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Criticism of democracy has always existed in democratic societies, with much of the criticism claiming that democracy is either economically inefficient, politically idealistic, morally corrupt, or even un-democratic in itself.

Contents

Economic criticisms

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Irrational voters

Economists since Milton Friedman have strongly criticized the efficiency of democracy. They base this on their premise of the irrational voter. Their argument is that voters are highly uninformed about many political issues, especially relating to economics, and have a strong bias about the few issues on which they are fairly knowledgeable. For example, members of labor unions are most passionate and informed about labor policies. They will organize themselves and lobby the government to adopt policies beneficial to labor unions but not necessarily to the rest of the population. As a result, politicians are unaware of voters' actual desires.

Efficiency of the system

Chicago economist, Donald Wittman, has written numerous works attempting to counter these common views of his colleagues. He argues democracy is efficient based on the premise of rational voters, competitive elections, and relatively low political transactions costs. Economist Bryan Caplan argues, while Wittman makes strong arguments for the latter two points, he cannot overcome the insurmountable evidence in favor of voter irrationality. It still remains the Achilles heel of democratic government. The problem is not mere lack of information; it is that voters badly interpret and judge the information they do have.[1]

Wealth disparity

This could result in a wealth disparity in such a country, or even racial discrimination. Fierlbeck (1998) points out that such a result is not necessarily due to a failing in the democratic process, but rather, "because democracy is too responsive to the desires of a large middle class increasingly willing to disregard the muted voices of economically marginalized groups within its own borders."[2] The criticism remains that the will of the democratic majority may not always be in the best interest of all citizens within the country or beneficial to the future of the country itself.

Sociological criticisms

Lack of political education

Furthermore, some have argued that voters may not be well educated enough to exercise their democratic right. A population with low intellect may not be capable of making correct decisions. While this view today is increasingly regarded by advocates of democracy as an attempt to maintain or revive traditional hierarchy in order to justify autocratic rule, extensions have been made to develop the argument further.[3]

Benefits of a specialised society

One such variant of the argument is that the benefits of a specialised society may be compromised by democracy. As ordinary citizens are encouraged to take part in the political life of the country, they have the power to directly influence the outcome of government policies through the democratic procedures of voting, campaigning and the use of press. The result is that government policies may be more influenced by non-specialist opinions and thereby the effectiveness compromised, especially if a policy is very technically sophisticated and/or the general public inadequately informed. For example, there is no guarantee that those who campaign about the government's economic policies are themselves professional economists or academically competent in this particular discipline, regardless of whether they were well-educated.

Political criticisms

Uncontested good

Additionally, some political scientists question the notion that democracy is an "uncontested good."[4] If we base our critique on the definition of democracy as governance based on the will of the majority, there can be some foreseeable and unfavorable consequences to this form of rule. For example, Fierlbeck (1998: 12) points out that the middle class majority in a country may decide to redistribute wealth and resources into the hands of those that they feel are most capable of investing or increasing them.

Cyclical theory of government

Machiavelli put forth the idea that democracies will tend to cater to the whims of the people, who then follow false ideas to entertain themselves, squander their reserves, and do not deal with potential threats to their rule until it is too late to oppose them. He put forth a cyclical theory of government where monarchies always decay into aristocracies, that then decay into democracies, which decay into anarchy, then tyranny, then monarchy.

Political instability

More recently, democracy is criticised for not offering enough political stability. As governments are frequently elected on and off there tend to be frequent changes in the policies of democratic countries both domestically and internationally. Even if a political party maintains power, vociferous, headline grabbing protests and harsh criticism from the mass media are often enough to force sudden, unexpected political change. Frequent policy changes with regard to business and immigration are likely to deter investment and so hinder economic growth. For this reason, many people have put forward the idea that democracy is undesirable for a developing country in which economic growth and the reduction of poverty are top priority.[5]

Oppression by the majority

The constitutions of many countries have parts of them that restrict the nature of the types of laws that legislatures can pass. A fundamental idea behind some of these restrictions, is that the majority of a population and its elected legislature can often be the source of minority persecutions, such as with racial discrimination. Some countries throughout the world have judiciaries where judges can serve for long periods of time, and often serve under appointed posts. This is often balanced, however, by the fact that some trials are decided by juries.

