Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fixing Democracy?

Tom Paine has an expatriate's concern that our country has gone to the dogs in his absence. This post appears to capture "the country's going to the dogs" libertarianism quite well and so is deserving of a thorough response.

"These days we accept democracy, unthinkingly, as a good thing. I have not heard a serious word against it since University, when some young men of my acquaintance affected to think it “a brave experiment that failed.” I begin to wonder if they were right, at least as to its British incarnation.

Something is clearly very wrong with British democracy. Our low election turnouts prove that. Our voters do not face bombs and bullets on their way to the polling station, but they show less enthusiasm to vote than the Iraqis who do. Perhaps we should arrange to stain British voters’ fingers with purple ink and have men armed by Iran take pot-shots at them? I am sure President Ahmadinejad would oblige."


Isn't it a sign of how successful our political system has been that politics is usually not a matter of life or death?

It doesn't seem surprising or problematic to me that people have less interest in the political system when things are going relatively well. So long as the economy keeps chugging along in reasonable health and people feel fairly secure then the electorate can afford the luxury of apathy. If things get much worse and our electorate remains apathetic then I would be more concerned.

Britain faces very real and important issues which do need to be confronted but low turnout means that those not turning up to vote have decided to leave decision making to the middle class voters who still vote. I'm not convinced this is such a tragedy. If people don't want to cast a ballot that's entirely within their rights and doesn't stop them participating in future elections if things go wrong. The only real bias is towards the middle class at the expense of the poor; this is the Dude's objective and has been secured by the poor's own free will.

"One might expect the constant meddling, the authoritarianism, the sheer bloody priggishness of New Labour to drive people back to the polls. They were elected by a minority and they are imposing the views of part of that minority on the rest of us. Yet British non-voters I speak to are way beyond mere disinterest. They are militantly apathetic. They have enthusiastic contempt for the process."


It seems possible that they express their apathy in militant terms because it sounds a lot cooler than just admitting ignorance and assuming political decisions will turn out alright if left to others. There are plenty of avenues for active protest if one does not like our present political system. If someone chooses to be apathetic that is a revealed preference for leaving decisions to the rest of the electorate.

"Once every little boy and girl born into the world alive, was “either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.” Yet now, we hear the fatal words, “they’re all the same.” So, indeed, they are. Perhaps it is not that our democracy is failing, but that it is working too well? Politicians have views as diverse as ever. There is no view too absurd to be represented in the House of Commons, as George Galloway sufficiently proves. To get and keep power, however, now involves concealing ones opinions. Men and women go into politics to pursue their agenda, but soon the peoples’ agenda is pursuing them."


The first sentence in this section hits on something important. Before when people voted they were probably just as ignorant and unthinking about their vote as those who do not vote now. They voted a certain way because that was what was expected by their family and community. Isn't not voting preferable to giving a party a mandate which is simply an expression of partisan loyalty? Now a mandate is weaker as the electorate has shrunk but at least it is honest.

"The only effective “check and balance” in our Parliamentary democracy was the way in which, for centuries, the British divided neatly, sportingly, into two roughly equal political "sides". Whigs vs. Tories, Conservatives vs. Liberals, Labour vs. Conservatives, etc. Our dangerous three word constitution (“Parliament is sovereign”) was not a problem. We could always rely on the swing of the political pendulum to keep government honest."


The Labour party appears to be suffering very significantly in the eyes of public opinion for its dishonesties and corruptions. Major's government was certainly weakened by scandal. It would appear that the system is still working to keep politics honest. At times the system falters and corruption occurs but that is more a testament to the imperfect nature of human beings and the corrupting effect of power than a fault with the British political system. It certainly exists under alternatives like the US system and is massively more prevalent in most dictatorships.

"We still have two major parties, but few feel any allegiance to them. Their memberships are derisory, smaller than a hotel loyalty scheme, larger than a decent-sized fishing club. Both are led by slimy, unprincipled populists. “I’ll tell you what I think” they seem to say, “as soon as I have worked out what I think you want me to think.” All of which means that we ourselves, dear readers, have become the problem. Constitutions protect people from each other, as much as they protect people from the State. In the shambles of our modern democracy, we are each other’s prey."


