15 September 2006

Should there be limits to democracy?

Should there be limits to democracy?

Although this question looks ambiguous, its genesis is quite clear. The way we choose the discussion topics for our meetings is quite elaborate. And because we're usually a manageable group, we have the pleasure of squeezing every drop of freedom from the democratic process to the last degree. The question was put when we were discussing the elaborate process of choosing a topic for discussion.

We start by people volunteering possible subject for discussion. A sort of primary election takes place in the sense that we make sure the topic is suitable for the discussion and sometimes a topic needs to be formulated into a philosophical question. Generally speaking, a subject is not repeated, with two exceptions. 1) A ground swell of support to have a subject discussed again or 2) an oversight on my part.

To be fair to the democratic process, I usually try to have five subjects for a vote. Sometimes, it is more, but hardly ever less. Needless to say, a choice of one subject hardly makes a democratic process. Voting is done in the classical tradition of a show of hands. Those present can vote for as many subjects as they want. In the first round we eliminate those subjects with less than the average votes and in the second round we usually have a topic for discussion. Seldom do we go to go to a third round.

On the plus side as you know, we end up choosing a very interesting and relevant topic. On the negative side, it is a laborious and long winded affair. And with all that voting, there is a serious danger of a philosophy discussion group turning into an aerobics class. On the other hand, if I had to choose a subject I would inevitably go for some obscure topic which would be interesting for me, but not for a lot of people.

This is the genesis of today's topic. How far are we prepared to go with a democratic process given that with every step we take there would be both positive and negative consequences?

In a way, if there are to be limits on democracy it would depend on whether the benefits of democracy outweigh the negative implications. Can we assume that the benefits of a democracy always outweigh the costs? Can we apply utilitarian criteria to democracy? And finally, is democracy subject to the law of diminishing returns?

If the benefits always outweigh the costs, then surely democracy is not subject to the law of diminishing returns? But does this also mean that democracy is not utilitarian? After all, we are always operating at a benefit, so why make the extra effort to maximise our benefit when the benefit is guaranteed?

We find the democratic process in many walks of life. The most obvious is politics, which in modern times we really call liberal democracy, free and fair elections to elect a government. I will take this as read in a political context. But even shareholders of companies operate some form of democratic process in various aspects of the company. The jury system operates on another form of democracy even though, in some cases, a decision must be unanimous. Some families also operate a form of democracy, especially when the children out number the parents.

So, what makes democracy so attractive as a model for decision taking? In our case there are two basic attractions in democracy when we come to choose the topic for our meeting. The first reason is that we are amongst friends whose opinion we respect and value. Being able to decide things to everyone's advantage is what friends are able to do. Economists and other professions call this a win-win strategy; we can call it cooperation.

The second reason why we favour a democratic process is, as I said earlier, we have consistently, from the start, elected interesting topics to discuss. Of course, some meetings were not as dynamic as others, but the topic was always interesting and relevant. And as I said before, if I had to choose the topics myself, no matter how much I tried to be objective, a good proportion of topics would be boring to most people. I mean, how many of you would care to talk about such fundamental issues in philosophy of science as "is all information physical?" or "can information be destroyed?" Exactly: you can see how advantageous democracy is now.

At the heart of democracy there is the sense of cooperation. The need to balance between our selfish interest and our equally selfish interest to survive and live within the group. These two fundamental instincts, of always acting in our best interest and our physical need to live within a group, make it necessary that we cooperate. Democracy is one way of achieving this fundamental need to cooperate.

But democracy is not the only way we can meet this necessary condition of cooperation. Autocratic or totalitarian strategies can equally meet the necessary condition of cooperation. This form of exercising power over others is very common in the animal kingdom. Lions and chimpanzees follow this strategy and many more creatures do as well. It is also very common amongst human beings. The process is quite simple, those who succeed to get to power systematically get rid of any opposition. What is left are people who are prepared to cooperate.

Most companies, as I said, operate some kind of democracy between shareholders. In fact, legislation might stipulate that in certain circumstance some form of a democratic process must apply. For example, certain action the shareholders want to take requires a fifty one percent votes in favour of the action. But democracy in the board room need not imply, and it usually does not imply, that the rest of the company operates on a democratic basis.

This is an important observation. Just because authority is established by democracy, it does not follow that all aspects of a system also follow a democratic process. For example, in our meetings we don't apply a democratic system to decide who should speak. This might be democratic, and certainly conforms to the principles of survival of the fittest, but it is not necessarily desirable. So we adopt a more practical and fairer system where people indicate that they want to speak and generally wait until it is their turn. It works well most of the time.

But there is a danger in thinking that this example, waiting one’s turn to speak, is evidence that there are limits to democracy. At face value, the way we wait for our turn is undemocratic. I never asked the group whether to adopt the system. On the other hand, just because this is the way these things are done is not an excuse nor a reason to do it that way. So if it is not democracy, what is it? And what is the danger?

It is true that sometimes people feel frustrated and let down by having to wait a long time for their turn to speak. It is true that what one wants to say in one moment might be irrelevant fifteen minutes later: this is always an exception not to follow the wait your turn rule. However, by taking this line of thinking we are looking at the wrong side of the issue. This argument does not relate to whether we should adopt a democratic process to choose who speaks, but it relates to the practical issue of how we go about discussing a topic during a meeting.

Imagine if we made it a rule that we all have to speak fifteen minutes each per meeting, no more, and certainly not less. In other words the rule implies that everyone who comes to the meeting must speak for fifteen minutes. This certainly meets the criteria that we are all equal under the law. But it also meets the criteria that you have to speak for fifteen minutes whether you like it or not.