Philosophical criticisms

Mob rule

Plato's the Republic presents a critical view of democracy through the narration of Socrates: "Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike."[6] In his work, Plato lists 5 forms of government from best to worst. Assuming that the Republic was intended to be a serious critique of the political thought in Athens, Plato argues that only Kallipolis, an aristocracy lead by the unwilling philosopher-kings (the wisest men) is a just form of government.

Timocracy and oligarchy

The other forms of government place too much focus on lesser virtues, and degenerate into each other from best to worst, starting with Timocracy, which overvalues honour. Then comes Oligarchy, overvaluing wealth, which is followed by Democracy. In Democracy, the oligarchs, or merchant, are unable to wield their power effectively and the people take over, electing someone who plays on their wishes, by throwing lavish festivals etc. However, the government grants the people too much freedom, and the state degenerates into the fourth form, Tyranny/mob rule.

Role of republicanism

The Founding Fathers of the United States intended to address this criticism by combining democracy with republicanism. A constitution would limit the powers of what a simple majority can accomplish.[7]

Moral decay

Traditional Asian cultures, in particular that of Confucian and Islamic thought, believe that democracy results in the people's distrust and disrespect of governments or religious sanctity. The distrust and disrespect pervades to all parts of society whenever and wherever there is seniority and juniority, for example between a parent and a child, a teacher and a student. This in turn is suggested to be the cause of frequent divorces, teenage crimes, vandalism, hooliganism and low education attainment in Western societies, all of which are lower in Asian societies. It is argued by Islamists that moral decay occurs when there is no longer a respectable leader who sets high moral standards and when a politically free environment creates excessive individuality.

Administrative criticisms

Short-termism

Democracy is also criticised for frequent elections due to the instability of coalition governments. Coalitions are frequently formed after the elections in many countries (for example India) and the basis of alliance is predominantly to enable a viable majority, not an ideological concurrence.

This opportunist alliance not only has the handicap of having to cater to too many ideologically opposing factions, but it is usually short lived since any perceived or actual imbalance in the treatment of coalition partners, or changes to leadership in the coalition partners themselves, can very easily result in the coalition partner withdrawing its support from the government.

Democratic institutions work on consensus to decide an issue, which usually takes longer than a unilateral decision.

Corruption within democratic governments

This is a simple form of appealing to the short term interests of the voters. This tactic has been known to be heavily used in north and north-east region of Thailand.

Another form is commonly called Pork barrel where local areas or political sectors are given special benefits but whose costs are spread among all taxpayers.

Mere elections are just one aspect of the democratic process. If one examines the central tenets of democracy, i.e. equality and freedom, these are frequently absent in ostensibly democratic countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Moreover, in many countries, democratic participation is less than 50% at times, which makes them democracies only in name. The Election of individual(s) instead of ideas is the primary disrupter of democracy.

Volatility/unsustainability

The new establishment of democratic institutions in countries where the associated practices have as yet been uncommon or deemed culturally unacceptable, can result in institutions, that are not sustainable in the long term. One circumstance supporting this outcome may be when it is part of the common perception among the populace that the institutions were established as a direct result of foreign pressure.

Sustained regular inspection from democratic countries, however effortfull and well-meaning, are normally not sufficient in preventing the erosion of democratic practices. In the cases of several African countries, corruption still is rife in spite of democratically elected governments, as one of the most severe examples, Zimbabwe is often perceived to have backfired into outright militarianism.

References

  1. ^ Caplan, Bryan. "From Friedman to Wittman: The Transformation of Chicago Political Economy" (April 2005). [1]
  2. ^ Shrag, P. (1994), "California's elected anarchy." Harper's, 289(1734), 50-9.
  3. ^ Head to head: African democracy
  4. ^ Fierlbeck, K. (1998) Globalizing Democracy: Power, Legitimacy and the Interpretation of democratic ideas. (p. 13) Manchester University Press, New York
  5. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/7671283.stm
  6. ^ Plato, the Republic of Plato (London: J.M Dent & Sons LTD.; New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc.), 558-C.
  7. ^ James Madison, Federalist No. 10

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