Tuesday 30 October 2018

The tyranny of democracy

Benjamin Franklin said that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch”.  He went on to add that “Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!”.  I don’t find either of those images terribly appealing, although the second, I suppose, provides an explanation of sorts of US political culture, especially when it comes to gun control.  The first expresses well part of the problem with an over-simplistic approach to ‘democracy’, eliminating as it does the rights of any minorities; put together, the two concepts suggest that minorities only have rights to the extent that they’re prepared to defy the majority – using violence if necessary.  It’s not, for me, an attractive picture of the sort of society I want to live in.
It was the election of a man described as an ‘extreme right winger’ as president of Brazil this week which brought the quote to mind.  I’m never sure that labels such as ‘left’ and ‘right’ are terribly helpful other than as terms of abuse, but it is clear that the people have elected an authoritarian who wants to criminalise his political opponents.  There are also fears – based on what he himself has said – that he plans to remove the rights of indigenous peoples and open their lands to mining, will give the police carte blanche to kill, and will do away with human rights.  It could be that all of this was just campaign rhetoric, and that now he has been elected he will moderate his words and actions – but the omens for that are not good.
The problem, for those of us who believe that democracy is, in general, a good idea (or even for those who merely believe, as Churchill put it, that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”) is that whatever Bolsonaro does, he can legitimately claim that he said he would do it, and the people have voted for him to do it.  He has a strong mandate to do what he said he was going to do.  In a not entirely unfamiliar phrase in the UK these days, ‘the people have spoken’.
The question it raises in my mind is about how to define – and enforce – the limits of democracy, and how to decide what rights minorities should have.  There isn’t a simple point at which one can draw a line between what people can decide through a vote and what they can’t – and even if there were, the world doesn’t have any mechanism for enforcing that line.  There are some limits to democracy – as we’ve discovered in relation to Brexit, voting for free unicorns doesn’t magic them into existence.  But aside from limits set by what is actually practical and achievable, where does the line go?  Is it OK for the majority to vote to eliminate the minority; for the wolves to vote to eat the lamb?  Is it acceptable for people to vote to abolish their own rights and privileges (even if they believe that it’s only ‘other people’ whose rights are being abolished)?
What the Brazilian election highlights is that there isn’t an easy answer to the question; in Brazil, as in the Philippines, when the people voluntarily, exercising their own free will, choose to elect an extremist, there is little that the rest of the world can do except watch and condemn from the sidelines.  To continue the theme from yesterday, concepts such as liberty, equality and fraternity are by no means as deeply ingrained in humanity as we like to believe.


Gwyn Jones said...

We in the UK had the right to be armed, confirmed by the bill of rights, on the accession of William II and Mary II in 1688/89 which returned this right to protestants who had been disarmed by James II. Even Sir William Blackstone said that this was the cornerstone of our rights almost a century later.
However ever since the end of WW I our governments of various hues have steadily eroded our rights to defend ourselves. "When you collect your de-mob suit in 1919 don't forget to hand your rifle back. We want to use it against you in 1926."
George Orwell in Tribune in 1942 said "The totalitarian states can do great things but one thing they cannot do is to give the working man a gun and tell him to take it home and keep it there. That rifle in the corner of the working man's flat or hanging on the wall of the labourer's cottage is a symbol of democracy. We should see that it stays there." Of course you think differently.
If I am attacked in the street I hope that a policeman will help me and not lock himself in his car and drive away.
Gwyn Jones

John Dixon said...

You are right - I do think differently. The armaments in the possession of citizens to allow them to defend themselves from the state are hard to distinguish from the arms in the hands of the anti-democrats who elect the totalitarian leader of the state. The problem, in a 'democracy' (which is what I was referring to here), is how to ensure that a repressive anti-democrat never gets elected in the first place - although I accept that it's easier to state the problem than to solve it. By the time the anti-democrat is in power, he (invariably a 'he') already enjoys 'majority' (and the definition of that word is tricky given varying approaches to democracy) support. Armed resistance by one group of citizens starts to look like (a) a rejection of a 'democratic' outcome in itself, and (b) a recipe for a bloodbath.

Even the terminology is complicated - who am I, for instance, to decide who is or is not an 'anti-democrat'? Can someone elected in a democratic election, who tells people in advance that he's going to close down democracy, really be considered an anti-democrat? If the lupine majority elects a ravenous leader with a voracious appetite for lamb, on what basis does the right of the ovine minority not to be eaten stand?

Gwyn Jones said...

So our rights are being curtailed for our own good? Any one, even an anti-democrat, in power in your ideal state will control the army and police anyway.
The arming of the police in the UK depend on the common law provision that we are all allowed to be armed if we feel that we are in danger. However that right is not available to us plebs according to the politicians.
One is even not allowed any non-lethal means of defence such as pepper spray available on mainland Europe.
Gwyn Jones

John Dixon said...

"So our rights are being curtailed for our own good?" I didn't say that, nor do I believe it. Maybe some of those wanting to curtail people's righte believe it, maybe not. But whether they believe it or not, they often manage to convince their electors that any curtailmant of their rights is for their own good, and that's the nub of the problem about which I was talking here.

The rest of your comment is way off thread here; you're talking about people carrying weapons for self-protection if they feel they are in dangere, which is an entirely different subject to the question of the extent to which a 'democratic' decision allows the curtailment of rights.

Spirit of BME said...

Good post and only once did you mention the “B” word, -well done.
The founders of the USA fought a rebellion against the Crown on what they called the “tyranny of monarchy” as they objected to being subjects and not freemen. The question of “tyranny of democracy” came when some wags had changed the Articles of Confederacy into a Federal Constitution and now they had to address the question of the extent of government powers and the role of government in the lives of their citizens nationwide.
The majority of their population was clustered around the North East coast and the question put – would they have the knowledge and goodwill to vote for the benefit of the agrarian states, the answer was – no chance, so checks and balances were devised to safeguard all, so checks and balances are a safeguard to good democracy.
I warm to Mr Jones`s words, but the subject of gun laws in the US is based on the defence of freedom and in the United Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland are based on Anglo-Norman mindset that is there to keep the peasants in check. So, it is a waste of time talking about it as you cannot square that circle. To me one bumper sticker I saw in the US summed it up, it stated “an armed society, is a polite society”, translated that means- beware, do not Lord it over people, as the people are sovereign.
Since the time of Simon de Mountford and the Provisions of Oxford and Westminster attempts have been made to create a “crowned republic”, but all have failed and the “tyranny of monarchy” prevails. We are subjects, the votes we cast are not binding and the rule of law, as we saw a few days ago can be overturned by one man, by the power of his ennoblement.