Democracy at the mercy of professional politicians

It was an alleged remark by our dear president, President Jacob Zuma that prompted me to write about it: The destruction of democracy by professional politicians. Admittedly the remark was read from lamp pole posters, because I more or less refuse to subject myself to the feverish sensationalism of the day press, unless I am caught in a doctor’s waiting room with nothing else to read; much better, I find, to read the more considered opinions about the whole lot in a good weekly isor monthly

Oh yes, the remark. He was alleged to have said that his party, the African National Congress (ANC) comes first; the country second. Now, I am sure our dear president would have liked to protest that his innocent remark was pulled completely out of context by a vindictive Afrikaans press, and I would not put that beyond them. But for now I’m not going to give him the opportunity – not that he would have been in the least interested in taking it… I need his remark to trigger this essay, and besides, I don’t feel a strong obligation to be fair to our dear president. After all, he has been anything but fair to the people that elected him and even less to the ones that did not, but for whom (in theory, at least) he assumed responsibility when he (oh so solemnly) assumed the presidency.

No, our dear president has not been concerned with being fair to anyone, or with what was good for the country in the long term – not sure he is able to even grasp that concept – or with what is in the best interest of the poor people or the jobless or the school children, or… From what we see he has been more concerned about arranging the plot in such a way that his party’s and his own chances of getting re-elected were maximised – as he plainly said, he the party comes first. And, if what we are told is correct, and there seems to be a lot of such evidence around, feathering his nest so that in the unlikely event that he is forced from power he will be able to live the rest of his life in consummate luxury.

Sorry, Mr President, for using you as an example here, but you are so convenient. So let me ask: Isn’t what he has been doing more or less what every professional politician anywhere in the wold has to do? After all, he or she is a professional politician. That is what he/she does. In fact, he/she has only three objectives – oh damn, I’m just going to be using “he” for convenience here – and they are:

How to get elected.

How to stay elected.

How to accumulate enough riches fast so that if you’re nor re-elected at least you will be rich fine.

If he is not in office, or about to be elected, the professional politician is at best a kind of irrelevant clown with a poorly paid job. In a democracy, to be elected, he needs to gain support, and enough of it. So how does he gain support? He gains support by appealing to the sentiments of a large enough group of people.

The professional politician, if he doesn’t want to die an irrelevant pauper has no other choice. He simply has to “appeal to the sentiments” of a “large enough group of people”.  So? What’s wrong with finding out what “a large enough group of people” want and then telling you’ll give it to them? After all, they are the best judges of what is best for them. Well, maybe four things:

First, what they want may be nice to them, but very often not good, and not for everyone, and usually not in the long term. Alexander Tyler, a turn of the 19th century Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh, had this to say about democracy:

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.”

George Bernard Shaw was typically sardonic about it: “A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.” So, the voting public itself seem to harbour the seeds of their own destruction, and we only need to look around us in the world to see the evidence of them cultivating it – Argentine, Venezuela, Italy, Greece, any number of African states come to mind.

Second, if, in such a world of imperfect desires, someone who’s well-being depends on playing the system – yes, you guessed right the first time, the professional politician (how amazing) – is let lose, and supplied with modern mass communication tools, then one can be sure that it will be further perverted – manipulated, lied to, carefully whipped into a feverish frenzy of righteousness, or indignation, or greed, or revenge, or nationalism, or populism, all…: to be elected, or re-elected. And oh dear, how many of those examples aren’t around since the times of the ancient democracies. Of course, you can’t really condemn the poor politician. I mean, what’s a girl (a bloke) to do?

Third, if you add to this heady mix the phenomenon known as political parties, then it starts to display some really hideous potential – because the party is an institution which, apart from acquiring a life of its own, is populated by people with (similar) vested interests who will act to secure them, no matter what the impact that the longer term impact on society or parts of it may be adverse. As Eric H. Reader remarked once:  “I was curious about Athenian democracy, and when I was poking around I was very surprised to find out that traditionally, a state in which the people voted for their public officials was known as an oligarchy. This was because that even if not at first, then eventually the government would devolve to a small, homogenous group that had enough political power to disregard the will of the people” – there you have it, the party comes first, as our dear president, so flush with ancient knowledge, has pointed out to us.

Fourth, it seems clear to me that the less homogeneous the society is, or the more skewed in one direction, the more the first three flaws are likely to manifest. Again just look around you.

What about stealing feathering the nest? Well if it was me, I’d do it. What else can I do? I’m not really receiving a great salary, and so the risks to my vested interests if I’m not re-elected are simply too great not to steal use the system to get stinking rich defer my risks.  I’m human, like everybody, am I not? As an active blogger of some standing puts it, I’d simply pimp my services out to the highest bidder (http://www.washingtonsblog.com), or do some special favours (of course, for a small fee), or such. It sometimes seems to me as if democracy as we practice it today is specially designed to encourage corruption. Then we go about, at enormous cost, designing and running systems to counter that – of course with very dubious success.

The brilliance is astonishing, and I am afraid the bottom line is that we end up being governed poorly, and by the wrong people.

So, if this is what I think is wrong with democracy, what remedies can I offer.  What can we do to prevent democracy descending into a system where, as James Bovard, a Civil Libertarian said in 1994, “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for  dinner.” I’m afraid I have little to offer. I know… To criticise without having something to offer as a solution is a low form of discourse. But this is a complex problem with which far better minds than mine have struggled over a very long period of time.

But let me be so brave (or presumptuous) to offer some rough thoughts: Many of the alternative (known) political systems I think carry their own risks with potentially more ghastly consequences if they go wrong. So we really need to try and fix democracy.

Well, for a start, what if we try eliminating the professional politician. Something like, a person can only serve (strange concept, I admit) for a maximum of four years in a twelve year cycle – so he has to have an alternative way to sustain himself. Maybe then we need to pay the people serving us (oh my, that is a concept that was last popular in the time of Frederic the Great of Germany around the late 1700’s) better, but I think it would be money very well spent.

For one, they (the servers) will be far less incentivised to infest the bureaucracy with their cronies, so let’s think along the lines of taking it away from them altogether and giving it to an elected commission, half of which has to rotate (by election) every four years. We task them with ensuring that the civil service is optimally designed and staffed with the best possible people. Maybe we can have the commission designed with specific positions requiring specific skills and knowledge?

One has to search for the flaws, but maybe these two fairly simple measures could go quite a long way? But there are other approaches too. Demarchy might be something to explore.

The term is a bit abused, but demarchy (or lottocracy) is a form of government in which the state is governed by randomly selected decision makers who have been selected by sortition (lot) from a broadly inclusive pool of eligible citizens. (http://politics.stackexchange.com/) But Friedrich Hayek, brilliant philosopher and Nobel Laureate, for instance, used the term at the turn of the 19th century to describe a democratic system that did not include sortition.  So one could perhaps use elements of it together with my two humble suggestions.

I am quite convinced that, if one seriously put one’s mind to it the ills of democracy as we are trying to practice it today can be removed. I have recently come across several commentators that at least recognise them and are making proposals. The (much) bigger problem will be to convince the passengers on the gravy train (you know who) that it’s stopping at the next station and they need to get off

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