I’m worried about democracy’s future

One of my favourite podcast episodes ever is this interview with Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek from BBC Radio 4.

Here’s a Sedlacek quote from that conversation:

“Two, three years ago I got very often seriously asked by educated business people from Germany, Switzerland, France – everywhere – ‘Look at China. Shouldn’t we also a little bit go down on these ridiculous labour protection [laws], pension insurance, green gobbledygook, and be a little bit more totalitarian?'”

“And I always ask them, ‘Oh yeah, why? For 10 per cent of GDP [growth]? Twelve per cent of GDP? 20 per cent – 20 per cent of GDP [growth] you’re ready to sacrifice democracy, in a way? Public debate? Of course it’s slow – yes, that’s the very point of it.'”

I’m familiar with this argument favouring autocracy. I’ll warn you from personal experience that if you’re pursuing a double major in political science and philosophy, you’d better get used to arguing against it if you’re any sort of believer in our liberal democracy. And, like Sedlacek, I believed it was at the height of its influence a decade ago – when most of the world was trying to weather the Great Recession while at the same time China’s GDP growth was close to double digits. I now think I was wrong. We’re entering a renaissance of praise for brutal dictatorship. It’s just that now the argument presented in favour of it is not economic – it’s based on a sort of moral narcissism.

Political scientist Yascha Mounk has tracked support for democracy among people aged 16-24. It’s declining, and support for technocratic totalitarianism is growing. About a quarter of youth and young adults in America agree with the statement, “It’s unimportant to live in a democracy.” I want to explore one reason I think this might be happening.

Democracy is not about convenience. In fact, it’s about the total opposite. It means that people have the right to vote for someone you don’t want them to vote for. It means that people have the right to put forward arguments you don’t like. It means that people get to believe in a higher power you don’t believe in. It means that people get to send their political representatives a letter urging them to form an ad hoc Parliamentary committee to critically examine a policy you want implemented.  And at the same time, these fellow citizens and residents have the right to be your neighbours – and you can’t throw a Molotov cocktail at their house for their having the audacity to do, want, or believe different things than you do.

But our consumer economy is the opposite. It’s based entirely on two things – customization and convenience. In other words, you getting exactly what you want exactly when you want it (which usually means right now).

My concern is that a lot of people are conflating what it means to be a good citizen in a democracy with what it means to be a good consumer browsing Amazon or ordering a Subway sandwich. The latter is starting to have an unhealthy influence on the former. In other words, many people don’t seem to understand why our liberal democracy can’t be like a Domino’s Pizza taking your order online.


Let’s all vote on this.

Here’s the type of argument I’d often hear as a student, and still sometimes hear today:

Very smart person: “Society would run a lot better if we just let very smart people who know the right answers to everything have complete control.”

Me: “Who are these people who know all the right policies and know all the right ways to implement them?”

Very smart person: “Well, people like me, I guess. I’m right about a lot of things.”

Me: “But of course you think you’re right about everything. You wouldn’t have beliefs if you thought all those beliefs were wrong. That’s not a justification for everyone else in this country handing you the keys to our government.”

Very smart person: “Look at China.”

I think one of the most important parts of maturing is realizing that you might not be as right about everything as often as you think you are. In fact, sometimes you might even find out that you’re totally wrong. Liberal democracy as a system of government is this concept embodied. In other words, the liberal democratic system itself is “smarter” than any one person or group of people in it. The politburo of the Soviet Union – all very smart, educated people, I’m sure – found this out the hard way when their whole system collapsed.


“Wait, what if we don’t actually know what the price of wheat should be?”

But narcissism is enjoying a huge boom. Fewer people are open to the possibility that they may be wrong about anything. This isn’t exactly a comfortable pairing with a healthy democracy.

I’ve always noticed that people who advocate for a totalitarian system have this implicit assumption that either they’ll be running everything or, at worst, their closely-aligned friends will. But there’s almost never any basis for this assumption, and there’s an awful lot to lose if it’s wrong. Why? Because you don’t have any rights in a police state. The authorities can put you in jail for life or kill you for even minor transgressions – there’s no judicial system separate from the state to stop them from doing so. So, yes, you might find a dictatorship in which you are a pseudo-monarch politically “convenient” for you in a way that democracy is not. But in the likely chance that you’re not the head honcho in the totalitarian system you’ve dreamed of, you’ll find that the price of getting their order wrong is more than a call to the manager.

Democracy is slow. Democracy is often boring. Democracy does not operate to convenience you on a personal level the way that every for-profit business does. Legislative committee meetings don’t get peoples’ blood rushing like the idea of a completely customized, flag waving autocracy does. It may not often feel like it, but these are all very, very good things.

It’s become a cliche to talk about people who support freedom of speech as a right, so long as everyone else agrees with absolutely everything they believe. I think it should go without saying that this isn’t what freedom of speech means. So I’d like to present a different form of this that I’m often on the receiving end of.

Very smart person: “Freedom of the press should exist only if journalists report the right stories.”

Me, a journalist: “What are the right stories?”

Very smart person: “Probably the stories I want reported. Those are the real stories.”

Me, a journalist: “Well, that didn’t take much digging.”

Like democracy, journalism isn’t really supposed to convenience any one person. This is part of why I don’t think that quality public service journalism can operate on a for-profit business model the way it used to.

So, for all the kids out there, give democracy a chance. I’m not saying this because my whole profession depends on it surviving. I’m saying this because, though I have never experienced Mao’s China, or Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union, or Francoist Spain, or North Korea, none of us should want to. The separation between these regimes and the  idea of a “benevolent dictatorship” that’s all the rage right now is much smaller than you think.

P.S. I thought I’d say something about the “efficiency” argument for dictatorship, even though it’s not the focus of this post. The “Say what you will about Mussolini, he made the trains run on time,” argument. It’s pretty much a myth. While any political scientist or political economist would tell you this, it’s still a popular belief – and not just among undergraduate students.

I read a lot of Francis Fukuyama because he’s a really smart guy. I also think he presents the best case against this argument. Basically, his reasoning goes something like this: All humans – and this does not mean every human except for you – have a built-in tendency to favour family and close friends. Your cousin may not know his ass from his face, but he shares 25 per cent of your genes. That means you’re going to be at least a little bit biased towards him if you’re appointing someone for an important role in the public service. The extent of this “patrimonialism” (tendency to favour family and friends) in non-democratic states can’t be exaggerated.

The miracle of a lot of today’s democracies is that we’ve created effective institutions that can monitor and block this bias at least some of the time. This is important because we want to make sure that public administrators are competent and well-qualified. What’s more, we want to make sure that family and friends of those in power aren’t getting a little extra cash for no reason other than that they’re family and friends of those in power.

Democracy’s checks and balance often seem like they’re hindering efficiency rather than promoting it. But in the long run, they actually do promote it – because no person can indulge in patrimonialism, or, at least, they can’t to the degree that the powerful can in a dictatorship.

“I’ve heard some students say that while Nazi Germany was genocidal, and that’s bad, it was also extremely well-run in terms of government and public administration,” my first-year political science teacher told us on what might have been the third class.

“The reality is that it was incredibly corrupt on top of being evil.”

About Richard Raycraft

Journalist and audio nerd. Thrill seeker.