Sunday, May 31, 2009

Accountable authority vs rampant populism

Amid the calls for MPs to be regularly horsewhipped and pelted with dung, and for all political decisions to be subject to the constant approval of taxi drivers and headline writers, Clive James makes the case for representative democracy on Radio 4’s A Point of View (from 8 mins in):

The whole democratic system depends on the realisation that we don’t know everything. The people know enough to know when the government needs to be changed in order to preserve democracy. But a fully developed democracy contains within it all kinds of areas where specialised knowledge really counts, and popular opinion – especially when it is whipped up by the press – is largely irrelevant.
We don’t have popular elections to a medical board. We ought to have government oversight of a medical board, through the people’s representatives, but a popular election in every field would be government by plebiscite; it would produce more injustice than it avoided. Within a properly constituted democracy, there is room for all kinds of alternatives – as long as they are enlightened.

It’s an essential part of democracy that it can shape and employ the idea of authority, so that authority can stave off the effects of populism run rampant. As for authority running rampant – well, in a democracy it can’t, or at any rate shouldn’t – a consideration which makes democracy superior to any system where power is concentrated perpetually in a few (or sometimes only two) hands.

Well said.

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