Sunday, November 13, 2011

Democracy: It Works, Bitches

No one like criticism. Being told exactly when and how and why you screwed up is unpleasant at best. Given that criticism doesn't always come couched in the nicest language (I'm looking at YOU, restaurant critics!), it's a double whammy of bad news in poor taste. Nevertheless, criticism is a necessary medicine. All those red scribblings of "awk" and "runon" and "this sentence no verb" helped improve your formal writing. You might not have thought so at the time, but "Keep your eye on the ball" is actually pretty darn helpful. "I've encountered better food in my vegetable crisper after a month abroad." probably isn't very helpful.

Criticism is a valuable tool. No one is perfect, and we can only correct our mistakes if we know about them. Some mistakes, like a stubbed toe, are obvious even if the solution is not. Others, such as an engrossed photographer about to trip and fall in the wedding cake, are obvious only to outsiders. Finally, there are the large and difficult problems of the real world, where even the existence of the problem is a question to be discussed.

Robert Heinlein, curmudgeonly cynic that he was, had this to say of governments:

Democracy is based on the assumption that a million men are wiser than one man. How's that again? I missed something.
Autocracy is based on the assumption that one man is wiser than a million men. Let's play that over again, too. Who decides?

There's absolutely noting wrong with autocracy, provided the autocrat is good and wise, that he listens to his expert counselors, that he makes his decisions with it in mind that all prosper and not merely himself, and that he never makes mistakes. I've heard rumors that such a person can play the sweetest music on a clarinet when he farts, too. When the king makes a mistake, who will tell him so? When The Man has the authority to silence dissent and criticism, only his conscience will prevent him from doing so. A brief survey of history will show you that few have scrupled not to silence critics in the harshest fashions.

Autocracy does not work of the simple reason that there is no guaranteed method for correcting errors. An autocrat can, and usually will, wrap himself in a comforting cocoon of silence, content in the knowledge that he, at least, is comfortable and prosperous. When things finally get bad enough, the only correction available is bloody rebellion, which does not come with any guarantee of improvement, or even success. There's a reason vast income disparity leads to failed states; those in power insulate themselves first from criticism, then from redress, both with violence.

A million are indeed wiser than one, especially if the one is chosen at random. The voices of millions of people smooth out the bumps and marginalize the crazies. This is the first bit of error correction. If you can convince a majority of the people that you've got a good plan, you have a pretty good plan. It won't be perfect, and a lot of people will agree with you, but it'll still be a decent plan. This if the first error-correcting process of democracy. Politicians and political facts have to be placed before the court of public opinion, thoroughly debated, and then voted upon. Unfortunately, it also silences the upper end of the bell curve, the true visionaries whose radical notions aren't whackadoo, but powerfully transformative, which is why a wise society keeps systems in place to allow for the recognition of brilliance and talent, fostering it and its ideas.

Elections aren't the only time that people speak. Criticism continues from all levels of society throughout the year. Whether it's a janitor snarking at the TV while drinking a pint after work or a CEO snarking at a Senator while sharing a snifter on a private jet, the fact is that everyone speaks, and these voices are usually heard. We have a free press, freedom of association, and the freedom to tell our glorious leaders where to stick it. This means we live in a very noisy, very opinionated world. It's better than the alternative. Unless a leader deliberately cultivates an atmosphere of respectful silence and makes it a point to shut out his detractors (I'm looking at you, 43), he cannot help but hear criticism and, hopefully, find some wisdom there.

Consider North Korea. No elections, no speech, what have you; that's all terrible and painfully obvious. But what happens when Kim Jong-Il dies? His youngest son, Kim Jong-Eun is being groomed as heir apparent, but will he come to power without difficulty? There are older sons and military leaders galore who may wish to contest the succession. Even if Jong-Eun wins, how will North Korea fare during the struggle? One of the great benefits of democracy, often overlooked, is the regular and peaceful transfer of power, even between opponents. This, too, is a process of error correction. If things are good, more of the same isn't necessarily a problem, but when they've gone sour, you can bet fresh blood is going to be wanted. And for hundreds of years, that's what has happened. Isn't that nice? Shit yes.

Democracy isn't perfect. A million jackasses won't spontaneously generate wisdom, and no matter how wise, a million plumbers aren't actually qualified to generate foreign policy. The fact is that a limited democracy, often a republic, is actually better. People can easily be aroused to high dudgeon for just long enough to get someone into power, to their detriment. People can often be persuaded to vote against their own interests if it means hurting someone they hate. There need to be limits on democracy, because specialization is a simple necessity of civilization, and that includes people who have specialized in ruling. We need to have an excess of trained rulers so we can keep swapping them out when they go bad, like spark plugs, but we need a professional ruling class trained in the minutiae of government and policy. That's why I deplore the current vogue of ballot measures whereby demagogues inflame the passions of the mass so as to limit and attack the rights of the minority in direct contravention of the American vision. Tyranny of the majority is just as terrible and fickle thing as any tyranny of the minority. By virtue of sheer numbers, the majority can shout down its critics.

It's possible to make profound arguments for any system of government couched in the language of "The Rights of Man" and "Duty, Authority, Peace" and "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" etc, but I support a democratic republic on pragmatic grounds. It works. When the machine starts to wobble, we all step in and give it a kick. I've heard America described as "a fifty-seven Chevy, veering to the left and lurching to the right". Hey, it keeps running, right? We've flirted with the notion a few times (Alien and Sedition Act, fucking Jackson and his Trail of Tears), but the system hasn't ever actually broken down.

I leave you with a final Heinlein quote, though the sentiment is surely not original to him.

Secrecy is the beginning of tyranny.
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