no longer adequate to deal with the challenges.

The alternative, a centrally planned economy, has never worked well since the forces of inertia are too strong and tend to hamper innovation. The promise of vast wealth, if an enterprise is successful, is more than enough to induce many to take the risk of investment. Central planning reaps no rewards from innovation and thus sees no value in assuming risk. Free enterprise suffers from several defects, the most serious are a high rate of failure, or alternatively a large number of wasteful practices, and the danger of over concentration. There seems to be no cure for the former, if one could predict success than a planned economy would work. As for the latter this can be controlled by suitable regulation, and has at times. The principles are clear, whether a society has the political will to enforce them varies.

Personal freedom has been a contentious area since men left the forest. A communal society needs to put restrictions on behavior. At a minimum there must be controls over physical harm to others and seizing of their property by force. In societies with limited resources there also needs to be some way of apportioning them short of raw power. Many pre-industrial societies had very strict cultural rules about behavior, but they applied to only a limited range of behaviors. Industrialization required more cooperation and thus justifications were created for taking away more freedoms. Parts of the world are now entering the post manufacturing era and it would be a good time to re-examine the basis for prior restrictions. Some of the present debate over "values" is a result of the traditional power centers that controlled human behavior losing their strength. They are engaged in a rear guard action to stop the tide, but the trend of history is against them. Religious fundamentalists in the US and the middle east are responding to the same pressure: modernism and self determination. They may have local successes, but history is not on their side.

In the political arena there are no permanent victories. The trend over the past several hundred years has been toward more democracies and fewer authoritarian regimes, but there have been many tragic reversals. Some, like the USSR and Germany, reverted to regimes that were worse than those before their democratic flirtations. At least during the period of monarchy there were established limits on what a sovereign could do. Under totalitarianism anything was possible.

Even in states like the US and Great Britain, which have been democratic for centuries, there have been periods where political power has been abused. The US has, so far, never suffered a complete collapse of democratic rule, but it has been effectively suspended for segments of the population on many occasions. The most prominent being the eras of slavery and Jim Crow, the imprisonment of the Wobblies and other labor activists, and the internment of the Japanese-Americans during WWII. Great Britain had one civil war, but it could be argued that this happened before a full democracy was in place. The true restrictions on selection of legislators only happened in the 20th Century so their history of full democracy is short. The reform of the House of Lords is still incomplete.

So, is democracy necessary?

Well as for political democracy, Singapore has not had this since it became fully independent in 1965; it has essentially been ruled by a benevolent dictator (he retired in 2004). There is a great deal of economic democracy which has led it to become one of the most successful countries in terms of growth in the world. Personal relations are some what restricted, but the principal one has to do with political dissent. So here is a prosperous society with no political democracy.

In much of Scandinavia the state plays a large role in social services. So people are "restricted" in that such services are state controlled. In many cases there are state controlled churches and health care plans, for example. Industry is primarily capitalistic and the governments are democratic, or with a nominal monarch.

The biggest danger is when the political system is non-democratic. Singapore is a unique exception. There is no other current example of an economically successful, politically non-democratic state. When the political process becomes non-democratic it can then impose arbitrary restrictions on the personal and economic spheres. Political power means a monopoly control of force: both the military and the police. In states where the control of force is not a monopoly civil strife is a constant. One can point to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and various African countries as "failed states". What has failed is the monopoly control of force and thus no other parts of the society can operate properly.

If people are provided for in their daily lives and are free to associate as they wish then they (theoretically) have no need to control the political process. This is the Singapore model. The problem is, that historically, such "benevolent dictators" don't last. The newest leader in Singapore has only been in place for a couple of years. Will he be able to carry out the plans as well as his father? Uncontrolled power has a bad history, even today we see abuses such as Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Modern dictators such as Mugabe use the trappings of democracy to disguise their dictatorial regimes, but holding sham elections does not make a true democracy. It does show the need for dictators to pay lip service to the democratic ideal, which is now taken as the preferred social organization. Even theoracies such as Iran hold elections for their secular (but powerless) poltical leaders. A democratic political system is the only structure so far devised which can control the abuse of power. It is not immune to subversion as will be discussed in a future essay.

The issue in the US these days is what type of society do we have?

The present administration has shown all the signs of wishing to become a non-democratic political power. Outright election stealing as in Zimbabwe, or imprisoning political rivals have not been tactics that have been tried. But, voter manipulation and the use of the propaganda tools of authoritarian regimes have been reasonably successful in holding on to political power for much of the past 30 years. The latest administration has shown no real interest in controlling economic or personal democracy. They have left these areas to others. In the case of the economic sphere, the big business interests and trans-national corporations. In the personal sphere a variety of fundamentalist religious organizations.

The mistake opponents of the current administration have made is to think that those in political control care about these other sectors. They are only interested in maintaining political power as can be seen from the fact that the president's closest advisers are all political operatives, not economists or social scientists. Can an arrangement where the central government is only interested in politics and the other sectors run amok be sustained? This has never been a stable model before, all the more reason to rein in excessive central control before things get worse.

In the next essay I discuss how to maintain a democracy in the face of the abuse of the legal framework designed to prevent the concentration of power.

Moral: Non-democratic means cannot be used to achieve democratic ends.

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Copyright © 2006 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.