Why I am not a Democrat

There are two common views of democracy. One is the sentiment, most famously expressed by Winston Churchill, that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others.” The other is the expression of Abraham Lincoln, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is worthwhile and valuable in itself. Strictly speaking, these arguments are distinct, but nowadays they have become very blurred in the popular imagination. Discussions against the first point get derailed into arguments on the second point, and vice-versa. Speaking against democracy has become heresy, and the word democracy has become infinitely plastic.

I will deal with the second concept first, that democracy is good in itself. I remember as a brainwashed teenager saying “Even when the people are wrong, they are right,” and meaning it. But it’s obviously Orwellian doublethink. If the democratic process declares that the moon is bigger than the sun, it doesn’t make it so. There is an objective reality out there. And majoritarian ethical claims are not much better. A common theme in books about the rise of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany is to fulminate against their abuses of the democratic process – which is to miss the point completely. Sure, the way the Nazis came to power was far from ideal, but the real problem was their actual policies. The Holocaust was a bad thing because genocide is wrong, not because they failed to live up to the democratic process. No matter how much popular backing you enjoy or appropriate procedures you follow, mass murder remains evil.

Nor is Germany the only example. Democratic governments have done some truly horrific things over the years. And this is only a tiny sample. A majority doesn’t make evil things good, and democratic governments do horrible, horrible things.

This is when the second claim comes in – that democracy may be flawed, but it’s better than any other system. Unfortunately, this claim is not evaluated properly, because it’s never advanced neutrally, only as a retreat from the position that democracy is good in itself. So modern British democracy is compared to a tyranny – Soviet Russia, perhaps – and we declare that democracy, though imperfect, is the best of all possible systems. But why is this the comparison? If we compare 1930s Spain to present-day Abu Dhabi, democracy stops looking so hot. The two rising powers in the world are India and China, and it is far from clear which has the better political system.

If we want to evaluate a political system fairly, we must first draw up a set of criteria that we wish it to fulfil, and then compare it to other systems, on the merits. But the moment you do that, you realise that democracy is not in fact a political system. It is an adjective which can be applied, to a greater or lesser extent, to a variety of political systems – and partisans of certain systems then claim that other systems are “undemocratic,” to mean they are inferior. What we also see is that the same political system can have widely differing results, depending on the underlying culture and institutions of the country – hence when Western political systems have been applied to the Third World, the results have been decidedly mixed.

There is no single best form of government, only the best form in a certain situation. Unfortunately the widespread belief in the goodness of democracy interacts with the belief in its efficacy to create a kind of democracy ratchet, whereby the franchise can only ever be expanded, elected bodies are almost impossible to abolish, and reform only operates in one direction.

Mencius Moldbug wrote, far better than I ever could, about the positive and negative aspects of democracy. In short, democracy is good when the voters act as trustees, trying to advance the interests of the body politic collectively, and giving the same consideration to the other trustees. Democracy is bad when the voters act to advance their own interests, and assume that the other voters are doing the same. The first case is the democracy of the 18th century, which would not nowadays be regarded as democratic, the second case is the democracy of today, which is clearly dysfunctional. The question, therefore, is how do we improve things? I shall address this in a future post.


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