Sunday, 21 October 2012

Democracy's deficits

First of all, I would like to say that no, I am not going nuts. I should be, seeing as I have hardly seen sunlight in the last two months, but I am not. You may have thought so, especially if you are familiar with political science's academia, and perhaps you may have thought me a fool for the post's title.
But if that is what has happened to you, I am sorry: you were wrong. I do not want to talk about democratic deficit in this post. Not exclusively, at least.

I would like to talk about the downsides of democracy. Whenever here in the West we hear the very word, democracy, our eyes fill with tears and we rejoice for being so lucky as to living in the free, democratic West. Yeah, for some reason, freedom and democracy seem to come together very often. If you happen to be an American, bravery might play a role too. It is also surprising the amount of Godly references in our supposedly free countries, including freedom of religion and technically, freedom not to profess any religion at all. But I am sort of digressing from the topic, and as interesting as it would be to discuss religion, I do not wish to do so. At least for now.

Last year I spent five hours a fortnight (ie a quarter of my contact hours) taking a compulsory module called Introduction to Democratic Politics. This may sound absurd, since 'we all know what democracy is and all politics should be democratic'. Oh, really? Well, if that is so, I would like you to stand out and give me a definition of what democracy really is.
Difficult, huh? Thought so. I'd say impossible, but out of deference and because I have grown up in the West and am thus conscious about the importance of political correctness, I will accept 'difficult'.
Personally, the definition of democracy I have a biggest liking for is one Sir Winston Churchill once said in a speech to the House of Commons in 1947. It goes like this:
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
I like it for a variety of reasons. Firstly, because he does not attribute it to himself, but he uses the very ambiguous "it has been said...". Secondly, because it acknowledges our world to be one of sin and woe. And this is significant, not many people are willing to recognise evil's power, and its rise in significance the higher up you climb the power ladder. Thirdly, because he is actually saying both everything and nothing at the same time. The sentence can be interpreted in whatever manner you wish to interpret it, yet at the same time everyone gets the same thing out of it (albeit no one would be able to put that thing into words, but that is another matter!). And fourthly, and this is the most important reason for today's analysis, because it implies democracy is bad. At least (and again I am making this remark out of PC), it concedes democracy has downsides. These are the downsides I want to tackle today, not comprehensively of course, to try and reach a conclusion on whether democracy actually pays off.

Usually all downsides of democracy are encompassed in the so-called democratic deficit, and the democratic process is blamed for not living up to standard. But I do not like this idea at all. As I see it, democratic deficit consists in all those undemocratic activities, processes, institutions, etc. arising within a democratic territory, due to its very existence. Undemocratic can mean a lot of things and encompass many factors: lack of legitimacy, lack of representation, lack of accountability, excess of corruption, excess of nepotism, lack of freedom and/or equality, etc.
There is a difference between both things, though. The European Union is a good example to try to shed some light on the matter.
Both in the region and at a global level, the EU is seen as a landmark for freedom, democracy, democratisation, modernisation, and all those other words we are not sure what they mean and make us feel a little fuzzy inside but also imply something good. Whatever good means, I shall leave that up to you. Reality is far from this, however, as you may have already guessed.
The lack of accountability in EU institutions and decision making process is so huge I do not even know where to start. Its machinery is so huge most people would not even know where to start if they wanted the EU to account for something. The general public is utterly ignorant about European issues. Differences between the Commission, the European Council, the Council of the EU, the Council of Europe (yep, these three are completely different things), the Parliament, the Court of Justice, the Court of Human Rights, and many others, including the huge amount of nameless civil servants below all these make me shudder, and I have studied some of these. To the general public, it is simply too complicated to mean anything at all. Until three years ago, the European Council (the EU's executive, so to say) did not have a designated president. If you look up "President of the EU" on Wikipedia, four different positions come up.
Issues concerning representation also come up, and due to low number of elected offices and low turnout, issues on legitimacy may arise as well.

