What is Democracy? (52): Predictability or Uncertainty?

Why would this question be even remotely interesting? Well, I can see several reasons. Maybe not in the West but elsewhere in the world democracy is often rejected because it supposedly undermines predictability and hence economic performance. A strong central government that doesn’t have to worry about the next election is said to be more efficient, economically speaking, because it can apply long term planning. Talkative democracies with their frequent elections, rotation in office and often federal structures are simply unable to plan and are forced to pander to the short term interests of a lot of small groups because elections are at stake. Also, people seem to prefer predictability over uncertainty in general, not just because of the economy.

Let’s just bracket the question whether or not uncertainty is in general a bad thing, and whether or not we want to limit it (uncertainty is and always will be a fact of life so limiting it is all we could do if we decide that that is what we want). Those are not questions I’m particularly interested in since the answers can reasonably go both ways (planning can be good or bad, certainty can be comforting or stifling etc.). I’ll focus on the relationship between democracy and uncertainty. Is it true, as some authoritarians claim, that democracy promotes uncertainty? Yes, for some reasons, and no, for others.

There are indeed some forces that compel democratic politicians to favor the short term. Elections need to be won, and voters naturally value short term benefits more than long term benefits, even if these long term benefits are much larger (this is called time preference). They have some good reasons for this: maybe they think that they won’t be around in the long term (or that the probability of being around decreases when the time horizon is further in the future), or maybe they don’t believe in the long term: since life is unpredictable, especially in the long term, it’s better to count on short term benefits, even if they are small in comparison, than on large but unlikely long term benefits. If that is how voters think, then they will favor politicians who focus on the short term. Democracy therefore exacerbates life’s inherent unpredictability.

Also, voters are correct in thinking that politicians have more power over the short term than over the long term, which is another reason to favor politicians who promise short term benefits. This “short-termism” may be misguided for other reasons – especially when the short term benefits are detrimental to long term benefits (e.g. driving SUVs) – but it’s indeed to some extent a fact of life in a democracy, and one which, by definition, produces uncertainty because it makes long term planning very difficult if not impossible.

It’s also true that some non-democracies have proven themselves to be better long term planners, although most non-democracies have been short term kleptocracies that ruined their national economies. Dictatorships have also shown that long term planning doesn’t need to be benevolent: the long term planning they engaged in mostly focused on the long term survival of the ruling class, not the long term benefits of the people or of business. Predictability then means eliminating opposition and dissent. And even if prosperity is the motivation, the result is often the destruction of freedom.

Another reason why democracies are particularly unpredictable is the game of action and reaction. In a democracy, the majority has to take into account reactions of the minority and reactions of a future majority. (Democratic minorities have some power, e.g. their rights cannot be violated by the will of the majority). When people react to what you’re doing, you can never be certain that the actual consequences of your actions correspond to the imagined ones. A carpenter working in isolation can be quite sure that the table he’s making will look a lot like the one he imagined. A democratic politician will most often see things happening quite differently from the way he or she expected them to happen. The plurality of a democracy means that many different kinds of reactions can interfere with actions. As a result, there’s unpredictability. Goals will not be achieved exactly the way they were intended, or will not even be achieved at all.

A democracy does not try to suppress or eliminate reactions and contradictions. It tries to ritualize them, soften them and take the violence out of them, but it needs them. It needs conflicts, opposition, criticism, plurality, rotation etc. Democracy is a game of action and reaction that is institutionalized and accepted as an inevitable fact of life in a community with different people and different goals. It cannot exist without events initiated by some and reacted upon by others. Hence democrats embrace uncertainty and unpredictability, however unpopular this may be. They don’t accept that there is necessarily a purpose, a clear plan unfolding in history, an evolution toward a certain goal, a plan or a process that can be known in advance and implemented in a predictable way. They are weary of planning because they don’t believe that planners can have the necessary knowledge to plan and because of the tyrannical nature of planning: planning has to result in the exclusion of reaction.

However, let’s not exaggerate. Non-democracies can also be quite unpredictable, and beside the fact that short-termism isn’t an exclusively democratic vice there are other things that disprove the claim that democracy is especially bad for certainty and predictability. Democracies are rule based, and much more so than dictatorships. They favor the rule of law, which means that public policy is much less impacted by changing individuals. Governments can only do what the laws allow them to do, and their actions are therefore much more predictable. You could say: so what, they can always change the laws. True, but only within the confines of a constitution which is incredibly hard to alter. Judges in a democracy have the power of judicial review and can undo acts of legislation that violate the fundamental rules of a democracy.

