Saturday, February 17

Democracy and Majority Opinion

So, over one and a half million people have signed an e-petition asking the government to scrap the planned vehicle tracking and charging policy. Apparently it's the biggest display of public revolt against the Government since Thatcher's Poll Tax. A bit depressing if true; the petition itself hasn't actually affected policy (yet), so right not it's nothing more than list of names.

Still, the whole thing did get me thinking. What is democracy anyway? I mean abstractly and apart from voting and policy making? What's the point of it and what is it trying to prove? Well I guess it's all about representation, and a formalisation of the idea that the opinion of the majority is the most correct, and so, best thing to base decisions on.

However, in order to deal with the the logistical problems (since it's not really practical to ask everyone about anything), and the fact that one might not know what's best for them, we've added a layer of indirectness and so nominate a leader (or fifty); the idea being that the majority will correctly choose Mr X or Miss Y as the one most able to run the country at that point in time.

Sounds fair, right? Kinda, but there's a big assumption here: that the majority agree that this actual process of representation is the best way of establishing democracy. But is that really the case and does it have that kind of public backing? I don't know, but then I don't remember being asked about it during my ten years or so of being able to vote either. Heck, I don't even know enough about the topic to do that anyway.

But let's look at this in a different way. Maybe the fact that no majority is asking for change, in the form of an uprising or otherwise, is some kind of implicit indication of their agreement? Well sure, that might be the case, but then the same could be said about Iraq, Afghanistan or any other apparent dictatorships that have been recently criticised by other democracies.

Perhaps we've been manipulated into accepting this process? Possibly, but then that would go against the theory of majority rule; unless we, ourselves, actually want to be manipulated! Maybe we live in a more legitimate or authorised form of dictatorship, albeit one where the leader changes on a regular basis.

Still, I guess if we have a problem with someone who we voted in ourselves then it's really an indictment against the process itself rather than the current resident of Number Ten. I mean, if we presume the strength of majority opinion then we have to accept that Tony is the best man for the job at the moment. And if that's the case, then perhaps it's the job itself that needs changing? Perhaps what we actually need is a new system of democracy?

Which brings us back to e-petitions. This whole driving thing shows that, as a public society, we're able to give an opinion and make a decision. Not only that, but we're able to do it pretty efficiently as well. Okay, 1.5 million people is a tiny fraction of society and you can argue that even this particular petition isn't a majority opinion quite yet, but the potential is pretty stunning.

There are dangers with this idea though. We're not experts in everything and so might not be in the best position to decide policy ourselves. Still, if we trust in majority opinion then that doesn't actually matter (since errors would be smoothed off) and perhaps giving us individual responsibility would also prompt us to actually educate ourselves and engage in debate? And of course, the opinion of one man can be just as (if not more) wrong that that of the public anyway.

Of course as superb as the above sounds it is still the view of just one person. It'll only become a correct idea if the majority agrees to implement it. That kind of validation is important since even if those in power decided to change the system themselves, that doesn't mean they're doing it based on majority opinion - and if they actually did then it would probably be the biggest reason not to do it too!

So yeh, that's my take on democracy and what it means for us. But remember, I'm no political scientist, so most of this might have been said before or, more likely, is absolute rubbish. But then I'm not really talking about UK or even Western/Global politics, so some of it might actually have a point. What I do know is that I don't think any country can currently claim to have a process that's adequately democratic, if only because there's too many people thinking exactly that.