But these are all dangers of geopolitical betterment processes, and to be fair, the world is not perfect, so why should we complain, if it works? Well, we should complain for many reasons, because it is not working, but that is another story.

What I want to discuss today are downsides of democracy itself, not negative consequences which may arise from it or during its implementation.

I will stick to the EU for now, because it is really useful in proving a couple of points. I will talk about other cases as well, I will just try to apply all of them to the EU.
First of all, and this is perhaps the biggest downside I find to both democracy and politics, hypocrisy. I am no idealist (to all educated folks out there, let's say I would have been a Fabian in the context of a transition to socialism), and, something I find exceedingly rare these days, I believe in compromise. I may paradoxically be an idealist for believing in compromise, but I am willing to take that risk.
Hypocrisy strikes in so many ways I fear if I focus on it I will run out of other downsides of democracy as ultimately all may come from it.
Aristotle once said men are by nature political animals. I am going to risk it and say I think he was partially wrong. I am going to include all humans in this (men, women, and all the others), and I am going to say some people do not care that much about politics, civism, or however you want to define it. Everyone should, granted, but this is subjective. I am thus going to alter Aristotle's quote and say humans are by nature economic animals. People respond to incentives, and they always do. These incentives may have different natures (social, economical, political, moral, sentimental, etc.) but ultimately everything we do is out of incentive. Even charity work can be interpreted as an incentive to feel better about yourself.
Why have I said this? Well, it is fairly simple. If we acknowledge the truth of that sentence, it would be foolish to even think for one second that a small minority will represent everyone else... unless that's what suits them best. This is perhaps the origin of elitism, as this small minority will try to keep their offspring within the bubble (I am not even going to quote on this, but I think it is safe to say offspring's welfare is about the strongest incentive for pretty much any parent, anywhere and no matter at what point in history or their status, or anything else). Disregarding genetics (surely bright parents produce bright children?), this gives a simple explanation for political families. These exist in democracies. In the US, three examples come up to mind instantly: the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Roosevelts. But there are many others. Indeed, the list of US Presidents with kin ties to other US Presidents is long. It is even longer if we include other offices. For example, the current US Secretary of State and a former US President are married.
My point is, this elite is small. It is hard to ascertain whether these links occur because as family members they tend to move in the same elitist environments, or because these links provide them with a chance through nepotism they would not otherwise have. It probably is a mixture of both.
People willing to deny this will tell me "well, Sergio, this is very nice, but hey, opportunities are open to everyone". And they will be right. That's the magic of democracy, opportunities are truly there, you are just more likely to fulfil all requirements depending on your background. Equality of opportunity simply does not exist, and the sooner everyone accepts this, the better.

