24 July 2009

Two Kinds of Democracy

Arguing against democracy can get confusing because democracy exists in two very different forms.

What we have in Western Europe and America I call "Old Democracy". It has parties and regular elections, which are carried out fairly, and it also has powerful non-party institutions of civil service, law and media which stabilise the whole edifice. These powerful institutions get their power mostly from tradition - from the fact that they have had power for a long time and are widely respected as such.

These systems of government are very different from those created by a pro-democratic revolution or a pro-democratic invasion. Those normally produce "Young Democracy", in which power is concentrated in elected institutions.

One cannot argue for or against democracy without distinguishing these two forms. Their merits and faults are quite different.

Old Democracy is the system of which it is tiresomely said, that it is the worst form of government ever tried, except for all the others. The claim is irritating but more than plausible - the most successful governments of the last hundred years, leaving aside a few city-state tax havens, have been of this kind.

Young Democracy, on the other hand, is what Old Democracy purports to be. The voters can vote for what they want, and they get it. Any theoretical, rather than empirical, defence of democracy applies to Young Democracy, not Old Democracy.

Young Democracy, however, is highly unstable. If the people can vote for what they want, then before long they will vote for "Strong Government" which will put an end to free, fair elections. The best case for a Young Democracy is that the unelected institutions solidify power and it becomes an Old Democracy before that happens.

The faults of Old Democracy are more subtle. It is not controlled by the electorate, but neither is it independent of the electorate. The effect of the electorate's limited power of choice is not catastrophe, but the slow expansion of the bureaucracy into every area of life, along with a slow decline of effectiveness in everything it does.

The endpoint of Old Democracy is the utter bankruptcy of the state and its collapse under the weight of its ineffective functions. I don't think that has ever happened in the West - economic growth has kept up with the growing cost of government - but I would expect it to look something like the end of the Soviet Union. which I do not classify as an "Old Democracy", but which in its late stages shared many of the characteristics of a very old Democracy.

Alternatively, it might not be coincidence that economic growth and the expansion of the state keep pace with each other. It may be that Old Democracy exercises just as much waste as the economy can afford. The growth of the state is not an inevitable process of Old Democracy per se, it is its inevitable response to economic growth. Old Democracy would therefore be stable in the long run.

The virtue of Old Democracy is its stability. I have made the case before. While Mencius Moldbug may have come up with something better, he has yet to describe how it could come about, and my own suggested path to non-democratic government is no more than a sketch.

Supporters of Democracy are able to switch between the two forms as it suits them. Thus a commenter at UR was able to say
You like to offer up weak, fledgling democracies that collapse into dictatorships as arguments against democracies, but really they're just arguments for creating democracies that can stand up to the overly ambitious sociopath and his cronies.
But a democracy that can stand up to its new leader is one that can stand up to the voters - i.e. an Old Democracy. The implication that it is voter power which protects democracy from tipping into totalitarianism is the opposite of the truth.

I must admit finally that the labels "Old Democracy" and "Young Democracy" are not ideal. Not every Old Democracy was previously a Young Democracy - the non-elected institutions in Britain are older than the mass suffrage, and I'm curious about the history of post-war Germany. And Old Democracy is only one possible outcome of Young Democracy - the Old's link with the Young is more a matter of its own propaganda than a natural one.

1 comment:

Johnny Abacus said...

"The endpoint of Old Democracy is the utter bankruptcy of the state and its collapse under the weight of its ineffective functions. I don't think that has ever happened in the West - economic growth has kept up with the growing cost of government - but I would expect it to look something like the end of the Soviet Union. which I do not classify as an "Old Democracy", but which in its late stages shared many of the characteristics of a very old Democracy."

Historically, most empires have not had the opportunity to decline into bankruptcy but were conquered from without once they became sufficiently weak on the inside. Nuclear weapons might have permanently changed this tendency, but I wouldn't bet on it.