29 November 2007

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Modern democracies: their virtues and failures.

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing a very modern topic; Modern Democracies:
their virtues and failures.

I have written a short essay this time basically outlining my main two
ideas on this subject. I hope you will have the time to join us and let
us know what you think about this very philosophical subject.

See you Sunday and take care



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Modern democracies: their virtues and failures.

At the end of the Second World War, a number of events took place. Those
dictators that went a step too far in their expansionist policies in
Europe were comprehensively defeated. It heralded the end of world wars
at least until now. It changed the nature of wars and conflicts. And
finally, it brought a semblance of democracy for most of the
participants of this world conflict, including, I must add, the United
States and Britain.

We can also say that the immediate post world war period started an
unstoppable movement to democratise nations especially the ex-colonies
of the European powers. The post war period would be a good place to
establish as the beginning of the modern democratic era. And to support
this movement towards democracy new institutions were set up to give a
helping hand: the United Nations, The Treaty of Rome (EEC), later to
become the European Union, the IMF and the World Bank, Nato and many
more less prominent institutions.

There is a problem with this time line. According to the Economist
Intelligence Unit democracy index 2006* only 28 countries (n=167) made
it to full democracy status in 2006. And if we want to be generous and
include what the Economist calls Flawed democracy (54 countries) this
leaves us with just over 51% of the world population living under some
sort of democracy, flawed or not. If we feel optimistic we can say that
at least just over half the world population are familiar with democracy.

If we take these figures at face value and want to be realistic at the
same time, we can conclude that with only twenty eight countries as
fully functioning democracies the post war movement to democratise
everything in sight has failed. But if modern democracy has failed, what
is replacing it? And why has it failed?

The Economist index, as with similar indices, attempts to measure the
level of democracy in a country (see the reference below and Wikipedia
on Democracy for more details), but it also concedes that democracy is
very difficult to define. The Index itself measure electoral process and
pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political
participation; and political culture. We might want to add other
features to this list, but it does not really matter. What matters is
that we know a democracy when we see one. For example, I would
personally add freedom of information as a key feature of a democracy.

If we look at this list, or any other list, we see that these features
really address the workings and function of government. Even civil
liberties, that seem to be the odd one out, are in my opinion either a
function of government or at the very least a feeling of being a
function of government. We tend to speak of civil liberties as if they
were some collector's item which we keep safe in our closet. Ready to be
used and traded when the need arises. In reality, no matter how much we
are entitled to some bureaucratic piece of paper we still have to queue
for ever to get it. Civil liberties are in reality what restrictions a
government place on themselves and not something we have or owe. We know
it should not be like that, but there you have it.

But there is also another way that Modern Democracies might tend to fail
and it is precisely the threshold governments or society place in order
to apply these democratic principles. For example, running for
parliament is not a matter of just filling in the forms, there are
qualifications to be fulfilled, deposits to be paid and posters to be
printed. But in many countries running as an independent candidate does
not work well or the money required for a campaign are beyond the reach
and influence of most people. Thus failure need not only imply
non-availability of democratic principles, but also the cost of
accessing democratic principles.

Against this interpretation of modern democracy is the awareness of
precisely the very democratic principles that democracy functions on.
Knowing that there are such things as civil liberties and political
franchise is of course one of the virtues of a modern democracy. It is
also contagious: the more we know about democracy, the more we want it
for us. All this even whist we make an allowance for the realities of life.

In a way, the realities of life might resemble a hall of mirrors and
just to take an example, the EU is not an institution trying to
introduce no economic liberalism or democratic principles. The EU is
today's answer to a serious problem that faced European powers in 1939.
However, the interpretation we have of modern democracy is that today's
institutions are there to promote modern democracy and economic freedom.
But this interpretation of what a modern democracy is all about is, in
my opinion, inadequate. We can use a different time line and a different
set of criteria.

Despite the realities on the ground, another feeling we have of
democracy is that we are free to act as we wish or believe we ought to
act. Thus, we have a sense that if we really wanted to run for
parliament we are, in principle, free to submit our nomination as a
parliamentary candidate. In my opinion Modern Democracy has evolved into
what I will call, for a better name, the Self Care Democracy. And
governments have capitalised on this sense of freedom.

In the mid 1980's governments in Europe and then further afield, started
doing something which would change, in my opinion, the shape of
democracy and government in general. This period was a time when
governments started to divest themselves of industries and sectors which
were nationalised earlier in the century. Not only had this liberated
governments from a mill stone that had failed, but with a good feat of
public relations this divestment was portrayed as giving economic
freedom to individuals. By giving away a few shares in a monopoly and
creating a frenzy for share ownership people were expected to be also
responsible for their economic welfare. Remembering, in the meantime,
that for millennia human being have been trying to achieve the exact
opposite; economic power to be held in the hands of the few rather than
given full economic franchise.

Of course, the universal share ownership movement soon came to a halt,
not because the stock exchange is not a good place to make money, but
because, like every thing else, only a few people have the means and the
skills to make money. With this new political philosophy people were
expected to finance their education, and things such as housing and
employment were to be controlled by the so called market place. There is
nothing wrong with the market place, it is indeed very efficient and
effective, however, different goods are best sold in their respective
markets. Setting up a stall in the middle of the village green is not
necessarily the best way to sell fresh fish and dishwashers. By the same
token, for example, borrowing money for one's education might not be way
to educate a nation.

My position is that modern democracy is not about political freedoms
anymore but economic freedoms. The virtue of self care democracy is that
we take responsibility for our own lives, thus recognising the role of
the individual as a political entity. And as a consequence those
political freedoms which the Second World War was supposed to guarantee
can now be implemented. On the other hand economic freedom carries with
it the danger of blurring the thin red line between legitimate and
equitable economic gain and illegal and inequitable enrichment.

But by putting the emphasis on economic freedom and not political
freedom, not only has the onus been put on the individual for his or her
major economic welfare, but in a way this new criteria exonerates
governments from safeguarding political freedoms. A sort of economic
freedom justifies turning a blind eye to some indiscretions by
governments. For example, no one would disagree with the statement that
China is not a politically free country; I use China because today it is
one of the economic powers in the world, and soon it will be the
economic power of the world; the same arguments could apply to many
other countries in the world. Whilst the Democratic index for China has
not changed much, see for example the Freedom House Index**, its Gross
Nation Income (The World Bank***) doubled between 2000 ($1.2 trillion)
and 2006 ($2.6trillion). Needless to say that these figures are neither
instructive in themselves and hardly enough to lead to any philosophical
conclusions. But if I were to draw any conclusions there is certainly
one conclusion I would draw, economic wealth does not necessarily lead
to a causal effect of political freedom. Or to put it in an other way,
as M and J**** pointed out in one of our meetings recently, it is
difficult to go out and protest for justice when one is fully burdened
with debt; to finance one's education.

Take care


*Economist Intelligence Unit democracy index 2006 (PDF file)

** Opening Paragraph from the Freedom House Web Site: "Freedom House is
a clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world. Since its
founding in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie and other
Americans concerned with the mounting threats to peace and democracy,
Freedom House has been a vigorous proponent of democratic values and a
steadfast opponent of dictatorships of the far left and the far right."

***The World Bank Group
China Data Profile

****I have the names, but those who were at the meeting would remember
the discussion.

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Modern democracies:
their virtues and failures.

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