Another consequence of utopian equality is that in winter, when we're about thirty people in a meeting, the meeting would take us, that right, 7.5 hours. Totally impractical.

However, what concerns me and probably most of us is that, people speak if they want to. It is their natural and reasonable right that people speak if they want to. They neither have to feel obliged nor pressured to speak. But the great thing about this right, is not that people are free to choose when to speak, but that when they do choose to speak we benefit much more and are much wiser from their wisdom and from what they have to say, than what they get from exercising their right to speak.

So the cost of waiting until it is our turn, choosing whether to speak or not, and foregoing the principle of absolute equality, the group is much wiser and better off than if we made every one speak for fifteen minutes or elected those who were going to speak. In both cases, I am sure the group wouldn't even last a fraction of a nano second. Does this mean that there are more fundamental principles than the democratic principle? The freedom to choose is certainly one of them.

But there is an even more complex issue behind all this. I have tried to show that if we look a bit closer to the system of taking it in turns to speak, what we find is a practical version of democracy. Much as we would like to go on for seven hours, it is just not practical. And this is the complex issue. When I suggested you all speak for fifteen minutes we did a quick calculation: (30 ple x 15min) / 60 = 7.5hours. By exercising our freedom we will also be participating in a democratic process; those who choose to speak and those who choose not.

What we were doing was something very fundamental to human beings, we were relating ourselves to a space-time function. The space being the physical activity of articulating our thoughts in a vocal (sound) medium within a physical environment. The time factor is the causal chain of such an articulation. And finally, a function because a meeting is a summation of all the contributions by the group. In other words, it just takes too long to listen to everyone have their say. And it takes too long, because information is all physical! At least, that's what some people believe. Imagine what would happen to democracy if we were able to digest all that information, not at the speed of sound, but at the speed of light.

So, never mind whether there should be limits to democracy, it looks as if there are physical limits that, by default, limit what can be done democratically. But these are not limits made by humans but by nature. So just because nature puts limits on democracy it does not follow that we should as well. It would be worth noticing that, strictly speaking, our actions are also natural actions, we are part and parcel of nature. So what we’re distinguishing here are different manifestations of the same causal agent and not different causal entities.

Moving on to the real world there two burning issues we face today.

The first is the question, should every dynamic system between a group of human beings be modelled on a democratic principle. By a dynamic system I mean where we find changing opinions, different point of views and so. Whether I should speak or not during the meeting is not a dynamic system for the purposes of this argument. Hence should all politics be decided democratically, for example? Or should companies be run on a democratic model in all departments? And I don't mean have workers representatives at board level, I mean members of a department democratically agreeing the policies, targets and objectives of that department.

In the political context, if we answer yes to the question, should dynamic system be run democratically, then we have to answer two questions. 1) Does this imply that we ought to change systems that are not democratic into democratic ones? 2) Should there be limits to how we can bring this about? What I am trying to say here is this; are we allowed, as democrats, to ignore those who do not enjoy the freedoms or benefits of a democracy? Or, should we do something about it?

If democracy is a good thing amongst shareholders, why shouldn't it be a good thing amongst employees? If democracy is practiced by a good number of nations around the world why shouldn't it be a good thing for the rest of the world? And if something is good, is that sufficient reason to actually do it? And to actually do it at all costs?

The second question that concerns us about the real would is this: if something has been democratically decided does it mean that we should accept it and its implications and go along with it? If we take our meetings as an example, if we democratically decide that new comers must speak for thirty minutes otherwise they won't be allowed to join the meeting the following week? Are new comers obliged to do what we say, just because we agreed democratically? And should we individually accept this state of affairs just because we agreed democratically?

Speaking for myself at least, the answer to both questions is no. Newcomers would be mad if they agreed to do such a stupid thing as having to speak for twenty minutes just because we decided to. Such a rule would be irrational, unreasonable and ridiculous? And no, it would be irrational for each of us to accept such a ridiculous rule just because it was chosen democratically.

It seems that being democratic, by applying a democratic process, is not a sufficient reason for accepting democracy unconditionally. Just because parliament decides that all blue eyed males over forty should be thrown into the river does not necessarily make it right; even if it is a great source of entertainment for the rest of the people. I can assure you, it won’t be funny. It seems after all that there are certain situations that require some limits to democracy.

But is this a problem with democracy or is it a problem with the type and nature of the decision? What this seems to be telling us is that in reality the democratic process is neutral about values on the decisions we take. Just because we apply a democratic process to decide what topic to discuss, it does not necessarily guarantee that its a good topic to discuss. But we know that our topics are good topics to discuss? So why does this happen?

I've already given an answer why I think this happens. We get good topics because they are the result of friends agreeing amongst themselves and who respect each other's opinion. A good democratic outcome, it seems, does not depend on the process, but on the people. Probably in the same manner that a good work of art does not depend on the brush, but on the painter. But that is not to say that the democratic process is not necessary, it is just not sufficient. In the same way that an artist must have the best material to paint with, but these are not enough to produce a master piece.

We can probably conclude that before a democratic process can proceed, people must stop looking at each other as enemies or competitors, and start looking at them as friends. And before they can become friends or colleagues, they have to respect each other and each other's opinion. Once we have these in place, we can then start thinking about the process.

But we have known all this all along. After all, democracy does mean rule “by the people” and not “by the process.” Should we therefore put limits on the people?

Take care


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