A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 27 June 2016

Government House Democracy

Grief at losing the EU referendum is causing many people on the left of British politics to wake up to something libertarians have been saying for years: democracy is kind of a stupid system. I won't go over the many problems with democracy as it is practised, although it should be noted that they go far beyond the fact that sometimes The People make stupid decisions. My concern here is to ask: why do we have a democracy, and how could it work better?

Here is a simple suggestion for why democracy is a relatively good system: people accept it. That is to say, countries which are democratic are significantly less likely than non-democratic countries to experience violent rebellions or civil wars. This applies not only to the relatively mature and open democracies of Scandinavia and the Anglosphere, but also to the corrupt tinpot democracies which dominate Africa and South America. There is no particular connection between democracy and good governance, but if you can achieve good governance then democracy makes it much more stable.

In what way does it become more stable? Primarily because people feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have a voice and are being listened to. People will be less likely to oppose a system when they feel that they have some role of authorship in it. By voting, people contribute to two things: firstly, they help fool themselves into thinking they have a significant voice, and secondly, they make it easier for others to believe this idea.

By voting, you demonstrate your buying in to this collective myth and thus your membership in (and hence acceptance of) the political community. This is a falsity, and patently so: the idea that one ordinary person can influence a polity of sixty-five million is utterly ridiculous. But so long as everyone pretends to believe it, we can get along.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be enough. Perhaps it was never enough, and we relied upon other signals that people were being listened to for stability - the close links between trade unions and the Labour Party, for example. Perhaps libertarians have been the little boy shouting that the emperor has no clothes (I don't think we're that influential, but who knows?). Either way, the fact is that enough people are feeling unlistened to that our political culture is under threat.

What, then, can be done to recreate the myth that people are being listened to? E-petitions are a valiant attempt at this, but are aimed at a fundamentally different audience from the one that voted for Brexit. E-petitions are a tool of the young and politically engaged; Brexit, as we have all heard repeatedly, was foisted upon the young by their unemployed and uneducated elders.

MP's surgeries are probably fairly effective for those people who are aware of how to attend them and have the forethought to book a session. But my suspicion would be that a very substantial constituency is simply unaware that surgeries are a thing - they're not something that we talk about a great deal, after all. And quite apart from that, there's the whole question of whether MPs could really handle a move towards mass use of surgeries. They have other things to do with their time, after all, and do you really want to spend every single Saturday listening to people, most of whom are expressing similar concerns in inarticulate (and often in an angry, perhaps even threatening, manner), concerns which you simply do not have the power to do anything about?

I don't really have a good answer to the second problem I'm posing. How do you get disenfranchised people to feel they are being listened to? (Should we care? What will they do if they don't - more shootings, or will it just contribute to what, in a vague sense, we call "the decline of social trust"?) My hope, however, is that by putting it in terms of perceptions of listening rather than actual listening, I can move us closer to a real solution.

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