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I have pointed out some weaknesses of Western-style (or US-style) democracies in previous articles. Among the weaknesses already covered are:
1. Populist politicians, who profile themselves for being against something, have a better chance of being elected than those with a constructive agenda
2. Legislative hyperactivity
An additional weakness of direct democracy is that it overemphasizes change.
An idealistic view of democracy is that people evaluate various options and then vote for what they consider most beneficial.
However, in reality, most people have a poor judgment, or no idea at all, of what is beneficial for them. If they are not captivated by populist politicians who exploit their envies and hatreds, then there is a good chance that they treat politics as entertainment, and their countries as the stage. This will be all the more pronounced the poorer a country, and the lower the level of general education. Entertainment, the opposite of boredom, is when there is variety, or change.
This is why in any direct democracy, the opposition always has an edge. People are bored, apart from being dissatisfied, and they vote for change just to have something new. For its entertainment value, the opposition's proposals must not be better. They only have to be different.
However, both safety and personal freedom need a high degree of social continuity. For obvious reason: the more things change, the more are previous and subsequent situations in conflict with each other. And where there is conflict, there potentially is violence, which contradicts safety.
I do not claim that change would per se be good for safety and personal freedom. I also do not claim that continuity would per se be good for safety and personal freedom. Both assessments would be foolish. But there is always a greater theoretical, even mathematical potential that change is worse for safety and personal freedom than is continuity.
When certain fractions, or classes, of a society "liberate" themselves, then what they actually do is not to increase the personal freedom of those who belong to it and have been oppressed. Rather, "liberation" often just means that a certain class assumes power and then does both, curtail the personal freedom of the previous ruling class and implement strict rules on itself (possibly with the exception of just a few leaders).
The French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions are historic examples. Personal freedom only increased after the revolutionary regimes had experienced continuity over a certain period of time. For continuity is more likely to allow people to carve out their spaces of personal freedom in a society. The rules are generally known, and people have adapted to them, and safety has been established for both the government and those governed.
That non-democratic regimes would, when they are in power long enough, allow people a higher degree of personal freedom than new democracies, or even revolutionary democracies, appears to most people to be an anachronism. But we ought not to start out with just a theory, and then be blind for any reality that doesn't match the theory. Rather we ought to observe reality, and then develop theories that explain reality.
I have lived myself for more than 25 years in Southeast Asia and East Asia. During this time, I have met numerous Western people with very precise opinions on the level of personal freedom that currently exists in China, or that existed in Indonesia under Suharto (I lived in Indonesia in the mid-90s), or even the Philippines under Marcos (where I lived in the mid-80s). And when I asked them whether they have been there, now or then, they often admitted that they never were. But all assured me that they knew exactly what was going on in these countries. These people didn't realize that they were brainwashed by the Western media, which, for theoretical political correctness, wrongly equates democracy with freedom and then creates images which support this assessment.
While democratic change usually isn't as violent as revolutionary change, and accompanied by fewer intrusions into personal freedom, democracy nevertheless is a conflict-oriented political system. And in order to be workable (and allow the continuity necessary not only for personal freedom, but also for economic progress), the political parties contesting democratic elections must not differ on fundamental issues, so that indeed, a change of power doesn't mean to much change in the society.
In the US, democracy is workable precisely because the main political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, differ so little from each other that for the country's political ideology, it doesn't really matter who is in power.
Even in France, Britain, and Germany, there is so much political consensus between all "democratic" parties that by and large, it makes no difference who rules.
In "mature" democracies, there are numerous safeguards that political movements that advocate too much change will be muffled. This stretches from constitutional requirements on their programs to the gerrymandering of voting districts, and includes an established media, which, all by itself, is supportive of the current state.
But when the US model of democracy was transferred to the Balkan, or, for that matter, the former Soviet Union, or to countries in Africa, or when it is transferred to Afghanistan, or Iraq, and even just to Indonesia, the political forces that appear will not just differ on formalities.
The political parties in newly democratic countries split, or will likely split, along much more fundamental fault lines (ethnicity, religion, regional independence).
However, the psychological mechanism by which people in democracies have a preference for change (just for its entertainment value), is at work as much in new democracies without safeguards against too much change as it is in established ones where change is a formality. The fact that people, when given the democratic choice, have, as a matter of human nature, an affinity for change, doesn't mean that change would be beneficial for them. People often realize this later. Even in countries that had such lousy governments as did many of the Eastern European and Soviet republics, you typically get, after a few years, an increasing number of people that would happily revert their previous vote for change. And, even more starkly, if you would, and could, offer people who voted in referendums for national independence the return to a previous colonial or occupied status, many would pick it.
Time and again, democratization has lead to quick disintegration of what previously were powerful players on the world stage, or at least within their regions. Reunification, on the other hand, is a tedious process (as exemplified by the slow progress by which the European Union is formed).
But the formation of ever small states, as they result from Third World democratization, usually is bad news for both political and personal freedom.
They are bad news for political freedom because the smaller a state the easier it is to invade for the world's current superpower when it does not agree with the political direction taken. Think Grenada.
Smaller countries are also often bad news for personal freedom. A national government that spans a wide area typically will have to integrate a large number of different lifestyles. It therefore is restricted by a large country's heterogeneity to declare local standards of one region the national law.
A partially Muslim, partially non-Muslim country is always more likely to have a more tolerant government than a country that is 100 percent Muslim. A government that rules over a population of mixed ethnicity will have to try to strike a balance, and impose it if it is truly a national government, or see ethnic strive, civil war, and disintegration.
While one can always find samples of small countries and large countries granting their citizens more or less personal freedom, it is important for a political ideology to have a position on whether it is in favor of large countries that encompass many different ethnicities, religions, and lifestyles, or in favor of an ever increasing number of small countries, resulting from the division of larger countries along ethnic or religious lines, or just reflecting zones of military might.
Even the granting of regional autonomy often is counterproductive for the level of personal freedom. Look at present day Indonesia where government on the prefecture level now can legislate behavioral norms: the obligation for women to wear headscarves, the ban of alcohol, and the prohibition of all forms of gambling and prostitution.
There always is a distinct likelihood that local laws are not drafted very well, simply because local delegates are less likely than national delegates to be educated in matters of law, and because they have fewer experts to work on draft legislation. Thus, laws may cover cases for which they were not designed, and which are later construed in courts.
For all the above reasons, when the question is of whether large countries or small countries are more likely to grant an optimum of personal freedom, my bet is on large countries.
And when the question is of whether direct democracy or less democracy (which still is some democracy) is better for an optimum of personal freedom, my bet is on less democracy.
I would favor the rule of an elitist intellectual party with a strong commitment to grant the citizens of a country as much personal freedom as possible, with as much safety as possible.
In countries where there isn't an intellectual elite unified by a coherent political philosophy, the best alternative to US-style democracy is a system of indirect democracy which spans several layers. I have explained my ideas on such a system in my article on "Better democracy".
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Copyright Luc Loranhe