Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
The ascent of Trump illustrates the great failing of democracy. On occasions, the public makes poor choices that don’t serve their best interests. Brexit is another example. As far back the 1800s, philosophers identified this challenge. They cited opinions that some people are not qualified to vote or are unwise in their choices. Thus, the view formed that mass democracy led to poor outcomes. Women and so-called 'lesser' elements faced exclusion based on these ideas.
Women held to be irrational, emotionally ill-equipped for debating and selecting leaders. No one would dare utter such a point these days, yet a few are willing to use similar illogical ideas to hold back democracy.
It’s often forgotten women only got the UK vote in 1929, while full male participation came in 1918. By then the sacrifice of the working classes in the trenches of Europe made it impossible to deny them a vote.
Some of the arguments against democracy, dispelled in the West, continue to reverb in Hong Kong. Let us wander through these various assertions, positions and arguments about democracy. Keep in mind democracy is by no means sure to arise nor does it always survive. Moreover, it may not serve the best interests of the people it purports to represent. In recent times, President Clinton portrayed himself as a liberal friend of the working class. Meanwhile, he served the money men in Wall Street.
Such uncomfortable truths don’t sit well with the ardent pro-democracy types in Hong Kong. Blind faith in one man, one vote ignores a great deal of history. It also digs them into a trench that has left them beleaguered in the face of Beijing’s stance.
In 1859, philosopher John Stuart Mills made the case opposing mass democracy. He maintained that only those with qualifications and a sense of responsibility should vote. Accompanying that criteria are the payment of direct taxes. He thought citizens would be prudent in picking leaders when their own money was at stake.
One man, one vote he felt was wrong. He proposed a system that does not look unfamiliar to Hong Kong people. In essence, professional folks get more votes. A lawyer, doctor, or vicar gets six votes, while the ordinary citizen gets one vote. This situation is not dissimilar to the functional constituency model applied here. The professional classes have the privilege of more votes in the selection of legislative council members.
Walter Bagehot’s seminal work ‘The English Constitution’ published in 1866 took a similar position. He held that excluding the working class was acceptable. After all, he asserted, the ruling should rest with the dignified people.
Around the same time, conservative Italian scholars took the view that democracy was pointless. In their judgment, no matter the system, the same groups hi-jack the process to protect their vested interest. Karl Marx made a similar observation. He put forward the idea that an extended franchise would not improve the prospects of the poor. He felt elite-rule would continue in a different form.
There is evidence for this in the manner that US democracy has evolved. Funding from powerful interest groups drives the process, buying them unparalleled access. They enjoy influence not given ordinary folks. What could be more terrifying for the Hong Kong’s Pan-Democrats than to see their opponents rise through a democratic election? Possibly, having to form a coalition because they lack expertise or a majority. Democracy is a fickle mistress.
There is ample evidence in the modern world that the elites feel the ordinary citizen is not qualified to make sensible choices. Such an opinion holds little substance when universal education abounds. Plus, access to information is much more straightforward these days. With the Internet, we have free reign.
Whether this forum provides balanced views, without undue manipulation, is a debatable point. Nonetheless, it allows us all unparalleled access to information before held by a few. Never in the history of humanity have so many people had such access to information, opinions and data.
Granted, the amount of information can be overwhelming at times. People need to be discerning, while also cognizant of ‘fake news’ in all its forms. Unfortunately, the Internet alone does not assure that we make decisions based on facts. Trump won despite that he demonstrated an indifference to the truth. In many ways, the Internet reinforces established opinions in a self-serving feedback loop. That’s a concern given the polarisation we are seeing.
It's arguable that people remain hampered in their choices by Internet-based algorithms. These pre-select content and news for us. The full impact of this is not understood.
UK’s Brexit vote offers a notable example of opinion swayed by misinformation. Bland promises, with sweeping statements, created the mass appeal of a bright future in ‘sunlit uplands’. Once the detail came into focus, the UK public had a realisation that this was a nuanced issue. Black and white messages faded to grey foggy detail. A myriad of minutia dotted the political landscape.
Brexit also exemplified that democracy does not always produce the best outcomes for the people it claims to serve. With a full understanding of the impact of Brexit, the British may have gone a different way. Now faced with potential economic disaster, many are wishing they could go back in time.
