The Evolution of Ideas, Part 4: Democracy, Equality, and the Future





“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
 (Sir Winston Churchill {1874 – 1965} Hansard, November 11, 1947)


I suspect that many of those reading this consider democracy a self-evidently moral system of governance. The rational behind this is that all people are equal and therefore everyone should have an equal vote. (Of course, this is not quite true. In all democracies, there are certain criteria one must fulfil to be granted the vote. In Athens it was citizenship, when America was founded, ‘in most states, only white men with real property {land} or sufficient wealth for taxation were permitted to vote’ – Wikipedia. In America today, any citizen over a certain age is accorded a vote).


While this is an attractive sentiment, it should not be beyond contesting. What, for example, do we mean by ‘equal’ in this context? If we mean, as I believe we do, that the people being described are not necessarily equal in regards to height, intelligence, physical beauty or creativity, but rather that each person is metaphysically equal, and therefore accorded equality of rights under the law, then we have a starting point from which to examine the idea that everybody should have a vote upon who leads them.


Is it true that such a system is morally superior? Democracy relies on a Utilitarian understanding of ethics (Utilitarianism as an ethical system defines the greatest good as the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people). wherein the voting majority gets their way (in theory). The unfortunate side effect of this system is that minorities can be easily disenfranchised by it. But large groups of people, if swayed by emotion and acting without education, can make some truly awful choices. Hence, the first criticism of democracy is that it has a tendency to devolve into mob rule, under which minority groups become oppressed.


If there are moral issues with majority rule, and utilitarian ethics in general, there are also functional problems in the democratic structure.


For one thing, the assertion that all men are equal (though perhaps metaphysically sound) is impractical. When one introduces context into the question of equality, such lofty ideals disappear. Let us postulate the existence of two men, Brian (an artist) and Bob (a mechanic), that we claim are metaphysically equal. That is, neither man is more ‘worthy’ than the other intrinsically, and both are deserving of the same basic rights. This equality is a philosophical ideal rather than a practical reality – they may be of equal worth, but if my car breaks down, Bob has more value. Conversely, if my car is fine and I am looking for paintings to hang in my new house, Brian has more value.   


When discussing the ability to make an informed political choice concerning the economy and foreign affairs, should an uneducated, dull-witted, xenophobe be considered the equal of a retired economics professor who has devoted his latter years to working in the field with an overseas charity? In other areas of life, we would never subscribe to so impractical a philosophy – it is clear that the economics professor is far better able to consider and decide upon a fitting course of political action than the xenophobe.


Uneducated people in the heat of the moment often make the wrong choice. We don’t always notice, because sometimes the effect happens distantly to the cause or is too minor to draw attention, but it is nonetheless true. Would you want a team of firemen or cheerleaders to attempt to rescue your daughter from a burning building? Would you want a surgeon or a barman to operate on your knee? Would you want a builder or an author to help erect your new house?

The exercise of political power is no less a speciality than those subjects above. So why are basic qualifications in philosophy, politics and ethics not mandatory for voters? A conspiracy theorist may claim that it would make those voters harder to manipulate.


You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist, though, to accept that our politicians do try to manipulate us into electing them. It’s the nature of a public vote. As a result, we find that charismatic leaders who can lie convincingly are more electable than honest and morally upright leaders. And leaders who are able to manipulate us emotionally are more electable than educated and intelligent politicians.


A further concern with democratic systems is the ease with which they degenerate into plutocracy or oligarchy. We have ample examples in recent history of the dangers that come from combining democratic governance with free market capitalism – corporations and banks amass vast power. And when those banks or corporations decide to act in their, rather than our, best interests, we are powerless to stop them. Scandal after scandal is thrust into the tabloids but very few people in positions of real power are ever thrown under the bus. Partly, this is because those people are responsible for funding the very political parties that are running the country.


One example is the discovery of immoral and illegal activities undertaken by the News of the World (a now expired British tabloid). It may have made headlines and caused certain corporate heads to roll, but it is a very safe bet that the Murdoch family (who ultimately owned the paper) have not been adversely affected by the discovery of said activities. And the News of the World affair was relatively punitive – rarely are the uber-rich even expected to apologise for behaviour that would land men and women of more modest means in a prison cell.


As the human race has driven towards greater specialisation, a meritocracy may be possible. Politics, philosophy and ethics would be mandatory school subjects. Only those people who achieved a certain score or higher would be eligible for public service, and they would be selected by lottery. A small cabinet of 12 or so people would govern for a decade, supported by unelected officials and advisors who were pulled from the highest echelons of their respective fields, academically and vocationally. To solve the problem of short term politics, which has been one of the most destructive effects of democracy, as it encourages our leaders to pursue instant gratification policies in order to be re-elected rather than make difficult decisions based on a prudent view of the future, those men and women who were selected by the lottery, as well as their advisors, would see their fortunes affected by the playing out of policies they initiated for the rest of their lives. Addressing pay in this manner would incentivise the building of a better, happier, long-term future.


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