VENEZUELA, BRITAIN AND DEMOCRACY

In Venezuela, Nocolás Maduro is the democratically elected president. It then follows that he is the legitimate president and that it is undemocratic and wrong to seek his ouster (ahead of the next election). This argument was put on last night’s Channel 4 News here in Britain by Chris Williamson, a Member of Parliament from the Labour Party who is opposed to the government joining other European governments in recognising the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as legitimate acting president. Who is right, democratically speaking?

Let us assume that the two following statements are true:

  1. Maduro was elected democratically. (There are questions about the honesty of the election but let us assume it was democratically sound.)
  2. Under the governance of his regime, the country’s economy is falling apart, people’s living standards are in steep decline, social order is disintegrating, and liberty is eroded by police state tactics.

Is it then still true that democratic logic dictates that Maduro has the right to be president? That sounds absurd, and as so often when conclusions are absurd there is something wrong with the underlying logic.

In Britain, the Brexit referendum resulted in a majority for Britain exiting the European Union. It then follows that it is democratically necessary for the government and Parliament to implement the majority vote. Anything else would be undemocratic and democratically damaging. That is the consistent line of the Prime Minister and many others.

Let us again assume two statements to be true:

  1. The referendum was democratically correct.
  2. Leaving the European Union on available terms would be damaging to Britain’s economy and the people’s standard of living, would reduce Parliament to a rule-taker, would put the continuation of the United Kingdom at risk, would reduce Britain’s standing and influence in the world, and would impose damage on friends and allies in Europe.

Is it then still true that democratic logic dictates that Brexit must go ahead, come what may? It would seem again that there is something wrong with the logic.

What goes wrong in these cases is a misunderstanding about democracy. Democracy is a method. It is not its own purpose. The purpose of democracy is to provide for effective and safe rule. Rule is effective to the degree that it delivers order and safe to the degree that it so does without undermining the liberty of citizens. We subscribe to democracy because it is more likely than any other form of government to make for effective and safe rule.

But only more likely. Democracy is not infallible. Things may go wrong. If they do, they should be corrected, not persisted with because the mistake was made democratically. Parliaments correct and overturn democratically made decision all the time. The American constitution has provisions for the removal from office of an elected president who is unable to manage his duties.

In the Venezuelan case, if statement 2 is true, the democratically correct view must be that Maduro has forfeited the right to office. In the British case, if again statement 2 is true, the democratically correct view must be that Brexit should not be implemented.

That still leaves the question of how, practically speaking, to overturn the outcome of correct democratic process when it turns out to be perverse or counterproductive. As can be seen in both these cases, that can be extremely difficult. But the democratic argument, in the abstract, should not be difficult. It is not undemocratic to obey the facts and change one’s mind.

BREXIT AND THE BRITISH CONSTITUTION

Among other things, Brexit is a constitutional crisis. No one in their right mind could wish for what has befallen the British people, yet their constitution did not award them protection. With chaos a reality, nor is the constitution able to rescue the British from misfortune. Damage has been caused to the polity and economy, and to the nation’s standing in the world, that it will take years and years to repair.

Brexit is supposed to be about Parliament’s sovereignty.  Yet, what it has revealed is that Parliament is not sovereign. It took a court case to decide what should have been 100% obvious, that if the country is to embark on fundamental constitutional change, that must be by a decision of Parliament. Through the process, it has been a never-ending battle for Parliament to have any role of decision-making, except to ratify what the government presents to it, if that. The language is astonishing: it is being argued over when and how Parliament will “be given” a right to vote. If Parliament is sovereign and wants to vote, it votes. If someone else (the government) is in a position to “give” it the right to vote, it is not sovereign.

The Parliament that is supposed to be sovereign, does not have the instruments to act accordingly. In a sovereign Parliament, it is for that Parliament to decide how to deal with matters put to it by the government. But Britain’s Parliament is not in charge of its own agenda. A sovereign Parliament can make such amendments as it wants to what the government proposes, but in Britain’s Parliament the procedures are so Byzantine that no one knows what and how the lawmakers can modify what the government proposes.

