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August 10, 2003

Traps to Avoid in Improving Democracy
Babak Seradjeh  [info|posts]

sketch of statue of liberty In a recent post, Niayesh Afshordi proposed a couple of changes to improve upon the experience of democracy, followed by a somewhat heated discussion in the comments to the post. To motivate his proposal, Afshordi has a quick look at two `fundamental flaws' of democracy. He then proposes to run the country on a model of government similar to that of a company by promoting or demoting people's agents, rather than representatives, through referenda, rather than elections.

Since historic experiences are hardly, if at all, repeatable, arguing for or against any such proposal could only be done through critical comparison of somewhat distanced events of the human history. There is one thread, however, that connects these events, that is, the thread of cause and effect.

I think the problems of the older experiences of the human history had been the prime cause for any change that has occurred in the form of governance of the human society. Indeed, Afshordi starts by pointing out what he thinks is wrong with democracy before he puts forward his ideas. However, one missing piece in Afshordi's proposal is an analysis of the problems in our past experiences—the very problems to which democracy was introduced as a solution. In trying to go beyond the experience of democracy, one should be careful not to fall back into the old problems again. This guideline is, I believe, the most important element of any attempt at new ideas, further underlined by the fact that changes of this sort are meant to happen at the scale of a society and thus affect many lives in the present generation and many more to come.

In the following I outline a few such problems, accompanied by a short commentary partly in regard with Afshordi's proposed `improvements' on democracy.

Infringement of the Rights of the Individual

What attracts many people to the more democratic countries, beside the lures of economy that are somewhat irrelevant to the form of the government, is the simple fact that they feel relieved of all the restrictions on their personal lives in their countries of origin. Yes, there are still restrictions of sorts in any country; but the size of what is left to the decision of each individual in our very populated societies has a critical value below which the natural course of one's life is so restrained that the only fix for it is an eruption of some kind.

Infringement of the Rights of the Minority

Contrary to what Afshordi says in a comment, democracy is not the rule of the mob. In a soceity ruled by the mob, the rights of the minority are infringed just as severely as the rights of the individual are in a dictatorship. A cornerstone of any democracy is that the rights of the minorities, including the freedom of speech and the press, are guaranteed by the law. The suffering of various minorities throughout our history and right now, from religious to sexual, is one dark spot that must remain only in history books.

Unchallenged or Permanent Power

The main problem addressed by a democracy is the problem of the unchallenged power that is usually given or forcibly taken by a person, a group or even a popular movement. The occasions of the same happening in a democracy, which are used in Afshrodi's post to argue that the democratic government is unstable, are rare. Although very important and in need of a proper fix (also look at Soashyant long comment), this kind of instability is in my view far better than the kind of stability that comes with other forms of government, including that proposed by Afshordi—the inherently stable situation of the latter is, I think, one in which a few people hold a permanent grip on the power. In short, in a democracy unchallenged power remains as an anomaly while it is in the very structure of other forms of government so far conceived.

Totalitarianism

I believe that a most valuable lesson to learn from the history of politics is that although a necessity for the order of things, government is not the key solution to prosperity and flourish of a people. Most of the times, governments with their unchecked and vast authorities have been and still are the biggest obstacle to the success, economic or otherwise, of a society. The rejection of totalitarianism, that is, the idea that the government should be in charge of every detailed aspect of social life, is in the spirit of the democratic experience. Democracy leaves individuals, groups, and people in effect, on their own to decide for what is best for them in their lives and for their future.

Comments
Parthisan at August 10, 2003 07:35 PM [permalink]:

Niayesh mentioned in his post: "So can we improve upon the democtratic experience, without simply copying it?". You should be aware that democracy - like a physics experiment - in nothing you can blindly copy. It depends on very many factors (i.e. the society culture, history, religion, etc). The basics and general structure of democracy has been experiences, studied and perfected throughout history by many nations. Some others have also tried to adapt the model but have failed due to specific (studied or unstudied) reasons. It is not difficult to see the differences between major implementations of democracy in countries like the States, France and UK. Unlike what the Marxist and Islamists say, one can make a "scientific claim" that a democratic government so far has been the most successful model of government. Obviously it has a number of flaws and shortcomings, but on the other hand the system is flexible enough to be debugged and also be adapted by different nations. Consequently, the answer to Niayesh's question is "Yes, and what we should avoid is to blindly copy a system".

