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Democracy

20/09/2014

Yesterday New Zealanders went to the polls in a democratic election to decide whether to reelect the incumbent National party led government or to replace them with a government most likely led by the largest opposition Labour party [incidentally the National party look to be able to form a government once more]. In the last few weeks the electoral commission has promoted the importance of all people voting in the upcoming election.

Inevitably at this time democratic triumphalism reaches its peak as reporters and celebrities impel people to exercise their right to “have their say“. I have also seen many who are apathetic about this election and the diverse multitude of players campaigning for the vote directed or compelled by democratic fans that “they must vote”.

But should people vote if they are so uninterested they need to be compelled towards an action they would not otherwise take? This can actually be quite dangerous if there are so many people uninterested in the players involved and unmotivated to inform themselves if they are to determine the future government. Yet uninformed voters do not seem uncommon and some view the situation as being one of systematic bias amongst the populace at large. I am glad New Zealand does not penalise non voters in the way Australia does. I should also add deciding not to vote is  a valid position people who are informed about various policies and their likely ramifications may take.

Democracy is a flawed system of government sometimes pandering to the worst prejudices of the majority who choose the decision makers. Alexis de Tocqueville noted the “majority” was solely a collection of individuals for better or worse and if an individual can be subject to bias, the problem in a majority could be multiplied:

A majority taken collectively is only an individual whose opinion and frequently whose interests are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries , why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their characters by uniting with each other nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength.

However after watching the international news and frequently witnessing horrible abuses by non democratic states states which allow no feedback or input whatsoever, democracy seems far preferable. Of course some non democratic states today (in spite of the inevitable absence of civil liberties) are better places to live than others. Limited though it is as a feedback mechanism when reliant on a majority which can often exhibit rather illiberal sentiments it does offer some information for those who govern the populace. Such information does seem indirect when it takes place only once at least every 3 years but it seems those who stray too far from the acceptable middle ground are unlikely to find sustained electoral support. In spite of these concerns I find myself still in agreement with Winston Churchill’s pithy remark that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

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