Democracy in the dock

By Rizwan Asghar

Authoritarian regimes in many countries often take decisions that prove to be disastrous for the political and economic well-being of millions of their citizens.

In some instances, these decisions are even opposed by rational human minds, but are hardly considered baffling. This is because everyone believes that the ultimate goal for all totalitarian governments is to remain in power for an indefinite period of time, even it costs everything.

Countries tend to take bad steps when the interests of rulers and masses do not converge. This should not surprise anyone. However, what is certainly baffling is that most democratic countries also take decisions that end up becoming harmful for most people.

Why do a large majority of the masses support policies that cannot be considered rational from any point of view? Why do democratic systems at times fail to work as bulwarks against socially harmful policies?

John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher and political theorist, believed that involving people in politics would positively impact their moral and intellectual virtue, making them more concerned about the common good. However, the events of the past 100 years have shown that common forms of political engagement have not only failed to make people smarter, but also tend to corrupt them.

Most people who do not get involved in everyday politics are politically ignorant, misinformed, inconsistent and irrational – and they vote accordingly. The proponents of democracy argue that voters do not need to have all forms of information to be able to vote for their political candidates. In their view, voters can use various information shortcuts. However, this belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance is more harmful than helpful.

A majority of voters either have very strong political opinions or change their mind in a heartbeat. Democracies make bad decisions when the people elect corrupt and inefficient leaders under the influence of false beliefs. The only thing that justifies unrestricted, universal suffrage is that political theorists have so far been unable to produce a better-performing system.

Nowhere has this phenomenon ever been more true than in today’s America. The US is considered the world’s most successful democracy. But it will soon be ruled by someone who should not even be allowed to run a city government in any mature political system. A recent report by the CIA concluded that Russia did try to help Donald Trump win the US presidency. There may be some truth in the matter. But what actually helped Trump win was the ubiquitous ignorance among voters.

The idea of democracy originally came from the liberal political philosophy, which holds freedom as the fundamental political value. Liberals argue that people should be allowed to make bad decisions so long as they are not hurting anyone else. But what they fail to recognise is that the right to vote is not like other fundamental rights. An electorate is entirely different from an individual. It is a terrible analogy. Millions of individuals in a country cannot be likened to the parts of one human body. In this situation, the ignorant majority usually imposes its decisions on the more rational and better-informed voters.

Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher, also feared thousands of years ago that a democratic electorate would be too irrational and ignorant to govern well. The embarrassingly high levels of political ignorance are being construed as a serious threat to American democracy by many prominent political scientists.

This debate leads to a thought-provoking question: if inadequate voter knowledge is a problem big enough to be placed as a question mark against American democracy, what do we know about the quality of democracy in Pakistan?

More alarmingly, Pakistan is the only country in the world where you would often see very well-respected journalists and political analysts defending corrupt politicians in the name of democracy. If Pakistan stands the risk of crumbling under its own debt burden, it is due to our own self-destructive nature and the poor choices we have made in the past. In such a situation, Plato would have argued in favour of entrusting power to carefully educated guardians.

If democracy in Pakistan produces only corrupt politicians because of our collective ignorance, why not go to the root of the problem and take practical steps to weed out mass political ignorance? But that is unlikely to happen in Pakistan because in addition to being ignorant we are also a self-deluded and narcissist nation. We believe that we are the best in the world and anyone who says otherwise is spreading disappointment and negativity.


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