Democracy versus Government by an Elite

Posted on October 1, 2007
Filed Under >Pakistani Spectator, Politics, Society
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Guest Post by The Pakistani Spectator

As I write this, I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m speaking from one cultural perspective, as a US-born citizen, who has spent most of his life in California, speaking to an audience in Pakistan, with somewhat different cultural perspectives. I do not pretend that there is any reason why my perspective should be of special interest, or superior to any other – it is just one of many.

I also surely do not pretend to have answers to the difficult political questions you currently face in Pakistan, which you of course understand far better than I can hope to, though I hope you might find some of my general thoughts useful as you search for your own answers. If I state something that was already all too obvious, I hope you will pardon the waste of your time.

If I state something that makes good sense to you, from your perspective, but that was not so obvious, I will be very pleased. If I state something that strikes you as simply bizarre, I have likely revealed an area where my assumptions and your assumptions differ, perhaps greatly. When they differ like this, either set of assumptions, or both, may grow through insights that the other can give, and I look forward to learning from your comments to these articles, where you believe I have revealed one of my own cultural ‘blind spots’.

Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

– Winston Churchill

Mr. Churchill’s remark on democracy stands as one of his wittier quotes, I think. I also think it is surprisingly deep in its wisdom. Let’s parse what he said:

Democracy is the worst form of government…

At its root, democracy is government by everyone, that is, by ordinary people. It is government elected by voters with ordinary intelligence, ordinary levels of achievement, ordinary levels of education, ignorance, prejudice, selfishness, shortsightedness, laziness, sinfulness – the list goes on! Anyone, however ordinary, could probably list, in a minute or two, a dozen elite groups that would, on average, be more ‘fit’ to govern than the average voter, in terms of all these measurements of ‘fitness’. Name an elite group that you like, and you can make a solid argument that the average member of this group is more fit to govern than the average adult, making democracy, seemingly, worse than government by any reasonable elite.

…except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

All the all-too-tempting alternatives to democracy boil down to rule by one elite or another, and I believe all these alternatives have, for all their differences, certain properties in common, properties that are inherent in rule by any elite. The elite might be defined by membership within a class, by ‘noble’ or royal birth, by restricted membership within a party (such as under most communist governments), by education, wealth, land-ownership, gender, rank within the military, or position within a religious hierarchy. For most of this article, I will focus on the more exclusive elites. I divide government by elites into four theoretical sub-groups:

(1) Elites defined by birth. Royalty is the prototype for this elite, and it has few advocates, today, as a seat of real power. Kings and queens do seem to make handy figureheads, ‘heads of state’ lacking real power, who can be sent, for example, to important foreign funerals, to show respect, without burdening the busy true leaders of the nation with a lot of time-consuming ceremony. However, a monarchy with real power seems such a discredited system, today, that I don’t think it needs much discussion.

(2) ‘Democratic’ elites defined by arbitrarily restrictive citizenship. Sometimes, a nation calls itself a democracy, with real elections and all the usual democratic institutions, but denies some classes of adults the vote, without just cause. South Africa, during Apartheid, was such a case. Like rule by a monarchy, such systems find few defenders, today they have all the drawbacks of democracy, with simply average voters, while arbitrarily denying justice and representation to those who have no vote.

(3) ‘Democratic’ elites defined by a merit-based right to vote. Some southern states in the US pretended to try something like this, with literacy tests as a requirement for voter qualification. (These tests have been stopped, having been ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.) In fact, this was a transparent ploy to deny African Americans the vote – the ‘tests’ were operated corruptly so that even the most ignorant whites passed, and even brilliant African Americans ‘failed’, and this experience illustrates the problem. The elite in charge will make sure their children pass the test, and those outside the elite will remain outside, with rigged tests, or rigged test administration, if necessary. No objective test has ever been found that measures true merit, and none is likely to be found, soon.

(4) Elites defined by position reached in a hierarchy. Today, with few ruling monarchies left, almost every non-democratic government is ruled by a hierarchically arranged elite. This case is so common and important that I will spend the rest of the article discussing it.

