Churchill is claimed to have said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” I have long held the same belief: Democracy is not a good form of government, due to weaknesses such as giving clever manipulators power they are unsuited for and allowing the majority to impose its will on the minority in an often unfair or destructive manner. Unfortunately, all other methods (that I am aware of and that have actually been tried) have been worse. The “enlightened despot”, e.g., suffers from the massive problem of how to ensure that the despot is actually enlightened…
Today, however, we are at an absolute crisis of democracy, where the leaders elected are problematic or even disastrous; where the “democratic ideals” are increasingly neglected in the name of democracy; where democracy it self just becomes a charade to keep politicians in office and lobbies in charge; and where the voters’ concerns are only relevant to the degree that they can be used for (re-)electing politicians, implying that only the concerns of the broad masses are on the table and that party “information” becomes misinformation geared at the dumb and easily manipulated. In many ways, the modern politicians are as separated from and have the same attitude towards the people as the likes of FIFA and IAAF* have towards their respective athletes. Where politicians should see themselves as the voters elected representatives and servants, they too often see themselves as the elected conservators and masters; while the voters do not so much exercise a given right as they pose a bureaucratic obstacle to keeping the politicians in office.
*I had repeatedly warned against these and similar organizations (IOC, PETA, various UN organizations, …) years before the recent scandals broke. In part, because I had observed much negative behavior, especially a disregard for the best of the athletes and the sport (more generally, the ostensible raison d’être); in part, because it appears to be general principles that organizations slowly become mechanisms for their own self-preservation and that power-hungry opportunists drift to the top. Many of these organizations have a monopoly in their area of activity and the people in charge can be so for decades, with little or no accountability to the outside world or the athletes, and are therefore extremely vulnerable to these principles.
Democracy is degenerating into a caricature of it self. More: While democracy has never worked more than adequately and has often failed locally at different times (especially in countries lacking a democratic tradition), we are now standing the risk of global failure. More yet: One of the greatest selling points of democracy used to be that it was “for the people”, not “for the ruler(s)” or “for the state”—and this does not apply more than nominally in today’s world.
Often, the best we can hope for is politicians who do less harm than others. Obama did very little good, but (with some reservations for yet unknown long-term effects of ObamaCare) he also did very little harm, and by that standard he deserves a passing mark.
If the negative trends do not turn around, we will end up in a scenario halfway between “Nineteen Eighty-Four”* and “Idiocracy”, with a regular dose of “panem et circenses”.
*I almost renamed this article “Twenty Sixteen”, seeing that Orwell’s work is far more relevant to the text than Milton’s.
The U.S.* presidential elections are a good case in point: For all practical purposes, they are just another popularity contest along the lines of “American Idol”. Take Obama: What does it matter whether his wife is considered wonderful? What does it matter whether he is a Muslim, African, Hawaiian, whatnot? What should matter is what he brought (or was expected to bring) to the table, say how intelligent or unintelligent he (and not his wife!) was, how knowledgeable or ignorant, how diplomatically skilled or unskilled, what experience he had, … Was his election and re-election based on this? No: His proponents played up his image, his wife, his (as turned out) empty “hope” agenda, and the “no more Bush” angle. His opponents tried to defame him based on issues of heritage, religion, and the like, even trying to remove his eligibility based on birth place. (Making a challenge of eligibility is of course legitimate. However, rules along the lines of “the President must have been born in the U.S” have little practical relevance on whether someone is suitable for the job. In contrast, hypothetical rules like “the President must have a post-graduate degree” or “the President must have served as a state governor or mayor of a major city for at least five years” would be much easier to defend.)
*Among the Western democracies, the U.S. is possibly the one where democracy works the worst—despite arguably having the most thought-through system. I would speculate that this is due to the age of the U.S. democratic system, with “FIFA-ization” simply having had more time to do its damage, possibly aided by the earlier and wider spread of television. (Cf. how Kennedy allegedly beat Nixon due to a better television performance.) The common use of public elections to appoint e.g. district attorneys is likely harmful. The emphasis on individual politicians and not parties (as in Sweden and Germany) almost certainly increases the populism and the vulnerability to lobbyists, but could have positive counter-effects e.g. through diminishing the role of organizations (and thereby the “FIFA-ization”).
