In the style of Plato’s Republic.
It was a beautiful day and I was walking through the town when I was joined by my friends Jo, Ann and Marilyn.
“You’ll be off to vote, I’ll wager?” said Jo.
“A wager you would win,” I answered her.
“You must agree,” she said in a tone I recognised, “that it is the duty of all citizens to vote?” I knew exactly what she was getting at.
“Before I answer that,” I said, “let me ask you a question if I may.” She smiled ready to do verbal battle. We had been here many times before.
“I see a Bertrand dialogue coming on,” she said with a laugh. “What is on your mind?”
“You say that it is the duty of all citizens to vote. Therefore, you must also agree that it is every citizen’s duty to defend democracy?” I asked.
“Of course,” she replied.
“But, you do not say what you mean by democracy.”
At this Marilyn could contain herself no longer.
“Surely that is obvious,” she said, adding, “Democracy is the right of citizens to vote in a free election.”
“A good point,” I conceded. “But when you speak of democracy in those terms do you not put the cart before the horse?”
“What does that mean Bertrand?” questioned Ann.
“Is it not the case that you presuppose that which you claim to be proving?” I said.
“I don’t follow you,” Marilyn said. Jo tried to save her friend.
“What Marilyn means,” she said, “is that in a fair system of democracy all citizens should have a chance to both vote and be voted for”.
“Let me take you up on this point. Will you indulge me a moment longer?”
Their silence was my lead to continue.
“You say that democracy is all about voting, but let us see what it is that leads you to this conclusion. Imagine a perfect society. In this perfect society all are equal in the most fundamental ways. Including the right, as you say, to vote and be voted for. Can you imagine such a state?”
Marilyn smiled, “I can imagine such a state.”
“In such a state,” I continued, “could you imagine that an environment of mutual harmony could exist?”
“Such a thing is not possible,” asserted Ann.
“Then,” I continued, “the people who live in this perfect state need a method of resolving their differences?”
“Of course,” replied Ann.
“How do you think they might resolve these differences given the state of perfect democracy we have assumed?” I asked. Marilyn was keen to tell me.
“In such a case,” she said, “it would be important to air those differences in a public forum. For all sides of the argument to be heard. And for the assembled citizens to reach a decision which was mutually acceptable.”
“And after this widespread discussion,” I enquired, “how would they make their decision?”
“By a fair vote,” interceded Jo.
“It would indeed be fair if everybody affected by the decision had the right to a say in the final decision.” I conceded this point happily.
“So Bertrand, you agree that in your perfect state democracy would play a major part in maintaining harmony?” said Marilyn with a slight tone of triumph she was not really trying hard enough to conceal.
“Let us suppose,” I said, pretending to ignore this statement, “that at the end of the deliberations of our, let’s call it a ‘citizen’s assembly’, there are two quite distinct and opposing views.”
“I can well imagine that outcome,” said Marilyn.
“Presumably democracy demands a vote and the majority view should prevail?” I asked.
“But, what if, the majority had been misled, perhaps not purposively, but simply because of the strength of one argument that played upon their fears and prejudices.”
“Yes,” said Jo, “that is a plausible state of affairs.”
“In that case,” I said, “isn’t it possible that the minority always lose despite the strength and rightness of their arguments?”
“What do you propose Bertrand? If not democracy, then what?” asked Jo.
“I am not arguing against democracy,” I explained. “I am arguing against the assumption that democracy always produces just outcomes. Democracy, even direct democracy, can produce injustice. It is not enough to reduce citizens to merely voters, but we need to create citizens who are able to exercise judgment and who are committed to social justice.”
At this, we were met by our friend Mike, who had been walking behind us listening to our conversation.
“Well Bertrand that is quite a statement,” he said, surprising us all with his presence. We stopped and exchanged greetings. “But if democracy is imperfect how do you propose that justice be done?”
“Do you agree,” I asked him, “that every citizen should be equal?”
“In terms of rights, opportunities and responsibilities, yes,” he said.
“And, do you further agree that equal citizens should have a responsibility to uphold justice?”
“I agree they should. I’m not sure they do though.” he said.
“But how,” I asked, “is it possible to uphold justice if you cannot sway the legislature.”
“But of course you can sway the legislature,” he asserted.
“How?” I asked.
“By voting” he said.
“When you vote how do you know what legislation will be enacted by the new parliament?” I asked.
“You should read the party manifestos,” he said.
“But,” I pointed out, “research shows that only about one-third of voters read the manifestos. And, besides, most legislation is not included in the manifestos. Do you argue with that?”
At this Jo interjected. “But disillusionment with democracy is widespread and you know that. It doesn’t mean that democracy should be abandoned.”
“Quite right,” I agreed, “but what it does show is that democracy, as we practise it, is no more than a popularity contest and has very little to do with making the kinds of decisions we all agreed were ideal in our ideal democracy.”
“So,” said Mike, “if democracy is predicated upon justice, but democracy is itself unjust, we have reached an impasse.”
“That is true, Mike,” I said, “but it is only an impasse if we regard democracy as only the act of voting.”
“But if democracy is not the act of voting,” questioned Marilyn, “then how is democracy possible?”
“You gave the answer earlier,” I pointed out. “Democracy is not the act of voting but rather the act of deliberation among equal citizens.”
“But then what is voting?” asked Jo now looking confused.
“Voting is simply a method, one among many, that may be used to reach a decision when no consensus is possible.”
“So who we vote for doesn’t matter,” stated Mike.
“It may,” I conceded. “But of far more importance is how involved you are in the decisions that affect you. By voting for somebody else to make those decisions for you, you give up your right to be called a free and equal citizen.”
“So free and equal citizens should demand their right to a say in decisions that affect them,” said Marilyn.
“Quite so,” I agreed.
“And voting is actually a means to prevent us from being free and equal citizens,” added Jo thoughtfully.
“So if we are truly democrats we should reject narrow forms of democracy and argue for forums where we can state our views and have them tested by other free and equal citizens,” said Ann.
“Precisely,” I said.
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Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.