« Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried. »— Winston Churchill
Those of us in the West defending Capital-D Democracy with passion know this quote by Winston Churchill. We accept the inherent frailties in the system of Democracy because at least we get to participate. The sentiment generally follows a path of (1) it’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have, and (2) if we could have a benevolent dictator, things would be so much easier to tidy up around the edges—only we can’t trust the succession of the benevolent dictator; (3) a Republic is Democracy levelled up. This solves many of the weaknesses of Democracy. Plato said that Socrates said so. So it must be true. Always trust men in togas.
Let’s unwind this ball of twine. Taking the quote in context, Churchill had just been voted out as Prime Minister so he was feeling a bit of a sting of democracy in action. He was being conciliatory whilst attempting to euphemise his sour grapes sentiment.
At a casino, the odds are stacked against you. As with casinos, you can raise your fist and rail at the casino for not making you better off exiting the system than when you entered it, but everyone will tell you that you should have known better. Some will encourage you with ‘Better luck next time’. Casinos and Democracy alike, if you are relying on luck for positive outcomes, you may need to consider taking another look.
At the start, Democracy is untenable even in a classroom textbook context with no frictions. At any scale, it can’t yield optimal results. What this means is that even if Democracy was operated with the precision of dispassionate AI logic, it would still be suboptimal. By extension, this means that outcomes move from suboptimal to less than mediocre when we add humans and emotions to the equation. On top of all this, what it is that we are optimising compounds these challenges. Coming to accord here is paramount. In American baseball lets consider this to be strike three.
So what about this proverbial benevolent dictator. This actually adds nothing to the equation. If the ideas of the dictator happen to align with everything our hearts desire as individuals, it does nothing to the dissenters. They are left in the same position, which is to say disenfranchised—effectively outvoted. If we are the dissenters, thus we are disenfranchised. Not that we will have been enfranchised in any case, but our desires will remain as unmanifest as if we had lost the vote.
A Republican construction, not the trademark, circle-R, Republicans, who are the Tories of the United States of America. Let Freedom ring, and don’t tread on me Republicans. These follow the Platonic franchise. This Republican construction merely kicks the tin up the alley. We’ve got fewer voters with the same suboptimal outcomes, but now we’ve exacerbated it with principle-agency problems. Not only might one’s vote not be heard, but this agent may have secured office on the promise of delivering our wants only to take the ball and run with it in another direction. Off the playground. No universal healthcare for you lot. Yoink!
In the end, Democracy offers nothing but hope. Pandora’s box hope and empty promises. It’s a specious proposition of smoke and mirrors. And to be honest it’s more smoke than mirrors. Echoing the words of a wise poet, and the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters, but no pearls.
So, wait. What do I mean by mathematically untenable? Kenneth Arrow demonstrated that no voting systems, whether in theory or in practice, will yield optimal results. Again, this is before humans are introduced into the equation. No form, whether all or nothing, instant run-off, proportional, ranked, and so on. There’s simply no way. With as few as 3 voters and 3 initiatives, voting fails. Add voters and initiatives and it fails harder. Add human voters and it fails miserably. Many of us rail at the candidates and aspects of the system such as disenfranchisement and gerrymandering, but it had already failed prior to this. We’ve been sold a bill of goods, and the contents are rotten.
In closing, my point is that Democracy is over-sold. It’s hype appealing to emotion. We’ve got illusions of self and personal agency intertwined with illusions of control. And it is used to lull people into believing they have an impact. Instead, they complain when things don’t quite work out. A near-perfect analogy is railing at the casino when you don’t get the payout you had expected. Or that lottery ticket. It’s not that Democracy is a bad system. It’s just not all it’s cracked up to be.
And it’s not like you are being over-billed and getting ninety-nine per cent of what you bargained for. You are more likely getting less than half, and the rest is filler. You are paying for filet mignon, and you are getting bologna. You’d not accept that outcome at a restaurant, yet with Democracy, the best one can defend is that it’s imperfect.
And do politicians exploit these at every opportunity? No, as hard as they try, they miss some opportunities to exploit, but they are yet another nail in the coffin of the dream of democracy.