In hierarchical cases, there are actually many levels of the elite, elites-within-the-elite, that is. Thus, in the old Soviet Union, a small fraction belonged to the elite Communist Party membership, and a small fraction of them belonged to the elite lower-level party officials, and a small fraction of them belonged to the upper-level party officials, and a small fraction of them belonged to the Politburo, and one of them was the Premiere. A similar hierarchy applied in the Catholic church, which exercised considerable political power for centuries – the church granted certain rights (such as the right not to be made a slave) to the minority of humans who were Catholic, and Catholics were in turn expected to be obedient to the much smaller group of priests, who owed obedience to the tiny group of bishops, who were under the tinier group of archbishops, who were under the several dozen Cardinals, who owed obedience to the Pope.

The case of Catholic church political power is interesting in that it existed side-by-side with national rule by kings, elite by birth. The precarious bargain was that the Catholic church leant legitimacy to the kings by certifying that the kings ruled by ‘divine right’, that is, that they were chosen by God, for which the kings owed the church considerable concessions, such as personal allegiance to the church, help spreading the Catholic faith, punishing those who did not strictly adhere to church doctrine of the day, suppression of competing faiths, and laws tending to concentrate wealth within the church. Kings were not, however, much in favor of sharing power, and while the church worked to manipulate kings, kings worked just as hard to manipulate the church, placing their agents within the church hierarchy, even as Pope, and even intimidating the church with military threat where possible. (The church’s power was very much a ‘two-edged sword’, and cost it, and the world, far more than it gained, I very much believe!) This side-by-side power-sharing arrangement was not unique to the Catholic church and European kings. Any time the nominal government shares power with an external elite, whether it be religious, military, party-based, or other, the nominal government will struggle to contain and control the external elite, while ambitious members at the top of the external elite struggle to expand the elite’s de-facto governmental powers.

This sort of power sharing can be politically turbulent and unpredictable for both sides if (as is invariably the case, it seems) the rules for power-sharing are not extremely well-defined and well-followed. (This is true even if the formal government side of the power-sharing arrangement is democratic!) Either side can lose control that it took for granted, through ‘back-room’ maneuvering from the other side bent on expanding its control. In the case of the external elite, such back-room maneuvering may not only take away its power within the government, but likely will also compromise its external purpose. For example, if a religious hierarchy has some governmental powers, ambitious people in the government sharing that power will work insidiously to control the religious hierarchy, if necessary by corrupting it. This will likely have the side effect of harming the religious organization’s primary mission of helping more people to be more obedient to God (or whatever that religion defines as its the primary mission, which may depend on the religion).

All hierarchical elites seem to have much in common: People enter the hierarchy ‘common-soldier level’ by persuading a lower-level ‘officer’ (or manager) in the hierarchy to let them in. People rise in the hierarchy by persuading an ‘officer’ two levels above them to ‘promote’ them to rise to the next level. (Any given officer must work within ‘budgetary’ constraints set from the highest levels that limit how ‘heavy’ any branch of the tree may grow, so promotions cannot just be handed out (or sold) without limit.) Reaching the very top of the hierarchy is the least-well-defined step, often. It is usually not even possible to reach the very top without death or voluntary (or, behind the scenes, more or less coerced) retirement at the top, and then some sort of voting process among those at the very top of the hierarchy chooses the new ‘premiere’. This highest level, however, usually consists of a set of extraordinarily ambitious persons, and the sort of deal-making, backstabbing, coercion, and power-trading that can go on in this highest-level selection of the ‘premiere’ can be frightening and dangerous, even leading to civil war.

Consider the evolution of a hierarchical elite that ends up running all or part of a government:

In the beginning, the elite might have some very focused mission that has nothing to do with government. If it is a religious elite, the mission might be to help people obey God’s will. If it is a military elite, the mission might be to defend the country. (Elite hierarchies seem least likely to grow corrupt where the mission is narrow and focused, without broad power to tempt the corrupt.) If it is an economic elite, the mission might simply be to gain more wealth. Whatever the mission, individuals climbing the hierarchy may be more focused on achieving the mission than on simply climbing the hierarchy per se. The interests of the leaders of the elite may be well-aligned with the mission, therefore. (However, do not underestimate the role played by status-seeking. Even in the most virtuous organization, humans may be tempted purely by the status that goes with leadership roles in the organization.) Before the hierarchy gains government power, it may be relatively ‘pure’ and uncorrupted in its focus on its original true mission, and the leaders may be admirable and virtuous, themselves, having climbed to where they are for all the right reasons, simply because they cared passionately about the original mission of the group.