Of the three current main candidates, all appear unsuitable for the job and each could do considerable damage if elected. Sanders is disturbingly far to the left. Trump seems to be off his meds. Hillary* is a corrupt opportunist (as was revealed repeatedly during her husband’s presidency), appears to have a distorted world view (e.g. regarding feminism), and has a political career that consists of gifts from others. In fact, her main strength is campaigning and public relations… (Between her and Bill, this is probably her fourth preliminary campaign, to which we can add two presidential campaigns, her senatorial campaigning, Bill’s gubernatorial campaigning, possibly campaigns for smaller offices at some point in time, and likely some involvement in at least the campaigns of Al Gore.)
*When I hear “Clinton”, I still think “Bill” and I suspect this is the same with most people outside the U.S. “Hillary” reduces the confusion.
As absurd it may seem to someone who knows my political stance (libertarian and classical liberal) and what I tend to think of the Left, I consider Sanders the least of these three evils. Indeed, since he might be the best hope we have of preventing a Hillary presidency, which is an absolute nightmare scenario, I would urge those who still have a vote to cast in the preliminaries to cast it on him. (By analogy, in a Hillary–Trump match-up for the main election, go with Trump. A Sanders–Trump match-up is harder, because there is at least some possibility that Trump is merely playing the opinion or trolling the election process, with the intention of being far more reasonable should he be elected. If so, he is the better choice; if not, Sanders is slightly ahead.)
The general problem, however, will not go away by voting for the “lesser evil”. To remove ourselves from popularity contests, radical measures are needed. In the specific case of the U.S. President, one way could be to explicitly forbid candidates for the electoral college to in anyway indicate a preference for a presidential candidate and to re-focus the election process on the individual electors, ideally even with the electoral college being chosen before the presidential candidates are determined: The college candidates have to convince the public that they are, individually, more suitable for the ad hoc task of electing the president than their competitors, ideally through pointing to intellectual accomplishments, experience, education, whatnot. (The actual implementation would have to be carefully thought through, especially in order to prevent a candidate’s unofficial preferences for President from being well-known, despite an ostensible lack of preference.)
A more general solution (that I have repeatedly suggested) is to set competency based limits on eligibility for both voters and candidates for office. For instance, presumptive voters could take a test to determine their ability to think critically and rationally and to see through political propaganda. (However, tests based on opinion or even knowledge must not be allowed, because these would very soon be abused to limit the right to vote to those having the “right” opinions, thereby defeating the democratic process. A test of thinking, in contrast, is only marginally different in principle and purpose from the age restrictions that are in universal use.)
An important point of democracy, too often forgotten: There are certain rights that are usually grouped with democracy in a blanket manner, but which are actually unrelated—and more important than democracy it self. Consider e.g. freedom of speech and thought or the right to due process. (To some degree these overlap with the connotations of “civil liberties”, “human rights”, and “Rechtsstaat”. More often than not, in my experience and at least outside academia, they are simply grouped together with “democratic rights” or “democratic principles”.) Keeping a true democracy running without (at least some of) them is hard; preserving them in a non-democracy might be even harder. Still they are not inherently linked to democracy. Indeed, there are many officially democratic countries that try to limit these rights and in doing so they become lesser than (hypothetical) non-democratic countries in which the rights are preserved. To take a few examples:
- Crimes related to sex are often given a drastically different treatment than other crimes, which undermines principles like “due process” and “Rechtssicherheit”. The underlying reason for such principles is, somewhat simplified, that no-one should be arbitrarily punished without having committed a crime or punished in disproportion to a crime actual committed. (With regard to criminal law. Civil law is the same m.m.) This is not just to reduce the risks of incompetence—but even more to reduce the risk of deliberate abuse of the legal system. This applies particularly to abuse by the government*.
*Generally, a constitution, bill of rights, system of government, whatnot, must not be based on the assumption that the leader(s) of the country, governmental agencies, and individual civil servants are never evil (or incompetent). On the contrary, one of their most important tasks is to protect the people against this very risk. Unfortunately, this is something that most politicians fail to grasp—thereby proving the importance of the task…
However, we now can have situations where no-one (ideally) can be arbitrarily punished for e.g. theft and murder—but easily could be so for rape (sexual abuse of children, whatnot). What then is the benefit of preventing arbitrary punishment for murder? A hostile entity (e.g. a government or a powerful personal enemy) simply forgoes the murder accusation and trumps up a rape accusation.
For this reason, it is imperative that sex crimes are not treated differently than other crimes, no matter how easy it is to play on emotions. (The irrationality often present is proved e.g. by rape carrying similar penalties to murder in the U.S. and how some debaters actually seem to consider it the worse crime—a stupidity so abysmal that its sickening.) If someone accused of murder has the right to the presumption of innocence, then so must someone accused of rape. If someone accused of murder has the right to face his accuser, then so must someone accused of rape. If an alleged victim of attempted murder is cross-examined by the defense, then so must the alleged victim of a rape. Etc.
Notably, “strict liability” has no justification whatsoever in criminal law, be it with regard to sex or other areas. All cases where a punishment is reasonably due (in the absence of unlawful intentions) can be fully covered by variations of negligence. For instance, someone who fires a gun in an apartment and accidentally kills a neighbor is negligent, because any reasonable person should have realized that this action endangered the lives of others. A large corporation is almost always negligent when inadvertently breaking laws, because a duty* to have sufficient legal knowledge or to make sufficient legal consultations can be assumed. In contrast, someone having sex with an underage person who professes to be of age and looks it to boot, cannot be considered negligent without additional proof that a reasonable person should have suspected something foul.
*Typically, the legal system of a given country will assume such an obligation for entities, including natural persons, in near blanket manner. However, I am very skeptical as to whether this is ethically justifiable and compatible with a sound legal system, especially considering the horrifyingly large number of laws and their complexity. In my opinion, natural persons should be given considerable leeway, outside a certain core set of laws where knowledge can reasonably be assumed and demanded. (Better yet, if the average person cannot be presumed to understand or know that something is a crime, there is a fair chance that it should not be criminal to begin with.) Corporations, especially major ones, are a different matter.
This the more so, as many sex crimes are in fact Orwellian “sexcrimes”: In the modern West, homosexuality is perfectly legal; a few decades ago that was not always the case and in other parts of the world it still is not. In Germany, someone 60 years old can legally have sex with a 16 y.o. partner*; in some U.S. states, someone 18 years and 1 month old can see his life ruined over having had sex with a 17 years, 11 months old partner. (In both cases, assuming mutual consent.) In Germany, prostitution is perfectly legal; in the U.S. it is not; in Sweden and (until this month) France it used to be legal, before campaigns of misinformation and misrepresentation forced the illegality of the purchase**. Indeed, I strongly suspect that some who call for changes in legislation have a hidden agenda. For instance, making sex with a 17 y.o. a strict liability statutory rape, will not merely cause people to stop having sex with 17 y.o. looking people—it will also make them a whole lot more careful about having sex with strangers who appear to be in their early to mid-twenties, about having sex while drunk, and similar. Similarly, extending bans on child porn to include not merely (proper) children, nor even just “children” below the age of 18, but depictions where someone above 18 pretends to be below 18 or could be taken to be below 18, is absurd and idiotic—unless we assume that this is just an indirect way of attacking porn in general, merely using the pretext of attacking child porn (and thereby avoiding the strong protests and resistance that would follow an attempt to ban porn in general).
*I am not necessarily saying that this is a good or a socially accepted combination (certainly not a likely one). The point is that it is very weird (and usually a sign of too restrictive laws) when one highly developed and “modern” country declares something illegal that other highly developed and “modern” countries allow. Even within the U.S. there are odd variations from state to state.
**But not the act of prostitution it self. The asymmetry is absurd, illogical, and incompatible with how e.g. narcotics are handled (the buyer or possessor is often not culpable, but the seller is). If nothing else: If the purchase is illegal, then the prostitute is enticing others to a criminal act, which would normally (and justifiably) be criminal.
- Germany has considerable restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, notably in that a number of symbols and greetings associated with the Nazi movement are forbidden. While to some degree, for historical reasons, emotionally understandable, there is little or no rational justification and it remains an undue intrusion on the rights of the individual. In stark contrast, the (largely common) symbols of GDR, the USSR, and other Communist dictatorships are not forbidden, even though the crimes of the USSR match those of Nazi-Germany and the GDR showed the same disregard for the life and rights of the individual. (More generally, unfortunately, and contrary to Leftist propaganda and Hollywood movies, there is nothing uniquely evil about Nazi-Germany. History is full of qualitatively similar examples, the difference being a matter of scale and success, which, at the time, where unprecedented.) To make matters worse, there are ongoing attempts to ban the strongly nationalist and allegedly Neo-Nazi NPD while a direct continuation of SED (the governing Communist party of GDR) is sitting in parliament. Notably, these attempts are directed not against actions but against opinions* and Leftist extremist often call for blanket bans on all claimed** Nazi and Fascist organizations. Claims for bans have even been raised against upstart AfD, currently the third largest party in Germany. Populist, yes; unconventional, yes; disliking the “old” political parties, yes. More ban-worthy or extreme than the other parties in parliament? NO! Fascist is as Fascist does: The organizations that want to ban other organizations for their own benefit are the ones that deserve to be banned.
*In my understanding of German law, a ban would require more than opinions and to boot something specifically “anti-constitutional” (“verfassungswidrig”); however, I have seen little or no evidence of more than opinions and those Leftist extremists that call the loudest for a ban appear to ignore the question of constitutionality. Further, in as far as the opinions of the NPD, themselves, are anti-constitutional, they are so partly or wholly because the German constitution makes too far-going attempts to regulate what is the right opinion to have and the right way to do things, in manner that is not worthy of a modern Western country. (I have toyed with the idea of a deeper analysis, but have so far not executed the idea.)
**The degree to which this classification is correct is often disputable. As I have noted again and again, words like “Nazi”, “racist”, “sexist”, are often used in a highly inappropriate manner by the Left (the politically correct, feminists) in order to unfairly discredit their opponents (or through pure incompetence); similarly, it is quite common than an anti-immigraTION sentiment is considered anti-immigraNT or even anti-foreigner, or an anti-IslamISM statement considered anti-Islam or even anti-Muslim. In the specific case of NPD, they have many opinions that I find absurd, but if the Nazi claims apply (of which I am not yet convinced), they still make no demands for an invasion of Poland or extermination of Jews. In addition, as absurd as I consider some of their opinions, they are no worse than many Leftist extremists, and in areas unrelated to nationalism and the like their opinions often coincide with other parties. Indeed, having read up a bit during the writing of this article, I find them to have quite a lot in common with the Left in areas like economic policy and the traditional Leftist anti-EU, anti-globalization, anti-nuclear-power, …, stances—an observation I have made repeatedly with organizations considered to be on the extreme Right, including the Swedish SD. People on the “extreme Right” are often actually people that would have been considered on the Left, except for the addition of nationalist (etc.) opinions. To a non-trivial degree this applies to NSDAP (the original Nazi party) it self, even in its self-perception and deliberate presentation: The “S” stands for “Socialist”, the “A” for “Worker” (“Arbeiter”).
Analogous to the above “sexcrimes”, this just amounts to Orwellian “thoughtcrime”.
