politics

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The Best Argument For Democracy Politics Essay

The origin of the concept of democracy goes back to John Stuart Mill and Rousseau. For Mill, democracy is not the absolute rule of the people. In his view, people could only cast vote at the election time. Once they have voted; their duty is over. It is the elected representative who would rule on behalf of the people. Mill saw danger in ‘tyranny of the majority’ which- as he thinks- suppresses individual liberty. In the name of majority, democracy could turn into autocracy. This is what we see in many countries where government is run by the party with an absolute majority in the parliament. In the same vein, Mill did not even agree to extend the right to vote to all sections of the population. He was in favour of giving the voting rights to the propertied class. He had underscored the importance of educated voters as ignorance could lead to irrational behaviour of the people. To Mill ‘monolithic body of mediocre public opinion—could be intolerant of dissent’, thereby destroying democracy (Arblaster 1994:45). Mill therefore advocated the rule by the ‘best and wisest men in the nation’ (Arblaster 1994: 45).

It emerges from Mill’s On Liberty that the purpose of the government is to protect individual liberty. And only the stable government can ensure individual liberty. Government’s stability may fall apart due to mounting pressure of the people’s demands. The government run by representatives of the people is that type of government, which can perform this function. Mill’s apprehension about the mob rule may have been influenced by the traumatic experience of the evolution of democracy in Europe. Though he wanted to restrict the right to vote to the propertied class, he had failed to foresee the scenario that the propertied class could stall democratization. The influence of the business class in modern politics vividly illustrates this point. This is why Mill’s idea of the limited franchise did not bear lasting impact on the later development of political theory. Voting had therefore been extended allowing the space for people’s participation in the government. On the contrary, Mill failed to perceive the distinction between state and government. When state becomes indifferent towards people’s desires, people may rise up in anger failing to vent their grievances to the government. Sometimes elites willy-nilly ignores such up-risings labeling them as law and order problem. Nevertheless, we find the reflection of Mill’s ideas in constructing the concept of modern democracy. Schumpeter’s definition of democracy echoes Mill’s views. However, Mill’s reservation about ‘tyranny of the majority’ is still relevant to understanding the excess of modern democracy. There are plenty of evidences around the world that the government with absolute majority behaves as ‘winner takes all’. This syndrome often flouted democratic norms, damaged democratic institutions and for that matter individual liberty. Mill’s idea of the government is, in other words, a form of constitutional government where constitution acts as the check on the exercise of the governmental power. As Mill argues for representative democracy, he does not give too much importance on people’s participation in governance. It is evident in the modern world that without people’s participation, the democratic government often acted against the common interests of the people. Elected representatives have at times become engaged in self-aggrandizement, distancing themselves from the people.

Rousseau’s conception of democracy is related to his views about freedom and ‘general will’. The people’ were no longer only those fit to be citizens – as Mill suggested - by virtue of property and education; the people could now be everyone for two impelling reasons. ‘Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains,’ said Rousseau in The Social Contract. Of course this is obviously untrue. We are born helpless and dependent on our mothers. But what he meant was plain: ‘man is born for freedom’ (Crick 2008:54). If the chains of tyranny and the artificial conventions of hierarchical society are cast off, we will become free. That is what is natural. The second impelling reason is that by nature we are each and all capable of expressing ‘the general will’, perhaps best understood as each of us being capable (with a moral effort) of willing generally, not particularly (Ibid:52). It is the common agreement of all who try honestly, simply, and with deep sincerity to rid themselves of selfishness and the barriers to a natural life imposed by the artificial conventions of society and the arrogance of the learned. In a word, he turns upside down the republican argument that citizenship must be based on property and education. Without these (at least as society has constituted them hitherto) we can become at last ourselves at our best, discover our true nature. Thus Rousseau for the first time provides a moral justification for democracy.

Unlike Mill, according to Rousseau, democracy meant government by the people themselves. Jean- Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), the exponent of popular sovereignty is regarded the pioneer of participatory democracy. In his classic work The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau asserted that sovereignty not only originates in the people, but also retained by the people. Sovereignty cannot be represented, because it cannot be alienated. The people’s deputies are not, and could not be, their representatives. They are merely agents of the people. Government is only an instrument to carry out instructions of the general will. The people must constantly deliberate on public policy and issue necessary instructions to the government. They should also make sure that government does not depart from these instructions; otherwise, it should be revoked and replaced immediately.

Thus, the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty was illegitimate, if not incomprehensible, to Rousseau. For him sovereignty belonged inalienably to the people. The problem was to decide how they could retain it and exercise it. Rousseau emphasized the unity of society free from factions threatening integration of the society. In line of this argument, he stressed upon popular participation too much, which might destabilize the government. However, creative potential of participation is quintessential for effective democracy. Rousseau believed that too great a degree of inequality within a society would prevent a common will or common interest from developing.

Thus Rousseau’s idea poses a challenge to democracy. The challenge is: how to reconcile freedom with participation. To have a robust democracy, a delicate balance between the two is required. Political elites and Public intellectuals can establish this balance by taking into cognizance of the distinct cultural context.


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