September 04, 2006

On Democracy and Moral Absolutes

I was reading this thread ( and it occurred to me that everyone treats democracy as being basically a good thing. The assumption of most posters is that the democratic form of government is a moral absolute – and thus other forms of government are poorer. Alongside this consensus view, a large number of posters have pointed out some pretty fundamental flaws in democratic forms of government;
– democracy is only currently viable when limited to representative democracy (you can’t take a referendum on every issue)
– the most able don’t necessarily get elected
– the infrequency of elections and the vicissitudes of the party system can conspire to protect the less able
– party systems tend to enforce party will (and the leaders’ wills) rather than the electorates’
There are counter arguments against all of these points, of course, but it does undercut the suggestion that democracy is A Good Thing™ in every circumstance. Almost every western cultural force (US, UK, France, UN, associated newspapers etc) argues that universal suffrage is the great objective and perhaps this is one of the major issues that puts the west at loggerheads with parallel cultures elsewhere? There are parts of the world (central Africa and central Asia come to mind) where democracy has failed in almost every incarnation to date, due to disparate indigenous populations, corrupt leadership etc. Within these regions, there are also states which have maintained a stable government – against all odds – based on monarchies/dictatorships . Many of these have abysmal human rights records but have not collapsed into the horrific civil wars that have occupied their neighbours.
It hasn’t always been the case that democracy has been viewed as a positive force in the west. Renaissance arguments that focussed on ideal forms of government swung from virtuous dictatorship (Machiavelli) to limited democracy (Machiavelli again) via the mixed aristocratic/monarchical/democratic (the Myth of Venice). The latter is essentially the basis of British constitutional monarchy (see my rant further down the blog). I’m pretty sure that it was the war against fascism and thereafter communism that enshrined democracy as being the ultimate goal of progressive society, replacing, I would argue, the common weal, which had occupied that role. Is it time, in light of the mess in the Middle East, parts of South East Asia and African that we revisit this belief in democracy and place it into some kind of continuum that recognises that in some places, democracy just doesn’t work (yet? ever?) and the focus of western pressure should be on ensuring values, which could be perceived as a greater priority such as tolerance and humane treatment. Many people say that they would fight to protect democracy but, given that many of us live in very stable democracies (my thoughts on current regime aside…), do we have the right to impose those battles on others who did not necessarily ask for it.

I understand that I am opening a can of worms with this discussion but it interests me as an historical question. For the record I believe in universal suffrage and representative democracy (although I do have concerns about trying to enforce democracy on unstable states in order to ‘exit our troops’).

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