West-Ender at August 10, 2003 08:50 PM [permalink]:

The idea of running a country the way they run a company may sound pretty but is absolutely dangerous. It's actually the way Iran is being ran at the moment: People who think they own the company (and consequently the wealth and lives) and put every effort into increasing the value of the company (read: wealth of the owner(s) - and NOT the employees). Employees (say state agents) move upwards in the hierarchy ONLY IF they do good enough for the owner(s) of the company; and in any case, the owner(s) of the company may decide to chuck the employee out (read: expel anyone from the country). They may also decide to sell part of the company. What brought you to this brilliant idea of comparison between running a company and an ideal government?

saoshyant at August 11, 2003 03:36 AM [permalink]:

Babak,

Re. Simon, Henderson and Niyayesh’s, please tell us what kind of causal relationship you seek to point to, a method that exposes Democratic Models’ "fundamental" flaws (?)


Let me clarify that constitutional conventions/practices envision systems of checks and balances that is supposed to limit power-wielders/holders’ power; a theory vs. Practice issue. A capitalist context shapes the modern political economy (a chicken and egg problem, liberalism led to capitalism or vice versa). Now, democratic practices are to become smarter: campaign finance reform. Constitutional Courts remain the last recourse to protect fundamental rights freedoms against tyrannical majorities or rising of fascists.

Saoshyant at August 11, 2003 09:15 AM [permalink]:

One important note that Babak skilfully points to is the historicity of any human idea that is put into practice. Various processes such as questioning of the ministers, impeachment of the Cabinets, Free Media (Freethoughts.org, an example ;)], and civil disobedience (mass strikes and demonstrations) still remain vital to the democratic process. I believe formal institutions (such as the constitution and constitutioanl practices)are necessary but they are not sufficient. Let us not forget that civil society and NGO activities have virtually taken the place of the Print-Press (which used to be considered the fifth pillar of liberal democracy). Civil society activism has indeed replaced the formal political party and the Print Press in pressuring the governments. They too are institutions of democray in a liberal democratic society, and more often they acquire formal status; look at the influence and respect that the Council of Canadians commands. Politicians can be dealt with more than once (the election days) and outside of the Parliament or the Supreme Court in this context. It akes time and all the goals cannot be always fully achieved, "historicity" again, but it is often effective to hold the politicians accountable.

Babak S at August 11, 2003 03:14 PM [permalink]:

Saoshyant: the causal relationship I pointed to is simply problem -> change. Identifying the problems that led to changes in history however needs a sharp eye. The changes are not always sudden, nor they happen with every revolution or as the result of every reform movement. They happen gradually over the time, as the result of many revolutions and many reform movements. `The biggest change comes as slightly as a pigeon's strolls.' (Nietzsche, free translation from Persian)

Saoshyant at August 11, 2003 04:03 PM [permalink]:

Babak,

Point well made and well taken. A few points concerning gradualism, flaws of democracy and violence.

Martin Luther King, in his famous speech "I have a dream", condemned gradualism as an addictive tranquilizer. Quite frankly, I always found his comment a very profound point that was perhaps a wake up call for Americans telling them "we, the blacks, have waited enought and and you, the whites, are ready for it as well". As it turned out, a majority of American subscribed to and supported the Civil Rights movement. Nonetheless, local majorities of the South imposed a hefty price was paid: M. L. King Jr was assassinated, a while later Robert Kennedy was gunned down (I can mention of many other assassinations at the same time).
When is the time to rip the crops of the lengthy changes, and how can violence be dealt with when it is time and some, local majorities or violent minorities, are not willing to submit to "volonte public" (French for "the Public Will")? The question looms larger when you discuss reform under very non-liberal circumstances (Iran?)

Niayesh at August 12, 2003 02:21 AM [permalink]:

Babak Serdjeh(on your main post),
If there is one thing that we should learn from modern science and engineering is that, in general, new ideas can not be tested through mere argument. That was the pitfall that stopped the progress of pre-Galilean science: the endless philosophical arguments based on incomplete/inaccurate facts.
We will never graduate from our costly school of social trials and errors, not unless we learn how to make controlled and quantifiable social experiments, or social simulations.

