Monday, 4 May 2015

Democracy First!

You may have read this before:

The CEO & The Fisherman

The CEO is looking to have a really fresh meal so he goes to the docks in the town and finds a man unloading his fishing boat with his morning haul. He buys a great looking fish and starts talking to the fisherman. The fisherman says “every day I fish for a few hours in the morning, then I eat lunch with my family, take a siesta, visit with friends, have dinner and go to bed.” The CEO says “Well if you fished for a few more hours every day you could buy a bigger boat. Then you could manage a team of fishermen and buy more boats and then move to the United States to manage your company. Then you could build your business until you can sell it to a major company and retire!” 

The fisherman ponders that for a second. “What would I do after that?” he says. The CEO responds “It would be great! You could move to a tropical village. You could fish for a few hours, eat lunch with your family, take a siesta, visit your friends, have dinner and go to bed.”
This is the shortest version I could find on the internet.

I wish I could write a variation on that story. About an American who comes to SG and speaks to a local and then tells the local that SG is not a true Democracy, that we do not have civil liberties and we have traded off our freedoms for economic prosperity. and how we should strive to be a REAL democracy, with Freedom of Expression, and regular elections.

And then what, the local would ask.

Then, the American would say, we would be free to pursue economic prosperity.

But I won't be able to make it funny. It would be ironic, because Democracy in the US have led to a dysfunctional government. Not that things don't work in the US. But rather they work not because of the government, but in spite of it.

It is telling that Congress passing a bill, is headline news. And then they congratulate themselves for doing their job. Which was to correct a problem they created 18 years ago. In other words, it took them 18 years to pass a bill to correct their mistake. That's news right?

Democracy at work?

Democracy is like God. It works in mysterious ways.

Because a law with NO defenders took over 10 years to be repealed or replaced. What more a law or an issue with entrenched defenders and proponents? Like abortion, contraception, universal healthcare, minimum wage, gun control, etc?

So the story of the American trying to convince the Singaporean of the need for Democracy first before economic progress would be full of irony. But only if you know the back story.


Jonathan Hill said...

Another interesting and insightful post on here which is good to see as always.

However I think your analogy misses the point that someone arguing for *pure* democracy (vs SG's unquestionably economically succesful albeit not technically pure version) would be making.

You're re-appropriation of this story assumes that they would be arguing the case for democracy as the most effective means to the end of national economic success. I don't think this is neccesarily true at all; I think those that champion pure democracy do so primarily in order to acheive governance which is as proportionally *representative* of the population as possible. I also argue that they would make this argument knowing full well that it may well come at the cost of economic success; elections cost huge amounts of money in themselves, and democratically elected governments (in highly plural societies) are demonstrably stymied by their diversity of intentions.

For the pure democracyist (ok Im not sure if thats a word) however, that cost is worth paying - it is the principle of everyone in society being represented that is of utmost importance to you.

Yours sincerely, a reader from the UK.

Jonathan Hill said...

*utmost importance to them* sorry.

El Lobo Loco said...

You are correct that "pure democracyists" are arguing for democracy purely for the sake of democracy (as I understand your comment).

"Pure Democracyists" argue simply on principles. The best thing you can say about them is that they are very principled.

The wider question is, "Democracy for what?"

Or even more important, "Government for what?"

At the most basic, the difference between democracy and say a hereditary REAL monarchy is how the government of the region/country/nation is selected.

In a hereditary monarchy/autocracy/aristocracy, it is by birth.

In a democracy, it is by popular vote.

The assumption in a democracy is that the best people who are able to lead the country would present themselves as candidates, the voters will consider their ideas and their ability and perhaps even their credibility, and choose wisely.

And the further assumption is that while some may not choose wisely, the majority would be wise enough and the will of the majority will lead the to BEST candidate elected to run the govt - a govt of the people, by the people, for the people.

Here's the catch: what if the candidates presenting themselves are utter and complete idiots?

Democracy does not by itself, offer the best persons to lead as candidates. The corollary to "Power Corrupts" is "Power attracts the Corruptible".

Democracy by itself or even with all the supporting institutions like Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, and Freedom of Association, etc does not lead to good government.

Democracy is a popularity contest and the winner is the most popular candidate. Then he or she has to run the country.

That's like picking the CEO of a company based on the number of friends they have on Facebook.

Yes, you are correct that the story as re-appropriated in the blog will never happen because pure democracyist would argue simply for the principle without understanding or considering the long term purpose of democracy, which should be for the selection of a good government which is also simply instrumental to the improvement of the lives of the governed.

Similarly, the CEO would never give free advice to the Fisherman.

Jonathan Hill said...

Yeah, I'd say you got the point of my comment pretty well. Only thing I'd add is, I don't think you can quite fairly assert that all of those championing pure democracy are oblivious to it's flaws. Ie, the 'simply for the principle without understanding or considering the long term purpose of democracy' is inaccurate from my experience of growing up and being educated in a country which pretty much exhalts democracy.

Alas, I feel it is my reluctant responsiblity to vouch for countryfolk, in that at least some them engaged in political science, who love democracy are aware of the risks (as you mentioned) of

- a dearth of competetent, principled candidates
- a bad decision made by the public when it comes to voting due to misleading and biased press outlets (eg fox news, the dail mail), ignorance (I couldn't count the people I know who actually read a party manifesto for todays UK GE on my hands..) or just bad judgement.

Yes, people recognise these risks, but are happy to take them because they are essentially still only risks, not certainties. I couldn't claim to know a great deal about politics (as an engineer), by I would say there are probably a few success stories from history to point to, as well as the current mire of US politics that you point to in your other article.

I certainly appreciate though, the geopolitical/economic/sociocultural context in which a country finds itself may well dictate whether these are risks it is willing to, or can afford to take....

El Lobo Loco said...

You can vouch/assert or otherwise defend the principled.

You are aware that when I call them "principled", I am not praising them?

You may not be aware though is that we have lots and lots of principled ideologues (foreigners and local) "advising" Singapore and Singaporeans, and your defence of the "lovers of democracy" is not something new.

The point of the post is to point out that we have different end points in mind. UK is a huge country - for now. You are having/or just had an election. Regardless of the outcome of that election, UK will survive. Because UK is huge. It can survive one, two, three incompetent governments. Maybe even one, two, three decades of incompetent government.

Maybe SG can, too. Or maybe we cannot because we do not have deep "stock".

More importantly, we answer the question "What is government for?" differently.

You note that many of the people you know are not very "politically aware". That is true of most people.

The concerns of Everyman is mundane - family, work, health, safety (in no particular order). Politics is something you do (vote) every now and then to choose a competent and responsible govt who can best allow you to pursue your mundane concerns.

Only ideologues (usually with hidden agendas) pursue principles for principles' sake.

AS for the success of democracy, I am also sure (and so willing to concede) that young democracies are likely to have successes, because ideology and idealism are in sync. New broom sweeps clean. The question is whether democracy as it ages can sustain its effectiveness. That is the true test of a system - its ability to endure.

And the evidence is damning.

Power attracts the corruptible is true of any system (even Singapore's).

The US (and perhaps the UK?) is an aged democracy, and their government shows that democracy is a failed ideology. Yes, America is still strong. But that is in spite of democracy, not because of it. The US has deep stock.

The best indictment of democracy is in every democratic country - their military.

No army/armed forces is organised and run democratically. That way lies incompetence, chaos, and destruction.

But it is good enough to run countries. Well, some countries.

Perhaps before the pricipled ideologues try to convince SG to be more democratic, they might try their arguments on their own military?