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Musings of a Disillusioned Democrat

Liberal democracy today is considered the ideal form of government, and something to aspire to for countries that are not yet liberal democracies. It is considered to be a prerequisite for the protection of civil liberties, and on the whole, the best form of government currently available to nations. However, well-run democracies today are, with few exceptions, the wealthy and developed nations of the Global North. Of the sixteen nations in Asia, for example, which maintain Very High human development indices, 13 – that’s 81% of Asian countries with Very High HDIs – are either undemocratic or gained prosperity under the rule of an undemocratic system:

  • Hong Kong was ruled for most of its existence by the governors undemocratically appointed by the United Kingdom and will soon transition to being ruled by the equally undemocratic system upheld by the People’s Republic of China. It first prospered thanks to the reforms instituted by Sir John Cowperthwaite, who served as Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary between 1961 and 1971 and maintains today the fourth-highest HDI in the world. 
  • South Korea developed under the undemocratic rule of Park Chung-hee, whose rule ushered in what came to be called the Miracle on the Han River (though it later democratised). It today maintains a Very High HDI of 0.916, with a high-income economy
  • Turkey developed under the rule of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose sweeping reforms modernised Turkey, with the wholesale abandonment of religious law and institutions, and the adoption of modern legal systems, women’s suffrage and rights, education, and government. 

Evidently, a lack of democracy is not necessarily a bad thing- in fact, a lack of democracy has served more than a few nations quite well. To quote Lee Kuan Yew himself, 

“You’re talking about Rwanda or Bangladesh, or Cambodia, or the Philippines. They’ve got democracy…but have you got a civilised life to lead? People want economic development first and foremost. The leaders may talk something else. You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools.”

[To add to Lee’s point, Rwanda has gained prosperity since the deadly genocide it suffered in 1994, but under the autocratic rule of Paul Kagame.]

The criticism of democracy is nothing new – polemicising against the ills of democracy is an activity that stretches all the way back to the times of Plato and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. To begin with,  democracy is anti-meritocratic and anti-technocratic; it prioritises popular opinion instead of field-specific expertise, experience, and knowledge. An example of this is the election of Donald J. Trump to the office of President of the US, notwithstanding his total lack of experience in any form of government. A more meritocratic and technocratic would prioritise that sort of field-specific expertise, but because democracy only prioritises popular opinion, a man with no experience at all in government managed to ascend directly to the highest office in the land. 

Moreover, it gives power to the masses, and it has to be said that this is not perfect. For example, the opinions of an economics or politics professor at a university are almost certainly more profound, better evidenced, and more likely to be trusted than a layman’s opinions on politics and the economy – and yet, their vote counts for no less than experts’ votes. While it is true that certain views of both may conflict, the greater expertise and knowledge of an academic should count for something: a layman is more likely to be wrong, and so it might make sense not to extend to their vote the same amount of importance one might extend to the vote of an expert. Additionally, some members of the masses hold dangerously destructive views that do not deserve public representation – do the voices of Holocaust deniers or neo-Nazis deserve to be legitimised by the ballot. 

Giving power to the people sounds like the noble and correct thing to do, but it is not perfect, and it cannot be taken for granted that popular rule is, in and of itself, a good thing. For a different type of argument, consider how voting choices are made. The size of the average Indian constituency- 2.5 million people, far higher than in other democracies- is much too large for any voter to know their MP. As a result, the vote is often cast in favour of a political party, on the basis of the image of the party’s leader and their policies, along with the image of the local MP. 

Because of the too-large size of the average constituency, the image of an MP or minister is virtually dictated by the media and by public appearances – both of which are often artfully tailored and tweaked by an unelected class of literati, civil servants, and media moguls. As such, who we vote for is often determined entirely by undemocratic forces, thanks to the manner in which democracy is administered in modern-day republics. Voting choices can be manipulated; the image of political nominees can be controlled, and rarely democratically – despite the democratic culture so revered in today’s world. As the political scientist Robert A. Dahl theorised, democracy as practised today often turns into a polyarchy of sorts, wherein several powerful groups – the political class itself, the media and its kingpins, the civil servants – effectively manage to pull strings in their favour every time a democratic election happens. A true and full democracy is therefore unachieved in most nations with democratic institutions. 

With this in mind, it can be concluded with some certainty that democracy as a system is too far from perfect, too susceptible to latent manipulation and too serving of a class of voters whose choices can be controlled to be considered an end in itself, something automatically good to aspire to. 

Democracy needs its own reformation. 

Paritosh Purohit

Paritosh Purohit is a first-year undergraduate planning on majoring in economics. His interests include diplomatic history, law, economics, political ideologies, and philosophy.

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