The Democracy Delusion
Why democracy is so useless and why we need something much more fit for purpose
Each age has its own myths. Not so long ago the myth most prevalent across Europe was the divine right of rulers. According to this myth, the Christian proto-god Yahweh personally appointed each king, tzar, emperor, or whomever, as part of its ineffable plan and therefore whatever the ruler did was necessarily part of this plan. Rulers were, like the head of the Catholic sect of Christianity, infallible.
Especially when they were incompetent morons who ruined the nations over which they exercised control.
Today our myth is about representative democracy. According to this myth, “the will of the people” is made manifest on voting day and representatives are elected to implement this will. The fact that this myth has no bearing whatsoever on reality is no more a deterrent to people believing in it than the former incompetence of absolute monarchs. No matter how totally useless representative democracy is and how appalling the outcomes, today we all believe it’s “the best system, the greatest system.”
Representative democracy is so wonderful that it gave us Brexit, Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Babiš, Erdogan, Putin, PiS, Duterte, etc. etc. etc. Populism is today’s glorious victory for representative democracy because simple-minded lies are so much easier to grasp than complex reality. By the time a very tiny percentage of people realize they’ve been taken for a ride, it’s too late — the damage is done. And most people never realize they’re endlessly being played for dupes.
Why do we imagine representative democracy to be anything other than a total failure as a system of governance? Let’s look at the core components of the myth.
First of all, there’s our wonderfully vapid notion of “the will of the people.” What this really means, of course, is the ability of one political Party to convince a sufficiently large group of simple-minded and totally ignorant people that their lies are better than the lies of other Parties. Once elected, of course, those lies don’t result in beneficial concrete policies, often because the lies were so infantile and so impossible and so ruinously expensive that there was never any way they could have been instantiated. For politicians, however, this gap between lie and reality isn’t a problem because ordinary people will not perceive the gap between falsehood and subsequent action. They will simply chant whatever slogans they were programmed to repeat, happy in their delusion and happy to be part of the winning team.
Furthermore, there is no “will of the people.” In reality, each person has a lot of different desires, many of which conflict and most of which conveniently ignore reality. Most people’s desires would, if enacted, cause even the individual who wishes for them significant harm. As ordinary people are totally ignorant of every matter of importance to their lives and are incapable of seeing inconsistencies between their desires, it’s easy for their imaginary desires to seem simple and good.
But a moment’s thought reveals the paucity of ordinary people’s understanding. Many less educated and less successful people believe globalization is “bad.” But they never connect globalization with all the things they’d bitterly miss if globalization collapsed: their smartphones, wide-screen TVs, cheap clothes and shoes, cheap travel, multitude of affordable foods on supermarket shelves, affordable automobiles, and so on and on and on. So even if there was, by magic, one definable “will of the people” instead of in fact a multitudinous incoherent babble, it would certainly be comically disastrous.
Lazy journalists can’t stop themselves writing about how populist politicians “capture the mood of all those who’ve been overlooked and ignored.” According to this myth, we should embrace the desires of everybody because that’s the core of democracy. Populism is a necessary reaction to elitism (a word always left conveniently undefined) and elitism was bad because it involved clever people imagining they knew better than ignorant simple-minded people. We are told, by these intellectually indolent journalists and commentators, that political Parties need to reach out to these left-behind folk and include their wants and needs in Party policy. That is, after all, the democratic solution.
When we think about this for a moment, however, the absurdity becomes obvious. Let’s imagine that for whatever reasons five percent of the population believes that it’s essential to put a certain group into concentration camps because they represent an existential threat to society. Whether the hated group is Jews, Hispanics, Catholics, Moslems, homosexuals, or any other minority we must have at least one mainstream political Party embracing this idea because, well, “it’s the will of the people.”
Oh no, cry a few. It’s not really the “will of the people” because only five percent of the population wants it. OK, so it’s wrong and evil if only five percent want it. But what happens when glib-tongued cynical demagogues persuade 51% of the population that the minority group should be treated thus? Well, now it’s thoroughly democratic and really is “the will of the people.” By the magic of representative democracy, it’s now a very good thing to put a certain group into concentration camps. Apparently good and bad are decided by whoever gets the most votes. That’s democratic morality, folks!
It’s no good pretending this doesn’t happen in real life. In real life, cynical demagogues persuaded a majority of ignorant simple-minded and closet-racist British voters to vote in favor of national suicide under the name of Brexit. A mindless ranting orange moron persuaded enough US voters to elect him to the Presidency in 2016 by playing the same racism card. And other blustering incompetents around the globe have likewise ridden to power on the backs of all the average voters who lack the intellectual capacity and knowledge necessary to realize they’re being played for fools.
