After last week’s UK referendum result to exit the European Union (EU), I wonder whether democracy has its limitations. At the very basic level, one would hope that voters are knowledgeable over the issue at hand, and that each political group vying for votes will be held accountable for their promises.
Yet, with the prospect of Brexit now on the horizon, I’ve been looking into the mechanics and consequences of exit and its mind-bogglingly complex. There’s the constitutional ambiguity of how to initiate and implement an extraction from EU law. There’s the years of uncertainty between the UK exiting the EU and the initiation of any new trading arrangement with the EU and the rest of the world, and of course there is the question of how to unpick and re-negotiate trade deals with the EU. Then we have to work out what this all means for livelihoods for years to come.
Whether the average voter was aware of this when they voted is open to question. What is clear is that most people tend to not have an accurate view of the country. On the gap between the rich and poor, British people on average think that the one percent owns sixty percent of the country’s wealth, yet the actual number is twenty-five percent. They also believe that one in four people in the country are immigrants (i.e. not born in the UK), whereas the reality is closer to one in ten.
Then on the EU specifically, four in ten British people are not sure or do not believe that members of the European parliament (MEP) are directly elected by them (they are!). Moreover, they think that almost thirty percent of the EU budget is spent on admin costs, such as staff costs, yet the actual share is closer to five percent. In commerce, the amongst the top ten countries in the world for ease of doing business, half are EU (or EEA) countries. This puts paid to the notion that EU red tape can hold businesses back.
With this backdrop, it makes one wonder whether the wisdom of the crowds in the form of a direct vote makes sense. This doesn’t even bring the other side of the equation into focus – that is, how to hold political players accountable. All too often, promises are made in elections or referendums that are quietly dropped after victory. How then can one have faith in democracy.
Plato certainly didn’t have much faith in it. Admittedly, I’ve always been wary of Plato’s view of political systems – his ideal of a philosopher-king seems too idealistic and too easy to be abused. But events of recent days have made me re-read The Republic.
In the book, Plato described five forms of government: aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. His ideal was “aristocracy”, a system where a class of philosophers would rule. They would not be allowed to own property and would be educated from a young age to rule society in a just manner. However, a deterioration in the quality of such people would lead to the next form of government, timocracy. In essence, this is rule by the warrior class or military. Power and conquest become more important for the this ruling class.
Eventually, Plato argued that the quest for material gain would result in the moneyed class taking over, and so an oligarchy would arise. Then unhappiness amongst the masses of their poor material state would lead to an uprising, which would bring about democracy, the fourth form of government. This system would allow more “apparent” freedoms than the previous systems.
But democracy would degenerate to tyranny. The very freedoms allowed by democracy would result in every segment of society asserting their rights, and the resulting chaos would open the way for a tyrant to emerge. That person would would not be “restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen” and would use “false accusation” against their opponents to eliminate them. Therein lay Plato’s suspicion of democracy.
There is some wisdom in the thrust of the Plato’s critique of democracy, that is, we should be careful about “winning a vote” being the ultimate measure of justice or legitimacy. Without the right conditions of voters being well-informed, political parties being held accountable and protections for the weak or marginalised, democracy can become tyrannical.