democracy

This is an interesting article by Rubina Saigol in which she considers what democracy means to the various stakeholders in Pakistan all of whom are misguided in some way. It got me thinking about how I would define democracy or representative government or at least how I would describe a good one.

1. It’s possessed of enough continuity to not be ad hoc in its dealings with its citizens. There should be well established procedures for dealing with common situations such as amendment of laws, etc.
2. It respects its own traditions even going so far as to be a bit illogical about that. I remember reading that the Roman republic could be described as an enormous kitchen belonging to an eccentric old man – there were all sorts of relics around which no one knew did exactly what but they were respected enough to not be got rid of.
3. It allows and is tolerant of dissent from its citizens
4. It has a representative enough looking franchise to fool most people into thinking they have a stake in the system.
5. There is a balance between at least two stakeholders (even if its largely symbolic like the balance between the tribunes and senators in Rome).

That’s it. I don’t really think that true “representativeness” is particularly achievable or will change things too much if it were achieved which is why I’m not really a fan of proportional representation or any other kind of electoral reform unless there is a huge amount of public pressure for it. I think continuity is the most important factor for success. For that I think it’s important that the representative assembly or body be a sort of unassailable symbol in the minds of the public. That’s what makes this whole fake degree scandal so brilliant – it strikes at the very foundation of the symbol of continuity of the system.

Anyway I guess where I differ with Dr. Saigol is that I don’t think there is any particular sacred “true” democracy. The Roman Republic would hardly be considered either democratic or representative by modern standards and I am sure contemporary Ansar Abbasis would have had no problem coming up with a million ways to criticize it as being non represenative and corrupt and feudal. Most importantly, the patron-client system pretty much ruled any semblance of true ‘representativeness’ in the system. But it was a good system in its own way with checks and balances that worked, it wasn’t ad hoc like the imperial system that followed it and it was a relatively effective way to moderate the impulses of the ruling class. What destroyed it was the end of respect for tradition (the Gracchi brothers going to the assembly of the Plebs for example) and eventually the decline of the Senate in the minds of the people as a symbol worthy of respect to the point where the populares were convinced that any meaningful reform would mean bypassing the Senate altogether even if that meant embracing a dictator. In Pakistan of course there is no branch of government that is permanent or respected so it’s really pointless thinking about this stuff unless there is a way to empower parliament in any meaningful way. What is pointless, however (and this may sound a bit heartless), is excessive handwringing about the exact nature of the system and how it measures up to ideals of representativeness equality or justice. That seems to be (somewhat ironically) the path to dictatorship and ad hocism.

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