Monday, June 8, 2015

Democracy vs. liberty

Democracy is not the same thing as freedom.  No matter how often they're mentioned in the same sentence, no matter how many times you hear "democracy" touted as the ultimate in human liberty, they're not even remotely the same.  (And please don't start on the we're-a-republic-not-a-democracy schtick.  It's not direct democracy, true, but it's still a democratic process -  the citizens vote for rulers, the ruling class votes on legislation.)

A simple thought experiment will serve to show the difference.  Imagine a group of ten people deciding on a restaurant for dinner.  Three want pizza, two each prefer Mexican, Chinese, and French cuisine, and one wants Indian. 

In a democracy, they vote, and all are bound by the outcome, whether it suits their tastes or not.  In a straight whichever-gets-the-most-votes-wins style of democracy, assuming everyone votes for their first choice, they're having pizza.  Only three people get what they really wanted, with everyone else having to settle for a less-prefered option, maybe even one they hate.

Of course, that opens the door to compromises.  Suppose four of the seven who don't want pizza agree that they like hamburgers better than pizza, and decide to vote that way to override the pizza bloc.  Now nobody gets their first choice.  The hamburger coalition gets its way, but hamburgers might be a distant second, or even lower, in their scale of preferences.  They simply dislike them less than they dislike pizza.

It could get even messier, if the pizza bloc dislikes burgers enough that they try to shear off some of the hamburger coalition with another option.  And this is just deciding one fairly simple issue.  Imagine if some other issues were bundled with it - say, what to do for pre-dinner entertainment.  Movie, concert, theater, museum...?  Each of those contains its own subset of options, too.  The latest Oscar hopeful?  A lowbrow comedy?  Shakespeare?  Art or natural history? 

With all these choices only adding complications to their evening plans, there's the potential for a lot of conflict between our hypothetical group members.  And this is before they vote on who pays and how much!  It could easily come to blows.  Because some people's preferences must prevail over others, it is inherently a win-lose (or lose-lose less badly) proposition.  It is a scheme for enforcing conformity, and so it creates conflict over whose preferences everyone must conform to.  Opting out is not an option; you either fight, and you win or lose, or you surrender and lose.  The end result is generally a sludge of unhappy compromise that displeases the majority a bit less than it displeases the losing minority - hardly the stuff of a blissfully happy society.

Or...they could scrap democracy in favor of individual liberty, which opens up a vast array of possibilities even within this little scenario.  Every person can go his or her own way, or they can split up in groups.  They can decide their own priorities; for example, whether to have their first choice of food or entertainment, or compromise for the sake of someone's company.  The groups might shuffle between activities - dividing up along certain lines for entertainment, and forming new sub-groups for dining.  Each one is free to choose whatever arrangements suit him or her best.  Any one person will only choose to go along with someone else's plan if he deems it better than his next-best alternative.  If he doesn't, he can walk away from it.  It's win-win or no deal, and thus conflict is avoided.  Bob's decision to go have Indian food by himself doesn't compel anyone else to do anything he or she doesn't want to.  If you don't like someone else's idea of a fun evening, you're free to go your own way.  And the next time the situation arises, you can do it all completely differently if you like.  You can escape the status quo without having to convince anyone else to do so.

 The question, then, must ultimately be: Why do we worship democracy so?  Are we such control freaks that we prefer to deny others the freedom to pursue their divergent values at the expense of fully pursuing  our own?  Are we that afraid that diversity of interests will tear society apart at the seams if we don't impose artificial conformity?  (And if so, is such a society - one that must suppress individuality to survive - really worth preserving?)

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