Representative democracy is systemically flawed. Bad outcomes are a regular feature, not an occasional glitch.
We don’t perceive this because, like people everywhere at all times throughout history, we believe whatever we’ve been told. We’ve been told representative democracy is the only “legitimate” system of government and we can’t imagine anything better. Like doctors rushing patients into induced coma and then putting them on artificial ventilators that reliably kill 95% of those thus treated, we keep doing the same thing over and over in the belief that next time round the outcome will be better. Only the doctors did, eventually, learn from their persistent mistakes made throughout the early months of the SARS-COV2 pandemic and are now killing far fewer of their patients. We the people never learn anything at all, and keep imagining that if only X or Y gets elected next time round, everything will be lovely.
Yet it never is.
Imagine if we asked passengers to vote after they’d taken their seats on a commercial jet aircraft. Up front, Donny Dumbass is telling people that if only he was allowed to saw the wings off the plane it would be lighter so would go faster and fly higher and be the best, the greatest, airplane in history. Meanwhile Boris Bungler is telling people that they don’t need to care about foreign airport landing strips, permission to cross foreign airspace, or buying nasty foreign aviation fuel. If he’s elected then they can fly wherever they want because their grandparents “won the war.” And Cynical Sally Sugartongue is telling the passengers they can have free ice-cream and cookies forever with zero health consequences if only they vote for her.
There’s one person trying to explain that all these candidates are lying and that reality is far more complicated, but everyone’s ignoring this person because the message is unpleasant and too difficult to understand.
Guess what’s going to happen?
That’s the beauty of representative democracy: the mendacious and incompetent are elected by the ignorant and simple-minded. It’s hardly surprising that by every objective measure the results are sub-optimal every single time.
We live in a world in which most people are unhealthy, suffering from a wide variety of chronic ailments caused by wholly inadequate lifestyle choices. If the average person isn’t even capable of performing the most crucial human task of looking after themselves by exercising adequate judgement, how can we expect the same average person to make adequate choices regarding matters about which they are totally ignorant?
Until we stop clinging to the myth of representative democracy, we won’t begin to think about far better systems of governance. Which means we’ll continue to experience increasingly poor outcomes which in turn will lead to even worse demagogues appearing on the scene which in turn will lead to even poorer outcomes. We know where all this inevitably leads.
Even today, in the absence of war between the various squabbling democracies, we’re causing catastrophic harm. We’re burning precious rainforests (which provide 30% of the oxygen we breath) at an ever-accelerating rate. We’re over-fishing and obliterating ecosystems by means of deep-sea trawling that drags concrete rollers over the fragile seabed, scooping up all marine life — most of which is then tossed back, dead, into the oceans as “by-catch.” We’re acidifying the oceans (which provide 70% of the oxygen we breath). Even without climate change, these acts alone will end by destroying most life on Earth. Yet we persist because democracies are driven by the unassailable forces of ignorance, stupidity, and short-sightedness.
The first step on the long road towards something better is to accept that the current state of affairs is unsatisfactory. This does not mean we need to return to the days of Kings and Emperors, much as Putin and Xi and Erdogan and Modi and Trump would love us to think is the case. It means we need to accept the fundamental limitations of human beings and engineer suitable mitigations.
The average person is an abysmally poor driver. But instead of accepting a high rate of death on the roads, automotive engineers work tirelessly to mitigate the situation by building in airbags, antilock brakes, stability control systems, lane departure warning, automatic collision avoidance, crumple zones, and all manner of other safety features that compensate for ineradicable human incompetence.
Designers of domestic appliances and electronic toys such as smartphones and tablets don’t expect ordinary people to understand anything about how these modern-day miracles actually work. Instead, they strive to make the operation of their products as simple as possible so that ordinary people can use them without too much mishap.
We need systems of governance that apply the same principles. It’s no good being content with terrible road fatality statistics year after year, or endless complaints from customers who can’t understand how to turn on their phones. And it’s no good being content with a system of governance that is hopelessly unfit for purpose and which reliably delivers appalling outcomes.
Unless, that is, you think Trump and Brexit and Bolsonaro and Modi and Duterte and Putin and Erdogan and Babiš and all the other blustering incompetent liars are what we really need and that life will be wonderful as long as we can all have “strong” leaders to implement “the will of the people.”
We’ve tried that for far too long. It really is long past time we looked to build something better.