It seems that there is no universal agreement amongst people in regards to how they wish to be governed. However, it does seem that all people – regardless of political partisanship – demand two things from a ‘perfect state’: freedom and equality. Now, depending upon which side of the line you fall, interpretations of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ can become chalk and cheese.
The conservative view tends to see true freedom in a more ‘positive’ way: freedom is not the removal of obstacles to your desires but rather the utilisation of reasonable, informed decisions; made by reasonable, informed people. The liberal take on freedom is more ‘negative’ – people have different desires and there is no ‘one size fits all’ policy, therefore, the State should not tell me what is best for me, as I know better than they do.
It would seem that in recent times there has been a massive shift to the liberal definition in regards to freedom: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism, the rise of the Arab Spring and now Hong Kong’s vie for democracy. Is this shift the next step in our global development or has this admiration of ‘negative liberty’ come about through a misguided contempt of authority?
If we go back a hundred or two hundred years, the sociopolitical landscape seems foreign to what we see today. There was faith in the system we found ourselves in as well as the people we were governed by. Monarchism, Despotism and Totalitarianism all seem like dirty words in todays language but all had their hay-day, being freely assented to at one time or another – all having periods of great success.
The British Empire flourished under Elizabeth I – a time in British history that some refer to as our ‘golden age’. People, for the most part, were happy and successful due to the wealth generated from the colonisation and trade of our expanding Empire. Furthermore, even though autocratic governments tend to be associated with extremist view-points (Nazi Germany for example), Elizabeth was noted as being very moderate politically – taking a more diplomatic approach when confronted with the Catholic-Protestant divide than her predecessors. Her fair approach was not always popular with her subjects – Puritanical Protestants were not happy with her ‘liberal’ attitude towards Catholicism but she maintained her decision. A good example of how an authoritarian model can, in fact, be very useful in allowing you to make decisions away from popular opinion and for the good of the State as a whole.
China is a single-party state. The people of China have no choice in who they are governed by. People in positions of political power are appointed, not elected. They still have the death-sentence, with China’s Communist Party (CCP) taking a zero-tolerance attitude to crime and disobedience. All of these things, in a western sense, scream out “oppression”. I have no doubt that some people reading this will generally feel uneasy about the fact that all traces of Democratic freedoms are non-existent in the Chinese situation, however, people still consent to this. China is the fastest growing economy in the world and is quickly becoming the largest exporter of industry-based commodities (steel, coal, iron ore etc.) With this growth comes prosperity – with prosperity comes contented civilians. Even more surprisingly, this economic growth has even led to the betterment of social tensions around China – wealth leading to more social mobility as well as a more cohesive social structure. Shopping malls, tourism, cultural exhibitions – traits of Western democracy found in an Eastern single-party state.
So, it may be hasty to reject the stability and prosperity that authoritarian regimes can achieve. China, in a very short period of time, has gone from a poverty-stricken combat-zone – dismembered by the Maoist regime – to a world leader; economically and culturally.
In the words of Plato: a democracy can only work when you have informed, intelligent people making the decisions – if you have people who are not really that well-informed making decisions then you may find yourself in a worse place than whence you started. If single-party states can make good concise decisions for the betterment of everybody and not the majority – then why is it so detested?
Is there not room for this style of government throughout the world once again?
In the words of Lord Acton: “No” – or more specifically: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton, a staunch conservative, agreed that freedom is what is good for everyone and not the individual but still felt that democracy was the only chance for the common good.
If there is only a few people at the top, regardless of how ‘benevolent’ they are as leaders, they will inevitably be corrupted by their own power and end up making decisions on their own self-interest.
It seems that the biggest problem with totalitarian governments is that it is risky. There is no scrutiny in a dictatorship, nor a means of removing somebody from power if they become too self-pleasing – in democracy, however, there is.
Margaret Thatcher, probably the most divisive Prime Minister in British history, was eventually removed by her own party as they felt she was not up to the mark to govern. She had taken on the Unions and won. She had taken on the Falklands dispute and won. She had taken on Communism with Reagan and the values of Democracy and civil liberties had won, but, she had become too ideological. As hard times hit people due to her endorsement of the free market which inevitably led to a crash, she did not let up – with her trying to introduce the Poll Tax throughout the UK. Too proud to back down from her decision there was protests throughout the UK (most notably Scotland) and in 1990, she was kicked out.
In Acton’s view, this is testament to the strengths of Democracy. Thatcher had achieved much in her time of office, but she had undoubtedly become too indulgent in her own ideology – blinded to what was good for the country as a whole. The scrutiny that Democracy allowed to be attributed to her led to her ejection – something that could never have been done, bar coup d’etat, in a fascist regime.
Furthermore, democracies grant people things unequivocally. In the US for example, it is written into their entrenched constitution that their civilians are guaranteed certain things. The right to free speech. Freedom of association. The right not to be subjected to cruel or unfair punishment. The list goes on. In the UK, on the other hand, we do not have an entrenched constitution but because of the nature of our democracy nothing can be permanent. If we don’t like something in the current administration we can change it – if we change our minds in the administration after that we can change it back. It allows flexibility. Choice is guaranteed in a functioning democracy.
In an autocratic government, none of these things are guaranteed – they are down to the whim of the ruler, and if all power corrupts then eventually the people will have less and less whilst the person at the top has more and more.
It would seem that Plato and Acton agree on the usefulness of democratic choice but are at loggerheads with who should be pulling the strings. Acton says it should be the people whilst Plato places responsibility with the intelligent in a more Burkean model of representation.
Nevertheless, democracy, from Acton to Plato, is valued for its versatility compared to an autocracy’s stagnant structure – as effective, in theory, it may be.
Is Western democracy the death of authoritarian government? Not likely – it is more efficient and stable than a Western democracy when done right. Is authoritarian/autocratic government a better model than democracy? Not really – democracy allows choice and guarantees freedoms when done right.
In conclusion, democracy is less risky but autocracy is more effective. It is all down to what system is executed better – in Acton’s view this can’t be done in a single-state model.
Is China a good rebuttal to Acton’s point? Or does it add justification to how a fair political system can never be achieved in a single-party state?