By Boluwaji Davids
If there is any single point upon which political thinkers and philosophers are agreed, it’s the very notion that democracy as a system of administering governance is imperfect. Democracy has it’s faults and loopholes. As an idealistic conception, it comes short of the very idealistic prognosis upon which it is based when tested against the hard face of reality. As a human invention, democracy is bound to be imperfect. Tomas Masaryk tied it together by saying “democracy has its faults, because people have their faults. Like teacher, like pupil.”
Democracy in its idealistic romanticism couldn’t have accurately factored in all possible human responses, which in all practical sense, are innumerable. This in itself exposes a gapping hole. Thus, as a system of administering governance, democracy is bound to roll through glitches which will dilute the very ideal it seeks to establish. In the end, democracy is only the best among the rest, not necessarily a perfect option on its own. This is more accurately put together by Winston Churchill when he said “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the other options that have been tried”.
The ideal of a government within democracy is also no less troublesome. Thomas Paine once opined that “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” Government provides a continuous conundrum which indicts the reasons for its very existence. It has within its own chamber, a peculiar danger that hurts and soothes at will, a raging contradiction. Government so often live at variance with its reason for existence, sometimes interfering against rights it exist to protect. Ayn Rand reflects on this, noting that “potentially, a government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims.” So often, government is nothing but an unwelcome inference. This must have informed Henry David Thoreau submission that “that government is best that governs the least”.
In Athens – the place where it all began, democracy was at best experimental, and had fierce competition from other system of government, particularly oligarchy and timocracy. It was there that the inherent weaknesses of democracy began to appear to early thinkers. The philosophical elites of course only saw democracy as a last resort in the absence of more credible alternatives. Socrates, and later Plato, thus had a window of opportunity to both access and critique democracy in its formative stages through direct observation. The shortcomings were clear: the illiteracy of the electorate and the unwillingness of the wise to participate.
While the Athenian democracy is as a matter of fact very different from the democracy we know today, it still was the cradle of modern democratic civilization. Moreover, many of the weaknesses highlighted by Socrates and Plato are still reflected in our modern democracy. Democracy simply has no sure safeguards against incompetency.
Plato, a student of Socrates was no less critical of democracy. In Athenian democracy, not all men met the criteria required to vote, and of course, women couldn’t vote too. In Plato’s pursuit of what the ideal nation should be, he made an elaborate exposition on what constitute the human being, his emotions and intellect. In his final analysis, he divided his hypothetical republic into different classes and contends that each man ought to take an occupation in the area of his most obvious talents. In his ideal nation, he envisioned the concept of “philosopher kings”.
In effect, democracy must consistently allow the best and most competent to lead before it can attain perfection. His other predictions turned prophecy on how a tyrant could emerge within a democracy has come to fulfilment time and again throughout the course of human history.
Central to all these criticism is the proven incompetence of the people at selecting competent leaders. Not only is democracy faulty, the people are no less faulty. By appealingto their immediate emotional needs, a skilled politician can woo the electorate to get him elected regardless of his competence for the job he is vying for. In many cases, by offering instant gratification through an enthralling oration, the people become spellbound and charmed into serving his desires.
Moreover, this establishes a trend of incompetence and ineptitude, which diffuse into the mainstream political culture of a people. With time, the awareness of the need for competence in governance will be replaced by a gradual acceptance of a subnormal reality. The politician too, having successfully turned the abnormal into the new norm, expends no efforts at acquiring competence in the art of leading. On the contrary, they pay particular attention to fine tunning their oratory and persuasion skills. In the end, because the political class has already turned the people’s eyes away from the need for competence, and have subtly redefined competence itself, they find no compelling reason to acquire it. Thus, the people may end up with a clueless government that produces poor governance or no governance at all.
However, without such impartful education, he is incapacitated and unable to fulfill the duty of a citizen effectively. Moreover, without such education, a man may become unaware of his true needs, and hence becomes an easy prey for the desperate politician. Through certain deprivations, politicians may synthetically induce a false sense of awareness of a need that doesn’t in reality exist. By appearing to meet those needs, the politician is able to win the trust of the uneducated and thereby enslave him to serving his own desires.
Thus, over time, a rigid mindset is formed in the psyche of the poor and illiterate that overwhelms him with a feeling of inferiority and neediness. It is instructive to note further that while the politician plays the role of the instigator, lack of, or inadequate education, not poverty, is responsible for infusing such a wrong mentality. In many cases, poverty is an artificial invention, which infuses the awareness of a false need. This sense of a false need, makes the poor to think that all he need is money. Thus, when a politician appears on the scene to provide the money he thinks he desperately need, his sense of need is instantly gratified. In return, he offers the politician his trust and vote, not realizing that he had been the victim of a massive manipulation scheme.
Again, he soon exhaust the money and become overwhelmed by a gnashing sense of poverty and a strong awareness of the need for money again. In between, he fails to see how his lack of education informs his outlook and mentality, and how his political choices informs his reality. More importantly, he doesn’t realize that his political decisions only serve to perpetuate his poverty. This thus forms a cycle that goes on and on. In the long run, lack of education has a crippling effect on democracy and enhances the probability of the emergence of a tyrant.
Boluwaji Davids is a Public Affairs Analyst.