Is Democracy Overrated?

BBC News Magazine | Published on August 9, 2013

By Roger Scruton

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For some time, the leading Western nations have acted upon the assumption that democracy is the solution to political conflict, and that the ultimate goal of foreign policy must be to encourage the emergence of democracy in countries which have not yet enjoyed its benefits. And they continue to adhere to this assumption, even when considering events in the Middle East today. We can easily sympathise with it. For democracies do not, in general, go to war with each other, and do not, in general, experience civil war within their borders. Where the people can choose their government, there is a safety valve that prevents conflicts from over-heating. Unpopular governments are rejected without violence.

The championship of democracy has therefore become a settled feature of Western foreign policy. In retrospect, the Cold War has been seen as a conflict between democracy and totalitarianism, in which democracy finally triumphed. And with democracy came the liberation of the people of the former communist states. Where there had been tyranny and oppression, there was now freedom and human rights. And if we study the words of Western politicians, we will constantly find that the three ideas – democracy, freedom and human rights – are spoken of in one breath, and assumed in all circumstances to coincide. That, for many of our political leaders, is the lesson to be drawn from the Cold War and the final collapse of the Soviet empire.

In my view, the idea that there is a single, one-size-fits-all solution to social and political conflict around the world, and that democracy is the name of it, is based on a disregard of historical and cultural conditions, and a failure to see that democracy is only made possible by other and more deeply hidden institutions. And while we are willing to accept that democracy goes hand in hand with individual freedom and the protection of human rights, we often fail to realise that these three things are three things, not one, and that it is only under certain conditions that they coincide.

Democracy was introduced into Russia without any adequate protection for human rights. And many human rights were protected in 19th Century Britain long before the emergence of anything that we would call democracy. In the Middle East today, we find parties standing for election, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which regards an electoral victory as the opportunity to crush dissent and impose a way of life that for many citizens is simply unacceptable. In such circumstances democracy is a threat to human rights and not a way of protecting them.

I had the opportunity to study some of these issues during the 1980s, when visiting friends and colleagues who were attempting to plant the seeds of opposition in the communist countries. These were public-spirited citizens, who ran the risk of arrest and imprisonment for activities which you and I would regard as entirely innocent. They ran classes for young people who had been deprived of an education on account of their parents’ political profile. They established support networks for writers, scholars, musicians and artists who were banned from presenting their work. They smuggled medicines, bibles, religious symbols and textbooks. And because charities were illegal under communism and religious institutions were controlled by the Communist Party, all this work had to be conducted in secret.

The totalitarian system, I learned, endures not simply by getting rid of democratic elections and imposing a one-party state. It endures by abolishing the distinction between civil society and the state, and by allowing nothing significant to occur which is not controlled by the Party. By studying the situation in Eastern Europe, I came quickly to see that political freedom depends upon a delicate network of institutions, which my friends were striving to understand and if possible to resuscitate.

So what are these institutions? First among them is judicial independence. In every case where the Communist Party had an interest, the judge was under instructions to deliver the verdict that the Party required. It didn’t matter that there was no law that the victim had breached. If necessary, a law could be invented at the last moment. If the Party wanted someone to be in prison, then the judge had to put that person in prison. If he refused, then he would end up in prison himself, if he was lucky. In such circumstances the rule of law was a complete fiction: law was simply a mask worn by the Party, as it dictated its decisions to the people.

Then there is the institution of property rights. Normal people in the communist state had virtually nothing to their name – nothing legal, that is. Their houses or flats were owned by the state, their few personal possessions could not be freely traded in the market, and their salary and pension depended on their political conformity and could be removed at any time. In these circumstances the entire economy went underground. No court of law would enforce the contracts that people needed if they were to get on with their lives. You might have a deal with your neighbour to exchange vegetables for maths lessons. But if one of you defected and the other took the dispute to law, the only result would be that both of you went to prison for conducting an illegal business. All transactions therefore depended upon personal trust, in a situation in which trust was in shorter and shorter supply. Hence society was riven by conflicts and suspicions, which neither law nor politics could remedy. And the Communist Party rejoiced in this situation, since it prevented people from combining against it.

Then there is freedom of speech and opinion. The freedom to entertain and express opinions, however offensive to others, has been regarded since Locke in the 17th Century as the pre-condition of a political society. This freedom was enshrined in the US constitution, defended in the face of the Victorian moralists by John Stuart Mill, and upheld in our time by my dissident friends. We take this freedom so much for granted that we regard it as the default position of humanity – the position to which we return, if all oppressive powers are removed from us. But my experience of communist Europe convinced me of the opposite. Orthodoxy, conformity and the hounding of the dissident define the default position of mankind, and there is no reason to think that democracies are any different in this respect from Islamic theocracies or one-party totalitarian states.

Of course, the opinions that are suppressed change from one form of society to another, as do the methods of suppression. But we should be clear that to guarantee freedom of opinion goes against the grain of social life, and imposes risks that people may be reluctant to take. For in criticising orthodoxy, you are not just questioning a belief – you are threatening the social order that has been built on it. Also, orthodoxies are the more fiercely protected the more vulnerable they are.

Both those principles are surely obvious from the reaction of Islamists to criticisms directed at their religion. Just as it was in the wars of religion that ravaged Europe in the 17th Century, it is precisely what is most absurd that is most protected. And critics are not treated merely as people with an intellectual difficulty. They are a threat, the enemies of society and, for the believer, the enemies of God. So it was too under communism, in which a system of government had been built on theories that may have looked plausible in the early days of the industrial revolution but which in the post-war economy of Europe were palpably ridiculous. For that very reason it was the greatest heresy to criticise them.

Finally, there is legitimate opposition. This was perhaps the greatest casualty of communism as it afflicted Europe. When Lenin imposed the communist system on Russia it was in the form of a top-down dictatorship, in which orders were passed down to the ranks below. It was a kind of military government, and opposition could no more unite against it than soldiers in the ranks can unite against their commanders. In times of emergency this kind of discipline is perhaps necessary. But it is the opposite of civilised government.

It has been assumed in this country from the time of the Anglo-Saxons that political decisions are taken in council, after hearing all sides to the question, and taking note of the many interests that must be reconciled. Long before the advent of democracy, our parliament divided into government and opposition, and except in stressful periods during the 16th and 17th Centuries it was acknowledged that government without opposition is without any corrective when things go wrong. That is what we saw in the Soviet Union and its empire – a system of government without a reverse gear, which continued headlong towards the brick wall of the future.

In the underground universities of communist Europe, my friends and colleagues studied those things, and prepared themselves for the hoped-for day when the Communist Party, having starved itself of every rational input, would finally give up the ghost. And the lessons that they learned need to be learned again today, as our politicians lead us forth under the banner of democracy, without pausing to examine what democracy actually requires.

Roger Scruton is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.