What is Democracy? (72): Ineffective Governance by Definition?

Democracies are characterized by high transaction costs: it’s tougher to get things done in a democracy compared to systems where rulers don’t have to consult, discuss, compromise, reconsider and revise. A democracy costs more, in every sense of the word: you need more time, more money and more effort to reach a decision, and the final result isn’t always the best possible one because it’s a compromise between the views of every sector of society, all of which have to be treated with respect. These views are often extremely divergent and yet a decision – a law, a policy, a judicial verdict etc. – has to take into account at least those views that together have majority support. It has to do so either by force of law or because the execution of the decision requires popular support in order to be realistically implemented. Viewpoint divergence can in some cases even mean incompatibility, with gridlock as a result. If it’s impossible to arrive at a decision because of gridlock, then the problem goes way beyond high transaction costs. There is no transaction and hence no cost to arrive at it.

All in all, democracy looks like a very ineffective, confused and slow way of deciding things. If this is true, then even an ideal democracy would be vulnerable to this criticism – perhaps even more so than existing democracies since consultation is typically more important in ideal theory than in reality. If even ideal democracy can’t solve the problem of effectiveness, then we should abandon democracy rather than try to perfect it. Forget about it and replace it by the best possible autocratic type of government, in which a leader or group of leaders can make decisions behind closed doors, without consultation or compromise and without having to revisit previous decisions when the democratic balance of power has shifted.

Defenders of democracy have two lines of defense against “dictator envy”: a normative and an empirical one.

Normative defense of democracy

You could concede democracy’s relative ineffectiveness and at the same time argue that effectiveness isn’t the only value. While it’s important to get things done, it’s equally important to get the right things done. Democracy’s widespread consultation of various groups raises the probability of getting things right. When opposing viewpoints have to struggle for supremacy, the arguments behind them tend to be better. I’ve tried to spell this out here and here.

Moreover, while it’s important to get things done and to get the right things done, it’s equally important to get them done in the right way: consultation and compromise result in decisions that have widespread support, and such decisions, while they may take longer, will also last longer. Popular support, while reducing the effectiveness of making decisions, may increase the likelihood of effective implementation of these decisions.

Empirical defense of democracy

It’s also possible to argue that democracy is in fact not relatively ineffective and that autocratic regimes are much less effective then we tend to assume. For example:

Soviet records show that secretive government has high costs, hidden at the time because of secrecy itself. These costs were of many kinds. Transaction costs arose through two channels – one procedural and the other behavioural. First, leak-proof government depended on costly procedures designed to assure secrecy. Second, harsh penalisation for secrecy violations induced fear and mistrust, causing officials to change their behaviour in costly ways. … [O]fficials had to devote considerable efforts to complying with secrecy rules. (source)

At least the transaction costs and other forms of ineffectiveness are in the open in a democracy. Autocratic states also have these problems, and perhaps even to a larger degree, but as they are hidden from sight, these states can give the impression of being relatively effective.

More posts in this series.

What is Democracy? (42): A Luxury That Some Countries Can’t Afford?

Are some countries better off with a dictatorship? With a strong man able to make tough and unpopular decisions without fear for the next election? Are some populations willing to accept this and trade some political freedoms for more security and physical safety?

However, in what way is democracy deficient in delivering security? And is dictatorship better equipped? Let’s look at these two questions in turn.

Democracy and human rights are said to promote discord, chaos and even violence, especially in ethnically or religously divided countries. Indeed, rights such as free speech can be used to incite communal hostility and violence, and democratic elections cannot function if there is no division and contest between groups. The adversarial aspect of democratic elections often results in communal tension and even violence, especially in what we could call immature or imperfect democracies.

The argument for stability and security seems stronger when it is used against democracy than when it is used against human rights. It is evident that most groups that use violence do so because they feel that their rights are somehow violated; respect for human rights will therefore diminish rather than increase violence.

Regarding democracy, it is obviously adversarial and it does divide society into different, antagonistic groups. However, it does not push divisions to such an extreme that living together peacefully becomes impossible or undesirable. The unwillingness to live together is not caused by democracy but by fundamental convictions concerning religion, morality, justice etc. Democracy does not even enhance this unwillingness. On the contrary, it offers ways to bridge fundamental differences between groups (e.g. it offers places of discussion and negotiation) and it creates mechanisms which guarantee peaceful coexistence when it is impossible to bridge differences (such as federalism, power sharing, tolerance, religious freedom etc.).

We can see a two-way causation at work here: although democracy undoubtedly needs national unity, it is also a prerequisite for this unity. A group will question the national unity, will revolt, will cause violent conflicts or will try to separate only if it is discriminated against, if its human rights are violated, if it does not enjoy tolerance and respect for its difference, if it is excluded from power or if it is not granted local autonomy. If, in other words, it does not live in a democracy. National unity, the conviction of belonging to the same group and of sharing the same destiny whatever the differences, can only arise as a result of debate. Freedom of expression and elections can indeed be dangerous in a divided society, but without it, it is hard to see how divisions can be overcome or accommodated, as opposed to merely suppressed.

