Sunday, January 20, 2013

Silver Bullets and Democracy

When discussing politics or government or law or any other large system built on people, it’s easy to fall into the trap of giving undue credit to a single method or development. This is an instance of the Reduction Fallacy, blinding us to the complementary factors being overshadowed and weakening our understanding of the system as a whole. In the same way that the half-century transformation of the Industrial Revolution cannot be credited to the assembly line in more than a small part, modern freedoms cannot directly be credited to democracy, nor can democracy itself be credited to the act of having the populace vote. These play a role, no doubt, but one more limited than modern punditry would have people believe.

Democracy in its ideal is a form of government where all citizens have an equal chance to affect decisions impacting their lives. In current incarnations this is largely distilled down to a method of leader selection - where citizens vote for a government figurehead - and possibly referendums to make particular decisions. But voting in elections and referendums can be a very weak form of influence. Election power is largely determined by the candidates and how they’re determined, and the amount of control the elected figurehead wields (and whether or not they are just a figurehead in truth). Referendums too are only as valuable as the issues put up to a vote. Together we find that voting doesn’t necessarily give much of a democracy, with side factors contributing much more to the shape as a whole. Consider the role of the media and lobbyists, or the fact that a majority opposition to a law is not sufficient to strike it down without lawmaker support, if you need more convincing.

Up a level, simply having a democracy does not bestow freedoms - although to be sure they often seem to go together. But one need only look at examples like the witch trials of yesteryear to see the lie of cause and effect. In the same vein, democracy does not directly cause prosperity. Democracy itself is an administrative structure and can be used with multiple economic systems and policy groups (such as fiscal and international policy). And democracy itself has a known weak point in the form of long-term thinking: as a rule it is more susceptible to the tragedy of the commons than alternative systems. All told, it is important to recognize that democracy may be a vehicle for freedom and prosperity, but it may equally be a vehicle for mass hysteria through moral panic and a crippling lack of forethought. Again we find that democracy itself only plays a contributing role, and that we must look deeper if we want to understand the efficacy of any given society in practice.

At the end of the day, most systems are far more nuanced than one can recognize by only looking at superficial indicators. The media shows a disheartening lack of understanding of this point, a key reason for me staying as far away from it as possible. To give a smattering of random examples:

  • toppling a dictatorship - even a violent one - and replacing it with a democracy will not necessarily bring freedom or prosperity to the affected citizens.
  • Simply ensuring the leader of a new government is selected by a fair election is not sufficient in and of itself to declare democracy successful.
  • Legalizing or banning drugs or guns will not magically eliminate all crime.
  • Spending less money per student will neither be the death nor the savior of the education system, and the same goes for patients in healthcare.
  • A correlation found in a study isn’t enough to recommend a major lifestyle change.
  • Interest in books, video games, guns, religion, cross-dressing, clubbing, or poetry will not make someone a murderer - although access to guns can certainly magnify their impact.
And the list goes on.