Sunday, March 30, 2008

Freedom and Democracy

Freedom and democracy are sensitive subjects and ones which the western world prize and defend. It is almost a religion. We all believe in freedom and democracy but as with religion, what lies behind the belief is rarely questioned. To do so generally implies a negative label such as communist or anarchist. But without questioning these very principles, right or wrong, how can we subscribe to such concepts. Is belief in democracy and freedom so base that nothing could dethrone this way of life? We constantly question ‘is there a god?’ and ‘if so what form does he/she/it take?’ We question many things. When was the last time you heard the concepts of freedom and democracy questioned? If we do not question these things, analyse the alternatives and try to come to some understanding of reality, or at least common perception, then are we any better than the fanatics whose beliefs we regularly condemn.

With so much going wrong in the western world, climate change, poverty, human trafficking, drugs, alcohol, crime, lack of trust in government and politicians, corruption, war and economic problems (in good times and bad), perhaps now is the time to ask ourselves have we got this right, what are the alternatives?

That is not to say that ‘freedom’ as we perceive it and democracy (or democracy as we see it today) are not the way, just that we should progress with a knowledge that it is the best way all things considered. We are far from that position today and it makes me uncomfortable for two reasons.

The first reason is that democracy is old and we have not considered alternatives in recent history. Freedom is just a word. We all consider ourselves to be free but this is not a black and white issue and a concept certainly not tied solely to a democratic process. Democracy and freedom is have an arguably symbiotic relationship. But is this the only way.

The second reason is that globalisation and the western world are spreading our way of life to other countries and at the same time doing a lot of damage. It can be rightly claimed that the removal of tyrants is a good thing but that is not what I am saying. It is not the removal of what is perceived to be the bad, but the default imposition of what is good for us. Or at least what we perceive to be good for us.

Let’s turn our sights on freedom first. What does freedom mean? At one end of the spectrum we would need to look at absolute freedom which results in zero control and zero responsibility or accountability for any action. At this extreme end it’s every person for themselves. It is essentially anarchy. This must be what freedom actually means in its purest sense. No constraints on thought or action. Even the animal instincts in us know that freedom defined in this way is actually undesirable. It becomes survival of the fittest and is unsustainable for a growing population. It would be a breakdown in the concept of society. If you accept this as the definition of ultimate freedom then you accept that we are not free in the truest sense and so the best we can expect is just a level of freedom. The key here is of course who has control in defining the level of freedom you have and that leads us into democracy. The optimum model for human survival has been our moving into one of a cooperative society. But to make society work we require a set of constraints. Our freedoms are constrained to ensure that the good of all is considered, often over the good of the individual.

We are not ‘free’ to do as we please. We accept certain limitations and ‘laws’ which help preserve and model society into as fair and safe a position as possible. There have been many different models from left wing to right wing philosophies which have provided models for society and therefore consequential levels of freedom.

But the idea that west is best is worrying. We look at certain freedoms we have, compare them to the freedoms of other countries, religions and races and make a judgement as to their right or wrong. The arrogance of course is staggering. Most of these western decisions are far from judged rationally on what are perhaps the pros and cons of other models but mostly around the need for commercial gain, self interest or political manoeuvring to gain popularity. We look at Saudi Arabia for example and condemn their lack of democracy, their oppression of women and of course the brutal way in which capital punishment and justice is administered. The forms of government around the world, aristocracy, democracy, oligarchy, tyranny, benign dictator, religious politics and no doubt others all have pros and cons, including democracy. There are examples of some of these models which have proven to work and some which have not. That includes democracy under which many of the world’s worst events have been carried out. In seeing poor implementations of each model we move to condemn the model and not the implementers; except for democracy of course, which we see as the default good in and for the world.

If we accept that we will neither be, nor want to be truly free then how can we best organise ourselves? One of the key benefits of democracy is seen as the ability to rid ourselves of poor government. But is this really true? In the UK we have a system of government which is based upon first pass the post. Most political parties have vowed to remove this process which ultimately means that a party with a minority vote in totality can govern. Is that democratic? A position whereby there can be a higher number of people voting in the country for one party and the lesser party gets into power. When in power, no party has attempted to undo this wrong. This in itself leads to a lack of trust for politicians.

The second issue is of course lack of choice. Over the years political parties have merged from the left and right to meet in the middle. The difference between the parties’ policies is minor and their ever changing manifestos in this space which tend to react to what is popular blurs the issue further. Add to this the whip. Each constituency votes in an MP. We have 3 main parties in the country (you know who they are) and largely regardless of the constituents’ position on any topic the MP will be forced, in the majority of cases, to vote as per the PM’s views. Where is democracy working here?

Finally, the popular statement that if you do not like it then you should stand yourself is fundamentally flawed. For a start, a single independent will not sway parliament. Parties govern, not individuals. To be effective then you need to start a party and more importantly fund it. The level of difficulty to achieve this is incredible, but not impossible. It has been tried and tested and ultimately fails. Not because of policies but because of the apathy of the voter after years of political mistrust.

The final nail in the coffin is of course the civil service. Government only really sets policy and even that is constrained by what is achievable and what is achievable is defined by the civil service. That is not democratic. But it is the reality.