Brexit has shown that the British constitution is itself without protection. It should not be possible for major constitutional change to be put in motion on the whim of a prime minister, yet just that happened. When, well into the process, the next prime minister decided to call a snap election, that happened in spite of Parliament having legislated (in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011) precisely against strategic snap elections. But Parliament was unable to uphold its own law.

The reason constitutions should have protection against being abused by politicians of the day for strategic reasons, is that it is impossible to undertake major constitutional change without careful deliberation over some period of time. Most written constitutions have provisions that impose careful procedure on constitutional change. The British constitution has no such protections, whereby it has been possible for the crisis to unfold.

The purpose of careful deliberation is to build some reasonable consensus behind proposed changes, and to stop attempts for which no reasonable consensus can be built. Brexit is a crisis of imposing major constitutional change on a population and political establishment against the absence of any semblance of consensus.

Doing that is not only careless but IMPOSSIBLE, as can be seen in a process that has brought British politics to a choice between three impossibilities:

  • Brexit with no deal, which would destroy the nation’s economy;
  • Brexit with a deal, which would demote Parliament to a rule-taker and cause the break-up of the Union;
  • No Brexit, which would disregard the result of a referendum called by Parliament itself.

When the dust finally settles, in whatever way, it would seem imperative to give very serious through to improving a constitution that has so badly let its population down.

HOW SHOULD WE PAY FOR POLITICS?

Political parties and campaigns depend for funding on private donations, from businesses, from unions, from individuals. That is not working well. It is a source of widespread corruption and gives monied interests control over public policies. Is there a better way?

The American Supreme Court has decided that it would be a suppression of freedom to deny citizens the right to support political causes and candidates of their liking financially, and this principle seems to have broad support in jurisprudence in America and elsewhere. If we accept that, it still does not follow that there is a right to unregulated political use of private money. Such a right does not exist even in economic markets, where monopolistic use of financial resources is generally banned. That should be the case all the more in political “markets,” where the principle is, as it is not in economic markets, that each participant should have the same influence.

There are arguments for public funding of political parties and campaigns. Democracy is a public good and should be funded publically. Some European democracies do have extensive public funding, which to some degree does discourage some forms of private funding, for example from businesses. But there are drawbacks. One is that it is rarely consistent. For example, the ability of trade unions to fund social democratic parties has usually not been restricted in the way other forms of private funding has. Another drawback is that public funding has tempted established parties to fund themselves lavishly from the public purse in a way not available to up and coming parties. This has been visible in for example Germany and Scandinavia.

Some of us have for some time been suggesting alternative ways of arranging public funding, mainly some variation of letting public funds be distributed through the hands of voters, for example in the form of vouchers which voters would distribute to parties or candidates of their choice. That might, it has been thought, both shut down transgression and put a new power of equality into the hands of voters. This may have some theoretical merit, but is, in truth, not an idea that has found much favour and taken hold.

Which leaves us to search for some arrangement which would respect the rights of citizens to support political groups or candidates with money but have that regulated against the formation of monopolistic powers in the political market.

Monopolistic power arises if one or a few actors are able to obtain decisive influence, or collude to give themselves such influence, and when there is a direct connection between donor and recipient so that the donor is able to extract favours from the recipient on the threat of withholding funding.

But political monopolisation could be prevented in ways that are compatible with anti-monopoly thinking in respect to economic markets. That could be done, firstly, by upper limits on the size of any individual donation and standard anti-monopolistic regulation against collusion. Upper limits would not need to be draconian, only enough that an individual donor could not make himself dominant. Furthermore, it could be prevented by regulations whereby recipients would not know the identity of donors, as in economic markets buyers and sellers are (mostly) unknown to each other. A donor who wants to support a group or candidate does not for that purpose need to make himself known by name to the group or candidate in question. That is only a requirement if his intention is to purchase influence.

Imagine a clearing house into which citizens could put money earmarked for some group or candidate. That money would come out of the clearing house to the group or candidate in question, but without the nametag of the donor. Of course, the donor could still let the recipient know but as long as the contribution is not of monopolistic size that would do no harm. No donor could demand that his identity or donation be made public, and no recipient could demand to know who their donors are and what they have donated.