Again, why is party loyalty necessarily a good thing for democracy? Take a look at my numerous exchanges with DK on the UKIP and you'll see that I can probably be described as a Conservative loyalist. Despite this I always hope that my loyalty is based upon the Conservatives actually being the best path to getting policies I support implemented. Loyalty is a wonderful thing in personal relationships but can be toxic to democracy. Its decline could well be good news in the ongoing struggle to keep politics honest and accountable.

"Alexander Tytler (1747–1813) famously observed that:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits ... with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship.


He had it almost right. In truth, the masses can accept occasional fiscal discipline, but only if first brought to beggary by their own idleness and greed."


Okay. This is an empirical claim and can be tested. Is our system producing fiscal irresponsibility? Martin Wolf had a great graph on this but it is now subscriber-only and I'm not a subscriber (if anyone reading this is and can retrieve it for me that would be great). Hence, here is my graph from EU data with the new entrants left out:



It's a little hard to read as a web graphic I'm afraid but you can take a look at the data yourself. We have among the lowest levels of government debt in the EU, the Americans aren't in this data set but have much higher levels of debt than we do.

Some developing countries and smaller nations have stronger positions but that is usually because they need to work harder to convince financial markets their debt is secure. Historically the British state has almost invariably been either the most or among the most fiscally conservative in the world. As a matter of economic history Paine's analysis, and Tytler's prediction, is just wrong.

A more detailed comparison would look for a relationship between age of democracy and level of debt to see if it fits Tytler's pattern:

"The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

From Bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage."


A cursory examination shows that the oldest democracies (Britain and Luxembourg I think) have low levels of debt. An inexorable democratic progression to decadence does not appear to be sustained by empirical examination.

"When Labour last wrecked the economy, the Tories under Thatcher won their reputation as “the Nasty Party". They made a sick nation take its bitter medicine. It had to be done, but no-one enjoyed it. Many who lived through it are bitter that our lives were thus blighted by the greed of previous generations who voted themselves unfunded benefits; so inflated the currency as to repay their debts in base coin and then left it to us to straighten things out. We are even more bitter now that New Labour has made all our efforts vain."


I think I've already dealt with this issue sufficiently. We do need to be careful about maintaining fiscal discipline in order to ensure interest rates and future taxation can remain low. However, there is no crisis.

"Our generation has paid for everything - twice - only to be told there is nothing for us. Our taxes, our pensions, have been diverted to bribe an army of Government “workers” and the mass of idlers on permanent benefits which now passes for “the working class”. Anyone who does work in Britain, if not for the State, is for much of the year in forced labour to feed the Government's hordes.

As has been sagely observed, “Labour always spends its way out of power eventually.” Cameron may pout, preen and posture now, but the Tories will be called into service as the Nasty Party again. "


The state has grown significantly over the last century and this can, perhaps, be seen as a result of the pressures of mass democracy. However, this is not likely to be something that constitutional reform can tackle. Even in the US there is no obvious constitutional limit to the size of the state. It is a political problem with a political solution.

"But enough of economics. What of politics? What, in particular, of liberty? Labour has opened our eyes to our constitutional danger. Though we were joyously ignorant of it, it seems that we were always at the mercy of an over-mighty State. All it took for habeas corpus to be repealed in Britain, was for the political balance to shift, so that one Party could do it without the other crying foul."


Before I move on to Paine's main analysis I should caution that it may be best to avoid fetishising old liberties like Habeas Corpus. While old liberties can remain essential sometimes things need to change. As Gracchi detailed some time ago it was increases in the strength of police power, themselves a response to new kinds of criminality, which led to the creation of many of our now old liberties. With new changes in criminality, particularly a rise in the number of crimes involving evidence and collaborators abroad, it seems plausible that our generation should be thinking about new liberties as much as old ones.

