We are delighted to publish a series of essays by students who entered our 2017 Essay Competition. This award-winning essay is by Eva Kooijmans who won £500 as joint-second runner-up in the competition.
Is democracy the best form of government?
The question of whether democracy is the best form of government encompasses both Philosophy and Politics in its span of enquiry. Philosophy concerns itself with which form of government is theoretically justifiable, whereas the political approach considers whether democracy is viable in practice. Although there is overlap between these approaches, either area of study seems to come to a different conclusion. Investigating whether democracy is the best form of government from a philosophical point of view reveals that democracy is theoretically superior to other forms of government because it is in line with human dignity. In reality, however, democracy is slightly more problematic, because it can be difficult for leaders to satisfy an entire population, which is a goal that a totalitarian government, for example, doesn’t set out to fulfil. Overall, democracy is the best form of government, because it is morally the most justifiable, although democratic governments today can be improved.
This essay will only consider representational democracy (a representative body is elected by the citizenry) rather than a direct democracy (the citizenry participates directly in all political affairs), because direct democracy is hardly relevant to today’s society, and therefore a less important question to discuss.
In theory, democracy is a system that places power in the hands of the citizens in order to ensure governing that is in favour of the people. The citizenry is given the opportunity to choose who rules over them, and often each vote counts equally. This provides the people with both liberty and equality, which are highly regarded values. No other form of government offers both these values (dictatorship (benevolent or not) removes individual liberty and oligarchic forms of government disregard equality), which is one reason why democracy is the best form of government.
Representational democracy also places faith in humanity, as it assumes that we know what is best for us. That we are the best judges of our self-interest and the ‘greater good’ of society, has been challenged by the philosopher Plato, who argued for philosopher kings to make decisions on our behalf. Plato believed that the common people are not rational enough to be in charge of electing a government. However, assuming that we do lack reason, how can our voting behaviour be detrimental to politics, if we believe that the elected government is acting in our own best interest? Surely there is no divide between what we believe is in our own interest, and what is actually in our interest, and why would any government know our interest better than we do? That is why the public should bear the responsibility of electing a government, since we have the right to choose what the ruling body looks like, and deserve to make this decision for ourselves.
Then there is the utilitarian argument for democracy: even if we are not capable of choosing the most beneficial government, we need to keep making these decisions in order to learn from our mistakes, so that society as a whole can progress. If we can keep analysing the mistakes in our voting behaviour, the government can keep improving, which will lead to governments that are increasingly successful (especially since democratic governments are replaced every few years). The individual can progress too: the power that we have in electing a government encourages us to think critically about our actions. Critical reasoning is crucial to personal development, and overall the individual can become more intelligent and perhaps more fulfilled if given the right to vote. