VOTING MATTERS!

American elections. High drama. After Tuesday, America will move in one or other direction. Americans increasingly see themselves as belonging to tribes which are each others’ enemies. If that is their world, they better use their vote. The outcome will be decided by who does not vote.

Look elsewhere to see the importance of the mundane business of voting. Last week in Brazil, the sitting president was ousted by a vote of 50.9% for his opponent. It is not a cliché to say of that election that every vote counted. In Britain in 2016, by 52% of the vote in a referendum, it was decided to leave the European Union. Older voters voted to leave, younger ones to stay. But the young did not turn out in sufficient numbers to save the day. Had as many of the young as the old voted, Brexit would not have happened and young Britons would have held on to their future in an open Europe.

Voting is not in high regard. Many do not bother to participate. Young people in particular tell each other that it does not matter, it’s all the same. Political scientists recommend models of democracy in which voting is secondary, such as “participatory democracy” or “deliberative democracy.” Theorists of “rationality” rubbish the vote because it does not bring the voter any “utility.”

But voting is THE core instrument of democracy. It gives citizens not only voice but also power. It is by the vote that citizens can threaten their representatives to deselect them (as just happened in Brazil) and thereby hold their use of power under control.

In How Democracies Live, I issue a warning against the reinvention-of-democracy literature. “Since democracy as we know it has run into trouble, let’s just consign it to the scrap heap of history and start all over with something new and better.” That is to underestimate what we have achieved, such as in the forceful instrument of the vote, and also to “give succor to the autocrats in Beijing and Moscow who boast superiority for autocracy precisely because they are able to claim that western democracy has proved impotent.” My recommendation is that we resolve to salvage democracy, not to reinvent it.

WHY DEMOCRACY? TENTH ADVANTAGE

The tenth advantage of democracy: peace. Democratic countries do not fight wars against each other. This is true today, was true in all of the twentieth century, and was true in the nineteenth century in that countries with then democracy-like institutions did not fight each other. A more democratic world would promise to be also a more peaceful world.

The observation that countries in which governments are under some form of popular check are less likely to be warring, was first made by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in a publication of 1795 entitled Zum ewigen Frieden (Perpetual Peace). Here he not only proposed the equivalent of a UN Charter in which countries commit themselves to peaceful coexistence. He also recommended that countries should adopt republican constitutions since that would make them less prone to war.

The peaceful inclination in democratic governments is due partly to the distribution of power in the population. Since the glories of war accrue mainly to élites and the costs of war fall disproportionately on the populace, élites may incline more to war where they are not answerable to the populace and be more restrained from war where they are under popular control. Other reasons may be that democratic leaders and citizens learn the art of compromise, that they see people in other democratic countries as similar to themselves, and that their communality encourages a habit of peaceful negotiations and treaties.

The danger of war under non-democratic government is currently in evidence in Russia and China. Once Putin had dictatorial control at home, he felt able to go to war against Ukraine. Xi Jinping has ratcheted up war rhetoric against Taiwan (and annexed territory in the South China Sea) as as he has tightened his dictatorial grip in the mainland and Hong Kong.

A qualification: Democratic countries have not in the same way been able or willing to avoid war with non-democratic countries. They have fought wars of more or less defence against non-democratic aggressors, as in the Second World War. But they have also fought wars of aggression in self-interest, as for example the many and violent colonial wars that for example Britain and France engaged in during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Britain’s atrocious Opium Wars of state sponsored drug running against China.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

WHY DEMOCRACY? SEVENTH ADVANTAGE

The seventh advantage of democracy: effectiveness. Strangely enough, and sometimes contrary to appearances, democratic government is generally the more effective government. One might think autocratic governments have the advantage that they can just get on with things without having to face dissatisfied NIMBY citizens (NIMBY: not-in-my-back-yard) or succumb to the short-termism of the next election. But democratic governments have effectiveness advantages of their own. They have an interest in delivery since citizens hold power over them. Autocratic governments may be able to get on with it, but that assumes that they are intent to deliver for citizens in the first place. Why should we assume that they are, when they are not under the pressure of people power? Democratic ones have it going for them of ruling by consent. That is helpful for them to get their policies accepted, since they are policies agreed upon through due process. And they have it going for them that they are meritocratic. Position is attained through competition. Political competition works out so that less motivated and qualified candidates do not prevail. Citizens can thereby have some confidence in their representatives and the policies they enact. To be sure, it does not always work out in real competitions that that the most qualified candidates win. Sometimes, far from it, often because the competition has been corrupted. But often, elected representatives are probably better at their jobs than critical citizens are prone to acknowledging. In autocratic systems, political position is attained by selection from above. Here, the most important qualification is usually obedience upwards and trustworthiness in the maintenance of autocracy.    

The best available evidence on effectiveness in government is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators.” The highest scores are for the countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all democracies. There are no non-democracies in the top range of this indicator (with the exception of the city-state of Singapore). In East Asia, the high-scoring countries are Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, while China, the darling of democracy’s detractors, is in the middle range, in a group of countries that includes, for example, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico. The other indicators in the World Bank’s analysis are “voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence, regulatory quality, rule of law, control of corruption.” There is a high level of correlation between these indicators and government effectiveness, suggesting that it is the institutional solidity which is a feature of democratic systems that gives these systems the edge in effectiveness.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On redistribution and disincentives, see The Possibility of Politics.

WHY DEMOCRACY? FIRST ADVANTAGE

Democracy has proved to come with striking advantages (for most people) compared to any known alternative form of government. The answer to the why-question is found in the identification of those advantages.

The first advantage of democracy: avoidance of tyranny. Writes Robert H. Dahl (in On Democracy): “Perhaps the most fundamental and persistent problem in politics is to avoid autocratic rule.” That tyranny is an endemic danger in government is abundantly clear from history, including the recent history of the twentieth century, and clear enough today when we look to, for example, China or Russia or Saudi Arabia. In all autocratic systems – absolutist monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, outright dictatorships – there is an overwhelming risk of tyranny.

In democracies, the combination of government above and safety below is possible. It’s ingenious: we get both protection and protection from the protectors. We can allow our governments to rule because we are not at their mercy.

Governments hold vast powers. Power corrupts. Government for the people will only happen if government power is under popular control. Without control, government becomes tyrannical. Look to Putin’s Russia. Controls from below undermined, resulting in tyranny from above. Benevolent autocracy is a myth.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On the backslide to tyranny in Russia, see Putin Has Turned Russia into an Unapologetic Autocracy.

On tyranny, see The Perfect Dictatorship.