Why do politicians over promise all the time? What did Plato and Aristotle think? What about a good dictator? Do we need democracy anyway?
This looks like an absurd question and I do not think we should be running tests in reality. But implicitly we seem to be questioning how free and democratic out societies ought to be, because many people seem not afraid to vote for people with authoritarian tendencies or parties that want to restrict freedoms. Also, polls suggest that many people, especially so called “millennials”, do not find it extremely important to live in a democracy. What is this? Ignorance? Or is it time for a new system? If so what system? By looking into this question, we can at least better understand why we value liberal democracy in the first place.
* Disclaimer: I apologize for any language errors in advance. Do not hesitate to point to any errors. Some of the editing crowd sourced, due to the limited numbers of hours in a day. More info at the end of the post.
** From the fist chapter of the forthcoming book “The virtue of being confused“.
A good dictator?
Obviously in theory it is possible that an intelligent, ethical, and well-meaning dictator with good advisors, yields better results for most than a liberal democracy. Why? They could act and react much faster than systems where things need to pass through congress and the senate or can be stopped by judges. Also, there would not be delays with elections et cetera. So far it looks like good system. However, where do we get good dictators? And what happens if the start good, but lose touch later? Not to mention the risks associated with succession.
Recently the Turkish people, by a narrow margin, gave a lot more power to president Erdogan through a referendum. Even if you are the biggest fan of Erdogan and you think he is the best thing that ever happened to Turkey, what about his successor? Part if the reason to grant so much power to Erdogan is that he can protect against the large number of “dodgy” people in Turkey. What if these dodgy people win the next election? This is what we always must bear in mind when granting more power to politicians.
To be prudent we should take a sinister view of potential future politicians. Some people who where happy with a lot of executive power for Obama, have now granted the same to Trump. And if you are happy with even more power for Trump, what about the next Obama? Never forget that the reason things move so slow, is that it is designed to protect against the worst possible president. Who is the worst possible? That depends on who you ask.
The current system of representative democracies with the separation of power already strikes a balance between a dictatorship and full direct democracy (everything a referendum). Direct democracies apart from being highly impractical, also do not allow for experts making educated decisions. The experts being in theory the people we elect and their advisors. Representative democracy would be an imperfect system in a perfect world, but probably the perfect system for an imperfect world. Here lays a huge responsibility for the voters and that is not without risks as was already argued more than two millennia ago.
The first democratic test results
It is interesting to see how we still should pay attention to Plato and Aristotle. These two gentlemen observed the birth of democracy more than two millennia ago. Their conclusions are still relevant to current politics. Plato argued that there was a flaw in democracy since many people did not truly think through their vote. Therefore, he argued that people require teaching and become more of a philosopher first. If not, he said, people would get mediocre leaders and decisions. Aristotle saw the same issue, only his solution was quite different. He said that good leaders could convince regular people by simple more “bite size” arguments instead, which he called rhetoric.
Why do politicians over promise?
Of course, public figures have to be compelling and inspiring communicators to get any kind of traction. However, it seems that now in many democracies around the world shallow rhetoric is gaining and public debate about true substance and solutions has the losing hand. This might result in negative results for most people in the long run. We should not forget that there is a perverse element in democracy that makes politicians oversimplify and over promise. If they do not do that it will be impossible to even win elections in the current environment.
For example, you can win elections by promising tax reductions, infrastructure investments, and massive job creation. You have to say all this with a straight face to assure people you are convinced that it will work. In reality the honest story is probably more like: give me four years and I will tweak this and that, here and there, and then maybe at the end of my term we will see some benefits, or maybe we even have to wait to my second term if you grant me that.
It is near impossible to get many votes with the second story, let alone win elections. At the same time, many of us complain if politicians do not keep their promises. I do not think it is good people break their promises, but it is unlikely we will ever elect anyone that does not over promise either. Or collectively we have to start all of a sudden vote for extreme realists.
Having said that we must be careful that it does not go completely overboard. What kind of democracy is one that is totally based on lies and half-truths? The good news is that we the voters hold the key. If we want better politicians we should let them know trough voting and give them the good example by acting civil. Politics is a reflection of society we are all part of that society and it is up to everybody to make it work, however small our personal contributions are. With freedom comes responsibility, if we do not act responsibly we will lose freedom.
There are no magic bullets
There are just not that many magic bullets for societies at large, however we seem to have a tendency to believe that. The trend of denouncing experts as heretics is also quite worrying. Most people are not equipped to put all the promises of politicians in perspective by themselves, myself included (more about this later). In our current representative democracies, we don’t have to all get a master in philosophy and spend a large part of our time thinking (that would be very Platonic), but a bit more Plato is definitely required. To achieve that we need to collectively increase our critical and clear thinking capabilities. Improving the educational systems is key in the long term. But of course, most of us have already finished formal education, therefore I am offering some ideas, the helped me on confusedness.com.
* I apologize for any language errors on the website, I do this all by myself with no editorial help. Do not hesitate to point to any errors. I want to get the ideas out there and I am very bad at spotting language errors and I am certainly not a linguist. Accepting the risk of looking unprofessional, I have decided to crowd source some of the editing to the readers. Thanks in advance. And, if you have any other ideas do not hesitate to let me know trough social media or the contact page. Many thanks for your interest in my work.
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