In defense of democracy

Earth's problems aren't due to democracy — and a turn towards totalitarianism is the wrong answer

Published December 10, 2019 7:30AM (EST)

 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

This piece originally appeared on The Globalist.

A key reason why there is this growing unhappiness with the quality of government is that democracy now has a well-established track record.

After periods of great economic and social progress, progress is now plateauing, certainly pretty much anywhere in the Western/developed world. That plateauing is a natural development in highly advanced countries.

Yet, people’s expectations and aspirations remain high. They expect democracy “to deliver,” as if this were some kind of automatic mechanism. And as if people themselves didn’t have to play an active role in terms of adjusting to new circumstances.

Just blame democracy?

Of course, it is very convenient to blame democracy per se and especially the traditional parties. But this overlooks that some of our problems are now so complex that it is nearly impossible to propose solutions to them. First and foremost, this is apparent with regard to climate change.

You can take plastic bags away from people and plastic bottles, but it changes little to nothing in the broader scheme of things. It makes people’s lives more inconvenient, but changes nothing. Changing the sources of energy is easily said, but not done. Wind and solar alone cannot do it.

Politicians, like all humans, including scientists, make mistakes. And, if they are honest, they are really stumped and overwhelmed. But they have a hard time to change their standard tune of seeking to assuage voters and dangle semi-specific promises in front of them.

Intractable problems

Then, there is the ageing of many societies. How does one really deal with that? By creating massive poverty among the elderly? In a growing number of developed societies, there is a clear realization that, in line with growing life expectancies, people have to work until a later age to keep the social contract functioning.

Of course, this generally applicable idea does not really address the problems of the working class. Despite all the talk about living ever longer, working-class people have almost unchanged life expectancy compared to 30-40 years ago. Raising the working age for all would mean that they have even less time to enjoy the rest of their lives. Is that fair?

But even if that is acceptable to people, the next problem arises. At least in developed countries with a stable population level, there are few jobs for people over 55 of age. If we want people to work, one has to end (older) age discrimination.

The situation in the United States looks good in that regard. After all, the U.S. government has banned age discrimination. However, it cannot do anything about the fact that essentially nobody complies with the law. The U.S. has always had a strong orientation toward the “youthful,” never mind that they are also still in a lower income range.

Government as “Mr. Fix It”

Little wonder then that many people, for all sorts of reasons and out of lots of motivations, blame their government. Take the challenge of technology. There is the balance of digitalization of government and protecting your privacy, of preventing your data from being hacked by Russians.

What used to be balanced, even if sub-optimally efficient, now faces the threat of bringing down the entire system. The private sector does not know what to do about it, how can we expect this from government?

A well-targeted breach of digitized government can bring down the whole system. It can literally kill people. What nuclear weapons where once needed for — massive destruction — can now be achieved from a single computer terminal today. Should politicians just go full-throttle ignoring these serious threats? What if the horrific happens, who gets blamed?

As the challenges mushroom

It is easy to blame government for inaction, for incompetence, for bureaucracy, for the lack of new ideas and the lack of solutions to complex problems. Too easy.

People inside each nation tend to blame their government and its structure and deride it as incompetent. But is that a helpful approach? Are other nations doing it better?

Is France, with highly concentrated central government power, doing better a job? Is Russia with an autocrat doing better? Is China with a strong central government — with ever more advanced, but heavily human control oriented policies — doing better? And, owing to the extremely high level of divisiveness inside U.S. society, what about the failings of the United States in this list of comparisons?

The great danger, of course, for politicians and citizens alike is to begin comparing their own nation downwards. Saying that other countries are doing an even worse job may temporarily soothe the soul, but it offers no solution, not even the motivation to try to do better.

Back to the roots

In a way, we are back to the beginnings of democracy, when everything seemed so unclear, messy and complex.

We are, once again, approaching the point where we realize that freedom, self-determination and an open society are no mere figures of speech, to which they have largely devolved in recent decades. They are rather the key values that the people and our governments must protect.

Given the enormity of our challenges, government first and foremost should serve as protectors of these values. That sounds abstract, but is the basis for all progress.

Second, all we can realistically hope for in terms of our problems is that our governments prove to be good and cost-efficient administrators. The solutions to these problems may still be out of reach, but in fully open societies we may stand a better chance to find solutions over time.


Here is a useful test: If we were all taking a step back and asked ourselves what would we do if we were omnipotent with no checks or balances and could implement policies at will, what would we do? Would we know the answers to these complex questions? The answer is probably “no.”

That is a fundamental truth that has been greatly obscured over the course of recent decades when we first thought that democracy was an eternal forward-leading mechanism because we mistook material progress with political and societal progress.

And then, when that progress slowed greatly, and even when it was no longer really there, we kept denying that stark and frustrating new reality.

That is perhaps the key reason why everybody is now so frustrated with democracy and government.

This article is republished from The Globalist: On a daily basis, we rethink globalization and how the world really hangs together.  Thought-provoking cross-country comparisons and insights from contributors from all continents. Exploring what unites and what divides us in politics and culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And sign up for our highlights email here.

By Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, the daily online magazine, and a columnist in newspapers around the world. He is also the presenter of the Marketplace Globalist Quiz, which is aired on public radio stations all across the United States. In addition, Mr. Richter is a keynote speaker at international conferences -- and the author of the 1992 book, “Clinton: What Europe and the United States Can Expect.” Follow him on Twitter @theglobalist.

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