Democracy, Elections and Voting

Of course pretty much everyone knows that democracy, universal franchise, “first past the post” elections, etc, is the best way — if not the only way — to organize our political system. In a country overflowing with religions, that should be considered another religion. And as with other religions, since they have been brought up thinking in a particular way, people accept its articles of faith without question, and anyone doubting its tenets is met with hostility. At the risk of being branded a foreign agent and an enemy of “the people” I invite you to question the conventional wisdom and to seek change.

There have to be better ways of getting things done. There always is a better way because of at least two reasons. First, the ideal is impossibly hard to achieve. What we have now cannot possibly be the best we can do. Second, even if in the unlikely event that somehow the best way was found at some time, it is most certainly not the best way any more since the world constantly changes. Time innovates and if we don’t, we should expect difficulties.

People who understand this are better off because they know that gains can be had by making changes to how things are done. People who question their assumptions, who search for more elegant solutions, people who don’t become complacent and smug about their way of doing things, are more successful. It’s a bad system that admits no changes — as is plainly evident in the failures of many societies that tenaciously hang on to outdated religions in the face of all reason and rationality. They not only lack imagination, they even lack the basic intelligence to learn from others who have figured out better ways of doing things.

So let’s question the received wisdom of democracy being the best way of organizing society. Let’s question the religion that democracy has been reduced to. Let’s look around, at the very least, to see if other ways of implementing democracy have been figured out by others. Unsurprisingly, better ways have been figured out but we are too intellectually lazy to take the time to consider them and too wedded to our prejudices to give them a try.

Let me be very clear about one thing. Questioning something is not the same as rejecting it. In fact, the very act of questioning can help in clarifying why it makes sense. Understanding that we have assumptions is important and checking that they conform with reality is absolutely necessary. In the present context, I question the assumption that democracy is the best system, and that “one person one vote” and “first past the post” are the best ways of implementing it.

Democracy is one of the ways of choosing who will be part of the government. But even if we accept it as the preferred way, we have to decide a more fundamental matter: What should be the role of the government? No doubt students and scholars of political science have debated that for centuries and have reached important conclusions. If we “the people” had the talent, the inclination and the time to understand their insights — which in our case we don’t — we would be better off.

Perhaps we should give the job of figuring out whom to elect — and what those elected should do — to those scholars. Let the specialists decide those matters of politics just as we let the doctors and surgeons decide on matters of health and medicine. But since we are empowered to vote, what we consider to be the role of the government matters, and so we must ponder at least for a bit what we have assumed the proper role of government in society to be. What we think the government should do has an impact on what the government actually does, and therefore has a profound effect on what we have to live with. It is actually a matter of life and death, and must not be taken lightly.

Let’s consider two extreme formulations of the role of government. At the left end, there’s a government which intervenes in every aspect of the society and the economy. It runs schools and colleges, bakeries and steel mills, airlines and armies, temples and banks, agricultural markets and telephone companies, electricity utilities and television stations, etc. It withholds or distributes favors to people based on their group allegiances. It decides for the people which books to read, which movies to watch, what is to be said on radio. It determines and dictates what food and how much should be served at social events. It decides which religion is legitimate and deserves support, it determines who gets how much for their religious observances. It dictates what you should do with your property and with yourself. It tells you whom you can marry and what you do are allowed to do to whom in your bedroom.

Having taken on so much to do, it does not do any of it well, and worse, it does not even do the job that it absolutely must. It runs airlines, running up loses in the billions, while it cannot even provide drinking water to its citizens. I label it the “Authoritarian Maximalist” or AM government.

At the right end of the spectrum, the government focuses on the absolutely essential bits and does it well. It protects the “fundamental rights of the individual” such as the right to their own self and their property (which requires running a police force and a legal system), it provides external security (which means having a military), provides an environment for economic activity (which requires regulatory bodies), and funds only those public goods which are inadequately provided by the free market. This government creates the environment for businesses to do business but does not get into business itself. It does not produce goods and services but stands aside while the people produce the goods and services. Let’s call this the “Freedom Maximizing” or FM government.

India has an AM government and that is the cause of most, if not all, of our woes.

Could an AM government ever work? In principle it can work if the people running the government are wise, enlightened, omniscient, selfless beings, and if the people are wise, enlightened, omniscient, selfless beings. But if that were so, in this ideal world, there wouldn’t be much need for a government. In the real world, all of us are self-seeking, unwise, generally ignorant, and short-sighted. So in practice, an AM government gives rise to massive corruption and lack of development. Exactly what we find in India since India has had an AM government for at least during the British Raj and definitely in the post-independence British Raj 2.0 that we have today.

Public corruption is getting a lot of press these days and people are frantically running around trying to figure out ways to reduce it. Unfortunately, corruption is here to stay as long as we continue to have the AM government. People in the government have enormous power, and that gives them the opportunity to extract huge amounts from the economy. That is being counted in billions of dollars (because of course much of it is acquired and stashed away in US dollars) and add up to over trillion dollars stolen in the last few decades.

