Whenever democracy as a system of rule is questioned, I invariably see Winston Churchill quoted saying that “democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others”.
I’ve been thinking about that, because I have an unnerving feeling that it’s one of those things that ring true, but only because of shared assumptions that might prove to be false.
First of all, excuse me if I don’t just take Churchill’s word for it, because a genius who engineered such a brilliant military feat as the invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli and personally presided over the demise of the British Empire might also be completely mistaken on other matters.
Let us first define what a system of government is, what democracy is, and what makes a good system of government. This is important because I want us to avoid conflating political and economic systems to the point where we can no longer separate their individual effects. Also, we need to separate the concept of general scientific and technological advancement from our estimates of political systems. Also, we need to separate the natural and circumstantial wealth from our equation. I will first explain why, so that you can follow my line of thinking more easily.
An example of separating the system of government from the economic system are the Asian technological giants, such as South Korea, Japan, Singapore and China. They all have very authoritarian social systems and systems of government, where democracy doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to them that it does to us. However, they all adopted some form of a capitalist, free market economy, and as soon as they did, their overall economic condition has improved significantly, to the point of transforming them into world powers. Why is it important to separate government from economy? Because we might feel tempted to ascribe the success of the economy to a system of government, and that would be a fallacy. Obviously, we can have successful economies regardless of whether the government is democratic or dictatorial, as long as it doesn’t meddle into the economy.
The reason why we need to separate the overall level of scientific and technological progress from the system of government is because those two things are also independent values, in a sense that you can have a technologically inferior democracy of ancient Greece, and technologically superior dictatorship of ancient Persia. You can also have a technologically inferior America and technologically superior Nazi Germany. Soviet Union was a communist dictatorship, and was technologically either the most advanced on Earth or on par with the most advanced. Essentially, technology and science are as separate from government as is economy, but of course government can significantly influence them both if it chooses to do so.
We also need to remove natural and circumstantial wealth from our equations. Circumstantial wealth is derived from one’s geography; for instance, a country like Croatia can have great natural beauty, which can be an useful source of income from tourism, but it says nothing about either the merit of its economic system, or its government. It’s simply the property of its geography. Some other country, like Singapore, can be located on a major trade route, and can derive a part of its economic success from that. Others, like the Arab countries, can have vast natural reserves of oil, which provide incredibly high income, independently from their economic or political system. A country can, therefore, derive substantial wealth from simply being at the right place at the right time. Before Rockefeller figured out what to do with oil, it was completely useless and didn’t provide any income to the Arab tribes who lived there, and value of their political and economic systems should be assessed on their pre-petroleum state.
So, the fact that some country is wealthy or technologically advanced doesn’t mean that its system of government is superior, because one can become wealthy due to robbery, and one can become technologically advanced because the militaristic regime invests resources in technology in order to be able to successfully attack other countries.
So, we now have quite a problem: we eliminated the vast majority of factors that would normally weigh into our assessment, and the question is, what remains there for us to use in order to compare various systems of government?
Let us first see what forms of government were actually in use throughout history.
We had tribal meritocratic democracy, as probably the first form of government over small populations. Essentially, you had elders who defined what should and shouldn’t be done, you had some shaman who was consulted on supernatural things, and you had the chief who made operational decisions when there wasn’t enough time for long deliberations. This is probably the optimal form of government for humans, and probably the only one that has been around so long it has the strong backing in human genetics; it is probably as old as the use of fire and tools, if not older. Essentially, it’s the pattern humans naturally recreate whenever possible, whether in tribes, religious communities or gangs.
This system has one major flaw: it doesn’t scale well for bigger communities, and was abandoned in favor of the oriental despotic system when agriculture needed to be organized on a large scale in order to provide food much more efficiently than was possible for smaller communities or their agglomerates. Essentially, in order to organize a big state, you couldn’t rely on letting people just naturally do whatever they felt like doing. You needed to order them around in some logical, efficient arrangement. You needed to organize irrigation, you needed to organize an army and defensive fortifications, essentially you needed a system where those who knew what had to be done would give the orders, and everybody else would obey them. This worked remarkably well, and is the second most stable form of government known to mankind. However, with mass feeding and mass living it also introduced mass murder, in form of wars. This is the first form of government that made possible the organization of large scale military expeditions, either for defense or conquest. It also made it possible to advance science, technology and architecture on levels not seen before. This form of government was independently invented on different continents, and is apparently a normal phase of development from tribalism into civilization.
One might now mention ancient Greece as an example of democracy, but I disagree. The Greeks were on the tribal, pre-civilized or proto-civilized stage of social development, and their civilization is more of a tribal agglomerate than anything else. They were no more or less democratic than the Lakota or the Cheyenne. Their polises were democratic compared to the Persian Empire, in the same way in which the North American native tribes were democratic compared to the Aztecs, but that doesn’t make them more advanced. It just means they were small enough to be able to manage their affairs efficiently in a tribal manner.