Now, on your specific objections:

"Infringement of the Rights of the Individual"

Who is a better judge on what the rights of the individual are? The individuals themselves or the supreme court (or some analog)? If indeed, as you say, the rights of the individual is what attracts people into democracies, they should be the most protective of them. If you ask a random person on the street if he likes being free to practice his religion, his answer is definitely yes. The key is to ask the right question, the question that affects one's personal life. I understand that this is not always as easy as it sounds but, to me, it seems more acceptable than some sort of elitism, e.g. relying on supreme court.

"Infringement of the Rights of the Minority"

Now I think you are puting yourself above the society by saying that they cannot rule themselves (that's what the rule of mob means).
Again, the main question is what the rights of the minority are. You can write a set of rights in your constitution which will probably go out of date in a few decades. You can ask an elite group (like the supreme court) to determine what those rights are and risk exactly what you're trying to avoid or even worse. Finally, you can ask the people themselves, e.g. would they like being discriminated against based on their color of skin or their spiritual beliefs. I'd prefer the last. Again, the key is asking the right questions.

"Unchallenged or Permanent Power"
This is a big mis-observation to think that instances of unstable democracies are rare. Indeed, many undemocratic nations have had at least a brief period of democrtaic experience which has ended in dictatorship or disarray for one reason or another (e.g. Musadiq in Iran or Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan). Of course, the democracies that have survived are the ones that have reached a stable point, and are of course stable by definition.
In the system that I proposed, I am not sure how a few people may hold the grip on the country while their power is dependent on the public opinion. If they can satisfy the people at every instance, why would we want to get rid of such qualified people.

"Totalitarianism"
Contrary to what you think, I believe that government IS the key determinant for the prosperity of a nation, as it is the government that decides in which direction a nation moves. Is the reason for the prosperity and development of Amrican and British nations, anything more than their governments?

Yashar at August 12, 2003 12:44 PM [permalink]:

Yes it is, Niayesh. Let's only take into account the economic progress of these nations, for the sake of argument. Although I don't want to neglect the role of these governments in their economies, i do believe that their role is much less important than, say, the role of the government of the former USSR in their economy.
The government here has never had '5 year economic plans' to develop the economy, it doesn't own too many corporations and doesn't order these corporations to follow it's plans usually - actually it's the other way around rather. They call this economy 'free martket economy' and although it's not really free from the government it's honestly much freer than the USSR's. So I guess the answer to your questoin is definitely yes the reason to their prosperity is something more than their governments. I have to say I'm not an advocate of capitalism though. Although I think it's better than USSR. I actually think the corporations should be run democratically instead of government being run like a corporation. what I mean is a sort of cooperative ownership/administration of a coporation by its workers. which is an anarchist idea in its root.

Babak S at August 12, 2003 02:51 PM [permalink]:

Niayesh, I would hail you if you came up with a way of making `controlled and quantifiable social experiments, or social simulations,' but I don't see how you could do that.

`Asking the right question' is indeed important. But `who asks the question' is even more important, as `right' in social issues could be drastically more subjective than in scientific issues. Say, if the hard-liners in Iran ask in a referandum wether people want to be judged on their Islamic outlook or not and a percentage slightly above the set threshold say yes, how could the rights of the minority be protected? It seems to me that there is also a misunderstanding on you part of the role of an institution like the supreme court. The supreme court does not set the rights, people do. The minorities who struggle for their rights make their voice heard and gain their wished-for freedoms/rights. After that, the supreme court protects these rights, so that a Hitler can't violate them.

On the question of stability and unchanllenged power: again, as you said it yourself, Musadeq and Benazir Bhutto had not reached the stable democratic situation they were seeking. Musadeq in particular was toppled by a CIA-backed coup, which is a totally undemocratic way of changing a government. Now, here is the way I think in your proposed model power would remain unshared: Once there is a hierachy of agents, the few on the top could plan a programm for the referanda and the questions they are going to ask in them, so that no matter what the answer is, yes/no/whatever, one of them gets to the top. This cycle has no solution in your model. The newcomers will have many obstacles on their way, one being the acceptance of their application in the first place. The cohesion of the system, which is also the reason it is stable, makes it a unit with no proper checks and balances of power--checks and balances that are in the meat and blood of a democracy. Agents will form an untouchable elite who decide for what should be done. Ironically, I believe this is very similar to what's going on in Iran.

