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By the People, For the People

by Rick Lewis

Is democracy in crisis? Last year I listened to a philosophy lecture on the Pnyx, the hill where the assembly of ancient Athens used to be held. I was thrilled at the thought of democracy’s birth 2,500 years ago at the very spot where I was standing. It was a direct democracy with a limited franchise, but it was government by the people for the people, and it was a great Athenian invention. After Athens succumbed to Macedonia and then Rome, democracy became a dormant idea for many centuries. It came back very slowly, but made huge gains in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, as dictatorships and one-party states toppled in Eastern Europe and South America. By the start of our present century it was the most widespread form of government on the planet. The Arab Spring made it briefly look as if it would spread still further, but it seems to have stumbled. Not only there, either. In most of the democracies of the West, election turnouts are steadily falling and so is membership of political parties. People complain of self-interested political elites who have become disconnected from the concerns of the wider public. In many places there has been a narrowing of ideological differences as the parties crowd together on the centre ground, reducing the choice available to electors and eroding their motivation to get out and vote. Meanwhile in a growing number of countries that are formally democracies, and hold regular elections with multiple candidates, governments reluctant to risk ejection from office have found ingenious ways to put the ‘mock’ into the middle of ‘democracy’, loading the electoral dice with differing degrees of subtlety. (“Congratulations on your impressive poll ratings! We’ve come to audit your tax affairs again. Have you packed your prison bag?”)

So democracy’s current difficulties vary from one place to another, but the general sense of crisis leads some to suggest that technocratic governments of well-trained, well-motivated experts are sometimes better. Winston Churchill claimed in the House of Commons in 1947 that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Is that still true? In this issue, to help take stock of democracy’s strengths and weaknesses we will return to its very roots – to ancient Athens – and to one of its earliest and most penetrating critics, namely Plato. We’ll look at the application of his ideas to the contemporary world.

Anja Steinbauer explains Plato’s problem with democracy in her introductory article. Then Amy Pollard suggests that Plato surely couldn’t have been serious about his positive proposals, but should be read as attacking the existing democracy only so as to encourage its reform rather than its replacement. Mark Tan tackles the issue of distrust of governments head-on; he says we could overcome it by finding better-trained and therefore more trustworthy leaders, and that we could do worse than reforming their education in the way that Plato recommended so as to give them the skills they will need. Huong Nguyen writes that democratic theory is far from moribund – it is a subject of lively debate among political philosophers today. He outlines some of the current controversies. Finally Keith Hui argues that the current political system in China mirrors in important respects the one Plato recommended in The Republic. It provides a formalised way of selecting and training future leaders, who then serve a fixed term in office before standing down in favour of the next batch of carefully prepared leaders. Perhaps such a system provides better, more stable leadership? Or will democracy produce better results in the long run by providing more effective checks against corruption and incompetence? It’s an open question.

Before you can judge how well anything works, you need to know its purpose. So what is democracy for? Is its purpose to bring about certain desired results: to produce justice; to ensure that the best and most effective policies are adopted; that the leaders are honest and competent; that corruption and abuse of power are curbed? Or is rule by the people for the people an end in its own right, valuable in and for itself?

If the purpose of democracy is the former, then it must be judged against competing systems purely on the basis of results. Factors like the prevalence of corruption, annual growth and human development can be objectively measured and compared, though it takes hard work. If on the other hand the main point of democracy is to provide a mechanism for individuals to jointly choose the laws and policies that govern their own lives, and this is an end in itself, then that kind of detailed accounting is less important.

Picking a policy isn’t just about knowing what will happen if you pull this or that lever of the state machine. It is also about values. Economists and civil servants, however competent and well educated, can’t pick your values for you, so if you leave the government to them, you’d better hope they happen to share your values. In general would you rather be told how to live by highly trained experts or would you rather choose for yourself, even if you might make a hash of it sometimes? When people participate in choosing their government, they take on responsibility for their choices and a willingness to put up with the consequences, for better or worse. Conversely, to deny people a say in how they are governed is to treat them like pampered infants, and they then respond like infants. Surely it is better to adopt the old slogan of “Trust the people” – not because the people will always fully live up to that trust, but because trusting the people generally has much better consequences than not doing so.

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