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The age of democracies

22 March 2010

For as long as I can remember I’ve been told that democracy is a good way of governing a nation.  In fact, I was told it was the only good way of governing a nation.  After all, the opposite of democracy is dictatorship, and who would want something like that?

On paper democracy does indeed sound like a swell idea.  Every citizen is entitled to vote for a party or person they believe represent their views.  The party or persons with the most votes are regarded as the ones most suitable to represent those views in a governmental body.  So it should work just fine.  If the people of a nation want a specific change to take place, they will vote for those who feel the same way and, within time, those changes will take place.

The problem is that modern societies are hugely complex beasts.  No one really understand how they work, least of all the citizens voting for who should be in charge of governing them.  The result is that politicians are reduced to appease to the public by promising favourable changes (tax cuts, more benefit schemes, free health care etc) rather than taking care of more pressing but unpopular issues (financial problems, environmental issues, unemployment etc).

Of course, the politicians could make up some popular lies just to get elected, and once they’re in office they could instead deal with the actual problems no one wants to think about.  The problem with that is that most of the issues require long-term solutions, and won’t be solved within the elected period.  So, at the end of that period and with the next election coming up, who would the people vote for?  The liars who took all your money to solve problems you don’t understand or care about, or the friendly smiley people who promise to give you money back instead of taking it?

Economist Democracy Index 2008

It’s this combination of short-sightedness, greed, ignorance and laziness that really spells the end for democracy as a concept.  At the moment, the most democratic country in the world is Sweden, and Sweden is currently getting itself into a serious financial crisis, with its welfare society policy costing more and more and companies and employees getting taxed more and more to fund it.  Any real solution to this problem is going to be hugely unpopular, since it would mean reducing the standard of living one way or another, and therefore no party will ever be elected on the basis of solving it.  Instead, the government is borrowing more and more money from abroad to cover up the costs, making sure everything looks good enough for it to be re-elected.  And Sweden isn’t unique.  There are similar issues in the UK, and indeed in most Western societies.

The root of the issue is therefore in our own mindset – the human nature itself.  Just like the human nature made communism a practical impossibility, it is making our current interpretation of democracy impossible to sustain.

So what could be done?  One way of addressing the problem would be to extend the elected periods to 10 or 20 years (or more), in order to make sure any elected government would have time to properly take care of the long-term problems before the next election.  This would prove quite unpopular with the opposition though, and I doubt we’ll see any constitutional changes of that magnitude any time soon.

Another solution would be to abandon democracy all together for some other form of government better suited to deal with the complex problems of modern society.  Perhaps some form of technocracy, where self improving AI systems would assist us in making the best long-term choices?  But again, I doubt we’ll see any government voluntary giving up any of its power – no matter how good the cause might be.

I do believe that the 20th century will be remembered as the century of democracies; as an interesting but basically flawed experiment in national government.  I’m just not sure what will replace it.  Giant killer robots?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 April 2010 12:26

    i like your viewpoint there… very interesting.

    i’m curious, however, as to how you feel the Isle of Man’s parliamentary system feeds into your conclusions… as we don’t really have any “party” system… our Tynwald [ parliamentary court ] is formed outside of any party/factional allegiance… and so really falls into your “longer terms” solution as there is never any considerable swing from any opinion to any other…

    however, as a citizen of the isle of man – i still feel “unrepresented” as this system basically “eats” individualism or new thinking…



    • 7 April 2010 13:08

      Yes, the problem with ‘conservative’ systems is that they tend to stifle progress to some degree. ‘Progressive’ systems are usually the opposite, where you get lots of movement but little long-term change.



  1. Democracy 2.0 |

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