This “hard-coding” of the constitution shows that a democracy, like any form of government, wants to be certain of its survival. In that sense, it needs predictability, but not predictability of policy. A democracy tries to eliminate only anti-democratic reaction and opposition, not opposition to policy. An entrenched constitution is one way it does this; asking people to promise respect for it is another way. Promises produce some certainty, a certainty and predictability based on freedom. Promises imply freedom, because a promise is only valid if it is voluntary. This kind of certainty is therefore radically different from certainty produced by the elimination of reaction. In a tyranny, everybody is certain – to some extent – that the regime will survive because nobody can or dares to react, or because indoctrination and propaganda have conditioned people in such a way that they do not even contemplate reaction. In a democracy, there is relative certainty because enough people keep their promise to respect the regime, and because there are institutions enforcing respect for the basic rules. Those promises are the rationale behind the so-called “pledge of allegiance“.

Of course, this does not mean that everything in a democracy is free and voluntary. There has to be some coercion because some people will not make or keep the necessary promises. There will be coercion, not of promises, but of reactions. Promises cannot be coerced. Anti-democratic reaction is the only type of reaction that is eliminated in a democracy. Every other kind of reaction is cultivated.

An anti-democratic reaction is somewhat of a contradiction in terms. It is because of democracy that reaction is possible: democracy softens and hence promotes reaction. If reaction becomes an activity without risk, as is the case in a democracy, then reaction blossoms. Reacting against democracy is not only ungrateful, it is self-destructive.

But apart from this predictability of the institutions necessary for unpredictable political life, it is clear that the focus of democracy is on conflict, contradictions, opposition, reactions, unpredictability and uncertainty. Freedom does not always go hand in hand with control, although on an individual level this may be the rule. An individual is free if he controls his life. But a society is not free if people try to control consequences and the future. Unpredictability does not mean that people are not free to choose their future. They are just not certain that the future will be the one they have chosen.

The freedom to react disappears when politicians want to be certain of their goals. They want to be like a lone craftsman who makes a product without much interference from other people and other goals. Society is in need of a blueprint and a makeover. Reality has to be made in order to conform to the plan or the model. It is no longer the uncertain and unpredictable result of human action and reaction but the product of a plan and of the concerted efforts to realize it. Freedom is replaced by the execution of a plan and of the orders of those who best know the plan and the means to realize it. (Arendt was one of the first to make this argument).

Politics becomes a goal producer, and is no longer the platform on which different goals can be shown, can interact and can fight peacefully for supremacy. People become a means for the realization of the plan, instruments or material for the creation of society. And if they are resistant material they are forced into line, or perhaps they are even “waste”. In any case, the application of force to the materials is necessary in order to shape them. If you want to create society, you have no other means but people. People will have to be transformed. Their thinking has to be conditioned by way of education, propaganda, indoctrination, punishment, forced labor or genetic manipulation. Perhaps even selective abortion, euthanasia or simply extermination. Some materials do not allow transformation or improvement.

However, it is far from certain that the elimination of reaction is possible. It may be counterproductive and create more reaction than initially anticipated. Plurality is probably unavoidable, and therefore uncertainty as well.

More on the future here and here. More on democracy here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (11): The Economic Case against Human Rights and Democracy

Some authoritarian governments claim that human rights and democracy have to be sacrificed for the sake of economic development and economic progress. Here are some of the reasons given in support of this claim.

Discipline in production and consumption

Discipline in production and consumption is believed to be more important for economic growth than freedom. This discipline requires discipline in general in society, and therefore also a strong state. The exaggerated attention to rights instead of duties is incompatible with discipline. Duties are much more useful in economic development than rights. Instead of wasting scarce resources on consumption, people should moderate themselves and resources should be used for necessary investments. In addition, the free choice of labor is less important than the ability of the state to direct labor towards certain development projects. There may even be a rationale for forced labor.

And finally, if you want economic development, wages need to be low, union activity needs to be minimal, working hours need to be long and perhaps you have to turn a blind eye to child labor. None of this is possible in a democracy that tries to respect human rights.

You need a strong state for all of this, able to force people to be disciplined in both consumption and production.

Discipline in politics

You also need a strong state able to implement and enforce long term plans. Economic development requires consistency, coherence, long term planning and so on, all of which is incompatible with democracy and rotation in office. A democracy doesn’t look further than the next election and is unable to plan economic development. Democracy is the national equivalent of the shortsighted consumer spending everything instead of investing for the future. A democratic government will take measures which guarantee the short term interests of electors and elected, even if these measures are detrimental to the long term economic well-being of the nation.

A strong state doesn’t have to fear election results and can focus on long term planning. It has the power to enforce certain measures which are unpopular in the short run—for example because they imply limits on short term consumption, because they redirect funds towards long term investments or because they entail labor planning—but which yield great dividends in the future.

On top of that, human rights promote individualism and egoism because they are claims of the individual against society. Together with adversarial democracy they hamper national cooperation and harmony which are necessary for economic success.

