Why Democracy Is Failing: A Perspective


To become a doctor or engineer, a high level of proven intelligence, knowledge, and skill is required before official certification is granted and practice of the profession permitted. Society is understandably unwilling to permit incompetent or unqualified individuals to treat its illnesses or build its bridges.

On the other hand, any idiot or psychopath may walk in off the street and become a politician. For some unfathomable reason, society pays absolutely no regard to the integrity or ability of the people into whose hands it gives the reins of political power. What does it say about our intelligence, that we are so careful in respect of the qualifications of our doctors and engineers, but so indifferent to the character and ability of the individuals who are to control the entire political process, and so society itself, on our behalf?

This curious oversight, however, is not the principal reason why democracy, as the sovereignty of the people, expressed through governance of the people, by the people, is failing, though it is also quite sufficient on its own to bring this about. The principal reason that democracy is failing is no less illustrative of our limited intelligence. It is also to be found in the area of political governance.

The favored Western form of government is representative democracy, whereby the moral and political concept of the equality of all humans is putatively given expression. As direct democracy is no longer practical, due to the large populations of today’s societies, representative democracy has been selected as the best means of giving expression to the democratic concept. This requires the citizenry, in whom all sovereignty lies, to elect individuals to represent them and act in their interests in the bicameral parliaments or legislatures where the laws governing society are proposed and promulgated and tax expenditure allocated.

We now come to the rub: this is the relatively small number of representatives found, on average, in both chambers of the four principal Western democracies, relative to the large average populations of 135 million people per country. In the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany there are on average 808 political representatives in each bicameral legislature. To anyone with any understanding of human nature, this fact should immediately raise the following question; with only 808 representatives, isn’t it quite feasible that a sufficient number of them can be bribed by the powerful and wealthy vested interests to get them to serve those interests, wholly or partially, rather than the interests of the people who elected them?

The approximate average annual government expenditure of each of the four countries is $2.1 trillion. The major portion of the $2.1 trillion is spent purchasing goods and services from the private sector. The elected representatives are each paid roughly $175,000 per annum. To bribe 60% of the representatives in any one average bicameral legislature with another $175,000 per annum each would cost a mere $85 million in all. To give an idea of how relatively cheap it would be to buy the 60%, one F35 jet fighter alone costs $91 million.

In the light of these figures, and given human nature, on the balance of probability, how likely is it that the elected politicians in the Western democracies are not being bribed on a scale that often serves the principal commercial interests that are paid much of the $2.1 trillion, rather than strictly serving only the interests of the people who elect them?

Should any doubt about this possibility exist, add to the consideration the fact mentioned in the second paragraph above; namely, that the Western democracies do not require any proof of intelligence, competence, knowledge, skill, or integrity of their politicians. Charm and some charisma seem to suffice.

The role of politicians is to exercise the power of the State. Individual human beings seek power for a number of personal reasons; sometimes, because it can lead to wealth or to psychological gratification. These are not personal objectives that would be desirable in a nation’s politicians. Presumably, there are also other motives in seeking political power. Hopefully, some might be benign. It is unlikely, however, that all, or even the majority of politicians are motivated solely, or even primarily, by an altruistic desire to serve society. Humans are principally self-interested creatures, and politicians are no exception. It is dangerously naïve to expect them always to behave altruistically or objectively. As no attempt is made in the democracies to assess what our politician’s motives in becoming politicians might be, however, let alone their qualification for the role, we know very little about those in whose hands we trust our county’s governance, and therefore our personal well being.

Representative democracy has another, less obvious, but no less disturbing flaw. When the early 18th century democrats decided on representative government as the best way of organizing a democratic state politically, they thereby inadvertently ensured that the size of the state or government, relative to that of civil society, would grow exponentially over time. This is exactly what has happened. In the year 1900, democratic governments taxed and spent on average approximately 3% of national GDP. In the year 2000, this had swollen to 48% and is still growing.

A government in the democratic states grows inevitably and inexorably over time, taking over more and more of the organic functions of civil society, and intruding ever deeper into the personal lives of the citizens. The poorly-conceived system of representative democracy, originally intended simply to give proper expression to the sovereignty of the people, is again responsible for this. In appointing a body of representatives to exercise jointly what was in democratic theory conceived of as the widely dispersed individual powers of the citizens, it paradoxically recreated a centralized focus of power – the state itself.

Over time, the democratic sovereignty and power that was held to vest in each of the individual citizens and which gave them their freedom has inadvertently but gradually been transferred effectively from them back to Leviathan, to the all-powerful state. This is exactly the contrary of what democracy was supposed to do.  Democracy was selected in the 18th century specifically as the preferred method of transferring sovereignty and political power from the all-powerful (monarchical) state to the individual citizens, not vice versa.

Democracy’s current problem of the metastasizing state is due to the paradoxical way representative democracy is being exercised, but, ultimately, democracy’s essential contradiction lies in the misconception that majority rule is a legitimate expression of the moral equality of all.

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David Matthews is the author of 'Our Captured Minds', an interrogation of how false morality and ideology is used to control society.

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