- The surveillance mania of allegedly democratic governments is reaching a point which is, yet again, Orwellian. In light of the common knowledge of the Snowden revelations, I will not go into detail of what is already known to be implemented. However, I will give special mention to the recent attempts to force Apple to manipulate user devices according to governmental wishes (albeit by the judicial branch) and the suggestions for legal restrictions on encryption: Encryption should only allowed if its breakable (thereby rendering it almost useless). Similar calls have been made for a requirement that encryption providers also provide explicit back-doors or keep keys that they can hand out to the government at its will (making encryption useless against the government and opening a major security hole that non-governmental attackers will love). Some jurisdictions already require users to “voluntarily” hand out their encryption keys and passwords to allow governmental access. Other suggestions with a somewhat similar motivation is to remove large bank notes or put upper limits on the size of cash transaction, for the purpose of making anonymous payments impossible.
Big Brother sees you…
As an aside, I am very strongly in favor of legislation in the other direction (and use encryption extensively, myself): In order to protect the citizens from the government, such attempts to break encryption, engage in digital surveillance, accessing private computers, …, must be made illegal even for the government. (As should access to some non-digital forms, notably private paper diaries.) In particular: A computer can tell us so much about someone that such access is unconscionable. Firstly, many (including yours truly) use their computers as an extension of their own memories, making the intrusion tantamount to an intrusion into their actual heads. Secondly, many use their computers to record highly private thoughts, including for diary and (as I once did) therapeutic purposes. Thirdly, a computer can indirectly give us enormously detailed information about someone—too detailed. (Including highly intimate information, such as porn habits.) Fourthly, a computer will almost certainly contain communications with other parties that can be damaging to them or be of a type that they justly wish to remain secret to third parties, including e.g. exchanges of romantic emails and confidential business communications. Fifthly, digital evidence is so easy to forge* that it must only be admissible in court when the absence of manipulation can be proved, which is basically impossible to do when third parties have extensive access to a device, making most uses of such surveillance and access pointless to begin with.
*In the vast majority of cases, no forgery will take place—true. However, it does happen even today, even in countries like Germany or the U.S. Cases where a DA seeks a conviction irrespective of guilt and innocence occur; where an investigator “knows” that someone is guilty and resorts to fabricating the evidence he lacks; where the accused has personal enemies who influence the investigation; … Worse: There is always a risk that times change and that, for instance, politically motivated persecutions through the justice system become common. “Due process” that is based on the assumption a benevolent justice system can never be true due process.
- The influence of lobbies does not only result in sub-optimal economic decisions, but also poses a severe threat to the rights and interests of the population. Among the many examples, consider changes in copyright legislation to postpone the time that works enter the public domain*, absurd restrictions on how a purchased good might be used (e.g. bans on backup copies of DVDs; as opposed to reasonable restrictions like a ban on arbitrary distribution of copies to third parties), attempts to reduce customers’ privacy from corporations, …
*At what time and under what circumstances this should take place is ultimately arbitrary and the right to read books free of charge is something very different from the right to free speech. However, there have been repeated adjustments upwards over time (often retroactively), without the underlying ethical issue having changed, and through lobbying or other “para-democratic” means. To boot, I suspect that these changes are not only intended to favor the copyright holders—but also to artificially reduce competition for newly released works. While the nature of the change is my point above, I do find the often used criterion of 70 years after the author’s death to be excessive. Notably, these 70 years will almost always be longer than the time the actual author enjoyed copyright protection… If I had drawn up the rules, I might have gone with something like the author’s death or 30 years past first publication, which ever comes last: This protects the rights of the author (which is the most important), gives the heirs a fair slice even if the author drops dead the day after publication, and provides a sufficient time of use and security for third parties to not rule out buying the rights—while ensuring that the public domain is enriched in a reasonably timely manner. Alternatively, copyright could be entirely open ended, but associated with a rapidly increasing fee after the death of the author. (As an aside, I have grown increasingly skeptical to awarding non-natural persons rights outside of what is a business necessity, including copyright and free speech, seeing that these often lead to abuse like outrageous misrepresentations in advertising being called free speech or record companies snatching up the majority of the profit from the musicians’ work. Such rights are possibly better tied to natural persons only, with appropriate changes in business models where needed.)