There is another form of hypocrisy which worries me a lot more, and it is that of interstate relations. The EU is a remarkable example of this, as it has 27 states (soon to be 28) relating within themselves and sometimes through/sometimes to a higher authority of pooled sovereignty they have created. Yet it is all the more remarkable because it is in no way a federal association, or has ever aspired to be one.
Requirements to enter the EU are very selective, and applicants must first revise their policy in order to comply with the Copenhagen Criteria. This disappears however once the applicant is a full member. Or so it seems.
Example #1: deficit. It is hardly a secret deficit levels have sky-rocketed with the current economic climate. The Maastricht Treaty (and thus the Copenhagen Criteria) allow for a deficit of up to 3% of GDP. Ireland's deficit in 2010 was nearly 32%. But the thing is, even before the crisis it was customary not to respect the limit. The ECJ in 2004 in fact ruled against sanctioning two EU countries for not respecting their deficit caps. Which countries were those? France and Germany.
Example #2: debt. Under Maastricht, debt is not to exceed 60%. Again, this has hardly been respected, since the times the euro was adopted. Germany respected this only in 2001 and countries such as Greece or Belgium in fact never have, not by a long shot.
Example #3: democratisation. Being democratic is a sine qua non condition for being a part of the EU. But governments are hardly respecting people's will, these days, favouring pretty much markets and, more worringly, the small capitalist elite behind these markets. I do not want to sound like a communist talking about greedy fat men, but it is true that the gap is becoming wider: the very rich are richer and the rest, poorer. But this has another connotation as well. Fidesz, a semi authoritarian party took office in Hungary a few years ago. Since then, it has implemented a new Constitution, favouring Fidesz over all other parties, affecting press freedom, etc. More info here. Some HR organisations have expressed concern, and even though the Commission threatened to act and started legal proceedings, nothing has been done about this. How can the EU allow all of this, and at the same time tell Hungary they have to pay their debts? Well, because money matters. Which leads us to the next example.
Example #4: markets. How many times have we heard "markets rule", "markets have been appeased by reforms" or "markets punish X for Y", in recent times? This is an euphemism for 'bankers and industrialists rule Europe' (and the world too). In a recent Spanish TV programme, a figure is given: as many as five thousand people lobby in the Bundestag (the German lower house), a chamber with 622 representatives. In the same programme, it is said that bailout money given by Germany is ultimately going to German banks who invested in the South when they made so much money after exceeding their debt and deficit thresholds.
Example #5: policy making. You may not think so, but a great deal of policy is made and decided at an EU level. This policy must be put forward by the Commission (an appointed body), developed by the civil service (unaccountable body) and ultimately passed by the European Parliament (elected in not nearly legitimate enough elections). However, persuasion plays a very important role in this policy making process, and a majority of negotiations take place in absolute secrecy and behind closed doors. Data will never be accessible. If you ask, this is perhaps the most effective way of passing legislation. But it is hardly democratic, no matter how you look at it.

But there is much more behind hypocrisy. For example, voter-friendly policy making. OK, I have made up the name, but I have no idea of how to call it. The concept is simple: much time and resources are wasted in appealing to voters. Take the US, for example: both the President and Senator Romney have been campaigning for months. If they campaign, surely they cannot really do their jobs as well as they should. Which means both the US federal government and the Massachusetts state government could be better ruled right now.
In addition, the huge amount of money being spent in a pointless campaign (it is already clear Obama will win) could be better spent elsewhere. Actually creating new jobs or making healthcare more affordable for US residents, instead of just flying around the country talking about doing those things, for example.
Not to talk about pursued policies. As I have said before, all humans respond to incentives. What incentive does a head of government have to pursue an unpopular but necessary policy if he knows he will lose office in the upcoming elections? Not much, really, as he will lose anyway. But what if he knows he may stand a small chance of regaining office? Then he will probably not pursue that policy. Instead, he will go for unnecessary and usually costly but voter-friendly policies, creating a burden to all taxpayers but ensuring he will regain office.
This is perhaps why common wisdom says "politicians are liars". Sometimes they tell outright lies, Mr Rajoy vs VAT being a significant example of this, but usually it is much subtler. They simply encourage different policies depending on what bit of the electoral cycle they happen to be at, at a particular point, in all cases to try and make sure they will win the next elections. Winning elections is thus an incentive, and therefore it is safe to assume elected politicians will respond to winning elections and then and only then to their electorate. If they were not elected, however, how and on what grounds would they be appointed?
Perhaps you are beginning to better understand Churchill's quote now.

There are issues with representation. Each electoral system is different, and none of them is good enough. The two countries I know best, Spain and the United Kingdom, prove good opposite examples. For national legislature elections (for the lower chamber), systems are pretty much opposite. The UK uses a first-past-the-post system. The country is divided into many small constituencies and each constituency returns one member to Parliament, this member being the candidate receiving a plurality of the votes. The good, MPs are close to their electorate; the bad, it is not proportional system and it is largely skewed in favour of big parties and regional parties. Many votes are wasted.
In contrast, Spain uses a PR closed-list system. Constituencies are large (the provinces), and each is allocated a number of MPs they must return to Parliament, a bit like different states carry different Electoral College votes in the US. The good, results are more proportional (but not quite either). The bad, everything else: there is no connection between MPs and their electorate, fewer votes are wasted but many are downgraded (those of big cities), and the electorate must choose parties, it cannot choose candidates.
Here enters personal preference. Personally I prefer FPTP because while it has many faults it favours an MP-elector relationship rather than party allegiance.
Probably the closest we have to a good electoral system is that of Ireland, STV (single transferable vote), but it is hard to see how it would work in countries as big as the United Kingdom or Spain.
But again, this is personal preference, and objectivity is nearly impossible to attain while discussing such an issue.

