* Harry Jachuck
* Eastbourne College
* Year 13 (final year of high school)
Why do we have democracy? We have it because we believe it’s fair. We have it because we believe it can make us prosperous. We have it because we believe it guarantees peace.
In the West, it is generally held up as the cornerstone of a civilised society. It is pushed as the only way in which a country can effectively serve the interests of the populace – an idea stretching back to Ancient Greece. We see this enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections” (Article 21).
But does democracy actually lead to the successful functioning of a country? Democracy is meant to be representative of the population, and so most democracies accord equal weight to each person – one person one vote. Yet this results in one person being powerless against the rest of the populace – a circumstance known as the tyranny of the majority. If a majority of people support one thing, no matter how many people oppose it, their opinions will be ignored. This can be repeatedly seen in democratic societies, with referendums being notable culprits. The Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016, now infamous for some, had 48% of voters voting against leaving the EU, yet due to its binary nature , it meant that these voices were ignored.
But then again, does everyone truly have an equal say in modern day democracies? Despite each person having one vote each, those with extra resources (namely money), can unduly influence political debates. As reported in Mother Jones, former US President Barack Obama said in 2011, “inequality … distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder”. You may think that the weight of your vote is equal to that of a millionaire’s, yet you can’t afford the same number of political adverts they can. You can’t afford the same number of political advisors they can. You can’t afford the same number of influential dinners with politicians they can. As long as people want money, democracy will always be the toy of the rich.
Yet if modern democracies don’t represent the people, what can? Enlightenment philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes, thought that a “social contract” was all that was needed. This is an idea where the people consent to the authority and legitimacy of government, in return for the protection of their personal rights. This does sound like democracy, but it doesn’t require elections. In this situation, the state can do as they please, provided that they don’t break the “contract”, by ensuring that the citizens’ rights are protected. Hobbes was even against the idea of democracy, as he believed that within a democracy, conflicts within the state would emerge, threatening its security and stability. You can find these intra-state conflicts in any democracy: the Antifa and Alt-Right in the US, leavers and remainers in the UK, pro- and anti-immigration supporters in Germany – all of which threaten a state’s unity.
However, it is true that when most people think of an undemocratic country, they would think of an authoritarian state, where the people are oppressed and ignored. Examples such as Soviet Russia, where the government wasn’t elected, come to mind. But this assumes that a totalitarian state can only occur in undemocratic societies. Yet throughout history, totalitarianism has come about within democratic countries too. An obvious example is that Hitler’s Nazi party won elections in Germany in the 1930s, before leading the rise of fascism in Europe preceding the Second World War. This contradicts the idea that democracy can automatically create peace and prosperity, because as long as the people can choose whoever they want to lead the government, they can choose the oppressive and totalitarian party to take charge.
Now compare a democratically elected tyrant to an unelected ruler. The tyrant has a mandate, because they have won an election, and this means they have the authority to act however they please. The people have chosen the ruler, and so have directly consented to their rule and their actions. However, the unelected ruler has no explicit mandate from the people – they may claim they have the right to rule from God(s), or they have a social contract – but the people still haven’t directly consented to their rule. This means they have a stronger responsibility to ensure the public is safe and secure – the concept of “noblesse oblige”, where the ruling class has responsibilities towards the lower classes, as well as rights. Andrew Carnegie himself argued in his 1889 article The Gospel of Wealth that the richer, more powerful classes had a duty to ensure their wealth benefited the poorer in society - because of their greater wealth and power.
But to answer the question, we must look closely at what democracy is designed to achieve. It’s an attempt to achieve peace and prosperity. So we must choose what is more important to us, the peace and prosperity which could allow society to flourish? Or the flawed method which only tries to achieve this? Why do we insist on democracy being the hallmark of a developed nation when it is proven that it is imperfect? It can lead to oppressive regimes, protected by the aura of a mandate, and still we consider it as the 21st century gospel.
And while it is important to note that no method of government is perfect, and many governments (in both democracies and other countries) have serious failures, there are good aspects found in undemocratic societies. China, an undemocratic communist state, is one of the most innovative countries in the world. It invests 2.1% of its GDP into research and development – more than the EU, UK, and India – all countries that value democracy. It also has the most researchers of any country in the world – ahead of the democratic USA.
After considering this question, we must surely admit that as long as the goals of peace and prosperity are achieved, it doesn’t have to be through democracy that it is achieved. The relentless drive we see nowadays for the spread of democracy overlooks the fact that democracy doesn’t necessarily lead to prosperity.