Monday, 9 February 2015

On Democracy

On January 20th people in the UK celebrated the 750th anniversary of the first parliament, calling it Democracy Day. Democracy is far from perfect, but it does at least give people a voice and makes our representatives accountable at the ballot box. There is a fundamental reason, though, why democracy is strictly limited - it is because, unlike Aumann's Agreement Theorem*, a democratic system isn't about closing the gap on the issues about which we disagree, it is about a proportion of conflicting ideologies winning popularity over others.

While a rigorous intellectual enquiry reconciles discordances, democracy merely inflates them with a system of winners and losers. To rub salt in the wounds, politicians know that a huge number of the electorate are pretty ignorant about politics and economics, so they look not to what's good for the country but what is likely to be popular in terms of votes

Because of how our top earners raise the average wage, the majority of people in the UK earn below the average wage, which means they are going to be swayed by redistributionist policies targeted at the rich, and economic policies that hamper progress. Unfortunately, in terms of viable representatives, this means the public do not get what they need; they get what they think they want. Or to use a culinary analogy, instead of getting to choose between a fillet steak, a sirloin steak and a rump steak, the public instead gets to choose between several rump steaks with slightly different flavoured sauces.

Despite the increased human assent to democratic values, there is one key thing that will always provide a resistance; and it is that for all her picturesque backdrops and glorious natural scenery, nature is not very democratic at all. When it comes to health, looks, size, shape, talents, intelligence, sensory apparatus, opportunity and background, nature is far from democratic - there is a notable difference in all of these human qualities in each of us, as their attainment depends on undemocratic things like fortune and pursuit.

Further, there is no democracy in the qualities we try to attain either. Successful romantic love is not democratic: it reveals itself more to the faithful pursuer of monogamy than it does the uncommitted philanderer. Goodness is not democratic: it emerges more in those who seek moral probity than those who pursue selfishly bad ends. Knowledge is not democratic: it is the natural reward of diligence and effort, and absent in lazy-minded slackers. Good health is not democratic: it is contingent on the lifestyle chosen, genetic legacies, and other physiological factors too. And more generally, the achievements, the wisdom, and the fulfilments we secure are not democratic: they are the reward of hard work and an earnest pursuit of things that are good for us.

Our democratic leanings, then, are assented to in spite of nature not because of it. Those leanings are based on a popular view about equality - the view that it is fundamental to a successful society and peaceable co-existence. Our yearning for equality is in one sense a good thing - it is the recognition that we want everyone to make the best of their raw material, irrespective of genes, looks, intelligence and background. But in another sense, and sadly the predominant sense, it is pernicious in its fear of success and advancement. At its worst its proponents hate the thought of wealth stratification, superiority and divergence in achievement - they behave like starved organisms desperate to lament the oxygen of others, leading only to envy and resentment.

While the first tenet of equality is noble, the second is ignoble, and we must have no truck with it. Just as an education system that gave everyone the same grades would be unrepresentative, and a 400 metre race in which everyone crossed the line together would be pointless, similarly, a society devoid of wealth stratification, superiority and divergence in achievement would be a society in which those richest of human qualities - freedom to pursue talents, rewards for hard work, benefits to innovation, and positives that emerge from moral and intellectual excellence - were rendered meaningless.

I tend to agree with Churchill that democracy is the least bad of all alternatives rather than being stunningly good in itself. Still, we have it, and we're better off than most countries, so we mustn't grumble too much - as long as we keep one step ahead of democracy's limitations.  

* See here for my blog post on Aumann's Agreement Theorem

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