Monday, November 29, 2004

Misquoting Churchill

Among Churchill's many timeless comments was that democracy was the worst kind of government, except for all the other kinds. A cursory look at the history of the world shows the truth of this. Everywhere democracy has flourished, war has lessened, trade has expanded, freedoms have grown, and everyone, in general, has been better off. At the dawn of the 21st century, we can all see the myriad states and countries of the world adopting broadly similar methods of government, as politics settles down into its final configuration and history draws to a close.

Er, well. Not quite.

Democracy is not a bed of roses. I can just as easily - and perhaps more accurately - say that everywhere democracy has broken out, personal responsibility has lessened, the state has expanded, and 'rights' have grown.

Now, before I go any further, some qualifications. Would I prefer a totalitarian dictatorship? Obviously not, and nor will I argue for that or anything like it. The tyranny of a single man or single Party is worse than the tyranny of a single majority. This does not mean, however, that we have the Best of All Possible Governments.

The problems with democracy are myriad, and have been explored in far more depth than is possible for me here. To summarize: the incentives are all out of place.

Power is given to those who actively seek it; to get it, they must receive the vote of a majority of the electorate (or at least that part which actually bothers); they thus have every reason to lie about their true motivations and intentions should they take office. Thus democracies often have at their heads messianic demagogues with a slippery grasp on concepts such as economics, science, reality, proportion, and honesty. True, we can always kick the rogues out ... unless, that is, the political class manages to narrow the competition down to the lesser of two evils, or the evil of two lessers (technical aside: the second and third images were the top hits on google's image search, and I used last names only. Kinda says it all, don't it?)

Then there's the cancerous growth of the state, a symptom that seems almost universal amongst democracies. Elected officials have no need to worry themselves over long-term effects; only rarely do they possess the ethical wherewithal do to so. As a result the civil service - a predatory subculture under any government - rapidly gains the real power. Under no real pressure from the government to produce results (unless it's wartime) the various bureacracies can gorge themselves on an ever-increasing portion of the economy, consuming so much they become a consumption.

When Churchill said this was the worst kind of government, he should have added: except for all the other kinds that we've tried.

I mean, seriously here, folks. It's the 21st century. We have to be able to do better than this.

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