Saturday, November 05, 2005

Democracy in black, white and grey

More debate on Matt quotes me
Democracy is based on the idea that sovereign
power derives from the will of the people

MM: That's certainly one view.
RL: I would suggest the one and only view, the basic philosophical principle, the ideal which is never attained, and towards which all self-styled democracies should strive towards.

I agree with your criticism of the limitations of representative democracy, and agree that more intense local direct democractic systems are desirable. One of the failures in Iraq has been that the approach to creating a new democratic Iraq is based on top-down, rather than bottom up democracy.

However, we have to go with what we have. "Adopt, adapt and improve", as John Cleese's armed robber used to say.

My point was that if the UN adopt the Green Party's approach and should set up an Index of Human Rights to measure all states' performance in matters of torture, political imprisonment, free elections &c. there would be a constant upward pressure pushing regimes towards more democratic structures.


Matt M said...


Looking back at the debate, I realise I misread you. I thought you were suggesting that the point of democracy was that the sovereign derives power from the will of the people - hence my comment about representative democracy vs direct democracy.

I read an interesting essay a while ago (can't remember who by or what it was called!) that suggested the rise of human rights groups like Amnesty have greatly helped the rise of democracy throughout the world. Ensuring that the western public is made aware of the horrific abuses going on around the world increases the pressure on governments to act.

The UN pushing greater human rights would be a considerable help. Though it will never happen, tying in who we're allowed to trade with based on their human rights standards would cause an incredible drive towards democratic standards throughout the world. But, it would require some restraint on the profit motive of our countries - so it's highly unlikely.

DocRichard said...

It is encouraging to think that our efforts as civil society do have an effect. I am sure they do. What a shame that we are having to push our leaders all the time, instead of them leading us into the sunny uplands.

I think the Index could be linked with trade priviledges in the second phase - after it is installed and established. I agree that at the moment, free market capitalism is the dominant motif; but how much longer can it cling on to power? All it takes is for the economy to collapse - which it may do as a result of the comined assault of Bush-nomics, Peak Oil and (if we don't get our vaccination act together) Pandemic Influenza - and we will have to start again with the green economics, which implies a Guided Market.

Matt M said...

The distinction between “free” and guided markets is largely illusionary, as all markets operate in societies regulated by laws and conventions. Even the most libertarian of economists envision laws to protect individuals and property, as well as some kind of state to provide national protection. Besides, our markets operate under heavy guidance, whether it’s the WTO forcing other countries to remove trade barriers and protecting intellectual property rights, or the US government subsidising whole industries through defence contracts. Not to mention the wealth of anti-union laws.

The real division is between sustainable and unsustainable markets, modern day capitalism with its desire for unregulated businesses clearly falls into the former category, as it’s survival is based on infinite growth in a finite environment. Writers like Thomas Friedman of the NYT reflect the conventional wisdom that investors will always prefer open and transparent markets, overlooking the fact that corrupt markets offer great opportunities for the less than scrupulous.

The rise of ethical businesses such as the Co-op bodes well for the future. If public support for them can be built, while at the same time bodies like the UN work to expose corruption and oppression around the world, we have a chance to effect some good.

DocRichard said...


Many thanks for your comments.

By "guided" market I should have said "ecologically guided" - that is, guided by the principles of environmental sustainability and social equity (fairness). Yes, even the most libertarian of economists envision laws to protect individuals and property, as well as some kind of state to provide national protection, but some do still babble about a truly free market in which the "Invisible Hand" guides the market into satisfying even the need for sustainability and equity. In this they are close to their dialectical opponents, the anarchists who see laws as the root cause of lawlessness.

"... modern capitalism with its desire for unregulated businesses clearly falls into the former category, as its survival is based on infinite growth in a finite environment." Absolutely. You have identified one of the three axioms which lie at the base of ecological economics.

The basic philosophical problem of free marketeers (Soros calls them "market fundamentalists") is the question "How come that sinful men (they tend to be believers in Original Sin) competing against each other in pursuit of filthy lucre which is the root of all evil, and produce the best of all possible worlds?"

Yep, the answer lies in co-operation as a counterpoint (to say the least) to competition. And, re the United Nations, welcome to the Index of Human Rights campaign.