Many people have the idea that democracy is the best form of government, because it is the only one that works. This is probably a byproduct of the fact that people in the western world all live in democracies, as far as I know. Things are going pretty well for the most part, even now, when, at least according to the media, there is a significant amount of civil unrest. This makes it hard to fathom dismantling the entire system, which might be a bad idea anyway. But is democracy always the best form of government?
An Intelligence Squared panel discussed this topic several years ago, and the conversation still appears relevant. In many ways, democracy is what shaped progress in every country in North America and Europe. It’s why those of us living in this part of the world have so many more rights than people in less fortunate circumstances. There are countless benefits of democracy, and as societies become more democratic, it’s easy to claim that they improve overall. The gradual shift from monarchies to democracies led to more people having a voice in the way that governments operate, caused a more equal distribution of wealth, and made our civilizations safer. These trends, according to my limited knowledge of the subject, are expected to continue.
But is democracy always the best form of government, for every country? It is easy for someone living in a western democracy to make this claim, since we gain the benefits, see worse systems, and are not presented with any superior alternative. But living within one system that very few people have enough problems with to suggest a revolution makes us almost inevitably biased. As many political commentators say, democracy is an imperfect system, but nothing works better. However, I think this is an unfounded assumption. The western world over the past few hundred years or so seems to have learned that monarchies and different forms of dictatorships are generally inferior to democracies. In terms of monarchies, this is particularly true with events such as the founding fathers of America fleeing from a monarchy to set up a democracy, among many other salient examples. The twentieth century was in may ways, a better teacher of the downfalls of dictatorships and collectivist governments like fascism and communism than anything else. Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and Mussolini killed at least 100 million people between all of them, and possibly two to three times more than that. This is a horrifying lesson, but does it prove that democracy should always be the accepted form of government?
Americans in particular talk about the benefits of democracy a lot, but technically, their system is a republic. This was modelled after ancient Rome, which was informed by Plato, who expressed his ideas on the subject in his book called The Republic. It is a dialogue with Socrates about the requirements for the best government system. The following is an oversimplification, but Plato and Socrates agree in the book that democracies are inferior to republics. This is because with majority rule, citizens will always end up voting to take away their own rights, and elect politicians who do not suit the progress of their country. The truth of this problem can be seen, to a certain extent, by those who are not fans of Donald Trump being elected as the President of the United States. Although, as I mentioned, he was not elected within a democracy. Socrates and Plato wanted the leaders in a republic to be philosopher kings, which meant them essentially possessing the highest wisdom, intellect, and true virtues. This is specious because it would be amazing if that were achieved, but it seems naive to assume it is possible. Who decides who the philosopher kings are? How are they found? If someone claims to have all the requirements, wouldn’t that mean that make them a bad choice, because they don’t have enough humility?
Whether you prefer democracies or republics depends on which country you like more, and likely, to a large extent, where you live. It’s easy for many people in the so-called first world to see the superiority of western values, many of which are tied to democracy. In places like Africa, the living conditions are atrocious, the unequal distribution of wealth is much greater, there is more crime, and people have less rights. This is also true in middle eastern countries, in which, by and large, Sharia law shows its inferiority to democracy. Gay people get thrown off rooftops, women get stoned to death for getting raped or learning to read, and sometimes get their clitorises cut off. They also are often legally prohibited from voting or driving, and freedom of speech is barely seen in places like Africa or the middle east. Criticizing the government is likely to get you killed.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the neoconservative idea of spreading democracy throughout the world, whether countries want it or not, is a good idea. The C. I. A. has apparently installed leaders across the planet, some of whom became significantly more problematic than those they replaced. Was spreading democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq worth all the problems that these wars “on terror” have in some ways, caused? Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden were terrible people, regardless of whether they played a role in 9/11. But taking them out created a power vacuum that was arguably filled by worse entities like ISIS. This caused further division between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and much greater turmoil. Is democracy worth the price of two wars and so much carnage?
I think that no one can honestly tell you what the best form of government is. Democracy has many advantages, but so do other systems, and it is not necessarily always the best. Different countries might be better suited for different systems than others, depending on factors like history and geography. Maybe governments should go through different stages to make transitions from one form to another easier to accomplish. Another important factor to consider is time. One system of government may work better during one period of history than another. So maybe a democracy is not the best system for some countries now, and for others, it could never be suitable. The same seems true of other systems, though some of them are essentially always bad ideas, like fascism, communism, and theocracy. Maybe nations in the third world can be improved without becoming democracies, and attempting to make them this way causes more problems than it solves. Perhaps we have not found the best form of government yet. It’s possible that the internet will eventually lead to a much more interconnected and pragmatic formula, which does away with democracy and other previous systems. Or maybe there is no such thing as the best form of government. Perhaps people will continue finding new ways to govern, but there will never be one framework that always works the best for every country. I think it is arrogant and parochial to say that democracy is always the best form of government.