Unlimited democracy, like unlimited anything, is bad.
I recently had some students insist that democracy is superior to other forms of government. I actually agreed with them - at least on the Churchill-ian perspective of it being “the worst system of government except for any other system” – but I wanted them to give me actual reasons. Unfortunately the idea that they would need to justify the trite statements they have rote learned had obviously never been presented to them at school before. They struggled to find a reason beyond “everyone knows…”
Let’s get this straight. The line ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ applies to all versions of government. Including absolute democracy.
Absolute Monarchy is never a good thing over the long term. (The exception is in the most dire circumstances where many quite sensible groups like the Athenian democrats or Roman Republicans ‘elected’ short term ‘dictators’ to deal with a crisis. Unfortunately some – like Julius Caesar tried to stay beyond a short term, with the appropriate solution of a knife in the back… but that is another story.)
Theocracy is not a good system either, as both the Papacy - in the grip of yet more storms about a worldwide cover up of Priests shagging children - and North Korea, can vouch. (North Korea has a ‘perpetual’ President – who is dead – which classifies it as a theocracy, even without the fact that anyone who continues to be a Marxist in the modern world is clearly operating on prayer alone.)
Oligarchies sometimes have increased flexibility in the long term. (Certainly the Serene Republic of Venice ran a good oligarchy based on about 130 families for a long time.) But most Oligarchies – whatever their theoretical basis - have inevitable problems when technological change undermines the power base of the hereditary class structure. The United States found this when their original ‘democratic’ oligarchy of well-off white slave owners caused a civil war. But Oligarchies by their nature are about negotiated solutions, so they do not really count as absolutes.
Democracy by contrast is often absolutist, and often suffers from the weaknesses of absolutism. In fact I have posted several times about the incredibly high percentage of supposedly ‘democratic’ Republics set up in the last century that dissolved into painful dictatorships, with all the trappings of repression, civil war, and ethnic cleansing: within about twenty years. (Amusingly the only form of ‘Republic’ that lifts the average survival rates of republics any where near 40 years is the ‘People’s Republics’… otherwise known as Communist dictatorships.)
Democracy is a funny thing anyway. It is attempted in so many ways, and fails to be actually democratic in just about all of them.
Consider the ‘First Past the Post’ version which has seen the British Labour Party hold government for decades on about 20% of the total number of voters? (If only 60% vote, and the seats are biased to city centres so you only need half or a third the number of voters in cities, and those seats are safe Labour so only a fraction of the voters in those seats turn out, you quickly get to the situation where a Labour pollie needs only about 24,000 votes compared to 46,000 for a Conservative and 92,000 for a Lib-Dem.) In fact it is hard to see that First Past the Post is any more democratic than the older Rotten Boroughs they replace.
New Zealand’s half assed system where some pollies are elected directly and some come proportionally from a pool are even more suspect, because parties can ‘appoint’ - through the pool - people who no voter would ever elect.
Proportional representation may be a bit better, except that it means that the minor parties that do deals to swing their preferences to get the major parties elected can demand a disproportionate influence on policy in exchange for those preferences. So in Australia for instance, the Green Party – on an average of 8% of the vote or less, can use the threat of preference swaps to ensure that the ALP will not consider nuclear power, even though the majority of voters (and many in the ALP) are now clearly in favour of it.
There is also the problem with party based democracy, which leads to what Robrt Michels calls the Iron Law of Oligarchy. The current idea of replacing the appointed House of Lords with an elected one seems an ideal way to reduce representative democracy. Instead of appointments from all the best and most noble of proven performers in all areas of human culture – arts, sciences, religion, charity, business, unions, etc - the idea is to have another group of faceless nobodies selected in back rooms by the party machines. How appealing?
Yet the British, American, Australian and New Zealand systems at least have some safeguards built in to prevent absolute democracy from running wild. Pity those poor ‘republics’ set up since the world wars which have been abandoned to absolute democracy without safeguards. You know the ones, they are all those states in the world now suffering dictatorship, civil war, repression, genocide and ethnic cleansing. They were based on the Utilitarian ideal that 50.001% of the population should be allowed to legislate away the rights of the rest, and some smart-ass politician (Mussolini, Hitler, Mugabe, Chavez) quickly convinced the dumber voters to fall for this concept.
