The worst system ever invented?

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Politics is unpopular, as are politicians. Much of the complaint is highly moralistic in tone: politicians are liars, are corrupt, greedy etc. Of course this is unfair. It is wrong to tar all politicians with the same brush. But, more to the point, moralistic critics of politicians cannot decide whether or not we can live without politics or not. The fact is, we can’t live without politics. And if we need politics, then we are going to need politicians.

First we need to understand why we need politics. In short, we need politics to contain group conflict and to achieve a fair rationing of public goods. We either accomplish these aims by repression (bad politics) or we do it by managing disagreement fairly – good politics. Let’s develop this distinction further.

We need politics not because people are excessively selfish (though there is plenty of that) but because they are excessively moral. Problems arise because we argue about what the definition of morality is, and we demonise those who have alternative definitions of morality. When these divisions cohere around groups, conflict results. This can be a recipe for violence.

Group conflicts cannot be wished away – they can only be contained. There are two ways of doing this. One course of action is repression – to set up a police state. Another way is democratic politics, whereby these divisions are expressed but contained so peace is maintained.

How are differences to be contained with recourse to overt repression?  The answer is to devise a procedure to allow groups to contend for the prize of political power, but within rules. In modern liberal democracies, this is done via elections. But elections only work to ensure that the struggle for political power is peaceful if two conditions are met.

The first is that the winners of such elections do not treat their victory as licence. They cannot round up and jail their opponents, for example. The second is that the losers accept the result and do not contest the result with violence. They are more likely to do this if they are assured that the winners will allow them to fight another day and today’s winners are prepared to be tomorrow’s losers.

Democratic politics usually manages to contain the struggle for power among competing groups peacefully. We take this for granted and fail to realise just what a marvel the peaceful transfer of political power in western democracies is. In this respect, democratic politics is not the worst form of government apart from other forms tried from time to time, it is the best.

The second reason is the fair rationing of public goods, things like health care, a clean environment, a reliable energy supply, high quality infrastructure. In a democratic society, where the government wins power by elections, it cannot simply provide public goods for its own supporters only.

A Conservative government in the UK must ensure that health services are delivered across the entire country, including the parts of the country that didn’t vote for it. When people have a voice, they demand more public goods and governments have to listen, knowing that they are judged by how they well they are perceived to be delivering public services.

But public services are expensive. These services have to be rationed as demands exceed resources. The government does not have the option of retrenching and providing services only for its supporters. A country in which a government merely hands out public goods to its own supporters is likely to provoke resentment among those whom it does not favour, resentment that can spill over into violence. It therefore must seek to ration services and ensure that the burden of rationing is spread reasonably fairly, or at least in such a way that the rationing of public goods is not likely to cause violence from those who feel their fair entitlement has been denied to them.

This is easier to achieve in countries which elect governments prepared to rule within limits. Those who think they are losing out unfairly have the opportunity to vote the government out and redefine the terms of rationing. In many countries, public services are either the preserve of favoured ethnic groups (as in many African countries) or is conditional on those who demonstrate party loyalty (as was the case with many former police-welfare states of Eastern Europe)

In short, we need democratic politics because the struggle for political power among competing groups needs to be contained within peaceful limits and because public goods need to be rationed fairly. The struggle for political power and the demands for ever greater public goods will never cease.

There will always be need for politics with all the fuzzy half-truths, messy compromises and machinations that this entails. Democratic polities frequently fail to live up to these ideals but, when they do, they do it well, better than the tried alternatives. We will develop these ideas further in future posts.

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