Under this light, democracy appears to be a concept we all subscribe to but is little more than a vision we strive for. An absolute which is never attainable. If we accept that the perfect democracy is not attainable then we accept that forms of government with flaws are acceptable compromises. And this is why we should take care when we look to push democracy as the only acceptable form of government worldwide. The pros and cons in all models of government if perfectly implemented are pretty well understood and in perfect implementation we may be able to rank them. But as no perfect implementation is possible we should take care not to impose our views without careful consideration. Poorly implemented and corrupt democracy may leave the freedoms of the citizens and the state of society in a worse position than other forms better implemented. How do we measure its success? Are the very low crime rates in Dubai a benefit over the loss of certain freedoms. How do we balance women’s rights with the lack of crime? The freedom for women to live without the fear of crime, which many western women who have equal rights can only dream about. The plight of the poor in western countries can be as terrible as those of other models of government. Poor is poor. Democracy takes time. If there is an imbalance between the already powerful and the weak and poor in a country then democracy may fare far worse for the population than a simple benign dictator who brings about manageable change. A poor democratic government where wealth and power are suddenly available for the few are hard to relinquish and the decisions made more in the interest of continuance of power than what is best for the country. Sound familiar to the UK? In the UK the gap between the best off and worst off (in all respects) and the position of the general population is relatively good. We can tolerate the ins and outs of political self interest as the consequences are few to us. For many 3rd world countries these self interested governments and politicians can result in death. None of this is helped by the globalisation of consumerism. We only need look at the old empire and many of the countries of Africa to see the damage democracy can do if implemented too early. Iraq speaks for itself.

Next time we shout invasion and head off to do good and convert the tyrants and free the enslaved why not ask yourself why are we doing this, what are the alternatives and who will benefit? We don’t give knives to babies to play with. Why do we force countries to play at democracy?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Culture and stuff

It is not often that I come across the material as has been around for the last few weeks. Let’s start with Lady Hodge’s statements about the Proms last week. First let’s take a look at the quote the BBC pulled out.

"The audiences for some of many of our greatest cultural events - I'm thinking particularly of the Proms - is still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease in being part of this,"

I am normally loathed to comment on politicians daft statements, mainly because I would need to become a full-time writer to keep up. But this one stuck out as it hit a nerve. I wrote about a similar topic in a previous blog entry where I stated, in short, that one way to make us feel more inclined to accept the EU is to stop threatening our identity and culture as English. We have a country where the inhabitants are either Welsh, Scottish or British.

Lady Hodge of course could not be talking about the Proms as the Proms itself is a celebration of international classical music with a wide range of composers. So it cannot be the subject matter. There are expensive tickets and there are cheap tickets and anyone who can afford to go can go. So it cannot be an elitist cost driven thing. I suspect that the particular point she is making is about the last night which tends to be over the top Britain and Empire and I doubt anyone who watches feels anything other than pride. Why should the event be as it is? Why should the audience have to be diverse? Why does one size have to fit all? I do not feel insulted or not integrated because I do not go to the Bollywood festivals around the country. Despite the fact that it is not a traditional part of British Culture I have no objections to it and have no worry that, because it does not appeal to me, that it is to be derided or criticised. The same goes for classical music. It is not for everyone. You tend to find that classical tastes are educated tastes and not class oriented. It may just well be that what we see at the Proms is a set of better educated people who have been educated, from a young age, to appreciate high culture. An education that sadly most kids these days seem to be devoid of (over to you then Ed Balls). This is the latest pilot from Labour education ministers. 15 pounds per year per child to get 5 hours of culture and art per week. Let's set aside the complte farce of that budget to achieve anything but the idea is sound. Educate sensibly at a young age the value of art and culture and in the future you will get a more diverse audience. Maybe Lady Hodge should go to education. On a number of different levels.

So please stop watering down these things. You would not make such statements about any other culture's traditions without cries of racism. And by the way, Coronation Street is not culture. Do not mistake 'popular' with culture and art. Coronation Street is popular but so is binge drinking but that does not make it something we should be proud of.

The second interesting discussion came up this morning on Radio 4. A deaf guy was being interviewed (by a sign language interpreter) and the discussion was one about whether embryos should be screen for deafness. The guy in the interview was outraged that we might screen embryos for deafness. His argument was that it undermined the living deaf somehow as being worthless and that the deaf have a great culture and should not be disabled. Therefore, deaf children should continue to be born, even if avoidable, because there is a great deaf culture and they have rich lives (to be clear here we are not talking abortion, just the selection of embryos). His main argument was that he did not consider deafness a disability. On the one hand I applaud his attitude. To be deaf and to get on with your life as many deaf people do is remarkable. But he takes it too far. It is great that our society is able to ensure that deaf people have support and facilities available to them to bring their lives to an equal footing with the rest of us. But should we then extend this to say that because we have reached this level that we should not recognise deafness as a disability and actually positively allow the selection of deaf embryos by deaf parents. For this is what he was proposing. Given two embryos, one deaf and one not, he is suggesting that the deaf one get equal chance or allow for positive selection if the parent decides this is ok.

It is a stunningly difficult ethical question. My instinct says no, we should not allow a parent to select a deaf embryo over a healthy one where there is a choice. While it is great to be able to accommodate deaf people to the extent that they are equal in nearly every respect in society I do not believe that they have the right to impose deafness on a child. As with all ethical questions it moves from a breaking a simple principle (choose healthy over unhealthy) to a far more difficult set of questions around what disabilities and diseases are acceptable. Should we treat a child who is going deaf or just leave them to go deaf as to be deaf is ok? Should Down’s syndrome parents be allowed to select a Down’s syndrome baby over a healthy one? How about HIV? Where would we draw the line?