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Political Evolution and the Future of Democracy

melian          30 June 2015 11:47 AM


In the popular Western narrative of history, the evolution of government system is viewed as a long journey from oppression to freedom. The starting points and the route may vary, but the ultimate destination - freedom and equality for all - is expected to be the same in every country. One by one, autocracies, theocracies and oligarchies are going to fall to be replaced by liberal democracies that will grant equal rights to every person.

According to a different narrative, political systems do not evolve towards democratic, communist or any other ideal form of government. Instead they adapt to the shifts in the power balance between different population groups. For example, the decline in the political privileges of the feudal nobility was in a large part caused by the spread of the gunpowder weapons which made obsolete heavily armored knights (previously the most important fighting unit). Likewise, women suffrage ultimately resulted from the industrial revolution and the creation of an effective police force (which drastically diminished the importance of men’s greater physical strength).

Based on the latter interpretation of history, the spread of democracy resulted not from a struggle for justice, but from the growth in the relative power of the lower and middle classes. The factors that contributed to that growth were economic and military:

  • In the early societies the main economic asset was a natural resource (land), and the population divided into the upper classes that own it and the lower classes that do not. However, the growth of industry gradually created a large middle class on whose taxes the government became increasingly dependent. Not surprisingly, early industrializers like England were also first to develop strong parliaments, while countries like Saudi Arabia where natural resources remain the main source of income are still autocracies.

  • Additional development which affected the power balance was the introduction of the universal military service around the WWI. Previously governments typically used professional armies who could be expected to follow orders from those who provide their pay. By contrast, now they had to rely on mostly prole males whose interests lay with their own class. Consequently their loyalty had to be bought with political privileges, and in Europe the introduction of draft roughly coincided with the extension of suffrage to the low class males.


Naturally, just like technological changes can shift the power balance in favor of some group or political system, they can later shift the balance against it:

  • In the economic sphere, recent technological developments have significantly reduced the relative value of the low-skill labor. In the US, the top 1 per cent is now paying more in taxes than the bottom 90 per cent.

  • Thanks to the new technology, the professional military is again superior to the conscripted soldiers. Most western countries implicitly acknowledged this fact by abolishing draft and switching to a well-paid volunteer force.


The result is a contradiction. As can be expected in liberal democracy, most government budget is still spent on the lower-income part of the population which makes most of the voters. Yet, just like in the period before democracy, most government income, as well as its military, comes from sectors that have no interest in continuation of the present policies.

In the past, similar contradictions could peacefully continue until the first major crisis, but ultimately lead to a change in the political system. Would modern democracy prove different?




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Dahlen 30 June 2015 01:31 PM
75%

When you began your listing of historiographical tendencies with the Idea of Progress, I was half-expecting the other major perspective to be represented by the ancient Greek anacyclosis or variations upon it, and was pleasantly surprised to see this was not the case. (Not that I have any strong aversion to that particular theory, but in just about anything, to keep coming back to the ancient Greeks is to be a teensy wee bit behind with the times. Speaking of progress...)

I'm not sure that, for political systems, preconditions for appearance are the same as conditions for maintenance. The disappearance of the condition that has started off the system does not imply its imminent end. There is a certain amount of inertia in political practice. What previously relied on the sheer power of incentives and inevitability in the face of an ideologically unfavourable opposition, now does have the advantages of tradition and ideology on its side. Its opponents would have to fight an uphill battle against these forces, just like democracy itself had to fight an uphill battle as it began to emerge as a political force. Yes, sure, the authoritarian "more power to the powerful" is already in a better position for getting its way. But it's difficult to see the world erasing its democratic programming from its cultural makeup just because powerful people realised that they're in a better position now to claim an even larger share of power. And it's unlikely to see authoritarian beliefs spreading quickly among the upper classes (because other rich and powerful people are the only ways to police rich and powerful people). They don't hold the beliefs they hold and enact the policies they do out of fear of mass revolt, to placate the seditious mobs. A reasonable time frame for such a change is, I think, upwards of four or five generations from now, and not even starting now.


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melian 1 July 2015 02:51 PM
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it's difficult to see the world erasing its democratic programming from its cultural makeup

Indeed, as Marx said, “theory becomes material force when it takes hold on the masses."” On the other hand, it might be possible to preserve the old political institutions (thus keeping the semblance of democracy) while fundamentally changing their functions. When the Roman Republic collapsed, the new leaders were carful to make it seem that it was business as usual. They still had the elections, senate, tribunes etc.
A reasonable time frame for such a change is, I think, upwards of four or five generations from now, and not even starting now.

You may very well be right. And yet, who in the early 1980s could predict the collapse of the entire socialist camp several years later? Dramatic political change does not always require a secret conspiracy or a violent revolution.