Which leads to an assertion that the public is mercurial. Switching opinions as fickle sentiment shifts, they flip their views without much thought. The long-term consequences of such flip-flopping are confusion. The business of running a country needs consistency over time, with a clear direction. Democracy can subvert that process.
China’s strategic drive to modernise has benefited from consistent policies, enforced by a strict doctrine. This approach has lifted the highest number of people in history out of poverty. It’s an approach that is not without its notable downsides, yet until now its borne fruit for the majority. That achievement can’t get ignored.
Next up is the suggestion that people are uninterested, especially if comfortable. Look after their basic needs, keep them fed, watered and entertained. They’ll be content to get on with life. China’s approach has elements of that. Useful distractions are sport, TV and gossip about celebrities. Meanwhile, having a Royal Family to generate a bit of preoccupation can work wonders. They get rolled out at times of difficulty. How fortunate that Prince Harry’s wedding announcement comes now. An embattled government struggling with Brexit needs some cover. Failing that, summon up a bit of salacious scandal to draw the public’s attention away.
It's unavoidable that democracy has negative repercussions on infrastructure projects. Even when a robust economic case exists, the plans remain stalled. Endless rounds of consultation, listening to opinions and filibustering creates delays. A case in point is Heathrow’s third runway. Debated for over a decade; a decision remains some time off. In the meantime, Hong Kong comes to prompt decisions to reap the financial benefits. A lack of advancement in the UK’s infrastructure, including high-speed rail, is due to ‘nimby’ forces. Using democratic institutions they hold back projects.
Had such powers rested with the populace in the Victorian era, there’s a chance no rail systems would have gotten built. It’s hard to argue that democracy always produces outcomes that favour the many when few can hold such sway.
Democratic procedures, like elections and press freedoms, do not guarantee adequate representation. We’ve seen that time and time again. That argument gets lost on the dogmatic types who pursue democracy at all cost. If successful in their objectives they often replace one set of elites with another. Nothing changes for the vast majority of people.
It's important to note that these anti-democratic arguments come from folks who accept the ideas underpinning democracy. They granted the notion that governments should be accountable to citizens. Moreover, all citizens capable of exercising sound political judgment ought to have the vote. Where they differed is on defining ‘capable citizens’.
As political scientist Bruce Cain argues, most citizens do not have the time, energy, or expertise to devote to politics. The study of complex public policy issues. With their busy existence, people have no spare bandwidth to deal with politics. With no clear answers, a confusion of expressed options serves to turn people off.
Also, the introduction of higher levels of democracy can mean the political space gets occupied by the best-organised groups. That is usually the existing elites. That circles back to the argument made by the Italians above.
For the time being in Hong Kong, matters bump along. What is annoying is the steady stream of western politicians who front up to pass critical comments. It’s somewhat disingenuous of these people, especially from the UK, to point the accusing finger at China. The irrefutable fact is the Brits failed to give Hong Kong full democracy.
They tinkered around the edges with quasi-democratic institutions, much of which was superstructure. The hard truth being the Governor ran Hong Kong with a mandate from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The FCO, which had an eye on relations with China, kept things in check. Nothing in Hong Kong could infringe on the broader goal of trade with an emerging China. That approach has come into sharper focus with Brexit, as Britain seeks to hang on.
Vested interests in Hong Kong harness some of these arguments to argue against more democracy. In particular, they cite ‘popularism’ and the seizure of resources for redistribution. This argument gets rolled out with considerable impact. For example, it’s blocked significant moves to deal with poverty. So ingrained in the culture is the idea of being self-sufficient.
Churchill famously said in parliament “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time...”
Hong Kong’s current system is without question the worse form of government. At best, the current system is a partial democracy. And yet, the failure, over many years, of the administration to get a firm mandate from the people has allowed radicals to run free in the political space. The present arrangement holds government somewhat accountable, without the rigour of full-blown scrutiny. With no appetite or agenda for change, this impasse is likely to continue for years to come.
In the interim, the elites in Hong Kong will continue to apply old propositions against Western-style democracy. Especially as China seeks to advance its system. ‘Democracy with Chinese characteristics’ is an evolving idea, given a spur by the faltering western model. As the ‘soft power’ of countries like the US wanes, Beijing is inclined to test its ideas. Thus, it remains uncertain how matters will evolve in Hong Kong. Watch this space.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.