The Problem With Democracy

The problem with democracy is that the people of a country lose the right to consider themselves independent of government policies. If a government does or says awful things then the people of the democracy have to bear responsibility.

Citizens of totalitarian regimes can’t really be held responsible for what their governments do. I don’t consider the Chinese people as a whole responsible for the repression of Uyghurs or Ai Weiwei. I don’t hold the Saudi people responsible for the domestic repression of religious minorities or for their government’s support for the coup in Egypt.

Australians have elected governments that lock up asylum seekers in private prisons in Australia and in our poor neighbors. The conditions are awful, there is endemic violence (including sexual violence) against the asylum seekers. It’s an embarrassment, but more than that it’s a national shame – a stain on our character as a people.

Israelis just reelected Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu, right after he declared his opposition to ending the occupation and expressed deeply racist concerns about the idea that non-Jewish Israeli citizens actually voting in the election. Not all Israelis voted for him, but as a democracy, Israel as a whole carries the responsibility for his words and actions.

By being the citizen of a democracy we are taking on responsibility for the actions of our government, whether we are in the majority or not.¬†We have the responsibility to speak up and advocate for what is just and right and true. But we can’t escape our shared responsibility for our nations’ crimes and mistakes.

One reply on “The Problem With Democracy”

  1. It might be, and commonly is argued that you have this in reverse. A non-democratic regime provides no formal mechanism for the citizenry to effect changes in governance (other than via the dedicated route of direct participation in the apparatus of the state), which places the onus on those who oppose its policies to use extra-legal means to effect change. Thus, citizens who do not revolt are culpable. In contrast, democracy internalises the system by which government may be changed, and defines the vote as almost the sole civic responsibility of the citizen. Having discharged this responsibility, one is absolved, and if things go wrong, well, don’t blame me I voted for the other guy.

    This, I think, is one of the many real problems with democracy: it allows us to rest easy, knowing some other idiot is responsible for the mess, and anyway we can ditch the bastards in a coupla years, no worries mate. And when it turns out other guys are just as bad, well, we can vote them out, too! Thus are we willing to tolerate, for electoral cycle after electoral cycle, the kind of incompetence and malfeasance which would, under other systems, lead to public humiliation and social downfall (if not severe criminal penalties), merely relegating the perpetrators to the opposition, the back benches or the commentariat.

    That said, there is a far more fundamental problem with democracy: it is based on the religious conviction that the way to achieve optimal results from a diverse group is for each member of the group to vigorously promote local self-interest. This Invisible Hand of the Electorate theory of governance cynically denies the possibility that any individual might recognise and work for a common or collective good in a way which risked diminishing personal, short-term gain. Even were this theory sound, a properly functional democracy would require everyone to be a highly-educated, fully engaged professional voter, a dedicated member of The Ruling Parties, vitally involved and interested in every aspect of governance. That’s essentially the way the Greek Democracies worked, and it may well have worked for them. In a non slave-owning, fully enfranchised, heterogeneous modern society: not so much.

    As a footnote: to anyone convinced of the robustness of democracy I’d recommend Peter Cook’s “The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer” (1970), and I’d suggest that those eager to side with Churchill on the subject really need to acquaint themselves with his entire political philosophy (cf. http://www.quora.com/Was-Winston-Churchill-a-racist).

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