"Focus groups and opinion polls have had the same effect on political thinking, as wind tunnels and CAD had on car design. They are a more scientific, but also a more soulless, way to do the job. They have led to less choice as politicians adapt their offer to comply with the "scientific" data. Had Jefferson and Washington had focus groups, there would have been no American Revolution. Most colonists favoured the Crown. A majority moved to Canada to remain subjects of King George. But the founding fathers were not followers, but leaders. They built a democracy from undemocratic beginnings."


I'm not sure this is accurate. I read that the numbers were roughly a third in favour of independence, a third against and a third undecided. Boston was supposedly the turning point for the undecided group (before the war even started). Also, bear in mind that a lot of those who did not like independence left for Canada. Their opinion wasn't exactly led. Here's Wikipedia on the situation:

"Colonists were divided over which side to support. The Revolutionaries (known as "Americans", "Whigs," "Congress-Men" or "Patriots") had the active support of about 40 to 45 percent of the population. About 15 to 20 percent of the population supported the British Crown after 1775 and were known as Loyalists (or Tories). Loyalists fielded perhaps 50,000 men during the war years in support of the King. After the war, some 70,000 Loyalists departed the United States, most going to Britain, Nova Scotia or other British colonies."


"How safe is a parliamentary democracy to live in when most voters fail to understand that powers given to our rulers for one reason may be used for others? All civil liberties objections crumble today in the face of the word "suspect;" which means no more than someone thought, by a fallible someone else, to have done something bad."


This is an overexaggeration. There has been very real political, judicial and popular resistance to many of this government's impositions on civil liberties. Voters value security but that is contingent upon the current security/liberty balance. If civil liberties were infringed on to a larger extent that balance might change and liberty start to be prioritised over security.

Paine then spends some time going over awful policies that have been put in place democratically. I have no particular inclination to rebut this material as I do not think democracy is an infallible bar to atrocity. I agree with Paine on that point.

"Are there then then no limits to democracy? In Britain there are not. Our democracy is defective, because we have never clearly defined what power individuals have delegated to the State. Potentially, our lives, our freedoms and our worldly goods can be taken at any moment at the State's whim. That the State is under loose democratic control is of little comfort. Am I any less a serf if enslaved by a majority of my neighbours? Am I any less dead for being slain with their approval?

The State should enjoy only those powers delegated by individuals. Would any of us freely give the right of life and death? Would any of us freely give the right to tax us until we work most of the year for others, like indentured slaves? Democracy is a valuable, but not a sufficient component of a free society. We also need individual rights, which outrank those of the State, because it serves us, not vice versa. It is those rights that make us free, not the way in which members of the government are chosen."


Rights may, philosophically, exist in nature but they only affect real life if a large number of people believe in them. If we had a constitution dropped out of the sky and implemented when the Queen was drunk one day which said the government absolutely may not take more than 25% of the national income in tax would that rule be paid any heed at all?

If the population really want to they can do anything they want. Might may not be right but, in the end, it rules. Constitutions can be, and have been, broken and discarded as illegitimate by revolutionaries. They can be twisted to allow atrocity as happened with Hitler. They are not immutable. The defence of liberty cannot be left to rules but must rely upon the popular will. Under Paine's fatalistic account where the population just don't believe in liberty we are doomed and would do well to find a hole somewhere.

A constitution can be valuable if it is respected and acts as a rallying point for defenders of liberty. If people believe in liberty because they treat the constitution as somehow sacred then liberties are, indeed, more secure thanks to its existence. This appears to be what happens in the US.

There are costs to having a constitution. The final document will be imperfect and its interpretation can be even more so. I'm pro-choice but it seems infinitely preferable that this result has been obtained democratically in the UK instead of being imposed by the judiciary as in the US. Giving a small group of judges so much control over our affairs seems risky as they are fallible people and have huge, unaccountable power. It also creates resentment which could easily become generalised and threaten the liberties a constitution is designed to protect. Also, if our liberties do need to change with changing conditions a constitution could easily be a straitjacket.

That leaves us with a balance, a cost/benefit analysis for all states between the benefits of the British system and the 'rallying in the defence of liberty' benefit of a constitution.

