Democracy – Part 1

Democracy is a sacred word in India. As a concept, it is poorly understood (not just in India but across the world) but like people’s attitude towards their own religion, they uncritically subscribe to it without bothering to understand what it is, what it implies, what its premises are, whether or not those premises are true, whether it delivers what it promises, what its track record is, what the alternatives to it are, and whether or not they would be better off without it.

Democracy has a quasi-religious status in India (though not exclusively so) that places it beyond any scrutiny or criticism. The general attitude in India is that democracy and what’s the public good are synonymous. From that arises the comforting syllogism for Indians which says that since (1) democracy is good; and (2) India is the largest democracy; therefore (3) India is the best. QED.

In my view, democracy is not all that it’s cracked up to be. In fact, I think it is seriously flawed and, although in certain limited contexts it is better than the alternatives, people who get ecstatic at the mention of the word democracy are seriously deluded and what’s worse, their delusion is not harmless. That delusion has pernicious effects, the most serious of which is its negative impact on individual freedom. Democracy, as practiced, is contrary and antagonistic to freedom, and therefore inconsistent with human flourishing.

More about that in a bit but first let me point you to what motivated this line of thinking. My friend Rajesh Jain has an excellent series of posts on his blog titled “Thinks.” It’s an eclectic collection of excerpts from his readings which he posts daily. I am biased of course but you should subscribe to that stream if you are an infovore like him. In “Thinks 490”, he links to a Washington Post piece which says:

Democracy requires free and fair elections, which are now under threat after the disputed election of 2020. In their new book, E.J. Dionne Jr. and Miles Rapoport offer a solution that has the potential to achieve, as the title suggests, “100% Democracy.” That solution is universal civic duty voting: a formalization of the moral duty to participate in elections. … Theirs is a wholesale rethinking of the American electorate’s relationship to elections. [Emphasis added.]

Civic duty and moral duty are loaded concepts. Civic duty relates to one’s obligations as a responsible member of society, a public obligation. Moral duty pertains to what one is privately morally obligated to so, and the not doing of what one is morally obligated to do attaches a failing that’s morally blameworthy. These cannot be bandied about without sufficient justification. Is one one really morally obliged to participate in the democratic duty of voting and participating in “democracy”? The answer is no. In fact, it turns out that for most people, voting is a bad idea, and a fortiori, leads to bad outcomes if undertaken under compulsion.

It’s certainly one’s civic and moral duty to not cause harm to innocent others. Therefore if by one’s action of voting one causes harm, then one is morally obliged to refrain from voting. That’s the basic claim: that one who votes in democratic systems without due diligence necessarily imposes needless harm on innocent others.

Democracy, as actually practiced in most of the world, causes needless harm to innocent others. This has been known for ages. Philosophers have recognized it to be a form of mob rule. The Founding Fathers of the United States were particularly wary of democracy. They founded a constitutional republic and built the guardrails in the form of a constitution that mitigates the worst tendencies of an unconstrained democracy. That was a more enlightened age, but things have deteriorated with time.

More recently many people have pointed out the pernicious effects of having some majority decide who is to rule. H.L. Mencken, with his characteristic acerbic wit, is worth quoting here.

    • Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.
    • Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.
    • Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses.
    • Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

I am actually quite terrified of unconstrained democracy, of the kind that exists in India. There are no guardrails. The constitution gives all the power to the government.

But let me be absolutely clear that I am not against the generalized concept of democracy, or for that matter, even the concept of socialism. It depends on the context. I would prefer that a family democratically determine what the family should do rather than authoritarianism. Similarly, I would recommend a socialist ethic —  from each according to his ability to each according to his needs — but only in severely limited contexts, such as in one’s family.

We all, each one of us, grew up in a socialist setup, namely the family. That works wonderfully. Unfortunately, that socialist ethic of the family does not scale up at all. At the level of the community, the city, or the nation, socialism is an unmitigated disaster.  As the late economist Walter Williams put it, it begins to fail when you cannot remember the names of thousands and millions of your “family” members. What works at the level of a family doesn’t work when scaled up a few orders of magnitude.

The general problem is one of scale. Our evolutionary history makes us suited to small-group dynamics. Our intuitions about how things work are therefore consistent with a world in which we interacted with a few dozen people but which no longer exists. Now we live in a world that involves fleeting interactions with hundreds, even thousands, of strangers instead of repeated interactions with a few dozen people.

This is already too long. But I have yet to get to the main point — the evil that is compulsory voting. I was coming to that.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

7 thoughts on “Democracy – Part 1”

    1. “That democracy is not perfect is well known.”

      If by “well known” you mean that it is widely known, I would contest that claim. Very few people know that democracy is not a good system. In fact, I would say that although systems that are superior to democracy are well understood but they are not well known. That distinction is important. Well understood does not equate with widely known. The intricacies of quantum chromo dynamics are well understood (by experts) but are not well known. Moreover, something being well known does not imply anything about its truth.

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      1. from a UK/european perspective, people are disillusioned with their version of democracy.
        But the challenge is to come up with a better system that works. One advantage of a democracy is that every 4-5 years, it is possible to kick out one bunch of power crazed rulers and replace them with another bunch, hoping they will be better. Is there an example of a country which has a superior system to ‘democracy’ or one where democracy works well?

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  1. How should humans organize their societies ? I will be surprised if anyone claims that we have found a perfect solution. Some crude form of democracy is probably the best solution so far but obviously has far too many problems. I do think dictatorship and theocracies are done for. Just the way western world is fed up with Russia it will eventually be fed up with China and Islam too and they wont exist in the same form as today.

    But democracies themselves will have to change. I think future of democracy is a splintered world where everyone lives in much smaller cities but with greater freedom of movement.

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