If you want the best dancers, appoint expert judges. Ditto monetary policy and foreign affairs, and sentencing guidelines, and etc. Stable democracy is about putting experts between an inevitably ill-informed electorate and the exercise of power. The electorate then gets to scrutinise those experts and their decisions via the medium of a free press. If you don't care about expertise, then ask the public, but then you'll get a popularity contest and you can't blame people for choosing John Sergeant. I've got no problem with popularity contests, by the way. I thought that was what Strictly was.
Thus, on the big subject of the day, I oppose the resignation of John Sergeant, who signed up for a popularity contest, and who should stay in it until he is proven unpopular.
(Tangentially, I don't like sportsmen retiring from internationals before they are dropped. Going out at the top is vainglorious denial of what sport is about - measurable competition - and thus of the fact that, in the end, your powers wane and you get replaced. In the meantime, if any of the nonsense you have spouted about your pride in playing for your nation's shirt has any meaning, you wear it every second someone will let you, since by doing so you are not only doing something you claim to love, but you are also presumably helping your team win. You'll be dropped as soon as you aren't helping. (I am a Liverpool fan, and love Jamie Carragher, but I really don't respect his decision to sit out internationals because he wasn't being picked. I really do respect David Beckham's willingness to turn up and sit on the bench.))
But, post-Sergeant, I'm all about the democracy. One of my favourite books about it is Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom. In it, basically, he argues that constitutional liberalism, in the sense of individual freedom and security, gave birth to Western democracy rather than the other way round, and that democracy without constitutional liberalism is no guarantor of individual freedom. He fears that the shibboleth that more democracy must be better leads to the creation of ‘illiberal democracies’ born of demagoguery, populism, lobbying and special interests.
The problem with democracies is short-termism. We Westerners made some of our long-term, difficult decisions before we were democracies, or when the franchise was very small. Zakaria argues that a lot of third-word democracies can’t inflict short-term pain in terms of property laws, etc., while some authoritarian regimes have done so (Taiwan, S. Korea, Singapore, Chile (a particularly queasy example), Indonesia, China). He says, ‘governments that were able to make shrewd choices for the long term were rewarded with strong economic growth and rising levels of literacy, life expectancy, and education. Those that have gone down the path of reform are quickly stymied by the need to maintain subsidies for politically powerful groups. India has been unable to engage in sustained reform precisely because its politicians will not inflict any pain – however temporary – on their constituents. As a result, for all its democratic glories, the country has slipped further and further behind on almost every measure of human development: life expectancy, infant mortality, health, literacy, education.’
Now, Zakaria is no authoritarian naif - he also says ‘In general dictators have not done better at these policies than democrats – far from it. Most dictators have ravaged their countries for personal gain.’ Also, he wrote the book in 2003, and I think India has had some decent years since then, though I am basing that on nothing except news stories about outsourcing, which is pretty sketchy methodology. But the point is not that he is right in every particular, but that he raises a set of sophisticated questions about the outcomes we might want from development, and the difficulties we face if we take a simplistic view of how we might get them. 'At the start,' he writes, 'the West must recognize that it does not seek democracy in the Middle East – at least not yet. We first seek constitutional liberalism, which is very different. Clarifying our immediate goals actually makes them much more easily attainable.'
It's easy to say that nothing is more important than our political freedom, but ask a mother of two babies whether she'd prefer the vote or a washing machine.
I propose never to write another post of this length.