Can you have too much democracy?

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This essay by Mary Lenton, a 20-year-old student in her second year at Oriel College, Oxford, was joint winner of an essay competition organised by the Independent and other leading papers round the world to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of democracy in Greece. The other winning essay, by Katy Knight, an A-level student in London, will be published in tomorrow's newspaper.

The British essays, by people aged 17-23, were judged by the editor of the Independent, Andreas Whittam Smith; Lord Howe of Aberavon; David Marquand, professor of politics at Sheffield University; Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, and Helen Williams, formerly High Mistress of St Paul's Girls' School, now Trevelyan Fellow at Trevelyan College, Durham University.

Our winners join those from other countries on a week's tour of Greece in July, organised by the Democracy 2,500th Anniversary committees in London and Athens, and Lambrakis Press.

WE in the West tend to characterise democracy as a good thing, versus totalitarianism, the bad thing. But we should also remember it is possible to have too much of a good thing. In the past decade many countries - Poland, South Africa - have moved towards democracy to the extent that the 'end of history' and the triumph of liberal democracy have been proclaimed.

Yet without Communism as a contrast, democracy does not look so desirable. It is having difficulty coping with conflict-ridden, economically backward, ex-Communist and Third World states, where expectations outstrip practical possibilities. Even in established democracies there are fears that liberal democracy has lost its way, that it needs redefining and revitalising or replacing. Perhaps voter apathy is a sign of democratic overindulgence or maybe it is just complacency. Is democracy, as Churchill said, the worst form of government, except for all other forms? It still faces problems, in the attempts of many countries to democratise and improve their economies and in the growth of international institutions that need to be made accountable.

A central problem is that the meaning of 'democracy' is not always clear. In its time the label has been applied to the whole spectrum of political systems. However, we generally associate it with ideas such as liberty and equality, which appear to be desirable. But it is arguable that we can have too much of them and that they are impossible to achieve completely. For example, absolute equality of opportunity would lead to a meritocracy - places in society determined by merit alone, leaving those at the bottom knowing they were inferior and with no hope of ever climbing the social ladder; this might lead to conflict.

Easier to see is that complete liberty is also impossible and potentially undesirable. Too much individual liberty means anarchy. Absolute individual liberty for everyone is impossible; either we are constrained by laws or the 'law of the jungle' allows some to use their liberty at the expense of others. So it is possible to have too much of some of the ideals behind democracy. Yet democracy has always been pragmatic about them; it uses consent of the people as the basis for its governments' legitimacy, so, in theory, preserving individual liberty without anarchy. The ideals may be a facade, but we need to ask whether we can have too much democracy in practice.

The critique of democracy in the West that dominated the Eighties was linked to the economic liberalism Thatcherism and Reaganism tried to espouse. They shared Locke's view; individuals know their own interests best, so paternalistic government is oppressive. They argued that the state had penetrated many social and economic spheres in which it had no business: through nationalisation, subsidies, the Welfare State. Individual liberty had been lost. Minimum government was required. We had had enough of the type of democracy sought by politicians of the post-war consensus. People want to make more of their own choices, not leave so many to government.

An alternative critique focuses on increasing voter apathy, widespread distrust of politicians, on groups that have been marginalised, such as women and the underclass, on the problems of bureaucracy and democracy's links with capitalism and liberalism. Capitalism thrives on inequalities.

Schumpeter argued that it has helped to downgrade democracy from an end in itself to merely a means for procuring material benefits for people. The large economic organisations and government bureaucracies needed to run a modern nation have an impersonal nature; power congregates in oligarchies at the top.

Some argue that liberalism encourages concentration on the private sphere of individuals at the expense of the public sphere or the wider community. Benjamin Barber said: 'Without participation in the common life that defines them and the decision making that shapes their social habitat, women and men cannot become individuals. Freedom, justice, equality and autonomy are all products of common thinking and common living.' He believes liberal democracy has failed in its task to adapt pure bureaucracy to the realities of governing a large nation. We have had too much of such democracy. A more participatory form is required, following a subsidiarity principle. Most decisions should be taken at local level, with bigger ones made through referendums.

It seems to me that the first critique means more freedom for some, at great expense to others who become marginalised from the political system by great social and economic inequalities. Some government interference is needed, reducing inequalities to a level where they do not threaten the stability of the state and leave no one totally destitute. Interference to reduce inequalities can go too far, as in the 'political correctness' movement. But the first critique's view leads us too close to the opposite, equally unsavoury, extreme. I echo Lincoln in saying we need government, 'of the people, by the people and for the people'.

Our government often seems a preserve of white, middle- and upper-class, middle-aged men. Wider participation is needed to recapture the ideals that, imperfect as they are, form the basis of democracy, and in turn encourage more participation. But persuading individuals to participate when they are disillusioned with the system is difficult.

What is needed is politicians living up to, and being seen to be putting into action more, the ideals of democracy. Voters have had too much of politicians not keeping promises. Greater participation would make both more difficult. Voters could punish such behaviour more directly. The model is self-sustaining but needs something to start it. I suggest politicians acting more responsibly and the devolution of more power to local communities. Under such a system, far fewer people would become disillusioned.

Katy Knight's essay will be published in tomorrow's Living section.

(Photograph omitted)