Fallacies of democracy

"I don’t think we have been consulted as a democracy. It is the wrong
war. We need a bit more imagination. All we are saying is the country is mature
enough to sit down and have some kind of referendum."
Damon Albarn, lead singer of Blur (Source: the Guardian, 21
January 2003)

Readers of last week’s column will not be surprised to find a rock singer once
again cited as an authority on matters unconnected with music. The concern here,
however, is not with Albarn’s expertise but with the climate of opinion he reflected.
For during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, his view was one which was
held by a great many of the British public. Since polls showed a majority of
people against going to war with Iraq, it was common to hear people claim that
to engage in such a conflict would be undemocratic.

Even though once the conflict began opinion polls started to turn in favour
of military action, this post facto change of heart doesn’t affect the main
argument of the "war was undemocratic" camp. They could, and still
do, argue that to start a war in defiance of the wishes of the British people
was profoundly undemocratic.

This argument is flawed in several respects. If it is premised on the view
that majority opinion is always right, then it is clearly falling foul of the
"democratic fallacy", since it is just not true that beliefs become
true or false on the basis of how many people hold them.

This crude fallacy is obviously not what most people have in mind when they
claim Britain’s involvement in the second Iraq war is undemocratic. However,
simply acknowledging that public opinion can be wrong immediately exposes the
weakness of the other arguments that war was an affront against democracy.

For instance, one can accept that the majority can be wrong but insist that,
nevertheless, in a democracy majority opinion must be followed, for better or
for worse. But this confuses democracy with simple majoritarianism. As defined
by Merriam-Webster, a democracy is "a government in which the supreme power
is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through
a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections."
A crude majoritarian system, in contrast, is one where the government always
does what the majority wants.

Most democracies are not majoritarian. If Britain were run on majoritarian
lines, for example, then fox hunting would have been banned long ago and capital
punishment would never had been abolished. In other words, Britain would be
a country which killed more people but fewer animals.

Majoritarianism is not the favoured system in the west for several reasons.
One is to protect minorities. Another is rooted in an appreciation of the democratic
fallacy: majorities are often wrong, and they are much more likely to be wrong
when they are uninformed about the issue to hand, as they often are when detailed
knowledge is required to make a wise decision. This is why Britain, like other
western nations, runs on the model of a representative democracy. In this system,
members of parliament are elected as representatives to make decisions on behalf
of their electors, not as delegates to do whatever their electors tell them.
They are held to account every four to five years at elections, when they are
judged on their overall record.

It therefore cannot be said to be undemocratic for parliament to act against
the wishes of the majority of the population at any given time. This very possibility
is just what distinguishes representative democracies from majoritarian regimes.
The British Parliament, elected by the people, made a decision to go to war
and members of that parliament will be re-elected or voted out by the people
at the next election. That is paradigmatically democratic.

Of course, the democratic fallacy would appear in another guise if we argued
that decisions reached by this process were always right. But the argument here
is not directly about whether it was right or wrong to go to war with Iraq,
but whether it was democratic to do so. This charge cannot be made to stick.

An interesting coda to this story is how public opinion has changed over time.
In February 2003 the Guardian was able to report that only 29% of the
British public supported a war on Iraq. By mid-April, following the fall of
Baghdad, support had risen to 63%. Arguably, this shows how the fickleness of
public opinion is another good reason why genuinely democratic governments cannot
and should not always follow it.

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