On the question of the role of government: it seems we belong to two different camps. Yashar has a good answer in his comment. I just add that, if governments are in accord with the will of people, then the credits of the success (or failure) should go to the people and no one else. If govenrments are supposed to lead/drag their people to success, well, I guess there has been enough examples of such undertakings to look at in the history. My understanding is that this latter has never worked.

Saoshyant at August 12, 2003 03:58 PM [permalink]:

This point on stability is very intriguing that Babak and Niayesh are debating. I lately had an encounter with the Bangladesh's example. It is unbelieveble how much civil society and political parties have created such an unstable (in terms of governmenance) state. First, there is so much freedom that no one can be properly informed what the people's will truly is. Since the early 1990s that political parties became extermely discredited, labour unions and the Press have become extermely strong. The result however is a miexed blessing. Democratic activities and participation is very high, but the country every other month succumbs to general strikes. The army is no longer willing to assume the role the Pakistani army plays every now and again, intervening both for the sake of stability and their own selfish reasons. Nor has it the courage to act like the Turkish army, just for stability's sake invervention.

Now today, all types of circles of elite are created in Bangladesh and none of them recognize each other and all claim to represent peaple.

How can one really know what is the people's will in such a situation?

Refrenda must take place after due debate at all levels, local, municipal, provincial and national. But debate cannot happen when no one is willing to listen, whether it is chatoic Bangladesh or conservatively democratic US.

Refrenda for that matter can often get people very misleading results. And if so, and the refrenda's result happen to be an answer to a wrongly informed and worded question, who would be able to implement a result that is so out of touch with reality? Look at the Quebec dilemma.

Sina at August 13, 2003 08:38 PM [permalink]:

Niayesh is very wrong about the role of government in prosperity of the nation, and also the direction towards which the nation moves. In stable western-europe democracies, it is the intellectuals and also corporate powers who bring the government to power and dictate directions.

Intellectuals do that through direct voting and also debating the issues publicly through mass media and free press, therefore shaping people's ideas. Corportations do it through supporting a particular candidate and funding for his/her campagne.

There are some differences though - from country to country - depending on the level of political-awareness of the nation (lowest probably be the USA, in contrast with countries like the Netherlands, France, etc), structure of the corporations and their financial dependencies, and of course the extend of freedom of mass media (compare American-controlled Fox News with BBC-World).

There is no ideal world, but in a good-enough situation, all these parameters would balance each other and move the nation towards a path which is almost the resultant of the above-mentioned factors.

Jim Baxter at August 14, 2003 10:27 AM [permalink]:

Many of us agree that 'Ideas' represents an anemic effort by
the U.S.in dealing with Iraq, Iran, and other Middle East
countries. Pushing a concept of 'democracy'is rightly perceived
as merely 'political,' not foundational, and thus unacceptable
by their philosophical and religious criteria.

It appears shallow compared to America's true potential offering
to the world out of its unique founding and creative-growth values
and inventive experience.

The definitive in human nature is the Individual ability to make
choices. (Is there any other kind of human? 'Groups' are verbal
conveniences - not Reality.) ALL humans share in this true depic-
tion of our nature. The human being is Earth's choice-maker.

Such a valid assertion undercuts every man-made alien opinion
and is practiced and verified everywhere on planet Earth daily.
Thus nature itself has laid the foundation for every human
relationship, institution, and social act. After all, the
creative process is a choice-making process and functions
best in an environment of opportunity - Freedom.

What are our leaders waiting for? Mr. Jefferson's statement, "all
men are endowed by their Creator with...Liberty" says the same
thing.(Liberty is internal - the ability to choose. Freedom is
external - the opportunity to choose.)

In public, private, and Christian schools, I taught my 5th
graders for over 30 years, it is as natural a requisite for
Earth's choice-maker to need Freedom as for a gold-fish to
require water.

My Choicemaker-based civics workbook (Gr. 5-8) won numerous
awards in the '60's and was placed in the Eisenhower Presiden-
tial Library, Abilene, KS, by "Ike," himself.

Isn't it time for a universal "Season of Generation-Choice-
maker" to flower world-wide and bear fruit? Cyrus the Great
and Mr. Jefferson would both choose to agree. I trust you and
others will also choose to agree. Please take part in placing
this concept before our nations and before your neighbors for
the youth of our nations..

