Sunday, September 4, 2011

The “Democratic” Process: an illusion?

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. -- Winston Churchill
Talk is just that: talk. When we try to get past it, to get down to “getting things done,” it is our American custom to vote on alternatives. Being “democratic” -- what we have been taught since childhood -- is to “give everyone a voice,” to lay out the alternatives and to vote to award our commitment to the majority choice.

Here we run into the first illusion: we think we agree because we have picked a common word or phrase to identify our goal. But words are notoriously ambiguous and vague. In a situation where we can’t take the vote over again when we change our minds, this becomes a real problem. Majority vote may settle nothing.

Even when we achieve an overwhelming consensus, a landslide vote, we may proceed into butting up against the second illusion: that a common goal has only one path to realization. In fact, the hardest part in achieving anything is, often, to get some kind of agreement on how to work together to reach it. Majority vote on a goal may still mean disagreement on means.

Finally, even if we agree on goals and means, we may yet delude ourselves that obstacles are minor. People have different priorities. There may be a landslide majority vote on a goal, say, higher employment, and even on the means to achieving it. But higher employment many not rank the same for everyone when they consider national defense, clean environment, or education.

It is difficult to put democracy into action with real results. This leads some who tire or distract easily to wish for dictatorship or something similar, for example, a “ruling class.”

But dictatorship or aristocracy does not avoid these dilemmas. It just restricts the power to act to a smaller group. And “power to act” should not be confused with “successful results.”

To examine these issues further, see The Indeterminacy of Consensus: 
masking ambiguity and vagueness in decision

--- EGR