Is democracy even that great of an idea?

The real strength of democracy lies in its ability to remove bad leaders

EDMONTON, AB, Apr 23, 2014/ Troy Media/ – On April 10th, the House and Senate committees held their final readings of Bill C-23, An Act To Amend The Canada Elections Act. On hand were Laurie Hawn, MP for Edmonton Centre, supporting the government’s claim that the new bill will help them combat voter fraud, and pro-democracy groups worried that it will unfairly restrict who can vote.

What’s in Bill C-23? A whole range of changes – from limiting what the Chief Electoral Officer is allowed to say in public to restricting vouching for voters without proof of address. Among other restrictions,Elections Canada officers would no longer be allowed to promote voting and democratic participation to Canadians and incumbent MPs would be allowed to select electoral officers and poll officers in their ridings.

The critics of the bill are concerned that the Conservative government’s actions will damage democracy in Canada. But is democracy even that great of an idea? “Democracy” is one of those words that we tend to be quite reactionary about, responding with knee-jerk defenses rather than soberly considering the issues at hand. We should remember that no less a statesman than Winston Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst form of government (except for all the others); it’s worth contemplating what he meant. My question: what’s wrong with restricting who can have a say in government?

It’s not as if inquiring minds throughout history haven’t found much to dislike in democracy. Plato, one of the greatest philosophers, regularly included harsh criticisms of the democratic institutions of his home city of Athens in his dialogues, including The Republic. In the present day, George Mason University’s Bryan Caplan has extensively critiqued common assumptions about the competency of the average voter in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter.

The critics of democracy, both ancient and modern, have in common a sound fear that democracies will degenerate into popularity contests: the people elected to government will be those who are most skilled at attracting votes, not those who are most able govern. As a result, governments will focus more on pleasing the people rather than doing what is best for society.

Given how important political leadership is, with the great power and responsibility to craft just laws and policies, it’s obvious we should want the very best people to be in government. Unfortunately, in the two millennia since Plato lived we’ve not had much success in finding them – leaders have on the whole tended to be mediocre when not malicious.

One of the most important skills taught in philosophy is how to ask the right questions, and realize when you’re asking the wrong ones. For 2,300 years, philosopher and political thinkers have believed the ultimate question in politics is “who should rule?”. The 20th century philosopher Karl Popper rejected this way of framing the issue. Rather than trying to find the right person to rule, Popper argued, we ought to focus on removing bad leaders. This is the real strength of democracy, and the only argument needed in its favour. A bad leader is so many times worse than even the greatest leader can be good, so rather than seeking the best we should work to stop the worst. Restricting who can vote makes it easier for bad leaders to maintain themselves in power as they have to please a smaller group of people.

The Conservatives are attempting nothing so high-minded as trying to ensure the rule of the best – they simply are trying to assure that they get re-elected. Bill C-23 is a clear instance of an old strategy: if you can’t win the game, then change the rules. The changes they are seeking are plainly in the interest of their party: getting rid of vouching makes it harder for university students and those living on government assistance to vote (and they often vote against the Conservatives); allowing incumbent MPs to select polling stations workers will make it easier to hold recounts in contested elections (when it suits the Conservative candidates to do so), and muzzling the chief electoral officer from promoting voting keeps voter turnout down (including those who might vote against the Conservatives).

It’s all distressingly petty politics and to get their way they have shown themselves willing to meddle with one of the foundations of our free society, the universal franchise. Before they make themselves even harder to unseat, we ought to use that true strength of democracy and send them packing.

Michael Flood is a writer and creative director at Arrowseed, an Edmonton-based marketing firm. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Alberta.

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0 Responses to "Is democracy even that great of an idea?"

  1. Avatar
    Scott from Winnipeg   April 23, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Amen to that

  2. Avatar
    Marshall in Ontario   May 1, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Definitely something interesting to consider. How well does our current system truly represent “Democrasy”? and is that even a good thing? Firstly I think its pretty apparent that our current system is a bad model for truely encapsulating the will of the people in government. Support for all of the 3 major parties is normally very close when you compare % of voters country wide voting for each party, most of the time we would wind up with a minority government if we just looked at how many Canadians voted for whom.
    Secondly is democrasy aka mob rule even a good thing? Certainly when we look at our neighbours to the south and  accross the Atlantic there are good arguments against it. In the US and Europe politicians have pushed government finances to the brink over recent decades as they consistently raised spending commitments to buy votes. Now the sovereign debts incurred as a result threaten the global financial system, and the standard of living for their citizens (think of Greece for instance). As Ron Paul would say: just because you’re in the majority doesn’t mean that you’re right.

  3. Avatar
    Dave in BC   May 8, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. –

    Those of us who worry most about the sorts of things that could possibly erode a democracy also need to worry about the effects of democracy on steroids. Imagine the mayhem if we all got to vote on every issue, something that is now technically possible with on-line technology…

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