Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Democracy and dystopia, Elections and coercion

A good friend, Bruce Hall, an American academic teaching at UP Visayas, a fellow Rotarian, and a volunteer in Global Foodbanking Network (GFN), wrote a good, short essay. Below is his paper, and next to it are my comments and reactions.

Elections are about avoiding dystopia, not achieving utopia

By Bruce Hall
June 7, 2010

Democracy is not a search for the good and the perfect; it's a flight from dystopia. The most powerful books and writings in favor of liberal democracy are dystopian, like 1984, or polemics against monarchy or tyranny, see Thomas Paine. Even in the Philippines. the great democratic moments weren't great steps towards a bright, glorious future, but an attack on the terrible present -- e.g. the Philippine Revolution and People Power. Those movements that strived for a better, more perfect world have always failed, often ending in tyranny and oppression --- e.g. Marcos's New Society, japan's Greater East Asis Prosperity Zone, Communist and Fascist revolutions worldwide.

What does that mean for an electoral system?

First and foremost, elections are about avoiding tyranny. They are about overturning governments, about throwing the bums out. It is not about finding the "perfect" way to determine the "will of the people". The will of the people is not sacred or brilliant, and it's irrelevant. What matters is that there are checks and balances on the power of the powers-that- be. The type of voting system is therefore secondary to other consideration and should primarily be chosen depending upon its ease and transparency of declaring a winner, the difficulty of stealing the election, the ability of holding governments accountable even if the election is stolen, and a few similar factors. It should not be chosen because of some mathematical model about which system best reflects the will of the people or whether it allows for the perfect person to be chosen. Elections and voting systems about avoiding the worst, not choosing the best.

The easiest and best way to make sure that governments are accountable is to shrink the size of the polity, of the electorate. If one was to hold an election in your immediate family, it would be much easier to choose, almost by consensus, the best leader. Why? Because the electorate is small and everyone knows each other, and can speak to each other in the same language and culture. As you expand the circle to include say your extended family and beyond to the barangay, which in many places is really just a very extended family, it becomes harder and harder to reach a consensus, to make sure that governments are accountable, that there is a check on power. If one was to rank Philippine governments by accountability, by responsiveness to the people, from most responsive to least, it would look like this:

Most accountable: Barangay
Least accountable: National

All this discussion over what the electoral process should be therefore should be secondary to the question over devolution of power. If you want a more accountable, a more democratic political system, fight for more local control. Give barangay and then municipal governments more power, especially the power over taxing and spending. He who has the gold rules. Give these local governments the gold and let them rule, not Imperial Manila.

I agree with a number of points that Bruce wrote above. In particular, his argument that centralized political structures are the least democratic, the least transparent and least accountable. That's why economic central planning and centralized politics, are bad. Decentralization and devolution of political power is a laudable move.

But decentralization does not automatically mean less government or making the government more accountable. What happens in many cases with decentralization is that the national or central govt temporarily shrinks -- and expand much bigger after sometime -- and the local govts become bigger. For instance, an ordinary city used to require only 2 or 3 procedures to give a business permit. After devolution and with expanded functions and subsidies by local govts., the same city will now require a dozen different procedures before it issues a business permit. The local bureaucracy has expanded several fold.

My beef against any form of government -- democratic, totalitarian, republican, welfare state, etc. -- is the widespread use of coercion, of state force, to implement certain social engineering that the politicians, entrenched bureaucracies and dominant political parties have designed.

In a market economy, you go to restaurant A. You don’t like their food, you get out, you pay nothing. Then you go to restaurant B. You like their food but not their price, so you get out again, you pay nothing. Then you go to restaurant C. You like their food, their price, but the waiters and staff do not look friendly, so you get out again and pay nothing. Until you find a restaurant that pleases you. Zero coercion involved.

In state coercion, even under a democracy, the school principal might an arrogant teacher; the police chief might be an extortionist; the mayor and the city councillors might be corrupt; the governor and congressman might be the gambling lords; the President might notoriously corrupt and has cheated big time in the last elections, and so on. Whether we like them or not, both elected and appointed bureaucrats, citizens and voters generally have to support those people with different taxes, fees and regulatory procedures.

Consider also this statement: "Everyone should eat decent food everyday."

Very laudable goal, no question about it. In a market economy, people, parents and guardians especially, should work to earn money to buy food. Or they work to grow their own food. Those who are lazy and do not want to work will either be supported by their family members and friends, or they starve and die later.

With coercion though, even in a democracy, the lazy and irresponsible will receive food stamps or welfare dole-outs from the government. Eating and healthcare is a "right", an entitlement. So the state over-taxes the hard-working people, first to pay for the salaries and perks of government personnel who will administer the welfare programs; then to feed those who are hungry, including the lazy, drunkards and irresponsible.

Thus, the form of government has become secondary to the issue of using coercion in many aspects of our lives. A democracy can be a lenient form of authoritarianism and totalitarianism if the culture of entitlement is done massively. People who smoke 2 packs a day will never worry about lung cancer or hypertension and other smoking-related diseases, they can always run to the state and demand "quality" healthcare because "health is a right."

With the foregoing discussion, I argue that we should aim not for decentralization, but for a state of civil society. From centralization to decentralization to civil society. A state of civil society is a state of responsible citizens who can take care of their own lives, their own households, their own communities, with the least external coercion necessary. It is a state of a lean or small or minimal government. Personal responsibility, not more government responsibility, is the "default" mode.

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