Radical, not temporary, incompatibility

So according to this narrative, political freedom and human rights have to be rejected because they are by definition incompatible with economic development. And perhaps even with prosperity as such: they may not even be a luxury which poor countries cannot afford yet and which are useless when bellies are empty; they are even less than that. If you choose freedom, then not only will it be impossible to escape from underdevelopment – it will be impossible to maintain prosperity.

Rebuttal

Now, what can we say against this? Let’s take the different arguments in turn. If you assume that discipline in consumption and production is a good thing, then you basically create an export dependent economy. It’s well known that domestic consumption drives economic growth (see also here). If consumption is discouraged (and savings and investments encouraged), and if wages are low and working hours long, then you may get an initial boost in the economy, but this is no strategy for long term success. Not only does it imply dependence on exports and hence vulnerability to shocks occurring in the economies of the trading partners; it also keeps living standards low. And that can hardly be the purpose of economic development. China has clearly understood this and is trying to boost domestic demand (see also here).

The utility of child labor is obviously shortsighted – no economy can prosper without an educated citizenry – and the need for planning and long term consistency in economic policy is also a dubious argument. Centrally planned economies aren’t known for their successes. The state is not necessarily the most appropriate engine for development. Investment and planning decisions are probably best left to the market, and those investments that are best done by the government don’t require an authoritarian form of government. I don’t see how a dictatorship is better placed to plan transport infrastructure or energy provision for example. On the contrary even: the lack of transparency in a dictatorship makes it likely that such investments turn out to be corruption machines.

The argument that democracies are too fickle and shortsighted for economic planning and investments is also a bit weak. It’s difficult to deny that a democratic government, because of the way it comes to power, has more legitimacy and is therefore better placed to take difficult and unpopular decisions. People are more willing to accept or live with unpopular policies if they have a government that can be forced to justify its actions in public. Besides, the point is moot because most authoritarian leaders aren’t the long term planners and do-gooders they are supposed to be: most think only of the short term, namely their own short term financial profit.

What about the lack of cooperation, harmony and unity of democracies, and the selfishness cultivated by human rights? First of all, it’s not evident that national cooperation and harmony are best for economic development. Maybe individualism, entrepreneurship, inventiveness and doing things different are more important. And secondly, why would we assume that human rights are necessarily individualistic and selfish? There can never be an exaggerated attention to rights at the expense of duties. There are no rights without duties. And many so-called individualistic human rights create strong groups (freedom of religion, tolerance, freedom of association and assembly etc.).

Also, why would we have to think that democracy is more adversarial than autocracy? The democratic procedures for changing governments create social stability because they help to avoid revolt. Authoritarian harmony is often only skin deep – if it exists at all – because it’s based on suppression of differences. Things that are suppressed have a habit of popping up later in a more violent form.

The point is that human rights and democracy are magnificent weapons in the struggle for economic development rather than a luxury which poor people can’t afford or a false blessing which will render every economic achievement impossible or short-lived.

Marx and Democracy

According to Marxism, democracy suffers from a contradiction between political equality on the one hand (equal votes but also equal rights, equality before the law etc. – see here and here) and economic or material equality on the other hand. The absence of the latter prevents the full realization of political and even judicial equality (equality before the law). Wealthy persons have more means (such as money, time, education etc.) to inform themselves, to lobby, to influence, to get themselves elected, to defend themselves in court etc. A merely formal principle such as political equality loses much of its effectiveness when some can use their wealth to control political debates and decisions. Even more so, political equality, democracy and equal human rights (not only the right to private property) serve to cover up, justify and even maintain material inequality, exploitation and class rule in a capitalist society.

Real material equality and therefore also real political and judicial equality can only be brought about by an anti-capitalist revolution which brings down the capitalist system of property along with the legal and political tools that are used to protect this property. Material redistribution is not enough because it does not affect material inequality in a substantial way. It only provides a minimum of basic goods. The remaining material inequality still affects political equality. Democracy is self-defeating. It can never deliver what it promises because it does not go far enough. It can only give people formal instead of substantial equality. Elections, rotation in office, economic rights etc. are superficial phenomena without effect on the deeper economic processes of exploitation and class rule. Democracy must therefore be replaced by something better.

Marxism claims that there can only be real political equality and real equality of power when the most important goods – the means of production – are the equal property of all citizens. In all other cases, the rich will have more opportunities to benefit from political participation and judicial protection. Equal rights will lead to an unequal outcome, and this is intentional.

