It’s easy to think of democracy as an unquestionable good in the world. It’s what we’ve all grown up with for one. But it’s also our only defence against tyrrany and elitism and corrupti…ok, it’s not working out too well on those fronts.
But it’s the best way to make sure that the will of the people is heard. I mean, it’s not like we’d ever be in a situation where the leader of the free world lost the popular vot…what’s that? Really? Oh.
Well look, all of that aside, at least can rely on people to vote ini their interests and to carefully consider complex issue and…ok, I’m done.
Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. And in these times of extreme political polarisation, it’s easy to see why he might say such a thing.
But today, I learned that one of the first critics of democracy was a leading light in the republic that founded it; Socrates.
Socrates’ concern with democracy was similar to Churchill’s. Namely that the average person isn’t well educated enough about the complexities of government to make good decisions about who should run it and why. He explained his concerns with an analogy:
If you were heading out on a journey by sea, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone? Or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter, of course. So why then do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be the ruler of a country?
It’s a fair point. Donald Trump’s presidency, the political nightmare that is Brexit, the economic collapse of Argentina and Venezuela, all of these have occurred, at least in part, because of a populace who made decision based on little or no knowledge. In an ideal world, our politicians would be experts chosen for their competence and their trustworthiness, but today, they’re often elected despite their failings in both departments.
Of course, Socrates’ argument also leaves us with a problem. Corruption is ever so much more likely if the power to vote is left only in the hands of a few ‘elites’. And how would these elites be chosen? The system would obviously fall apart if people could judge themselves worthy. So who would judge? A test? Designed by whom?
Democracy is a flawed system. And we should remember that. As instrumental as it’s been in bringing freedom to the world, it has also stood helplessly by as some of the biggest and most catastrophic failures in human history have unfolded. In the end, perhaps another favourite quote of Winston Churchill’s best sums up the dilemma:
Democracy is the worst system, except for all the other systems