Friday, March 22, 2013

Is Democracy Failing?




1.

- I've been here before, a long time ago, twenty-five years I think.
- With your family?
- Yes. We stopped for lunch before seeing a movie.
- I take it you didn't enjoy yourself.
-  It was minor torment. I'm thinking now how my whole family, how I lived with them, was a disaster.
- What happened?
- Same as is happening to our democracy. Failure.
- Alright, that's a promising start. Why is our democracy failing and why was your family failing? People always say democracy is failing. It goes through cycles, fails, recovers, fails again....
- The problem is not with democracy but with us. We are practicing democracy in a different way.
- Go on.
- We sat down there, my brothers, my mother and myself.
- Did you fight with your brothers?
- No, we didn't bother. We knew we had nothing to fight about. Our disagreement was complete and total.
- What caused that?
- It was always that way.
- What about your mother and father?
- They tried to argue with me. It was futile.
- Why?
- Well, for the same reason politics is hopeless at the moment.
- What reason?
- It's assumed that no one has to be a student of ethics in private life, yet everyone must debate ethics in public life. And where can people who don't practice ethical observation in their private life find ethical positions except second hand, from ready made stories of how life with others should be managed? And then people who have taken up positions second hand, without having any reason other than sort of liking the sound of them, are supposed to debate with each other in a democratic arena? Or worse, work in government as representatives of the public?
- What's the alternative?
- Plato said democracy was the form of government in which no one agreed on what human nature truly was, so which resisted being made into an instrument of perfecting human nature. It was the safest form of government. And do you know why?
- Why?
- Because people would not be doing what we are doing now in our country, debating ethical principles in public life.
- But you've got me confused. How can democracy survive if it's not ethical?
- Because politics is a practical, technical question of making the best choice, a compromise among the views of all the people.
- But you just said the people don't have their own ethical views.
- Yes. So it doesn't work. People with ethical understanding can compromise in practice. People without ethical understanding, when it comes to politics will contend uselessly.
- Your family were unethical people contending with you, and you refused to debate. But they knew what you thought?
- Sure.
- They told you you were wrong. What did they say?
- I was doing nothing with my life.
- And what did you answer?
- I was doing what I wanted.
- And they said?
- I wan't allowed to. I said I was.
- So if all you in the family were like a real democracy, not like what we have now, you'd have been able to reach some practical understanding?
- I think so. The problem with our democracy is that everyone who is not talking partisan politics, public morality, is talking out the technical questions: does economic failure cause democratic failure, or vice versa? Which economic theory is correct? How dangerous is climate change?
- Shouldn't we be talking about these things?
- We should. But our democracy cannot make good decisions on them except by chance unless we return from our upside-down world of public morality and private practicalities, to the reverse, private morality and public practicality.
- Neat wording. But I'm not convinced.
- How can we talk about the fact our democracy is finished, no longer represents the interest of the people? What do we do about the fact our congress is now "legally" bribed to act in the interests of those with most money to bribe? Are these ethical problems? Then forget about our ever solving them. People with unreflective practical lives go into public and throw at each other their matter of taste politics. Decisions come about only by deciding who has got the most money to bribe with.
- Then how are we going to solve our problems?
- We have to change how we talk to each other.
- How?
- By talking about what is really important, what makes our lives good, stop talking exclusively about what makes our lives secure, return our private interests to questions of good and away from questions of practicality.
- Aren't we breaking your rule right now?
- Having a public discussion about morality?
- Yes.
- Like with my family: I state my position, and withdraw. If you're only the public.
- We're friends, not a democracy.


2.

- If democracy is to work people have to believe there is a better and worse for a human being to do. But in a democracy everyone agrees that there is no human nature. How can government last that is based on hypocrisy?
- Because it is not hypocritical not to want to discuss what is most important to you with strangers.
- I don't think you can be a good person and not respect strangers.
- It isn't respectful to speak to someone knowing you won't be understood.
- How do you know you won't be understood?
- Because I won't be able to choose words that I know from past experience will be understood as I mean them, I won't be able to refer to shared experiences and know the reference will be recognized.
- Only people who have good friends can make up a democracy, but everyone in a democracy is not everyone's friend?
- It's enough that everyone could become a friend.


3.

- Could you become friends with your family?
- Off and on.
- It's sort of eerie, imagining you sitting over there at one of those tables, 25 years ago.
- Times changed. The ghost of my family is at home here.
- Let's go.

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