One of the most important social developments in tribal societies that grew to unusual size, but still not big enough to demand strict top-down management of the oriental despotisms, is formation of aristocracy, which is essentially a hierarchical layer of “more deserving” members of society, who wished to have more rights and privileges compared to others. This is a different, more defined form of hierarchy compared to the meritocracy present in the smaller communities, and was usually hereditary. Essentially, it enabled concentration of wealth and power within a small social circle which separated itself from the more “base” folk. What “democracy” usually meant in such communities was that this aristocracy made the decisions which the rest of the people had to obey. Greece and Rome are an excellent example of such social divisions.
The interesting thing with such social stratifications is that they lessen the requirement for broad popular support in the process of election of leadership. Essentially, in small social groups you have to govern by consent. As the community grows bigger, and as the society is stratified, the highest social stratum can elect leadership with little or no input from the lower strata. In some cases, when leadership becomes hereditary, the democratic input is reduced to zero. One can argue that the worst examples of leadership come from this category, because if one didn’t even have to convince the aristocracy of his society of his merit for leadership, and only had to be born in the right family, the probability of him having “the right stuff” for a leader is negligible. Even in Roman times it was common knowledge that the best emperors were in fact adopted, basically hand-picked as heirs to the throne, and the worst ones were born to the position. The few examples to the contrary, such as Titus, were the exceptions that made the rule. Essentially, what that means is that you can have a very good and effective system of government as long as the leader or the aristocracy has to pick the successor from the number of those who rose through the ranks and are therefore competent. But if leadership is hereditary, the probability of getting an idiot for a king is exceedingly high.
Also, while you can have a system of government which consists of a successful warlord and his henchmen who divide the country among themselves, the stability of such government is poor, because if the majority of people are treated as hardly more than cattle, the “nobility” is meritocratic only in a sense of rewarding help in times of war, and such war-based meritocracy is hardly conducive to the general advancement of society. This is why such primitive feudal societies are hardly more than an armed gang of thugs which exploits the population of illiterate peasants.
In order for a society to advance, it must be inclusive, in a sense that the general population has a stake in it, in a sense that it will be willing to defend its government, and not just move out of the way if a rival gang of thugs wishes to take over. Also, for the society to be stable the general population must willingly finance it, and not just be forced to pay taxes. Apparently, this is the real use of the entire show of democracy, in which the general population is allowed to pick one of the leadership candidates presented to them by the higher social strata. The end-result would be very similar if the aristocracy simply elected the president themselves, but then the general population would feel excluded and, in fact, would feel a certain degree of resentment toward the aristocracy, and this doesn’t allow for an effective government. If you want people to obey you, you basically have only two options. You can employ the pharaonic model, where the ruler is presented as someone who has the heavenly mandate and it is therefore a religious duty of all citizens to obey him as they would obey the gods. Alternatively, you can attempt to emulate the tribal meritocratic democracy, where the people elect their leader among the most effective social organizers, someone whom they feel as their own, and would obey him because they trust him. You can, of course, skip the requirement of popular support, and rule by naked force, but historically such rule lacks stability and is quickly deposed by some alternative militant fraction.
Essentially, what we can safely conclude is that real democracy works only in smaller tribal communities, which are small enough for all the members to know each other, to have a say in the choice of leadership, and to have the ability to depose leadership if it goes astray. As the community grows, it becomes impractical to elect the leadership directly, because you simply don’t know all the people directly and you are not aware of their qualifications directly, so the best you can do is divide the community into small sub-communities that elect their own delegates to represent them in a popular assembly, where the leadership of the entire nation is elected. It would actually be dangerous for the people to attempt to elect the leadership directly, because they don’t actually know the candidates directly and can only judge them on superficial impressions and propaganda. This, in fact, is the greatest drawback of today’s attempts at emulating democracy.
So, instead of trying to say whether Churchill was right saying that democracy was the best system of government, we would be better off asking a different set of questions – for instance, what methods did different systems of government historically use to assure broad popular support, and with what results? If we judge on the stability of a society, our current model of government can only be seen as a recent experiment which produced mostly disastrous results, from the slaughterhouse that was the French revolution, through American independence which meant buying slaves from African markets in order to grow cotton on land that was stolen from the native tribes, through colonialism, two world wars, eugenics, racism and genocide. Essentially, if you think we fare better than the pharaonic despotisms of antiquity, you are deluding yourselves. Our political system is very volatile and historically proved likely to result in bloody conflicts. What masks this reality is the huge advancement in science and technology, and a rather broad access to the benefits of modern technology, where a common citizen can enjoy functionality that used to be beyond the wildest dreams of kings. This, however, has nothing to do with democracy; Singapore is not a democracy in any conventional meaning of the word and is among the wealthiest countries. South Korea is at best an elitist hierarchical society, and has extremely advanced technology. Do we even need to mention China? Essentially, what makes a society work is some strange mixture of the popular support for the government, a sense of inclusion of the general population, a feeling of sharing the common goals with the leadership, a feeling that the laws of the society are just and fair, and a Darwinian meritocracy of economy and science. It needs to be democratic only in the broadest sense, that the general population identifies with the government and recognizes it as its own.