Thursday, May 6, 2010


Hopefully people noticed the tongue-in-cheek elements of my last post:

I was planning to follow it up with a rational argument for voting Green.

But actually, that's kind of wrong. It would be a rational argument for voting Green.

Not, note, a rational argument, which, when followed through to its logical conclusion would tell me how to vote. Which had maybe happened to come to the conclusion that Green would be good.

So, obviously, even though I haven't gone to the trouble of thinking about it from any kind of sane point of view, my mind is already made up.

And there's no point in thinking up rational justifications, because whatever arguments lead towards doing something dreadful like voting Labour, I'll just ignore. And any tiny little shred of reason to vote Green will be elevated out of all proportion in my mind.

Because let's face it, that's what we are. It's called 'confirmation bias', and it means that we ignore most evidence that contradicts our beliefs, whilst taking any further evidence in favour and filing it carefully under 'arguments for'.

I wonder if this how everyone decides how to vote?

In fact, given that I'm a clever and well read man who takes an interest in current affairs and reads a newspaper daily, could my retarded decision process actually be amongst the more rational and well considered ones?

And yet British democracy somehow consistently manages to produce a relatively uncorrupt state whose principal concern seems to be to do the best for its people.

Fairly remarkable, when you think about it.

The history of government in the world is not good. Usually it's a parasitic entity. Better than anarchy for the people that live under it, but only by accident.

It's probably worth asking how our society managed to get into its current rather paradisical democratic state.

Somehow the warring warlords and absolute monarchs of the middle ages managed to get their teeth drawn, and their powers usurped by an elected assembly of the people.

We also need to ask whether our current state is stable, and what sort of forces might destroy it.

Are there ways of making it even better, without somehow accidentally making the magic go away?

Does democracy work well in any sort of society? What about when you've got two distinct ethnic groups of comparable sizes? Are there any examples of it working in such a situation?

I guess South Africa might be one, but it doesn't look that stable to me.

Zimbabwe is more of a counterexample.

Is a democracy stable? What can bring it down? Is it an inevitable final state of a society? Can a long term stable democracy be subverted by internal forces?

Does a dictatorship that achieves absolute control and stability become gentler in accordance with some law of nature, until it becomes a free state?

Does a democracy under internal or external threat become less free?

Is this even a reasonable way to think about it, or is the whole thing due to great men and butterflies, unpredictable and uncontrollable?

There's no way to know in abstract. We have to look for evidence. The problem is that democracy is a fairly recent phenomenon. An untried experiment. 

Despite the fact that it seems to have been an English ideal, universal male suffrage in England dates only from 1918, and universal suffrage 1928. So it's lasted about eighty years so far. One lifetime.

Very old British people will remember that their fathers did not have the right to vote. This didn't make them slaves, but it did mean that the country wasn't organised in their interests.

The oldest existing democracies in the world are the American Colonies, which seem to have been founded as free democracies, but under English law and the Crown. Somehow they broke free of England and eventually united to form the United States.

Of course, some of the individual states then regretted surrendering their independence to a central authority, and their attempt at seccession was the bloodiest war that had ever happened. But it all got sorted out in the end.

Eventually the place became so benevolent that they extended the right to vote to their livestock. Of course I'm being deliberately offensive there, but that's what it must have felt like at the time.

Perhaps future generations will consider our refusal of the vote to young people, and the resulting oppression they suffer (you think compulsory schooling isn't a form of slavery?) to be equally obscene.

France had universal adult male suffrage in 1792, but wasn't stable. Universal male suffrage was finally established in 1914, and has been stable since, apart from a period of occupation by a German dictatorship which itself arose from a democracy.

Spain introduced universal male suffrage in 1812, but its democracy fell into dictatorship in the 1930s and wasn't restored until 1970.

So we have many examples of democracy failing, and several where it is too early to tell.

The only persistent democracy in the world is America. Coincidentally the only place where socialism was never popular. Presumably its people have never felt oppressed.

Some of the ancient Greek city-states were democratic, although not in our sense. What happened to them? If conditions in the ancient world were in some sense not right for democracy, why did their systems arise. If conditions were right, what made their systems fall?

Would Athens without Rome have resurrected itself and carried on?

Why did Rome itself, given its stability and power, not follow the inevitable path to democracy, but instead go the other way, from the Republic into oppression, hereditary government and an eventual collapse which may well have felt like a liberation to its citizens? (Think 'liberation of Iraq' rather than 'liberation of France'.)

There are three systems I can think of that might be called democratic.

In one, the people as a whole get to vote on every law. This is so different from our current system as to be difficult to imagine. Let's call it demarchy. The internet may have made it feasible in a huge state like the United Kingdom.

There's the first-past-the-post system which we use, which pretty much guarantees a two party alternating dictatorship.

Before universal suffrage, we swapped between Tory and Liberal government, representing roughly aristocracy/landowners vs. bourgeois/free trade.

After the proles got the vote, the Liberal party declined and the Labour party rose, representing the interests of the proletariat.

The electoral system seems to have squeezed the Liberal party between the other two, so that it became a rump force. The Tory party then became the party representing both aristocracy and business, which left it unwilling to defend the aristocracy against the punitive taxes which destroyed it.

These days, with the death of socialism as an idea, and the disappearance of the industrial working class, the Labour party has been desperately trying to abandon its old ideas and become more representative of the more liberal instincts, while the Tories have stayed pretty much where they were.

However the Liberals seem to be picking up a lot of Labour votes this time. In the natural course of things I'd imagine that one of these two parties would cease to exist meaningfully, and become a rump party, a "protest vote".

But the Liberals, remembering their long wilderness years, want to change our electoral system to the third, proportional representation system. And it looks like they may get the chance.

I worry.

Even the relatively minor change to Alternative Vote, rather than first-past-the-post, seems to ensure permanent government by the central party.

Could it effectively lead to a one party state?

Does the occasional thrashing, the peaceful revolution of our periodic change of government, actually provide a needed cleansing effect on the system. Is that why our politics is uncorrupt? Governments always seem to fall amidst accusations of corruption.

What do we know? Are alternative vote and PR systems safe and fair, or are they a step on the road to dictatorship or oligarchy? Do they inexorably lead to corruption, or do they produce moderate government trying to make everyone happy?

Do we have any data?

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