Peace is not a Cause -- it is the Effect....

Remember....
Your human Rights are NOT a grant of man or government. They are a gift, an
endowment from the Creator GOD, to His human Creation. Any person or system
which opposes your free-will Rights is opposing the God who gave them to you. ALL
tyrants are in opposition to GOD and nature! Humans, made in His definitive image,
must be free to fulfull GOD's purposes in making each one an agent of His Freedom.
DO NOT give any credit to any man-made system for what only the Creator GOD
has done.

The next time you see or hear a cleric of ANY religion wave a 'holy' book and
claim to speak for the GOD of your creation -- and opposes Individual human Rights
-- you will know that he is a FRAUD and does not deserve respect or obedience.
Thus, you were born to be Free! The creative process is a choice-making process.
Now, live it!

The complete article is at:
"What is man...?" God asks - and answers: Earth's CHOICEMAKER
http://www.geocities.com/James-Baxter/

Always Faithful
Jim Baxter
Santa Maria, California USA

P.S. The way we define 'human' determines our view of self, others,
relationships, institutions, life, and future. Choose wisely....there will be
results.

* * * * *

Saoshyant at August 14, 2003 02:02 PM [permalink]:
Dear Jim Baxter, Why do we need a god to base a justification of respecting people's agency according to his/her initial equal creation of us? Your American religious view is most respected (you may say that this characterization is unfair, then I wonder why your idea of being born equal before a god is so similar to the US Constitution’s wording!), but does not convince me and/or those who subscribe to a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that is "human" and "pluralist" but "god(s)less)". First of all, as per this web site's focus, I know many good Iranians and Westerners who privately, if not publicly, do not believe in God. In fact, they are convinced that however many of our ideas are initially informed by some kind of religious background, historically and/or personally, they do not need god in order to be good humans. Do not worry! Various versions of humanism respect religion(s), but subscribe to a universalist understanding (call it optimism if you want) that we all share a universal belief in the dignity of all humans (some even extend that to all species and our environment). This dignity and its examples should establish a space through which we seek co-existence. In this space individualism and belief in human agency should not go rampant. We should not create barriers for others in the name of implementing/enforcing our interest/right/wish that oriented by this belief in our "individual agency". Sources of ethics are negotiable between humans as they have to learn to live with each other with respect and dignity, which requires tolerance. All this is supposed to bring peace. You invite us to choose "wisely". Many thanks! But our wisdom is better informed by the contribution of all of us, through tolerant debate and autonomous participation. It is not just a matter of theory but a very pressing practical need that we, as humans, together, and through constant deliberation and in peace, should determine what constitutes wisdom both depending on the situation and in general, without any necessity to believe in "god" or any authority as a pre-requisite. Believing that Humans are equal without any need to believe in God has been argued for centuries, by Kant and Rousseau down to those non-violent believers who believed in a "god" of some kind: including Luther King and Gandhi. Before them Persian mystics like Hafez wished for a humanity so tolerant that a good person would be burnt after one’s death by Hindus and/or washed by the Muslims regardless of one’s beliefs. It is ironic that those who seek justice in the name of "god" are the ones who are the source of most of the violence in today's world (look at the Fundamentalists in Iran, look at their neo-Conservative Christian counterparts in the US, look at the most infamous of all UsamaH)? I hope you agree that we are all fallible and need to respect each other's dignity, without needing a god or sysemt of belief according to whic, one of us would ever dare paternalistically advise ohters to choose "wisely"! (Parts of the last two paragraphs are from the Philosophers of Enlightenment Voltaire and Diderot). From this view point rights have both ethical and practical footings. Governments, for your information, for the past fifty years no longer grant rights they “declare their recognition”. Of course, recognition does not take place without struggle. In this sense, we today operate on these grounds that the rights through the public recognition and public will-f ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Alan K. Henderson at August 17, 2003 01:41 AM [permalink]:

Theists (like myself) argue that if humans are all equal in value (which must be the case if all humans have equal rights), the source of that value must come from an intelligent entity that transcends and has authority over humanity. Non-theists who believe in equal rights for all argue that the source of human value lies elsewhere. The debate between these two groups is over the source of rights, not over their existence. People can agree on the definitions of rights even if they disagree on where rights come from.