Friday, August 25, 2006

Hanno on the Virtues and Vices of Democracy

A few posts back there was an interesting discussion about the utilitarian concerns about Democracy that go all the way back to Plato -- if you leave the power to make decisions in the hands of the people, how do you know they won't completely screw it up? Is Democracy a desirable end in itself or is it claimed to be the best means for some other desirable end, say maximizing freedom or standard of living or some other measure of the good life? If it is claimed to be the best means to human flourishing, on what grounds should we accept this claim?

The always insightful I, put it this way:

Hanno--By "faith in democracy" I mean believing in the process, that it works for the good of the people, that it is a better system than any given alternative, that it truly has the power to produce enlightened decisions instead of mob mentalities, that it isn't just the least bad of the political options available. Unless you have a deductive argument proving with certainty that democracy provides this, I'd say there's an element of faith involved when we engage in the democratic process. Geez, these days voting alone is an act of faith that one's vote will even be counted.

Hanno, not one to let things lay -- especially a challenge like that -- replies this way:

On the contrary, there is no reason at all to think that the majority will make decisions for the good of the people or even of the majority.Giving you the freedom to make choices certainly does not in any way assure that you will make the right choices, however one wishes to define 'right." Were it otherwise, there would be no smokers, no drug addicts, no people flunking out of college, etc. The assumptions underlying your faith are that always that individual not only know what is right for them, but also that they will choose to do what they know is right. For societies and individuals, these assumptions seem flatly false. Even the educated minority does not understand economics, diplomacy, science, so how can we expect them to make knowledgeable choices? If they are right, but the answers require sacrifice and pain, the majority is more likely to turn away from right, as we do as individuals when our doctor, for example, tells us we really need to lose 15 lbs.

It is not surprising, then, that as democracies, we can make really bad choices. We can democratically give power to a power hungry mad man (Hitler, for example), democratically support the deaths of millions (Native Americans), wars of aggression (perhaps in the name of peace and defense, but sometimes in the name of God's will, or manifest destiny). There is absolutely nothing about democracy which even suggests that good choices will be made. But even if the majority knows something is wrong, just like the individual, the will to do the right thing can also be undone.

For this reason, we even protect major decisions from democracy (the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve are two examples that jump to mind, where we know democracy will screw things up.) If there is a virtue to democracy, it must be found somewhere else.

First, we might note, when things go wrong in a non-democratic society, violence is almost always a part of the reaction. Democracies allow for change without violence, as long as everyone sticks to the "gentleman’s agreement" to abide by the rules, even when those rules are suspiciously enforced. It was this abiding that made Nixon surrender the tapes when the Supreme Court ordered him to, and this abiding when Democrats lived by the Supreme Court decision giving W. the Presidency. Second, and perhaps more importantly (though do not undersell the importance of the
first!) the power to make your own decisions is important even when you make the wrong decision.

It is almost an existential virtue. You fucked up, but it was your choice. No one forced it on you. It is the virtue of autonomy. So to, in a society, there is a virtue in making our own decisions. But this is not quite equivalent, because in society, autonomy is impossible, unless you autonomously agree to live by the will of the democracy. We make our own choices, but we must live by the acceptance that the vote may not (and in my case, almost never) goes the way I want. I could say a lot more about this, but this is already too long.

When Hanno says he could say a lot more, trust me, he means it.

So, is he right that the primary virtue (and vice) of Democracy the fact that it treats us as adults when many of us tend to act like children?