Why Democracy?

I’ve just listened to a very interesting discussion on The Public Philosopher program on Radio 4 asking just why do we use democracy to decide our politics and is it a fair and equal system?


(Click image for link to program or click: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02h91r3)

Some of the questions raised include:

What does it mean to be a “fair” and “equal” system?

We currently give every voter one vote in an election but some have suggested giving some people more than one (indeed, in some elections such as the Labour Party’s electoral college based leadership elections some people do receive multiple votes each “worth” a different weight). Is this “fair”? Who should decide who gets more and would, say, a merit based exam merely exacerbate class division?

How does this link in to non-proportional voting systems like First Past The Post? Clearly if you are a swing voter in a marginal constiuency your vote has a far greater impact on the final result than a minor party voter in a seat that another party considers “safe”. Is it really a democracy at all when you can win a seat on 30% of votes cast, especially when turnout itself is only around 50%? (For more: https://thecommongreen.wordpress.com/2015/03/05/under-fptp/).

Questions were raised on gender equality within parties. The Scottish Greens have a clear commitment to gender equality and have structural and procedural levers in place to ensure it. Here we could consider that favouring someone over another for gender reasons may not be equal or fair but if it is done to correct an imbalance which cannot otherwise be eliminated then it is clearly has to be. One could spend a maddening amount of time thinking about the distinctions within equality and fairness.

Or does Democracy mean something else entirely? Is it less about how everyone gets to have a voice and more about making your government accountable? The “benevolent dictator” may protect everyone’s rights and make good decisions this year but if he gets replaced or goes bad next year and you can’t get rid of them then is that a stable system?

On the other side, there is a movement at the moment pushing for participatory decision making where the general public all vote on each policy rather than delegating a relatively small group of people to represent them. Does this harness the power of collective decision or does it simply allow majority oppression of the majority and populist policy? Is a fair democracy sometimes about making an unpopular but right and just decision?

All in, a thought provoking discussion and well worth a listen.

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