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Democracy: A Utility Analysis

Democracy. A word that holds so much power to do good, but often used by people to meet their own needs. A word which creates a bubble wherein people believe that they are empowered to choose their representatives, but more often than not succumb to the whims of self-interested politicians. Now, one may seriously question whether or not this article was written in the 21st Century, but what one fails to realise is that sometimes the Greatest Good of an age turns out to be the Greatest Evil to plague the next generation. This article highlights how the utility of Democracy has diminished over the centuries and how the time has now come to perhaps move on to a more accountable form of governance. Before the article goes on to discuss the utility of democracy, it is important to note that the very concept of democracy is something which has deep roots in Indian society.

The republican states of yore, called Ganas and Sanghas, laid the foundation for future democratic setups across the world, such as in Athens, Mesopotamia and many more. Hence, if the reader feels that the Indian author of this article is advocating a return to the home par excellence of ‘Oriental Despotism’, then they have still not come to grips with the origin and existence of widespread republicanism in this region. A research paper titled ‘The Costs and Benefits of Autocracy’ by Jiahua Che, Kim-Sau Chung and Xue Qiao’ helps bust a few common myths. All democracies are alike, whereas autocracies differ. This is because all economies share the same unique equilibrium outcome under democracy: civil society remains strong, self-interested leaders are selected by the general public, and populist policies are pursued.

Under autocracy, however, some economies enjoy an equilibrium outcome that asymptotically dominates that under democracy. Continuing this line of thought, there is in fact a deep reason why good autocracies and bad autocracies may appear alike initially. Now, how would one define a good autocracy? Would it stifle the creativity of people, snatch away their liberty and snuff their spark of innovation. Contrary to popular opinion, a ‘good autocracy’ engenders a political legitimacy of its own, with its subjects having a wide range of individual liberties, and the monarch doesn’t have any fear of being overthrown. Relative freedom is extended to the people and extremist policies and ideologies are a no-show. However, autocracy cannot outperform democracy without defying popular demand. To defy popular demand, autocracy must put aside the constraint of public opinion, which requires a weakened civil society.

Hence good autocracies and bad autocracies appear alike only when both are lucky enough to ride on benevolent leaders initially. However, when the leadership is eventually taken over by a self-interested politician, that is when a good autocracy and a bad autocracy begins to part their way. In this sense, we may conclude that what makes autocracy appealing is also what can make it terribly wrong, and vice versa. Moving on to the utility analysis. Simply put, utility is the ability of a commodity to satisfy a need. Suppose you have Rs. 2000 in your wallet. You are famished and in a hurry to satiate your hunger you purchase 3 plates of dosa. When the dosas come, you devour the first plate within a few moments and the satisfaction you feel is immense. The 2nd plate of dosa, although refreshing, does not give you the same satisfaction as before. Your stomach is almost full, but you somehow manage to consume it.

There is negligible satisfaction. The 3rd plate, you are not able to eat at all. Now, replace the Dosas with democracy. Initially it seems a great idea, promising unbridled freedom, enlightening and empowering people to reach great heights and at the same time, allowing even the weakest to enjoy universal adult franchise, regardless of race, ethnicity, political stance etc. It sounds so quixotic, doesn’t it? This was the first plate of Dosa, when Man is famished due to the restrictive policies, rigid and exclusive social structures and violation of minority rights. In the “Federalist Papers”, James Madison wrote that the “aim of every political Constitution is or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society”.

As a result, there is a desperate need for benevolent politicians, who will seek to maximise the long-term welfare of the general public, that is, putting the needs of the people above themself. However, as history has shown us time and again that the presence of benevolent politicians is a paradox unto itself. There is no room for benevolent politicians under democracy. As Jason Brennan theorized in his book, ‘Against Democracy’, there are three types of voters - ‘hobbits’ who vote illogically and ignorantly, ‘hooligans’ who are fervently devoted to the party and not its ideals, and finally the vulcans, a handful of people, who gather information and rationally vote. Thus, due to the dominance of hobbits and hooligans, not only is the democratic outcome a false representation of the majority’s views, but it also prevents the benevolent politician from working toward the common good. Furthermore, as civil society remains strong, benevolent politicians, even if elected, are not able to play any role.

If the society is weakened, the dynamic free-riding attempt induces the public to embrace a self-interested politician instead of a benevolent one. As a result, people have to choose from self-interested politicians who abuse the power they are elected to. Now, how does an autocracy provide this room? Ironically, it is exactly because a self-interested leader plunders the economy, that his/her predecessor would not appoint him/her, should a benevolent successor be identified. It is because the efficacy gain of the benevolent successor, that induces the incumbent leader to keep the civil society weakened, so that the benevolent successor is able to play his/her role. This was the 2nd plate of Dosas, wherein although there are glaring weaknesses, man chooses to ignore them in light of the the advantages proffered by Democracy. The final nail in the coffin is hammered when leaders in a democracy shirk responsibilities. This is the 3rd Dosa when the message of the leaders to the public is ‘It is your decision’. There is a lack of accountability, endless debate, analysis and paralysis.

A democracy initially is compassionate, creative and especially nurturing towards the weak. But presently, most democracies are laden with corruption, decadence and debauchery. There is an absence of a leader who assumes responsibility, thereby giving society a clear direction and purpose. The aim of this article is not, by any means, to discount the goodness of democracy, nor does it propagate the view that autocracy is the answer to all problems a democratic society is facing currently. An autocratic society in decline will be rigid, fanatical and especially oppressive towards the weak. It will also promulgate social exclusion.

Thus, democracy will always remain a force which allows people to take part in the decision making process. Good and Evil are two sides of the same coin. What seems good now, can turn into something evil later.The question remains whether the time has come when this coin flips over? Is democracy realizing our dreams of an efficient, just and egalitarian society? Does democracy help in a dire situation which requires an urgent approach, but instead there is a sense of passivity and listlessness, and there is chaos everywhere? Can society learn from its past mistakes of autocratic societies and forge a new path, a society not based on religion but one on laws? These are a few questions for the readers to ponder upon.

Archishman Chaudhari
Writing Mentorship 2021

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