Democracy: The Story of a Spoiled Child

“Don’t (write), unless being still would drive you to madness,” says Charles Bukowski.

Having been extensively exposed to our domestic politics lately—mostly through talks with Andika or works related to Parlemen Muda Indonesia—I couldn’t help but to spend a significant amount of time revisiting my idealism of how a government should work, and consequently grows a strong urge to write this very essay.

I’ll start with a big question mark: is democracy the best power system in the world? Seeing how a majority of countries today decided to embrace it, most people would probably find the inquiry not very challenging. Yes, they would say, a type of government whose power comes directly from the people being ruled must be the fairest deal available. Because really, who would want to be ruled by a blood-appointed individual (like in classic monarchy) or an elite group of privileged intellectuals (or what Aristotle called as oligarchy)? Well, let’s talk about that a little bit more.

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[Picture courtesy of House of Infographics and AyoVote, two awesome youth-driven initiatives.]

Let us first establish what we mean by ‘best’—I would propose the following: 1) rational with accountable rulings and decisions, 2) effective in ensuring wealth and prosperity of many, and 3) less prone to tendency to corrupt. From a historical point of view alone, one could argue that many empires, dynasties, as well as other similar non-democratic regimes have successfully achieved these three steps of being a ‘successful government’ although not entirely flawless. But so isn’t democracy.

At the end of the day, perhaps the main debate should sit at the principles where they were built upon; it is not a race of achievements, but more about the basic notion of justice and ensuring a playground that enables us to protect it.

So, what’s with the spoiled child, again? Well…

I. He Was Born Quite a Long While Ago (As a Different Breed)

In the city-state of Athens, around 507-508 B.C.E. It means that mankind has learned about it for almost 2.600 years and yet is still clueless about how to make it truly work. A good reason to this is likely the fact that what we know today as ‘democracy’ was not exactly what Cleisthenes referred to when he first introduced this back then. Despite having a similar property of executive-legislative-judicial branches like the now-democracy, the then-democracy had two largely contrast features:

  • Government administrative and judicial offices stood upon random selection of ordinary citizens
  • Legislative assembly consisted of all Athenian citizens

By ‘all’ I really mean every single citizen living in the big A. Although, do not forget that numbers also matter here. Athens had only 30.000 official citizens (women, slaves, foreigners, and youth under 20 excluded) who arguably had equal access to education and assets. This made it possible for them to practice democracy in its most primitive, naked meaning: power (thus decisions and regulations)
from the people, for the people.

Now that the statistics became unbearable (I’m not sure if we can find a room or field large enough as a legislative assmbly to hold up all 200 millions of Indonesians), however, we had to learn the concept of representation. We had to accept that a smaller group of people (560 is pretty small, even compared to how the Greek did it) speak for us in the parliament, hoping that they really know what we want.

On top of that unfortunate reality, the inevitably growing disparity of knowledge and/or wealth among millions of us also made democracy a tricky business: it enables men possessing more money or intelligence to claim for power by buying/manipulating votes from the poor and/or the stupid. I cannot agree more when Will McAvoy said that a well-informed society (and a prosperous one, an economist would add), is prerequisite to a healthy democracy.

II. His Friends Enjoyed Playing Different Kinds of Games

Newsflash: democracy is not the oldest form of government. It is mainly patriarchal monarchy, traced back to the days where the alpha-males led their tribal groups. The oldest sons usually had it coming that they will rule after their fathers ceased, and therefore had longer time to get himself prepared for the throne. In fact, based on the numbers of rulers alone, democracy has 7 good companies:

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 20.49.51

And by no means to surprise you, I’m actually a fan of oligarchy (rule by a group of best people—sometimes confused with ‘aristocracy’, never quite understand the difference between them)—albeit I would like to emphasize that meritocracy (whose tenet is basically ‘individuals with merit should hold power’) shall be the very core of it. A month ago Daniel A. Bell and Chenyang Li wrote an insightful essay about Compassionate Meritocracy which caught my utmost attention, defending Singapore’s political system (or what the West often labels as ‘pseudo-democracy’) which advocates ‘an institutionalization of mechanisms aimed at selecting the candidates who were best qualified to lead—even if doing so meant imposing constraints on the democratic process’.

It is exactly this that makes me reluctant to completely believe in democracy: people stop debating on the strategies to choose the best leaders because it hurts the universality of democracy. Since “democracy demands only that the people select their leaders, it is completely up to voters to judge candidates’ merits“. I mean despite forcing candidates to spend a big portion of wealth in producing banners, posters, and all kinds of expensive advertisements, democracy still does not guarantee that we get the best possible individual to lead or legislate for our country.

If anything, democracy is simply ineffective.

III. Many Good Rumours About Him, Though

Should these flaws stop us from sticking ourselves to democracy? I’d love to say otherwise but the answer is no. Yes, democracy is ineffective and there are many loopholes in it, but it also halts people from going to war (pure monarchy does induce possible hatred among royal family members and attempts of power acquisition from other houses—yes, by the way, I watch Game of Thrones). Additionally, democracy creates disincentives for governments to go to war with one another (since the people will ask them to stop). Democracy could’ve done a lot better had we fixed its derivatives.

I use the word ‘spoiled child’ to describe democracy because people have been taking it a little too much for granted. You can use it as a magic word in any kinds of legal plead or political speechpeople are likely to respect you if you respect democracy. Additionally, a ‘democratic process’ has an ameliorative sense by definition, but the truth is, today’s Indonesia is not the best home for our spoiled child to grow, and here are some quick facts for us to think about:

  • The statistics predict that from the total 55.000.000 of our below 30 voters, 50% of them are very likely to not give their vote to any party (golput).
  • We still have a high number of people living in property with low access to education and complete information about political candidates (both executive and legislative), disabling them to make the best possible decisions.

They say that there is an irreplaceable fun and great learning from making mistakes—well, I just hope that our fun and learning process is over. I hope that 2014 is a game-changing year for Indonesia’s democracy. I mean, at some point, the child has to grow up, doesn’t he?

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