Democracies Are Fighting for Their Lives

Democracies Are Fighting for Their Lives

Can they save themselves?

Democracies are fighting for their lives and there are nine major challenges they face. In this first article of a two-part series, the first six were examined. Read part two here.

Spinoza’s Prediction

The Jewish-Dutch philosopher Spinoza (1632–1677) predicted that democracy would be guided by and taken over by demagogues jettisoning reason and logic. Freedom for individuals in whatever way it was seen when Spinoza lived would be there, but the mediocrity of rulers would lead to chaos. The elite would rebel against such a system. The people would be confronted with the choice between freedom and chaos versus order and tyranny. Spinoza predicted that people would choose order and tyranny. Men are by nature unequal and equality among unequals is an absurdity. Therefore, a system which Spinoza labels aristocracy or monarchy with the ablest individuals in charge would inevitably prevail.

It is thought-provoking that the BBC in February 2017 published a localized breakdown of voting patterns determining the outcome of the British referendum to leave the European Union of June 23, 2016 (the Brexit referendum). It says that “a statistical analysis of the data obtained for over a thousand individual local government wards confirms how the strength of the local Leave vote was strongly associated with lower educational qualifications. Wards, where the population had fewer qualifications, tended to have a higher Leave vote. If the proportion of the local electorate with a degree or similar qualification was one percentage point lower, then on average the leave vote was higher by nearly one percentage point.” History will tell whether the decision to leave was good or bad for Britain, but as the data reveals it was decided by the less educated while the higher educated would have liked Britain to stay. Moreover, those earning most of the money to keep Britain going including welfare payments are found among the higher educated.

Six Major Problems

1. How representative is democracy?

Liberal, representative democracy is supposed to produce a parliament and government congruent with the electorate. It does not always turn out this way. Members of parliaments must toe the line to solidify the party’s role blocking legislation across party lines. Sometimes this makes it impossible for the government to find a majority, overrules national interests or prevents members from voting according to their conscience. In the U.S. Congress, members may be regarded as outcasts if they break party discipline. Only John McCain’ seniority and status saved him from that fate when in September 2017 he voted against the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In Britain, there is a large majority for staying in the EU, but toeing the party line makes it impossible for this large majority to enforce its policies. Instead, Brexit is largely dictated by a small wing of the Conservative Party and ten members of the Northern Ireland DUP. Without their support Prime Minister May’s government would fall. Not surprisingly voters are baffled, in many cases feel cheated and often ask the simple question what that has to do with democracy?

2. Those who are supported by the system versus those generating wealth.

In many countries, the numbers of those supported by the lavish welfare systems creeps close to the number of people working and thereby earning the money to fund welfare payments. Conditions for generating wealth stop being defined by those who actually do it. It is taken over by those not generating wealth, but supported by the wealth generated by others.

The non-active part of the population does not see welfare payments as something they can fall back on when not able to earn a living due to a recession, wrong education or other factors complicating their participation in the workforce. They expect and demand that the state has offers for them which they can choose or reject and if so still claim welfare payments.

Welfare recipients will never be a majority of the electorate but combined with the staff in local communities and agencies administering welfare they can come close. Strangely, these two groups form a tacit alliance to defend the system directly or indirectly supporting them. For the United States with two political parties the possibility to constitute a majority is remote, but not for many European countries with five or ten political parties. In such a scenario their votes may be necessary to form a government. Furthermore, when that happens, they demand a continuation or even higher welfare as a share of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).


3. The size of welfare benefits is growing.

Politicians have had to swallow the hard lesson that it is tremendously difficult to retract welfare provisions once given. Even more, elections are won by offering more and higher welfare payments. Political parties have gone into elections trying to appease, to sway, and court the approval of voters.

The changed attitude among voters explains such political platforms. Initially, the welfare system worked well because voters understood that the system was designed to help them in case, they were not able to take care of themselves. Many voters had lived in an era where welfare did not exist and held back on using it. They accepted the implicit assumption that it was a safety net and not a substitute for earning a living.

That changed, however, when new cohorts joined the electorate. They had not lived in a society without welfare. They regarded it as something they had the right to tap into. Their parents started by needing support and then looked for rules and regulations and in many cases were grateful and modest. The next generation started by scrutinizing what they could squeeze out of the system without linking it to their needs. Many of them looked at welfare payments as a kind of salary seeing their “job” as being a beneficiary of the system. Costs rose almost dramatically.

Psychologically the way the welfare society has developed runs counter to a basic human instinct vital for individual’s self-respect. That instinct is the feeling that somebody needs you, the satisfaction of contributing to something together with others, and—maybe most important—that society and fellow citizens demand something from them. A too generous, and too automatic, welfare system runs the risk that beneficiaries are put under tutelage by society are almost transformed into just floating along without doing much. This is what happened to the people living in Rome under the Roman Empire when the proud people transformed into a mob. It may also be what Friedrich Hayek meant choosing the title “The Road to Serfdom” for his book published in 1944.

4. Politics has become a profession.

The virtue of liberal, representative democracy was that it was “representative.” Broadly speaking the composition of parliament mirrored segments of society. (Albeit gender equality is still far away in most countries, but in the economic everyone could work.) Furthermore, most members of parliament had worked for quite a while outside political organizations before they entered parliament and many of them kept such works even serving as MPs. They knew of daily life and had for some time been a citizen like everybody else meeting fellow citizens in the workplace, out while shopping or among the parents of school children.

The large majority of members elected to parliament by socialist (labor) parties had actually been workers, and a large part of the members elected by parties representing farmers had been or were still farmers. What more is they worked their way up not inside the party machine but local organizations—for socialist parties as spokesman and local trade unions and farmers in local associations. In that capacity, they negotiated with local organizations (employers or buyers of agricultural goods) and met afterward face to face those who elected them to defend their decisions. If forced to accept bad terms they saw the pain or anger in the face of fellow workers or farmers. In my own country, Denmark, out of four prime ministers in the 1950s one was a farmer and ran the farm while prime minister, two were former trade union members who had worked their way upwards and one was an academic. In Britain, the last prime minister having such credentials was James Callaghan (1976–1979) who started as a clerk for the Inland Revenue where he joined the Association of the Officers of Taxes (AOT), a trade union. After ten years he quit the civil service to devote himself fully to trade union work. Ronald Reagan was in the 1950s president of Screen Actors Guild (SAG)—a labor union with more than one hundred thousand members in film and television.