Consider the next step in the evolution of the hierarchy, when the hierarchy gets government power: Now the hierarchy holds serious, worldly power and coercive access to other’s wealth. At this point, the hierarchy becomes the path to raw power, regardless of the original mission. Who, now, will climb the hierarchy? At each stage of the selection process, to reach the next level, there will be a tendency for the most ambitious and even ruthless to reach the next level, often by flattering, threatening, blackmailing, or otherwise corrupting the immediate superiors who control the climb in each branch of the hierarchy. With real stakes for worldly power, there is no shortage of people willing and able to do whatever it takes to corrupt the process to climb to positions of high influence (if necessary, faking virtue to fool those above them who are not yet corrupted). Over all too short a time, the highest levels of the hierarchy ruthlessly self-select for raw ambition and ruthless willingness to do whatever it takes to grab raw power, with each level more ruthless than the level below it. Note that it takes only a few imperfect people anywhere in the original hierarchy to corrupt the whole hierarchy. If even a tiny corrupt minority gains a foothold in the hierarchical tree, that minority will let in allies, and will work inexorably to corrupt, undermine, and replace the honest majority, who face an uneven battle, since they fight by more honest rules.

Looked at in the abstract, it’s not hard to see the dangers, and even the inevitability of corruption in a hierarchical elite handed government power. In the abstract, the problem may seem all too obvious. The trick, too often, comes when we apply these lessons in the concrete, specific case. Oh, sure, power corrupts, but my wonderful, honest organization will avoid the pitfalls! Don’t believe it! However wonderful an organization is, today, unchecked power can and will corrupt it, like rot, in the end. It will turn the most honorable organization of humans into a pathetic parody of its former self, perhaps in a few years, perhaps in a decade or two. Do you want a solution for today, or a solution that lasts for your children, and your grandchildren?

So, how is a democracy any better? Isn’t a democracy also run with a hierarchical bureaucracy run by ambitious men and women at the top, with even more ambitious men and women elected to office, at the very top? This is true! Democracy doesn’t change human nature, or the incentives to seek and abuse power. The key difference is simply that in a democracy there is a feedback process that tends to push in the direction of the people’s interests. Elected officials may have their own agendas for their use of power, but in the end, they would like to hold what power and prestige they have. They know that if the government does not at least approximately serve the wishes of the voters, they increase the risk that those voters will throw them out. If the leaders in control in a democracy abuse their power too badly, too much against the interests of the voters, the party or parties outside the majority in Parliament, or Congress, or the Presidency, will eagerly spread the message to the voters, and will take their turn in power. If individual elected leaders choose to abuse their personal power at the expense of their party’s long-term prospects, the parties will tend to restrain them, to protect the party’s long-term access to power. Non-elected bureaucrats may abuse their power, too, but the elected officials who (with difficulty!) exercise final authority over the bureaucracy will set and enforce the bureaucracy’s rules to restrain the bureaucrats from enriching themselves too easily at the expense of the elected leaders’ long-term hold on power. A free press and free speech play a vital role, here, in helping voters know the true state of things, so they cannot be so easily fooled into thinking that the powers in charge are fulfilling their promises, when they are simply serving themselves.

Good, universal education, too, is vital. Uneducated voters are far easier to fool, to buy with empty promises or to sway with false fears. (No nation is immune to this, least of all my own, as shown well in the elections of 2000 and 2004!) Uneducated voters are far more likely to focus on short-term desires (such as are served by tax cuts the government cannot afford, or poor protection of the environment), at the expense of their long-term well-being, and their children?s.

(You may notice an unstated assumption in my discussion, so far, that government’s legitimate role is to serve the people. I certainly believe this, but I haven’t discussed why. Is there a better mission for government than to serve the people? That will be a topic in a future article!)