Democracy of course is not supposed to be a stable system. It is a safety valve component to good government, not a replacement for good government. (The most important part of the machine is rarely the bit that makes the most noise!) The Ancients knew this, and never even considered anything as stupid as absolute democracy. They only ever used democracy as a component of a more complex system. (The possible exception is when the ancient Athenians went through their most ‘democratic’ phase… the period of imperial expansion, massacres of city populations who refused to sign up, and the popularly approved murder of figures like Socrates who dared to say the mob was wrong.)
The first absolute democracy in modern history was France in the 1790’s, where race and sex didn’t matter to your vote. Of course this was a bloody dictatorship within mere months, collapsing into one of the most aggressive imperial dictatorships ever seen within a few years, but surely that was an aberration. Unless you compare it to what happened in Russia/Soviet Union, or Wiemar Republic/Nazi Germany, or China/Red China, or any Middle Eastern state called a Republic (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria – not that votes for women have ever been taken seriously through most of the Middle East), or almost all African and South American states called republics…
The United States likes to pretend that it was a democracy where “all men are created equal”, but even if we leave women out, there were still the issues of Yellow, Red or Black skinned ‘citizens’, or indeed indentured new immigrants, property franchises, etc. The United States was an extended franchise oligarchy for most of its history, and one with incredible complex safeguards against absolute democracy destroying the system or the rights of the people (or of the oligarchs at least).
The United States seems to have chosen a lot of its structure from the Serene Republic of Venice, which had lasted so incredibly long. Of course the reason it had lasted incredibly long was that the voting franchise was restricted to the small number of oligarchical families who had a vested interest in continuing the power structure. Of course there were also plentiful inputs from the Roman system, after all the United States needed a constitution that specifically justified the principles of slavery.
Unfortunately the founding father’s failed to note that the Roman Republic was based more on the Spartan system that lasted several hundred years, than on the Athenian ‘Republic’ that lasted - in bits and starts - for less than a century.
Sparta had a system of ‘democracy’ based on a free adult population of voters, including both male and female property holders. You can see why the American oligarchs were against that. The Athenian and Roman systems that treated women with contempt were clearly more attractive to Americans. Sparta also had ‘helots’ (closer to ‘serfs’) rather than slaves, so again American’s would clearly prefer Athenian slavery.
Sparta balanced the democratic component, already restricted to an oligarchy with a joint vested interest, with a pair of hereditary kings. This produced one of the most balanced and stable constitutions ever devised. (Pity that Spartan eugenics were a fatal cultural dead end.) Unfortunately, when copying the Spartan system, the Romans replaced the pair of hereditary kings with a pair of elected consuls with terms of only a year. The whole idea of a long-term perspective through a hereditary component was replaced with short-term infighting for power. Frankly, it is astonishing that the Roman Republic lasted for even a couple of hundred years before collapsing and becoming and Empire instead. (American’s take note – one little civil war should be considered an astonishingly light price to pay for such an unstable system… And that was way before anything resembling an almost universal franchise. The chance of remaining a democratic republic for more than a century or so seems slight. How many residents are already ‘illegals’ and a non-voting caste?)
American racism is particularly astonishing. I am always amused by the supposed liberality of the film ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner’. The black hero was supposed to be big in the UN, so why wouldn’t he and his white partner go and live in a civilized country like Belgium or Switzerland instead of a politically backward racist hellhole like the United States? It is STILL not allowed for blacks to be partnered with whites on American TV – whites or blacks with Asians or Hispanics yes, but with each other? (Actually I would be interested if anyone can give feedback samples of black and white pairing in main characters in any American show? British TV has no problem with it, and Europe is not far behind, but US?)
The fantasy that either the French universal franchise, or the American oligarchic one, achieved stability or desirable government respectively, is disastrous. Certainly the effect of trying to impose such systems on the illiterate peasant castes of the ‘freed’ European or American colonies and dependencies (whether African, Asian or Middle Eastern) is appalling, and simply invites a speedy and bloody dictatorship.
Absolute democracy simply means bread and circuses. In fact absolute democracy usually means eventual dictatorship, repression, ethnic cleansing or civil war. Only with appropriate safeguards can democracy be included in a stable government system. Otherwise democracy is simply one of the most dangerous and evil of all human inventions.