Britain's unwritten constitution evolved slowly out stable earlier systems and, as such, could rely upon a certain measure of tolerance and respect for the conventions it reflects. We rely upon the fact that our institutions are respected without the imprimatur of an inflexible constitution. That means that we can avoid the costs of a constitution but still enjoy the robust defence of liberty other countries enjoy. Other nations do not have the same luxury as they are usually formed in violent revolution. This is why, despite never having a constitution, Britain has enjoyed a relatively liberal history (Hayek was one enthusiast).

This makes constitutional radicalism of the sort Labour has displayed dangerous but even Labour's degree of meddling is far from fatal. Our politics is still relatively healthy and our constitutional order shows no sign of imminent collapse. That changes to the Lords and devolution have been so mismanaged and there hasn't been a collapse (although further change will be needed) is a testament to our system's strength. A very British respect for tradition and incremental change has proven a reliable defence of liberty over the years. A great many nations with impeccable constitutions have fallen into madness and tyranny while we, despite our lack of a constitution, have remained free.

Paine ends with a call that democracy should not be above debate. I hope that my response is sufficiently measured that any fear of a hysterical answer to his reasoned article will be assuaged. He then argues that the Conservatives should embrace constitutional reform. There is some sign that they will, particularly with a new British Bill of Rights. However, I would hope that any such Bill will maintain the flexibility which Britain is afforded by a long and tolerant tradition.

5 comments:

Tom Paine said...

My first fisking! I am honoured, Matthew. I really appreciate your taking the time to challenge my arguments seriously. Obviously we must agree to differ overall, but you have made some good and interesting points on which I shall reflect.

I only take exception to the unworthy canard that my concern arises from my being an expatriate. You have made this point before, to my irritation. I can't prove you are wrong of course. If indeed you believe that living outside Britain affects my judgement, you certainly won't accept my tainted judgement that it doesn't!

Feel free to disagree with or even to dismiss my views, but please do me the service of accepting that they are based on my weak human attempts at ratiocination, rather than being an accidental by-product of my circumstances. I try hard to think like a free man. If you believe that the validity of my ideas varies with my social circumstances, then you are a worse conservative than I think.

If like you, I were to play the man, rather than the ball, I could suggest that your complacency is attributable to your failing to notice the steady erosion of your liberties because you have been in place throughout the sorry period in question. I could attribute your view that "old" liberties may not be as important as "new" ones to your youth.

I could. But it would be completely wrong. Habeas corpus was a more revolutionary innovation in its time than democracy. Its loss is catastrophic. Liberty is not a fashion item - and I know both young and old people who agree with with that (or don't). The shockingly feeble reaction of my fellow-citizens to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes was no different among expatriates of my acquaintance, than among my family and friends back home.

So if I made those points, they would just be cheap shots. Just like yours!

Matthew Sinclair said...

Apologies Tom. I'm afraid my expatriate thing is one of those semi-jokes that can come across as an unpleasant barb on the Internet. Trust that I was smiling when I wrote it. I certainly did not wish to undermine your arguments, I was just trying to construct a humorous lead-in to my piece.

Again, apologies. I think that your ad hominems are actually far more likely to be correct than my lazy dig.

Tom Paine said...

No problem. I am sorry to have been a tad touchy. Overwork, lack of sleep etc.

I am reading a really interesting book at the moment by anthropologist Kate Fox called "Watching the English". You would like it, I think. I am forming the view that, based on what she says, my "unEnglishness" (passion about serious things, earnestness, a desire to argue something through to its conclusion) may be a cause of my continued expatriation, rather than a result of it.

At least this interweb thingy is making us all think, which can never be a bad thing. And I am still honoured to have been fisked by someone serious.

Guthrum said...

Matthew- I enjoyed both Tom's piece and your intelligent response to it, you have no idea how much it lifts my heart to know that there are still thinkers of quality out there that can still stimulate my poor beleaguered grey cells.

Kinderling said...

I add my two ears to Guthrum's.