Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ten commandments in modern societies -10

"There is no such thing as democracy."

Lee Bollinger once said that the holocaust is "the most documented event in human history.”  As the Columbia University President, his words carried a certain weight, but it is far from certain if it is true, on what basis he said that, or if he was even in a position to comment on the verifiable topic.  But it is much closer to the truth that democracy is the most analyzed subject in human history.

Democracy has been talked about, argued about, written about, gloated about, or gone to wars about, by everybody from the penniless to the kings for thousands of years.  So whatever is written here would be awfully inadequate and utterly unoriginal.

But it is only fitting to conclude the Ten Commandments with a subject of very common interest and clear significance.  And just days before the 2012 US election.

Democracy has two integral components: the idea and how to achieve the idea.  Few would object to the idea, although it is frequently conflated with what it aims to achieve, i.e., is the idea is the end or the means to the end?  Unless we are in a perfect world or close, there will be schism between the two.  Critical, but not the issue here.

Instead, this commandment pertains to achieving the idea, and on this count, there never had been or is a democracy during and since Athens.

Hearing people talking about "the largest democracy in the world" or "the greatest democracy in the world" is equivalent to hearing "my God is better than your God".  Humans are talking about something that they believe in dearly to the extent to be willing to die for it yet ultimately does not exist in a practical and grandiose way.  

It can be argued that no democracy is perfect, but imperfect democracy is still democracy.  But if the imperfection is so systematically pervasive, there can be no real democracy, which must reflect the desire and interest, both short-term and long-term, of the whole populace.  

Currently most countries use the form of representative democracy, at least in name.  The people select or elect the representatives, like the President, by various means, and the representatives then wield the most power to decide policies for the next few years, with some inputs from the constituency, depending on the issues.  

There is another, also ancient form called participatory democracy, in which the constituency has or had a much larger role in decision making.  

Many differences exist between the two forms.  For example, for the first one, the higher-up, e,g., the President or Congress, decide to go to war, and the constituency typically follow.  In the second one, the decision to go to war would first come from the regular guys, not the few elites or the President.  Also, in terms of representation, in the first, it is dominated by the professional politicians and elites, while in the second, a Congress would look like the main street, not 50% lawyers.

Why did representative democracy win out?  Because participatory democracy has serious weakness and is easily manipulated to morph into representative.  Policies and governing is complex and often requires special sets of skills, not an average Joe on the street can do.  Nonetheless, it is also highly questionable that the current elected officials or the 50% lawyers know any better.

Here lies the problem that inevitably fails democracy: the representatives cannot represent the whole populace or the best interest.  For a few reasons.

First is that the elected officials are a very skewed snapshot of the population, and their world views are not the same as the average people.  Everything else follows.

Second, the system constraints.  The representatives work in a political system that is dominated by history, precedents, and the elites, the rich and powerful, who surround it and always control how it is run.  Money, access, what they see and hear, is much different from the average Joe.  And when a new guy is elected and works for only a few years, how much can he change it?

Third, human self interests.  The officials do not have the same interests as the average people.  They want to be re-elected, be famous, be remembered, be rich.  So they like grand projects, defer bad consequences, or look presidential, while an average guy only wants to live a steady life.

Fourth, to sell their ideas or policies, the representatives and elites resort to deception.  Lies, non-truth, flip-flopping, and pandering are considered normal and to be expected in any campaigns, and it is common knowledge that candidates with the best ideas have no chance.  Election produces winners based on what the voters know, but what they know comes from the political system that avidly produces an alternate reality not unlike the one depicted in the "Matrix" movies.  The populace either lose interest or even willingly vote against their own interests.  

The reasons above are not automatically or always negative, but there is no denying that too many decisions have hurt the constituency greatly.  Churchill was right to say the democracy is the worst form of government, but he ignored the fact that only because democracy has always been manipulated by people like him.  

In essence, modern democracy is merely a shell game devoid of the idea.  In a matured society like the US, it is a game with many rules that the representatives and constituency largely follow, whereas in a less developed country fewer elites and common people play by the rules.  Mature or not, this is still not qualitatively different from the game of baseball.  Nobody should have this warm, fuzzy feeling talking about it or after casting his vote, a.k.a. fulfilling his civil duty.  You would also see the absurdity if anyone gets morally superior if his country plays baseball while others do not. 

Eventually one has to go back to the original, democratic idea and see how best to achieve it.  Having a knowledgeable voting population is a prerequisite for democracy, which the current political system actively undermines.  Of course, despite the best efforts there will always be fools ("Ten commandments in modern societies -9"), whose views must be reflected, a cornerstone of participatory democracy.  But the mortal flaw during human history is that the ruling class encourage and reinforce stupidity in order to cling to power and money. 

Thus, one's civil duty should be all year long, not tied to any election cycle or any election day.  He should get familiar with the issues most important to the world and his life.  Only when he votes with the correct information is it truly democratic.  Perfection is impossible, but voting with the mindset that Iraq had WMD or was involved in 911, or Iran is making a nuclear bomb, is worse than democratic, because it rubberstamps devious decisions.  What is the virtue of "democracy" and what does it tell you if it produces bad or many of the worst outcomes in modern societies?  

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