Even the democratic process it self can be circumvented. Consider e.g. how the current German government consists of a coalition of two parties whose ideologies, economic policies, and whatnots are so drastically different that forming the coalition betrayed the confidence of their respective voters—and potentially made further elections unnecessary: They could, strictly theoretically, just make a behind the scenes deal to always form a coalition and potentially govern uninterrupted for decades, irrespective of the votes given. Or take the tricks of the Swedish parties against SD: Exclusion of SD from committees, parties voting against their own program rather than allowing SD influence on the vote, … This goes beyond the unethical-but-established practice of making election promises while crossing ones fingers—here the parties ignore the reasons why people voted for them in order to follow their own agenda.
The reader may be surprised that I have not included the rise of strongly populist parties, so common in Europe at the moment, that have a limited number of core issues, an incomplete overall party program, and a main theme of “we don’t like the way things are”. (In Sweden, they are termed “missnöjespartier”—“malcontentment parties”.) The “conventional truth” among the established parties and the press is that these malcontents are an evil and a proof of the stupidity of the masses—which would fit in well with my above discussion. However, I very strongly disagree with this premise: These parties show that there is hope for democracy, that the people is not satisfied with being the puppets of the politicians, and that the political landscape can change. In as far as they are problematic, they are just a symptom and not the disease. The common criticism that these parties often lack experience, competence, and a developed party program can be true, but before they actually become part of a government, if ever, they will typically have plenty of time to improve–and it would be a grossly unfair Catch-22 to exclude parties based on deficits they need inclusion to remedy. If nothing else, their presence can shake the old parties out of old habits.
Similarly, I have not included the sinking participation of eligible voters in elections: Yes, this is potentially bad, but it is also just a symptom of the underlying problems. I have, myself, not voted in the past fifteen years or so, despite once being politically active, because there are no parties and preciously few politicians that I find myself comfortable supporting. At best, I could vote for yet another “lesser evil” and I, as do many others, prefer to let my non-vote be a message of disapproval to the politicians. What I consider far worse, truly worthy of lament, is the reactions of some politicians: Instead of realizing that voter participation is a problem that they have caused themselves, they blame the non-voters… I have even heard statements along the lines of non-voters not doing their civic duty! The right to vote and to participate in the democratic process is a right—not a duty. (And, as above, not voting can it self be a deliberate message.) Quite often, I have heard claims that it is important to vote, irrespective of what one votes for or whether one feels informed enough, which is turning the world on its head: If someone does not have a clear opinion, it is most definitely better to stay at home and reduce the problem of the uninformed selecting our leaders. The attitude towards both the citizens and the democratic processes that shines through in these reactions is horrifying. Whether they are stupid, despise their voters, try to increase their legitimacy*, …, politicians like these have no business seeking office.
*A higher voter participation implies a higher degree of (perceived?) legitimacy, because if someone claims to be elected by the people and does not have even close to a majority of the people’s vote, well, it is simply not very credible. In Germany and Sweden we can have situations where 80 % is eligible to vote, of which 70 % does vote, of which 90 % of votes actually have an effect (votes on parties below 5 resp. 4 % are wasted, because of a cut-off, some votes are sorted out for formal reasons, etc.), and the eventual premier belongs to a party that received 40 % of the votes that did count, relying on the support of smaller allied parties to gain a parliamentary majority. In this scenario the support of 100 % * 0.8 * 0.7 * 0.9 * 0.4 = 20.16 % of the overall population or 25.2 % of the eligible population is needed—elected by the people, my ass! Now, if everyone voted, and no-one voted on new or fringe parties (or the fictitious but popular-in-Sweden “Donald Duck Party”), these numbers would turn into an at least semi-legitimate 32 and 40 %, respectively. (Assuming the same distribution. However, even with a lower overall share, the original proportions would typically be exceeded by a considerable margin.) Drop the proportion of voters to, say, 25 % and the numbers become 7.2 and 9 %! No wonder that politicians react negatively to non-voters… Also no wonder that they are much against lowering the proportion of eligible voters, while at least some politicians want to increase it, e.g. through lowering the age of eligibility to 16.