Baggini and representative democracy

I read two articles this week by the philosopher/journalist Julian Baggini brandishing the idea of representative democracy to decry in one case the result of the Brexit referendum and in the other Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to abandon the mandate his membership gave him because his Parliamentary colleagues don’t like him being leader.
Democracy is such an important idea in our society that confusion about it is always interesting.We tend to assume that the idea needs no examination. In fact, if philosophy has any purpose at all it is to examine precisely those ideas we take for granted but put great weight on.
It is probably true that difficult decisions are best taken by those able to understand the implications of various courses. Leaders with a certain level of intelligence are a good thing, although they need many other qualities. This is not the same and should not be confused with the probably false idea that government is best left to experts or technocrats. Experts need to provide the known facts but all difficult decsions go beyond known facts and need some judgement about factual uncertainties and more importantly, values.
Moreover it is never obvious or even determinable in advance who will make what will turn out to be happy decisions. Complexity rules out government by continual plebiscite (technologically enhanced Athenian democracy) not because the people are too ignorant or too easily misled to know what is good for them but because the questions are too difficult to frame for a binary (yes/no) answer, not to mention the sheer number of decisions great and small which need to be taken. But this has nothing to do with a certain elite class or even elite individuals knowing better what is good for us collectively. The philosopher kings that Plato wished for do not and never will exist. In that sense, democracy is a process of eternal disappointment, but the alternative is to believe that someone has privileged access to the answers, which is the meaning of fascism (and what it has in common with theocracy).
So we select rulers as best we can, from a limited choice offered to us and bounded by whatever artificial constraints our particular voting system places on the method of choosing. The best ruler we can hope for is capable of understanding and taking into account the expert advice but not being dominated by it, best illustrated perhaps by the political command of a country’s armed forces. Even though we nearly always end up disappointed, we can at least reject those who have tried and failed and those we feel should not be allowed to try. And as long as we can all participate in this process in whatever way our system allows and most importantly revise our choice at suitable intervals, we are protected from at least some of the worst abuses of power. This is the value of democracy, it offers no miracles but a measure of protection well worth the two cheers Forster proposed.
Returning to Baggini’s two targets, it is certainly arguable that we should never have referendums and instead leave all major decisions to our elected rulers. With hindsight, our ex-PM might agree! But the argument, such as it is, is just about our constitutional arrangements, not about the intellectual capacity of the electorate. It is particularly weak in the case of Brexit because we have had several referendums on major constitutional questions before and even a referendum on the EU. An alternative view is that since we choose leaders within a given constitutional framework, major changes to the framework itself should not be taken by those leaders but put to the governed. In that view the referendum came rather late.
(Remainers, of which I think Baggini is one, seem always to assume that Leavers can only have been misled or stupid, but people voted Leave for many reasons, some good and some bad just like Remainers. Not least, although many supported a free trade area they simply did not see the point of a federal Europe, which is the goal and lodestar of the EU institutions and many of the member governments but for which interestingly no one argued a positive case.)
As for Mr Corbyn, it is hard to see why any idea of representative democracy even touches his decision not to stand down as leader of his party. A party, after all, is just a group of people hoping to convince the electorate at large to allow it to rule. That group can make its own internal governance arrangements but there is absolutely no reason why it should mirror those of the state. It could choose to privilege the opinions of those it has succeeded in getting elected into Parliament, but it need not and it has not. So, whether Mr Corbyn is right or wrong to stay as leader of his party against the wishes of his MPs just has nothing to do with the fact that we live in a representative democracy.


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