Much of this is, of course, correct. Wealthy groups can and do use elections and human rights to pursue their interests, often at the expense of less fortunate groups. They may even use democracy to maintain exploitation. They can speak better thanks to their education; they have a better knowledge of the ways in which to defend interests; they know their rights; they have friends in high places, etc. That is why compensating measures have to be taken, not only in order to respect economic rights, but political rights as well. By way of these measures, the state redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor, in order to grant the poor more political influence and not just in order to satisfy their basic needs. Other measures enhance the independence of political parties with regard to wealthy pressure groups (for example public instead of private funding for political parties).

It is clear that we are not dealing with a potentially fatal argument against democracy. Wealth causes political inequality everywhere, not just in a democracy. Democracy and human rights are in fact the only solution to the problem of the unequal political result of economic inequality. Democracy and human rights are not merely formal. Equal voting power, equality before the law and equal rights do not cover up and do not maintain the social division between rich and poor. Democracy does not hide divisions; it shows them and it shows them in a better way than any other form of government. And because it allows divisions to become public, it offers the best chance of eliminating or softening unjust divisions. Democracy does not only serve the interests of the wealthy classes. Poor, exploited or oppressed groups also benefit from freedom of expression, from the election of their own representatives and from the possibility to claim rights (economic rights, for instance, equalize political influence because they create leisure time which can be spent on politics). Even the bare fact of being able to show an injustice is an advantage in the struggle against this injustice. If you are not able to see an injustice – and this can happen in an unfree society – then you are not aware of its existence and you can do nothing about it. Democracy at least gives poverty a voice.

The struggle against injustice means questioning society and the powers-that-be (also the economic powers). It is easier to question social relationships in a society in which political power can be questioned. Publicly questioning political power in a democracy is a process in which the entire people, rich and poor, are involved. This process legitimizes the act of questioning per se and therefore also the act of questioning injustices in society. Elections and rights are not a force against change. They create infinite possibilities, including the possibility to change economic structures.

Of course, the political and legal elimination of the difference between rich and poor (they all have an equal vote, equal rights and equality before the law) does not automatically result in the elimination of the social difference between rich and poor. However, democracy and human rights can diminish the influence of property and wealth because:

  • They give legal and political means to the poor in order to defend their interests; no other form of government performs better in this field because no other form of government gives the same opportunities to the poor (the opportunity to show injustices, to elect representatives, to lobby governments, to claim rights etc.).
  • They diminish the difference between rich and poor by way of redistribution; they allow for compensating measures to be taken, measures which help to preserve the value of political participation for all (for example redistribution, but also measures such as subsidies for independent TV-channels or for political parties which then become more independent from private wealth and private interests).

If certain divisions are made politically and legally irrelevant (by way of equal rights, equality before the law, equal vote etc.), then this is not necessarily part of a conscious strategy to maintain these divisions in real life. If it were part of such a strategy, it would probably produce the opposite of what is intended. The chances that injustices disappear are much higher in a society in which injustices can be shown and questioned, and only a democracy can be this kind of society. A society which can question itself because it can question the relations of power, is more likely to change. This is shown by the recent history of most western democracies where many injustices have been abolished by way of democracy and human rights. The labor movement, the suffragette movement and feminism would have been impossible without democracy and rights. Workers, women, immigrants etc. have all made successful use of the possibility to claim rights, to elect representatives, to enact legislation etc.

Political influence will probably never be equal for everybody (talent also plays a role, and it is difficult to correct for the effects of talent). But there is more and there is less. Democracy is probably the best we can hope for. On top of that, democracy constantly enhances the equality of influence, even though every victory creates a new problem. The Internet, for example, will empower many people and will enhance political equality, but it will also exclude many other people, namely those without the necessary computer skills or without the infrastructure necessary to use the Internet on an equal basis. It can become a new source of political inequality. We will have to finds ways in which to equalize the access to and the use of the Internet because we want to maintain or increase political equality. In the meanwhile, however, a new kind of inequality should not make us lose sight of the enormous progress for equality which the Internet allowed us to achieve. Many people, who today use the Internet to participate in politics, never participated in the past.

What is Democracy? (20): Rotation in Office

One of the arguments against democracy and in favor of authoritarian forms of government turns to the economy. Economic development requires consistency, coherence, long term and central planning, all of which is said to be incompatible with democracy. The rotation in office typical of a democracy puts always other people in power, with other priorities and laws. Democratic governments, laws and policies change continuously. This goes against the interests of long term planning, as well as the interests of companies that need stability for their investments.

Furthermore, the constant pressure of public opinion and the next election, forces governments to sacrifice long term benefits for short term advantages that may even have negative consequences in the long term.

However, it is difficult to deny that the democratic procedures for changing governments create stability because they help to avoid revolt. Opposition movements do not have to resort to extreme measures to gain some influence. In addition, if the people decide to change something, this is because they believe that it ought to change, that it is not good as it is. Consistency is not the only value.