In the early days of my marriage an ageing, newly acquired relative informed me that – other than the price – there was no difference between Johnnie Walker and Tesco’s no-frills, own-brand blended whisky. The market survey was not long in coming when, the following weekend, a visitor involuntarily sprayed the contents of a freshly imbibed glass of the stuff over our new tablecloth. In a similar vein, democracy, when stripped of all the fancy packaging, has been described as “two wolves and a sheep discussing what to have for lunch”. On the face of it, that is indeed Democracy – but it would make the average paid-up member of modern society throw-up his lunch over a friend’s tablecloth.
We have come to think of Democracy as a one-size-fits-all commodity manufactured somewhere between the 49th Parallel and the Rio Grande, which can be exported by friendly persuasion or armoured convoy and lead Man back into the Garden Of Eden. Long forgotten are the words of that greatest of democracy’s defenders, Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Now, just as there are loads of 50-something Plain-Jane Marilyns wandering the planet, whose parents thought that something might wear off if they named them after Norma Jeane, some of the ugliest nations on Earth carry titles like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and Democratic Republic of Congo (Rape Capital of the World).
Democracies in point of fact come in all shapes and sizes. The “Liberal” type we tend to like owes its popularity less to democratic principles and more to the sanctity of personal freedom. John Stuart Mill, the author of “On Liberty” and one of the fathers of modern Liberalism, considered that a benign dictatorship could, in theory at least, deliver the same positive effect as a democratically elected government.
Which brings me to my point.
Democracy, in its various forms, has been an incontrovertible success in the development of modern society when compared with all the alternatives. But, that does not mean that , when you drill down, democracy, in all its current forms, is an unequivocal success in all respects. Take the economy. If you had a spare $10,000,000 to burn which of the world’s two largest countries would you choose to invest in – China or India? If you were trying to sort out the mess of the Eurozone (which democracy probably caused in the first place) would you have left Mario Monti in charge in Italy or gone for the current headless chicken of a Parliament? If you wanted to tame the unforgivable US deficit, would you establish a steady 10 year plan or join the Broadway Farce that is Capitol Hill today?
With the exception of India, whose problems are probably more to do with geriatric governmental incontinence than an overdose of democracy (though the Chief Minister of West Bengal is giving New Delhi a good run for its money), there is a real democratic economic crisis arising from the short-termism of politicians. Similar to the problem with Stock Markets, where company managers have to deliver short-term returns to public shareholders at the expense of long-term strategy, governments – from the moment they are elected – are looking at the next election four of five years hence.
In the case of Stock Markets, a recent study suggested that public companies should have different classes of shares with voting shares held by a Trust that would not be affected by short-term issues. Perhaps it is time for governments to be effectively bifurcated. Governments would be elected (or not) just like now, but economic policy would be placed in the hands of an Economic Assembly. Members would be elected for a single, say, 10 year period with 20% of members being up for election every two years. The Assembly would be in charge of budgets and taxation and would make its informed decisions on the basis of requests from the Government. If that sounds far-fetched, think of Monetary Policy. Once upon a time, Central Banks of most countries were controlled by the Government. Today, the norm is for a Central Bank to be independent, charged with controlling inflation and encouraging full employment. And those guys are not even elected.
Make no mistake. I support democracy. It is just that, like Marilyn Monroe’s dress at JFK’s 45th birthday party bash in 1962, it needs to be carefully stitched to make it fit.
Having said all that, one of my favourite quotes of all time came from Harry Lime in The Third Man: “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”