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Alice 30 June 2015 12:19 PM
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This is a somewhat cynical view, that seems to suggest that morality is usually dictated by convenience. However we see today many well-educated and/or rich people, who support socialist causes and parties, from which they are unlikely to benefit directly, and are quite likely to be harmed. Some notions of morality and of equality of all people can be seen in many ancient philosophies and religions, even though those may not have been the most convenient attitudes at those times. I recall that there was some recent research that indicated that even very young babies have strong feelings of what is fair and what is not. I think the notion of fairness also guides our choices and aspirations, and not just convenience.


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melian 2 July 2015 07:59 AM
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we see today many well-educated and/or rich people, who support socialist causes and parties, from which they are unlikely to benefit directly, and are quite likely to be harmed.


In a democracy, publicly supporting policies that may personally harm your interests can very easily be a selfish thing. A well-off person can speak or even vote in favor of a tax raise, knowing full well that his/her support won’t decide the issue.


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guirat01 2 July 2015 12:40 AM
65%

Just a couple of questions. First given the fungible nature of government revenues much of the tax burden has shifted onto the 90% in terms of payroll deductions and other forms of "revenue enhancement". How do the numbers fall when these developments are accounted for? Second, am I incorrect in believing that the new deal policies were originally enacted by Roosevelt who felt that without these concessions the political and social order dominated by those at the top were in danger of collapsing through the increasingly militant unrest of those dispossessed in the great depression?(I'm thinking Huey Long)


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melian 2 July 2015 06:38 AM
73%

How do the numbers fall when these developments are accounted for?

That’s a good question. I don’t have the actual numbers, but the Social Security and Medicare deductions have certainly risen. On the other hand, I don’t think taking these deductions into account would fundamentally change the analysis. Unlike other taxes, a large part of which goes into defense, infrastructure and other items that benefit the rich along with the poor, the Social Security and Medicare deductions disproportionately benefit the low income population. Returning both the deductions and the spending on these programs to the levels they used to be 40 years ago would in effect be a regressive tax policy.
the new deal policies were originally enacted by Roosevelt

Great Depression certainly accelerated the growth of redistributive policies in the US and other Western Democracies. But the progressive taxation itself started a generation earlier and it would probably eventually reach the New Deal levels even without the Great Depression.


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guirat01 2 July 2015 09:56 PM
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I guess what I'm asking is in reference to your assertion that progressive policies dont benefit those at the top, which is true if your John Galt I suppose. But it has been suggested, not unreasonably I think, that these progressive policies are in fact what makes it possible for the inequitable distribution of wealth. For example (I cant guarantee the following is true, I've read as much and I'd like to know what you think of the underlying principle) Roosevelt could have continued to support job programs until we'd reached full employment but this would have shifted too much power to labor so a certain amount of unemployment was built into the system. This would have been untenable without unemployment insurance. It would seem that a lot of what seem to benefit the 90% are in fact the conditions by which those at the top enjoy their privileges unmolested. What do you ... read more

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VoiceOfRa 30 June 2015 08:43 PM
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Thanks to the new technology, the professional military is again superior to the conscripted soldiers. Most western countries implicitly acknowledged this fact by abolishing draft and switching to a well-paid volunteer force.


I'm not sure that's actually true. Note that countries that have reason believe they may have to fight for their existence in the near future, e.g., Israel or Finland, still use universal conscription.


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melian 1 July 2015 09:51 AM
72%

Israel and Finland may indeed be the exceptions. When your potential adversary outnumbers you more than 20 to 1, as was the case in the Six-Day and Winter Wars, volunteers may not suffice. Instead you might have to turn most of your men into semi-professional fighters (in Israel, men spend about 5 years in the army). Note, however, that even in Israel the draft is not really universal. Muslims Arabs and Ultraorthodox Jews (groups that thanks to their high fertility are expected to become a majority) do not generally serve in the army. So even there the army may become separated from the majority of voters.

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VoiceOfRa 2 July 2015 12:56 AM
63%

If turning most of your men into semi-professional fighters can overcome 20 to 1 odds, what does that say about the effect it would have on an otherwise even battle?


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guirat01 3 July 2015 08:27 PM
64%

How do you feel about the Princeton study that says the U.S. is no longer a functional democracy? I think Jimmy Carter made the same remark.

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/princeton-experts-say-us-no-longer-democracy



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melian 4 July 2015 07:37 AM
76%

“Democracy” means different things to different people. Slave societies of ancient Greece were called democracy. North Korea calls itself democracy. To give a meaningful answer to the question whether the US is still a functional democracy one needs a precise definition of the concept. What does “functional democracy” mean to you?

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guirat01 5 July 2015 11:12 AM
64%

After examining data from the 80's on the study found that congress consistently passed laws which the wealthy favored even when the majority of voters expressed opposition to those laws, so I guess a good definition for a functional democracy would be where over a reasonable period a clear bias towards the will of the majority of eligible voters is discernible in the the laws enacted during that period. I think Jimmy Carter was refering to the systemic disenfranchisement of minority voters.

By the way, I've been a member of this political forum for nearly a week mow and nobody has called anyone Hitler yet. Is this legal?;)

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