Now, if we think people make political donations in order to buy influence, why would anyone under such regulation put up any money at all? The first answer is that people are not necessarily out to buy influence. That may be the case for the big donors but cannot be the thinking behind smaller donations. It is common enough that people donate money to causes they are interested in, political and non-political, without any idea of return to themselves. President Obama pioneered the strategy of many small donations to great effect in his campaigns.

Furthermore, with a safe regulatory regime, citizens would not only be allowed to donate but should be encouraged to do so. If this were the way for politics to be funded, citizens would have to contribute in order to have a working democracy. We want democracy, it needs money to run, we have to put it up. It would become the done thing.

In addition, I would recommend direct fiscal encouragement. Let the government pledge to match each private donation with an equivalent donation from the public purse. Each individual contribution is thereby worth twice as much as the citizens pays up. Matching public monies could follow the private donations to the intended recipients. Or, as would be my preferred scheme, they could go into funds to support local civil society activities, including political party-like activities to facilitate the formation of new political groupings. My contribution, then, would first support a candidate of my choice and then, in addition, civil society activity in my community. That should be a pretty good deal for politically and socially interested citizens. The distribution of local funds would be in the hands of an appropriate local agency or committee under local government authority, breathing additional life into local democracy.

BREXIT – WHAT’S DEMOCRATIC?

Jo Johnson, when resigning from the government last week, said it would be a democratic travesty to not have a second referendum. Was he right? Brexiteers claim that, since there has been a referendum, the matter is settled democratically. Are they right?

No, they are both wrong. “Democratic” does not solve the country’s and Parliament’s dilemma.

A policy is democratic if it has been decided by correct democratic procedure. Hence, the referendum was democratic and the follow-up on the referendum has been democratic. But also, whatever Parliament decides at the end of the process will be democratic.

Even if a policy has been decided democratically, that does not necessarily make it a good policy. Democracy gives the people power and makes it less likely than otherwise that their representatives will embark on policies that are not in the national interest. But people power is no guarantee that representatives will not make bad decisions. Democratic decisions often turn out to be unworkable.

The fact that a policy has been decided democratically is not a reason to stick with the policy if it turns out to be counterproductive. Parliament overturns or changes its own democratic decisions all the time.

Britain is set to leave the EU on 29 March next year. If that remains Parliament’s decision, it will be democratic. That may or may not be a good decision but it will be democratic.

If Parliament decides against Britain leaving the EU, that will be democratic. Again, it may or may not be a good decision but it will be democratic.

If Parliament decides on a second referendum, that will be democratic. Yet again, that may or may not be a good policy but it will be democratic.

Parliament is in a terrible predicament. MPs want to behave democratically but “democratic” does not let them off the hook. Asking what is democratic solves nothing. The question before MPs, which they cannot avoid, is what decision is right for the country. Democracy, obviously, does not stand in the way of a democratic Parliament doing what it thinks is right for country and citizens.

DEMOCRACY IN DECLINE?

“The quality of democracy in the OECD and EU has declined in recent years. At the same time, growing political polarization has made the day-to-day work of governance and thus member states’ capacity to reform more difficult. Related to this is the fact that many governments are less inclined to engage in the broad-based consultation of societal actors during the planning phase of reforms. Governments’ communication abilities and implementation efficiency are also on the decline.

The current issue of the Sustainable Governance Indicators shows some very worrying trends within OECD and EU countries which, given the major policy challenges ahead, may seriously burden them in the future.”

These are the headline conclusions of the 2018 report on “sustainable governance” of the German Bertelsmann Stiftung. This foundation has been running its sustainable governance project since 2011, producing annual measurements of democratic quality, governance and policy performance in 41 advanced democracies (OECD and EU countries). Data is compiled on about 70 indicators for each country, drawing on the best available international statistics and expert assessment. The research team consist of about 100 country and regional experts and six in-house analysts, under the oversight of an international Advisory Board. (Disclaimer: I am a member of the research team.)

Read the full report here.

