Better than democracy? (Part 2 of 2)

One of the questions I keep returning to on this blog is whether there’s a better alternative to democracy.

Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the others that have been tried. But as I explained in Part 1, those others are all part of the same general class of political systems in which one group gets to impose its views on another group, explicitly against the will of those people.

It’s true of democracy. The majority gets to decide everything, no matter how loudly the minority screams. Go to war; raise taxes on the poor; raise taxes on the rich; imprison homosexuals; cut public services; raise the deficit to crippling levels – democracies do all these things and worse. That’s OK when your party is in power, but as soon as it turns, you’ll be screaming as loudly as the rest of them.

Can there be a system of government that doesn’t leave people screaming? Can we break out of this way of thinking and find something new?

Let’s start with the basic premise – all of these classes of government (democracy, dictatorship, fascism, communism, etc) explicitly endorse one group imposing its will on another. So let’s try to imagine a form in which this is expressly forbidden. Nobody is allowed to force someone else to do something unless that would in turn infringe somebody else’s rights.

So, for instance, I would not be allowed to steal from someone because that would infringe their rights.

Such a system would seek to maximize the total amount of freedom available to all – explicitly not allowing one person’s freedom to reduce another’s.

Can we imagine such a system? It takes a leap of imagination, but there’s a clue to be found in the shopping mall. If you and your friends go shopping for shoes, you don’t take a vote and then all buy the same shoes. You each get to choose your own shoes (or to not buy shoes at all). In other words, the free market is such a system. It’s a system where we are allowed to do what we want, not what others decide for us. There are rules of a free market of course, and that’s what makes it work so well.

Could free market principles be used to run a country? Could it, for instance, be used to decide whether or not to go to war with another country? Perhaps not. But maybe the obvious solution is to not go to war. Maybe that’s exactly the kind of thing we ought not to be doing in a truly free and civilized world.

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14 responses to “Better than democracy? (Part 2 of 2)

  1. Here’s the trouble with you mall/shoe store analogy…at least from the US perspective. The super wealthy, with their virtually limitless funds, buy up all of the shoe stores. They decide, based upon their personal preferences and beliefs, what kinds of shoes people should wear and their stores will sell only those kinds of shoes. They don’t like to see people’s toes, so they stop selling open-toed shows. They think loafers (slip ons) are only for those who are too lazy to tie their laces, so they stop carrying loafers. Ultimately, these owners of the shoe stores are anti-choice and wish to impose their beliefs and ideologies on all citizens. So, while people can still choose whether not to buy shoes, they have limited options from which to choose – limited to what the super wealthy and the super powerful believe to be “right” choices.

    And that’s how money corrupts democracy.

    • Not quite sure how that works. Let’s move away from the metaphor and assume that at present rich individuals and corporations exert influence on governments, which then control peoples lives in undesirable ways. But if governments are not able to intrude on peoples lives in this way, how does that corrupting power still take effect?

      In other words, if power is devolved back down to individuals as far as possible, how can a rich elite continue to impose its will?

      • Doobster is right. Your solution implies that individuals are “free” to choose what to do (e.g. what shoes to buy). But it is not quite so. People only choose from available options. Government (or other monopoly) can limit the “available options” down to “one”. E.g. in Soviet Union, there were “democratic elections” as well. There was one candidate (from the Communist party) and people were “free” to vote for or against him. Moreover, the propaganda machine brainwashed people into believing that what they get is the best choice anyway.

        The freedom of speech is #1 right for democracy. But it’s a double-edged sword. It also protects aggressive political and commercial campaigns where people who own the media form the public opinion and drive people’s political and commercial choices.

        Free market is also a double-edged sword. There must be laws to curb it and prevent monopolies which justifies the need for the government regulation of economy which is also a double-edged sword. Etc.

        On any road we take, when we try to steer away from one ditch, we have the risk of falling into the ditch on the other side. Moderation is the key, but one shouldn’t be excessively moderate either…

        • There are many double-edged swords, and unintended consequences abound. I am here floating some ideas that seem interesting to me and allowing people to shoot them down.

          Freedom of speech certainly opens up the possibility of propaganda. But to counter propaganda and lies, the only way is through more free speech.

          Monopolies tend to arise in static regulated markets. You could say that Microsoft operated a pseudo-monopoly during the 1990s, but the free market has enabled companies like Apple and Google to take away that monopoly power through innovation.

  2. Free markets are not necessarily good actually. There are lots of other factors as I am sure you know. For example some consumer ‘goods’ are ridiculously cheap because they are produced in countries with no employment laws, ( and I am not even going to mention animal rights) No one can really afford that and they are destroying the planet among other things.

  3. I think it’s pretty clear that free market principles can’t be used to determine whether we go to war. It’s also pretty clear that they can and should be used for what kind of movies or books we prefer to for entertainment.

    Somewhere in between, we find the dividing line. But where? Should police services be handled via the free market? What about fire fighting? In one of my history classes, I heard that fire fighting was a free market service in 19th century New York, but it was uneven, and heaven help you if two fire fighter businesses arrived at your burning house at the same time, since the most likely result was a fist fight rather than anyone actually saving your house.

    The dividing line requires judgment. But whose judgment? Can we use the free market to determine that? If so, I’ll always hire the judge that rules in my favor. No, the judgment has to be made collectively.

    All ways of selecting who makes that judgment are flawed. The question is which one is the least harmful?

    • In the UK the police, fire and ambulance services are operated by government bodies. But rescue at sea is a charity funded by private donations. The charity operates just as well as the government-funded services.

    • As for rival fire fighters fighting each other, that is no doubt historically true, but I have never witnessed rival business owners engaging in street battles, so I don’t think that is a necessary outcome.

      • As you’ve mentioned, there have to be rules. Rules prevent business competition from escalating into something more destructive (usually). They prevent that competition from damaging the environment. They insure that the current dominant players can’t erect barriers to competitors (again usually).

        But how do we determine the rules? And who enforces them?

        Personally, I think history shows that a laissez faire attitude toward markets (19th century capitalism) is too loose, too harsh. It also shows that public control of everything (communism) is too inefficient. We have to find a happy medium. Where that happy medium lies is a matter of ongoing debate (at least in societies that allow debate).

        • Yes, the rules cannot be written in stone – they must adapt to new circumstances or be changed to improve them. Democracy is the tried and tested method for this. I suppose that what I am arguing for is that governments (and electorates) have a more hands-off approach. Instead of trying to fix each and every problem that turns up, it is better to establish good ground rules and then allow the rules to operate.

  4. I have always found it amazing that Britain doesn’t have a Constitution. It’s amazing how well you do without one! In the U.S. Constitution we have a portion (The Bill of Rights and some amendments) that explicitly states what a majority cannot impose on a minority. This was made most exilicit in the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War and the end of slavery, which guaranteed equal protection under the law. Our Supreme Court is in place to precisely determine if a law is constitutional or not. This is where minorities have gone to seek redress from majority oppression. It was recently used to give federal recognition to gay marriage.
    Of course, this all presupposes respect for the Constitution. Most Americans consider our Constitution to be the ultimate authority, and so, our Supreme Court is rather powerful.

    • Britain is steadily acquiring a kind of constitution via its membership of the European Union, but it is a messy scenario. Such “meta laws” seem to me to underpin basic freedoms.

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