Democracy? Do the people have a say?

One of the themes of my futuristic ebooks is to look at different forms of government. We believe, or are continually told, that democracy is the best form of government, but that is merely an assumption. We know Plato did not think so, despite living in something much closer to a democracy. In The Republic he makes the excellent point: if you and a number of others were lost at sea, do you want a navigator or a vote?

But that leaves open the question, do our forms of government really have democracy, and if so, to what degree? Two events have sparked this thought. The first involves military action against Syria. There were good signs, in that in the UK, while the Prime Minister was quite gung ho over action, parliament turned around and voted against it. There are also less good signs. When President Obama suggested that Congress should vote on the issue, John McCain immediately implored the Republicans to vote with the President so as not to weaken the US image overseas. That might have been the right thing to do, but surely the decision as to whether to kill so many people should be made on grounds better than, “Let’s keep our image strong!” Surely a decision like that should be made on the basis of whether the situation will be better with the act than without it, and whether there is something else that could be done that would be better still. Logic says that at the very least, if you are going to do something, there should be a net benefit, not a net liability.

The second event was local to New Zealand. There is a question as to whether the government should partially sell infrastructural assets that it owns. There are a variety of views on this, the government saying it will give it more cash to do more, to which the cynic might suggest that it is selling assets to do things that make it look good at the next election, which is essentially the government trying to buy votes. The reality is that the government has latched onto the right wing “privatize everything” theology. Now, in an effort to get some democracy, some citizens have initiated a referendum, which, unfortunately, is not binding on the government. The government has said it will ignore the referendum, which it is legally entitled to do, but what message about democracy does that send to the citizens? The government says it was elected, and that gives it a mandate to sell the assets, since it mentioned this in its electoral policy statements. Is this argument valid? 

In my opinion, the answer is, “No.” In any such election, there are a number of issues, and in my opinion, the real reason why it got elected was that it had lowered income tax rates, and those that voted for it wanted to cement that in. It is funny how a little extra for the wallet leads so many to overlook so many other things. A subsidiary reason was that the opposition was still somewhat unpopular, having previously earned some ire during nine years in power. As for the tax, only too many overlooked the fact that those taxes had been made up with other taxes, such as an increase in the goods and services tax.

The problem with an election is that everyone gets one vote, but they have to spend it on a politician. The net result is that the people can choose their temporary autocrat, but they cannot selectively vote on policy. The referendum concept gives the people the right to vote on an issue, but autocrats tend not to like that. Yes, I know it would end up being messy, with everyone voting for mutually incompatible policies, but surely there must be some level of policy that citizens could vote for?