DEMOCRACY – A GOOD WORD FOR THE GOOD OLD WAY

Amidst the scramble for new-fangled forms of democracy, spare a thought for the excellence of the good old way.

Citizens elect representatives to make laws and oversee governance on their behalf. The simple design of representation by election is in fact a very smart arrangement, much smarter than is often appreciated. Is solves three problems in one go: a problem of power, a problem of size and a problem of quality.

Power. Since representatives are elected by citizens and can be deselected by them at the next election, they govern under popular control. We have one of the requirements of democracy: safe government. The problem of power is solved. The people hold power over those who exercise power over them.

Size. When the American republic was created, a way needed to be found to govern a large territory with the consent of the people who lived dispersed over that territory. The previous republican experience was that of cities governing themselves, such as in the Italian city states of the Renaissance. The previous democratic experience was that of direct democracy. Some of this could be replicated in America on the local level (and there was experience of direct town democracy before the consolidation of the federation) but a new model was needed for national (and state) government. The Founding Fathers settled for localities sending representatives to the capital to manage public affairs in the place of citizens themselves. The method of representation by election is an invention of the American Constitution. Without this invention we could not have had national democracies.

Quality. Governance should be safe but also effective. The representative method puts decision-making in good hands, which the direct democracy does not, and delegates the responsibility of decision-making to an assembly, which the autocratic method does not. One purpose of elections is to give us the opportunity to appoint those among us who are the more qualified to do the job. The advantage of decision-making by assembly is that it enables the institutionalisation of rules and procedures of good decision-making and that it offers the chance for proper deliberation. In an assembly of representatives who are more numerous than a small committee of like-minded apparatchiks, who are from different parts of the country and with different backgrounds and who are elected on different political platforms, there is a good chance that decisions will be tested by robust debate.

Although we must make the qualification that democracies always work imperfectly, sometimes very imperfectly, these are real benefits in the method of representation by election. That is a method we should not easily give up on, and one we should probably value more than we do.

DANGERS TO DEMOCRACY – ATHENIAN LESSONS

In the Agora Museum in Athens is a stone Stele of Democracy.  A relief shows the people of Athens under the protection of Democracy. A text is inscribed of a law forbidding the reintroduction of tyranny, both the act of rising up against the Demos and collaboration with would-be tyrants.

This law was passed in 337 B.C. as the short-lived democracy was coming to a final end after Athens had been defeated by Philip of Macedon. It stands as testimony to the Athenians’ understanding of both the value and difficulty of democracy. Without democracy there will be tyranny. The upholding of that protection is fraught with peril. Their forbidding of tyranny in law was a desperate attempt to salvage what could not be saved.

Democracy in Athens lasted only about 250 years. It was always imperfect and gave way several times in the process to autocracy in one form or another. It came about after a period of aristocratic excess, both in the exploitation of the populous and in feuding between aristocratic clans. What followed should perhaps be described as controlled aristocracy rather than democracy in a modern understanding. Nevertheless, for a while the Athenians (those who counted, obviously) mostly held tyranny at arm’s length.

The danger to that protection comes both from without and from within. By 337, the Athenians were no longer masters in their own house and in control of how they would be ruled. But their desperate law also show their awareness that internal forces may rise against popular rule if they can, and if so are likely to find followers in the population.

They had ample experience of internal danger. At least twice, defeats in foreign wars led to oligarchic revolutions. Another danger was the seduction of mobs by demagogues, i.e. a danger to democracy from within democracy itself. The philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death when some of those he had annoyed were able to persuade a jury of 500 citizens that he deserved to die for being a nuisance. That influenced his pupil Plato to make himself the founding philosopher of autocracy. In Euripides’ tragedy Orestes – about how a mob was whipped up to condemn a deluded man who had been seduced by the gods to kill his mother to death by stoning – Orestes says: “The people are to be feared when led by unscrupulous men.”

The Athenian Stele of Democracy identifies the danger to the people to be tyranny as the likely state of affairs in the failure of democracy. Dangers to democracy come from both internal and external sources. The internal dangers are usurpation of power by anti-democratic élites, collusion by opportunistic follower, and seduction of the populous by unscrupulous leaders.

So what else is new?