And this suppression is precisely the so-called major advantage of authoritarian regimes, compared to democracies. An authoritarian state is undoubtedly better equipped to suppress communal hostility. The ability to maintain communal peace is a classic argument in favor of authoritarian forms of government. Indeed, these forms of government seem to be able to separate warring factions, to avoid chaos, violence, separation and disintegration and to focus attention on loyalty, patriotism and the community. They limit the use of rights because rights are a means to incite or aggravate divisions. These regimes are able to violate rights if this is deemed necessary in order to keep antagonists apart.

However, what is the cost of authoritarian peace? Grave violations of human rights in the first place, and more violence than before. Rights violations often create more violence than the violence which was the initial reason to violate rights. Violating rights in order to suppress communal tensions is counterproductive in the long run. A strong hand always causes revolt and violence, the opposite therefore of what is intended. Rights violations, which are deemed necessary for the preservation of communal peace, cause violent opposition and revolt. They can lead to violent revolt even when they do not imply the use of violence. Without human rights, it is impossible to express claims and people who cannot claim something will resort to more extreme means in order to get what is theirs. Authoritarianism promotes the evil it wants to combat, although in the short run rights limitations and the use of violence may seem the only alternative.

Democracy is necessary in a divided society because the alternative – oppression – only reinvigorates what is tries to eliminate.

What is Democracy? (16): Strong Man?

Democracy means continuous confrontations between a maximum number of different opinions coming from a maximum number of levels of society, all of which have to be treated equally, with the same respect and attention. We have to listen to and take into consideration every opinion on an equal basis. This confuses, complicates and extends the debates. Debates have many different antagonists and often take a very long time before they reach a conclusion. This introduces an element of slowness and inefficiency. A democracy does not seem to be a very efficient system of decision-taking.

Furthermore, the larger the number of different interests or different groups participating, the more difficult it is to reach a decision which pleases a majority. It often takes much effort, time and complexity to unify different and contradicting interests into a single compromise decision. This again introduces elements of inefficiency. And as if this is not enough, a democracy makes it possible to question a decision over and over again. New arguments have to be taken into account and the debate is open-ended. As a result, decisions change and a feeling of insecurity and instability prevails.

Democracy equals complexity, obscurity, confusion, chaos, slowness, unpredictability, doubt, insecurity and discontinuity. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people long for the relative simplicity, certainty, clarity, invariability, reassuring stability, order and swiftness of the decisions in a dictatorship, where there is only one voice that speaks.

Efficiency, resolve, clarity of vision, firm direction and the ability to do things become the most important values and the equal participation of all has to be sacrificed in order to realize these values. Tyranny becomes less objectionable when people tire of social conflict, struggle, confusion, compromise, insecurity and change resulting from equal democratic participation. To decide once and for all, quickly and in a simple way, to do something and to be active is indeed easier when decisions are made by only one person who must listen to nobody but himself (in most cases it is a him). The decisions of a dictator can be fast, efficient, simple, clear and definitive. He does not have to take other opinions into account, he does not have to consult all layers of the population, he does not have to wait and see which opinion wins the struggle of ideas and he does not have to make compromises. He is master of the situation because he can force people. As a result, he can act and he can develop an image of resolve, forcefulness, decisiveness and efficiency. People may even accept the violations of human rights that result from dictatorial action, if this is the price to pay for clarity, decisiveness etc.

It is true that democracy is sometimes incompatible with simplicity, clarity, speed, steadfastness and continuity. In a democracy, it is sometimes difficult to take fast, efficient, simple and definitive decisions. This is a weakness because swiftness, simplicity, efficiency etc. are important to many people. Insecurity, unpredictability, obscurity, confusion etc. generally cause dissatisfaction and even fear. Every individual tries to avoid obscure, uncertain and unpredictable situations for him or her personally, so why cherish these “values” at the level of society and politics? Only those who want to hide something can make use of them. On the other hand, discussion, equal participation and massive consultation do not have to be an impediment to action as long as decisions are not postponed indefinitely. On the contrary, they are necessary conditions for wise action because a wise decision needs a maximum number of arguments and points of view.

Decisiveness is clearly not the only or most important value. Quality and acceptability are also important. What is the use of having a fast and simple decision if it is a stupid one or if it is unacceptable to the people and therefore thwarted by the people? Acceptability is one of the justifications of democracy because large-scale and equal participation guarantees a large degree of acceptability. Acceptability and easy implementation are therefore also elements of efficiency, just as speed and simplicity. In a democracy, decisions may be more difficult and more time-consuming because of the large number of equal participants and equal interests, but they are also more acceptable and therefore easier to implement and enforce.