Lobbying and quango issues cannot be overlooked, either. I won't go into much detail about them, I don't want to make this post endless, and you can read more about it on Wikipedia and elsewhere. In a nutshell, they contest legitimacy and representation. Remember, people respond to incentives, and politicians, as weird as this may seem, are people too. If I am in the air industry and need a bill passed so I do not have to pay more noise taxes for flying over a residential area, logically I will have to fight that residential area's MP. But if I have access to Parliament/Congress, I can walk up to this person, and tell him: 'hey, if you pass that bill noise will not decrease much, these people knew there was an airport nearby - and I was thinking, maybe you'd like a holiday in Malaysia...'. What incentive will be stronger? A minimal, perhaps unperceptible change in noise levels, or taking the kids somewhere exotic, and perhaps solve those little problems you have been having as of lately with your partner?
This is a very simplified and exaggerate example of what I want to expose, as this is clearly a buy-off and not just lobbying, but I hope it proves my point.
Quangos on the other hand are so very unelected and unaccountable to anyone. At all. If they are effective, then you might say ok, but sometimes they are a waste, and then there is no possible excuse for them. Yet sometimes they are necessary to remove them from the "voter friendly policy making" I've warned you about before.

There are many others, but I will stop here. You can think for yourselves some others (comments welcome!). I am only trying to give you something to think about.
What is legitimacy? In fact, two types of legitimacy can be said to exist: input legitimacy and output legitimacy. The first one is concerned by representation and democratic issues. The second one is largely concerned by productivity and efficiency of decisions and pursued policies. Which one is/should be more important and why?
As I said, it is largely impossible to be objective in such a debate.


  1. Sergio, I wish I could have finished and thus liked this post better. But I couldn't, because you just
    cannot write a post about democracy's deficits and say upfront you'll take a supranational institution like the EU to be the example upon which you want to base your analysis. You can be no stranger to the concept of pooled sovereignty, and taking that into account you needn't go any further. Democracy has a great many glaring deficits, but you can only truly bring them forward against a background of full sovereignty.

    I'll be brief on my criticism of democracy: I can never be for a system that gives my sister in law's vote and my own the same value. We are not equals and our votes should never be worth the same. And by the by, this has absolutely nothing to do with socioeconomic status or lack of education and opportunities, no matter how many times those Real Democracy Now banners try to tell me otherwise.

  2. I am definitely no stranger to the concept of pooled sovereignty. However, you should have carried on reading, I am actually all for pooled sovereignty and for the sake of my analysis it makes pretty much no difference. (I used to be absolutely in favour of the EU and whilst this is not the case anymore, not in its present form, I would be among the first to advocate for a politically supranational European state entity.)
    I did not intend to base my analysis on the EU, I just picked it as an example because it is probably the most diverse yet complete political entity to ever have been created.

    I can see you are a follower of the great John Stuart Mill. Whilst I get your point and to some extent I may even share it - to be fair I am not really sure of what my stance on this is; where and how would you draw the lines and weightings of different votes for different people?
    This is probably what Churchill meant, in a way. It is really bad as it is, but any other way of doing it would probably be worse.

    You might advocate for a free market democracy, ie. a pound a vote. But this is how the global economy works, pretty much, and by now it should be pretty clear how bad an idea this is, plus I don't really think you would agree to it anyway.


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