A guest post by Shem Bennett, of the LDP.
A lot of people seem to have some naïve views about democracy that I would like to dispel. It’s actually not that uncommon- I’ve had people in the past question the LDP’s name saying, “liberty, that’s all well and good, but why democracy? Isn’t that just mob rule and contradictory to freedom?” Well, yes and no, depending on how one views democracy. Taken in isolation democracy can be seen as to put it bluntly “two wolves and a sheep voting on what to eat for dinner”** but the reality of democracy, particular the tradition of liberal democracy seen in Western nation states is far removed from such a crude analogy. So I’d like to take some time to highlight why democracy is not just a “necessary evil” but rather a good that we should strive for.
Firstly I’d like to say that I am a utilitarian- that is I believe that the most moral option is the one that provides the greatest good for the greatest number. Usually, this means that government should let individuals live their lives without interference- because individuals know what is best for them. To put it simply if Tom likes playing football, Dick likes playing Soccer and Harry likes playing Xbox the government can either force them all to do a single activity (in which case 2 are unhappy) or it can allow each of them to do what they like themselves (allowing all 3 to be happy).
Secondly I would like to say that there are occasions where government intervention provides a more utilitarian outcome. If Jack is starving to death in the gutter because he cannot afford to eat and Jill is a multimillionaire, then if the government takes some of Jill’s money (say 1%) to feed Jack it will upset her a little, but the positive it will bring to Jack’s life by allowing him to live offsets that.
Hence from my perspective government should allow people to live their own lives without much interference while still providing a minimal set of services that are necessary for a civilised society. Some radical anarchists would disagree on this point, but I’m sure most Australians would agree that SOME government is necessary and a good thing.
Now with this framework set up I’d like to highlight why a democracy, in a particular a liberal democracy constrained by the constitution and the rule of law and with a universe franchise, is the superior form of government not only on utilitarian grounds, but also liberal grounds.
The first point I’d like to make is regarding accountability. The government is an exclusive institution, it is the only entity in society that is able to make legitimate use of coercive force. If you don’t pay taxes the government can threaten to throw you in jail. If you kill someone, you’ll spend time behind bars guarded by men with guns (or in some countries be executed). The government’s use of coercion and violence is necessary to protect the rule of law and ensure criminals are brought to justice. That said without a democratic system this power becomes open to abuse. Without democracy what ability would Australians have to remove a corrupt government from power? Democracy is said to be the tyranny of the majority- but without democracy you have a tyranny of a minority ruling elite much as happens in dictatorships, feudal societies and one-party states. Democracy is the means by which a government not acting in the interests of the people is able to be ejected making it imperative that a government wishing to stay in power does act in the interests of its citizens.
Second, what functions should a government perform. I believe it is quite arbitrary and based on individual values. It is almost impossible to prove that the government is the best or easiest way to solve environmental problems, for example. Some would argue that only an entity as big and powerful as government can solve climate change, while others would argue that the free market and individuals are able to solve it. Neither side can really prove their case and both are relying on moral judgements to assert their points of view. When there’s a difference of opinion like this on the limits of government power the most peaceful way to resolve the debate is through democratic process.
Now there is a slippery slope argument- over time as government controls more and more of our lives more and more government control can be seen as legitimate, but that is why the LDP and other groups form- in response to what we see as illegitimate government intervention. We hope to shift the debate and to highlight areas where people should reconsider government involvement because often government isn’t the most utilitarian way to do things. The constant tension between government control and individual freedom is essential an argument about values and the line will constantly shift from one side to the other. The good news for proponents of freedom is that the evidence is on our side.
Next I’d like to talk about democracy as a means for consensus building. In Australia, I’ll admit often democracy drops to the lowest common denominator- pandering to marginal electorates, campaigns targeted at “working families” that ignore other groups in society, preference deals, party discipline- the entire thing can look more like a complicated numbers game than a way of representing the interests of Australia as a whole. But democracy at least should be about representing the interests of Australia as a nation, even if at times it doesn’t live up to this standard. To refer to our earlier example of the two wolves and a sheep, but now extend it out to include two wolves, a sheep, a cow and a pig. If they were to vote on what’s for dinner one of a couple of things could happen:
- Firstly the sheep, pig and cow might vote to eat grass, slop and hay respectively. Of course each of their votes would only count for 1 while the 2 wolves, voting together to eat the sheep outvote the divided herbivores. That’s an example of a first past the post system of voting.
- Secondly the sheep, pig and cow might vote together as a herbivore bloc. Together they vote in favour of sheep being able to eat grass, pigs being able to eat slop and cows being able to eat hay. But they all vote against wolves being allowed to eat anything so the wolves die. This is often the sad situation we see in Australia with preferential voting, it’s also seen in countries with proportional voting.
- There is a third option however, the sheep, pig, cow and wolves might sit down and discuss what they’d each like for dinner. After much negotiation they might decide that the cow will provide milk for the wolves every day, the wolves can take a bite out of the pig and sheep’s hindquarters once a month (so they have long enough to heal) and the wolves in return will bring grass, slop and hay to the other animals. This is an example of consensus building where a mutually favourable outcome is reached, even where it’s not the first preference of each individual. It is a model of democracy that is seen occasionally in western systems and in my mind is the one that we should strive towards.
I feel the Democrats in particular, are one political party that understood this vision of democracy. Take the GST- they were opposed to it. However the majority elected coalition supported it and it was down to the Democrats to decide if it was passed. Now they could have blocked it but instead they decided to forge a mutually agreeable outcome, building a GST model where the key concerns of those opposed to the GST were met. Now a lot of us still didn’t like the final GST package as was introduced but the amendment to the legislation still made it preferable to the original proposal. By taking this attitude of amendment of legislation a mutually agreeable solution can (hopefully) be found- one that takes into account majority opinion, while still preserving the rights of minorities and those opposed to a particular plan.
Finally I would like to speak of the future for the democracy. I feel that with the rise of the technological age democracy has the potential to become less of a representative democracy and more of a participatory democracy where citizens don’t just vote for a party once every 3 years on current issues, but where citizens remain actively engaged in the policy development cycle throughout a government’s entire term. Last federal election one party actively campaigned on such a platform- Senator Online- now they weren’t successful, but their premise- that individuals in Australia should have a greater ability to influence public debate- is a noble one and one that I hope the major parties take up in the years to come. Even within representative democracies there are systems, in particular electoral and voting systems, which give individuals more of a say- first past the post systems ensure that only a plurality of voices are heard (which at times can be far less than 50%) and while the preferential lower house and proportional upper house are strong systems within Australia there is further reform that could see even better democratic outcomes (though I won’t get into that now).
So for me, I am a member of the Liberty and Democracy Party not just because I hold liberty as a virtue, but also because I hold democracy as a virtue. A lot of members in the party focus on the liberty aspect and indeed that is a worthwhile goal, but democracy is just as crucial. Democracy is the tool through which liberal reform can come about. Democracy, in the LDP, should not just be a casual afterthought or a lesser of evils. Democracy, especially participatory democracy and democracy as a way of achieving consensus is something that the LDP should be responsible for actively championing and promoting.
cross posted at the LDP.
**“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”
Benjamin Franklin, 1759