For all the talk about democracy leading up to the Olympics, perhaps it is time – in the wake of the Olympics – to take a step back and ponder about what democracy really is.
An interesting article appeared in the New Yorker earlier this month about the process of politics. Digging under the hood of democratic politics, it tries to explore two strains of forces that in real life can be di-opposed: rough and tumble democracy v. good governance and social policy.
According to one theory:
All politics and all government are the result of the activities of groups. Any other attempt to explain politics and government is doomed to failure.
[You] can’t talk about public opinion, because there is no such thing as “the public” (there are only groups) and opinions don’t matter, only actions do. Abstractions like “the people” and “popular will” have no real content, either. “The public interest” is a useless concept … because “there is nothing which is best literally for the whole people.” You can’t talk about a society as a whole having a collective soul, or about events being moved by the “spirit of the age” or the “Zeitgeist” or by feelings, individual or collective. You can’t talk about race or other biological factors [since we must dismiss eugenics as silly] or about national character: it doesn’t matter what people are, it only matters what they do. You can talk about Presidents, parties, and other major political actors, but only if you understand them chiefly as mediums through which interest groups operate.
The standard objections [is that this] gives too little weight to the power of ideas and of social and economic forces, and that it leaves no room for morality. … What if there actually is such a thing as a policy that’s right on the merits? Shouldn’t we find a way to make sure that it’s enacted, instead of having to trust in the messy workings of the political marketplace?
[But you] can’t talk about morality as a force in politics, because such talk is almost always a cover for somebody’s interest. You can’t talk about progress, only about the waxing and waning of the power of different groups. You can’t talk about ideals—especially the ideals of the Founders of the United States, who represented just another collection of interest groups—as affecting the course of events.
[Besides there is also the problem that no] realm of government is immune to interest-group pressures, including the judiciary. (Liberals who, in the sixties and seventies, thought they could counteract the power of big business with institutions beholden only to the “public interest”—whether regulatory agencies or the courts—discovered that conservatives were capable of capturing any such apparatus.)
Here are a couple of thoughts.
In the big picture: what should be the purpose of governments? Should government be limited to providing a set of processes and institutions that normatively allocate power within a society or should government take a lead role of establishing a vision of a common good and leading the charge to execute that vision of the common good?
My tendency (and many Chinese on this board) is to believe the second. “So what if you are democratic,” we ‘d say. What is the proof that it guarantees better governance or social stability?
Many of us have reservation about the democratic process because “good” democracy seems to depend on a lot of stars aligning. The media has to be fair and objective to generate good public debates. The people have to be educated enough, well fed enough, and to care enough about the political process to participate in the political process. The people need to also have a healthy sense of social awareness and public duty to exercise their political power judiciously for the good of the people – not just for themselves.
But that doesn’t argue for authoritarian government per se because similar things can be said for authoritarian governments. For exampe, the leaders need too to have a healthy sense of social awareness and public duty to exercise their political power judiciously for the good of their country – not just for themselves. The leaders need to be competent enough, educated enough, and powerful enough to be able to do enough for the people.
I don’t mean this post to generate democracy bashing. Time will tell whether democracy – Western style – will be the savior of China.
For people who profess they love China, please consider the following quote from Prof. Chen Zhiwu in a piece titled Reflecting back on China’s “economic miracle”:
It is the tendency to “lift the stone and drop it on one’s own foot.” It is human nature “not to weep until you see the coffin.” Even when the situation is serious, if the current system seems sustainable then there is less and less potential for self-examination and innovation. This is particularly true this year, as people [in China] have generally taken a self-defensive posture, and have built themselves up in a frenzy of nationalism, so that they can’t stomach home truths (逆耳忠言). In such a situation, whatever road China wishes to take, those on the sidelines can only look on. When the rain is coming and the bride wants to wed, often times even though you know tragedy awaits, there is nothing you can do. Those who spend all day singing hymns of praise for China accomplish nothing for its progress. Saying pretty things is the easiest thing in the world to do. In fact, those who talk about China’s “coming collapse” are far more valuable for China. We can look constructively at them and try to understand the reasons and forms of collapse they’re talking about, and we can look at what we might do right now to help China avoid this trap.
As a parting note, I’d like to observe: if democracies consistently produce governments that have low approval ratings (as most western democracies seem to have), does it mean the democratic process as we practice them today can be too easily hijacked to serve the minority interests (hence the high general disapproval ratings)?
If so, what do we need to superimpose on top of it to make it more responsive? Can democracy be engineered to serve “the people” rather than just individuals?
And half facetiously, should we employ scientific approaches such as game theory techniques to try to understand the political process better and to try to prevent political hijacking from taking place?