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Why democracy will die

Posted by Graeme in Politics at 11:26 am on Friday, 10 December 2010

In the 1990s it looked as though democracy was spreading irresistibly. Not only do I think this trend has reversed, but that there will be very little public objection to it, and the push-back against it will be comparatively little even from those who seek to oppose it. It will happen slowly, but democracy is dying.

This may seem ludicrous: after the vast majority of people in almost any country will say they favour democracy and free speech and all the other liberties that go with it. There strong constitutional protections in many countries, and even at the international level in various treaties and the European Court of Human Rights.

This does not matter because of where we are heading. The vast majority of people will not mind living somewhere like Singapore: safe and prosperous, reasonably free provided you do not seriously oppose the government or support ideas that disturb the social order. A pleasant place to live in, but no democracy. Its constitution and laws are democratic, but the reality is not.

In countries that are already democracies, the change is already under way. Civil liberties are being reduced a salami slice at a time, and without affecting most people. Each individual change has sufficient justification to have popular support, or at least lack effective opposition.

Lets give the police extra powers to tackle terrorism/organised crime/paedophiles/scare-of-the-week. Of course the powers will be given to far more arms of the government than are involved in dealing with serious threats, and once they have the powers they will be used for just about anything: British anti-terrorist laws have been used for everything from arresting hecklers to investigating fly-tipping.

Censorship is similarly justified. Governments are taking on powers to justify blocking child porn, or terrorist propaganda, etc. Once they have those powers, there is nothing to stop them from blocking anything else they wish.

Censorship in democracies really started with laws punishing “hate speech”. What is covered by the laws has been extended, and other similar laws (“glorifying terrorism”) have been passed. The principle has changed from “you are free to say anything short of directly inciting violence, or libel”, to “you are free to say anything that does not upset people”.

Technology is the enabler. Mass surveillance was expensive when it required Stassi type infrastructure. Now it can be largely automated and the costs are easily absorbed. People who live, or document their lives on-line, make it easier, and cheaper, still. Websites rely on centralised infrastructure which is easy to monitor and control.

The powers governments already have a quite sweeping. In the UK the home secretary (a politician) has the power to send some people into exile without trial: provided they have another citizenship she can cancel their British citizenship whenever she feels like it. Anti-social behaviour orders make “bad behaviour” criminal if the government tells you not to do virtually anything. I could go on.

I hope this illustrates why I do not believe that these changes will not be resisted. Most people can be persuaded that the changes are justified, or at least nor outrageous. The small group of idealists who object are powerless. Nothing is happening, or is likely to happen, that is likely to push people to resort to violence, because the outcome threatened is simply to bad enough to provide moral justification (and democrats are not going to turn to violence without solid justification).

Of course there will be some protest, but it will mostly concern financial issues, with no real aim or principles apart from “give us a slightly bigger slice of the cake”, as shown by the university fees protests in Britain. If they are peaceful they will be ignored, but if they are violence they will be undermined by loss of the moral high ground.

I think ultimately things will reverse again because I do not believe that this sort of tightly controlled not-quite-democracy will work in most countries: for cultural and historical reasons, but most of all because it will not work in big countries. Big countries cannot be micro-managed in the same way that a single, not particularly big, city can be. This has been amply demonstrated many times, for example by the failure of the British government’s attempt to mange schools through rules and targets. Big countries are too complex.

The main advantage for which people are willing to sacrifice liberty is safety. The problem with this is that what is offered is the perception of greater safety: developed countries are already very safe. Perceptions are unpredictable, and selling safety to cowards is likely to merely lead them to find something else to be frightened of. That said, this is likely to be used to justify further control, rather than disillusioning people in search of perfect safety.

The other problem is rising resentment of the growing gap between the rich and poor, and especially between the super-rich and the rest of us. The proletariat has shrunk in developed countries, putting the middle class in the same relative position. I have already blogged about the fears of the Ministry of Defence.

I am not sure how much of a real threat this is: as long as people have jobs to lose and mortgages to pay they have too much to lose. In any case, it is a very long term threat and will not interrupt the current trend for the foreseeable future.

All this deals with reductions in personal liberty, the question is whether that threatens the right to choose a government. I think countries like Singapore provide the answer. Regardless of law and constitution, a powerful government can choke the opposition. Short of that, we also have the problem that most democracies are effectively two party systems, where we have two parties with not discernible ideological difference (unlike forty years ago), run by very similar people (career politicians), subject to the same pressures from lobbyists. Who actually cares which of the two win? It is very easy for governments to quash minor parties and independent candidates.

So far the deal offered: reduced liberty and democracy in exchange for safety. Most people are willing to take the deal. It would be almost undemocratic to oppose it.

Comments (4)


Comment by Lance Boyer at 5:05 pm on 15 December 2010 at

You do not seem to make a distinction between freedom and democracy (“mob rule”). While democracy is necessary in a free society, it does not ensure freedom. A large group does not spontaneously gain rights individuals in it do not have. A large group does not have the right to take healthcare, money, or community service from a smaller group. Most importantly the individual is the smallest minority, who must not be sacrificed for other individuals.

Comment by Donald Livingston at 9:26 pm on 15 December 2010 at

One thing you seem to ignore is that technology is a double edged sword. Though you decry technology as being an enabler for governments to monitor and control their citizenry, it is also an enabler for that citizenry to have their voice heard. While government censorship is always to be feared, never at any time in history has the free exchange of thoughts, opinions, and ideas been more easy and accessible than it is today. The very fact of your posting this blog entry, and my replying to it is proof. Yes there will be those willing to sacrifice their liberties for safety (and I pity them), but there are always going to be those willing to forgo safety and fight for their liberty.

Comment by Graeme at 3:05 am on 16 December 2010 at

Lance, I partially agree with you, but democracy without free speech is a farce, and freedom without democracy is, at best, fragile, so liberty and democracy are linked. Maybe the post title should have been “liberty will die”?

Donald, my fear is that the relatively centralised nature of the internet and telecoms, together with the ability to automate monitoring and filtering, will put the advantage firmly with the governments. We have already seen that countries can seize domains and block sites (see previous post: The internet is easy to censor, they can force people to hand over encryption passwords (The UK’s RIP Act gives police this power – if you do not cooperate you go to jail).

My posting this is proof that we still have some liberty, what I am suggesting is that we will not retain it. I have also not said anything that the authorities in any country with some jurisdiction over the site will find particularly objectionable.

Comment by Graeme at 6:40 am on 16 December 2010 at

Donald, my argument on technology is better explained in another post the internet as an instrument of control

Sorry, comments are closed