Whether government is a democracy or is run by an unelected elite, can the ambitious people who reach the top be ambitious to do good, to help the government serve the people? Certainly, ambition and virtue can co-exist! In any government, people who are ambitious to do good will compete for the top levels with people who are ambitious only for themselves, for raw power, prestige, and wealth. Without feedback from the voters, however, the ‘game’ of rising to the top of the hierarchy is stacked against the honest ‘players’ who just want to do good, while in a democracy, at least the more honest ‘players’ have a fighting chance, in the end! (In the US, few people who just want to get rich work in the government – the system makes large-scale corruption difficult enough that there are many easier ways to get rich, even to get rich honestly, outside of government!)

For all its weaknesses, a democracy of all the people is the only system known that has reliable feedback, a control that tends to push ambitious leaders consistently over time in the direction of at least approximately serving the interests of the people. Democracy is the only system known that can reliably discard obviously corrupt, selfish, or foolish leadership without tragically bloody revolution. (Without democracy, bloodless revolution is still possible, and highly commendable, and much more likely to lead to a government better than it replaces, but it is surely never easy!) The broadest possible democracy, democracy that does not exclude classes of adults as voters, and that does not share government power with any elite unappointed by and uncontrolled by elected leaders, will best serve the broadest interests of the people.

Photo Credits: Abro

60 responses to “Democracy versus Government by an Elite”

  1. FAISAL BASHIR says:

    Dear Fahad,
    Well again you misunderstood my point/quran both. Lets first discuss relegion -> ISlam and Quran.
    1. Understand the evolution of Islam/Deen of ALlah itself. It changed not only from one Prophet to another Prophet but also within the times of one Prophet ( All orders did not come at once….. Namaz, Roza etc all were made Farz in different years even in Muhammad’s(PBUH) time. Liqour was prohibited later etc. So quoting Dawood or Suleman is not relevant. The most relevant version of deen applicable to us is what it was in the last days of Prophet Muhammad/his followers.
    2. THe above point does not say thay (NB) God made changes as did Musharraf. But these changes were according to the development of human society. Once a atate was reached when a final structure of Human Society developed, deen was made complete. So later times have an applicable version now.
    3. Did u ever try to understad why Hazrat Imam Hassan did not do what Hazrat Imam Hussain did? Because SON of/ SOn of things were not to be followed in Islam. And what I beleive what Hazrat Imam Hussain denied Yazid for the same reason for which Hazrat Imam Hassan did not do Jihad against Amir Muaavia. Only To stop monarchies.
    4. YOU ALMOST IGNORED THE CONCEPT OF IJTEHAD (WHICH IN ITSELF IS A DEMOCRATIC CONCEPT- Please Try Reading “RECONSTRUCTION OF RELEGIOUS THOUGHT IN ISLAM- BY Mohammad Iqbal”). There is not ONE direct ORDER of allah against democracy. So it can be adapted even if western. Allah Says dont make things haram for yourself which have not ben made haram for u by Allah.
    5. Again you said the word of prophet is final in Islam- Shoora is only for consultation. Isn’t it the same for American President?. ANd even if it is not true? Again…. it was just a model ( Shoora and Khalifa) and i believe one of the best in those times when actually balloting was not possible and may be the only government of that time with certain degree of democracy. ANy Idea who was included in Hazrat Umer’s Shoora? Do try to find out and you will know how well it represented people. AND EVEN after all these arguments it is not the final thing for us as it was best only for those times. STILL THE CONCEPT OF IJTEHAD IS THERE AND DEMOCRACY IS STILL ADAPTABLE -> Remember not ONE Direct order in Quran which is against democracy so we have the option of Ijtehad.
    6. Again one final thing Equality of MAN (Irrespective of CAST OR CREED) is the basic of Islam. And that is the major factor towards democracy.
    7. And you also forgot i mentioned. Basic social standards of good and bad are same almost in every relegion. And the main function of any government is to ensure they are not violated. Democracy seems to be a demonstrated way of implementing this in these times.

  2. Adam Insaan says:

    -a rather interessting discussion you are having .

  3. Deewana Aik says:

    “The western Democracy which is followed by entire third world

  4. Deewana Aik says:

    “You wanna be realistic? Isn

  5. Fahad says:

    Deewana Aik wrote:

    “If we don

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