What’s worse is that the opportunity for corruption that big government provides attracts the most criminally corrupt to seek political office, and these win elections because they can buy votes. This guarantees that competent and honest people can generally not win. The people who win are not only dishonest but are incompetent to formulate good policies to boot.

It is regrettable that too many of those who have decided to fight corruption are unable to figure out the causes of corruption and are wasting precious time trying to fix the symptoms instead of trying to do what has to be done, that is, reduce the power of the government. They are focusing on the fruits when they should be focusing on uprooting the tree. This season you could remove all the fruits but next season the tree will bear more.

Imagine that India were to some how get a very small government. Since there would be none or little financial gain from holding political office, it would be pointless for the criminally greedy to seek office. People with an interest in good governance could then stand a chance of winning elections, and public policy making would improve.

This is just the introduction to a series of blog posts where I examine these issues at some length. I will go into how you can have a better implementation of democracy in India, in the next bit. As I go along, depending on my mood and the mood of the readers, I will explore how we can bring about structural change (not just superficial cosmetic changes) in India’s governance and by extension, to India.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

Author: Atanu Dey


6 thoughts on “Democracy, Elections and Voting”

  1. Atanu has been on this theme for as long as I remember: “India has an AM government and that is the cause of most, if not all, of our woes.”

    Fair enough. Among all the evil effects of AM governments decade after decade are that large sections of people are demotivated, lazy, and mildly to severely dishonest.

    A farmer will show a cable TV journalist on camera how he maintains separate patches: one with banned pesticides for the market, the other for his family’s consumption. Taxi and auto drivers will not show a flag up but rarely agree to go where you want to go, even if capitalist reactionary you offer 10x the fare. Your plumber or electrician will never land up on time, and never carry the tools he needs. Tata Indicom will shamelessly steal your deposit when you terminate their account in disgust because they promised you one bandwidth and give you another.

    Most of these ills cannot be directly traced to the government’s door any more, except perhaps the judiciary and the fine/prison system. It is not a gross exaggeration to postulate that 50–100 million Indians deserve to be in prison. The prison industry will create jobs that will keep others out of prison (figuratively speaking), and it will strike the fear of law in yet others who might have snuck in. Of course, ensuring that prison life is humane yet more unpleasant than life in India on average is no easy task!

    Atanu may be right that fixing the government miraculously to be an FM government will eventually trickle down to fixing all citizens over what could be centuries, but, as an economist, he should sympathize with me if I have no interest in a scheme that might work out over centuries.


  2. The problem is not whether AM or FM government is better. Most people who turn up at your blog will intuitively understand that FM is the better mode.

    On the other hand, most people in India love the AM form of government, where some an omnipotent, omnipresent body decides on resource allocation. The job in hand is to convince these people on how AM government, no matter wht the intentions of the politicians, will screw things up.


  3. Atanu

    Friedrich Hayek has gone down the road on what you’re attempting.

    “Hayek claimed that a limited democracy might be better than other forms of limited government at protecting liberty but that an unlimited democracy was worse than other forms of unlimited government because “its government loses the power even to do what it thinks right if any group on which its majority depends thinks otherwise””

    I’m too lazy, but if you have the patience and diligence you could go through the three volumes of “Law, Legislation and Liberty” by F. A. Hayek.

    Here’s some sort of review of Hayek’s views

    Click to access DeSmet_UnlimitedDemocracy.pdf

    Enjoy reading your blog.


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  5. Soviet Russia was an AM system, and as we can see it failed miserably. The USA is pretty close to an FM system, and that too has had spectacular failures, as recently as the financial meltdown in 2008. Neither extreme works well in the long term.

    What will work is a dynamic adaptable system where policies and the government’s involvement changes as needed. This, however, assumes you will have a government that’s not just concerned about maximising their Swiss bank balances during their four or five years in power which is an unrealistic expectation for most countries.


  6. Atanu,

    You may have read about the Uttara Merur inscription.

    Such a system of rigid qualifications for contesting elections or being nominated for an office, probably worked even in those days less perfectly than the rule makers envisaged.Or may be it worked well.

    The current Indian Constitution also has reasonable safeguards.The implementation is flawed due to the enormous dividends in subverting the spirit of the law.

    IMO, we need to review and change the entire tax administration.Tax money should ideally be collected and spent at the local community level, with a fixed percentage going upstream to the State and the Union govts.Let the FM govt then use this money well, and even build a surplus over time.A 25-30% of total tax revenues distributed between Union and State govts. should be more than enough.

    When most (70%)money gets handled at the local level in a decentralised manner, the citizens are motivated to elect better people from among themselves.The scum will stay away because the money pot is not too huge at any level of political activity.

    Looking forward to the other posts in this series.


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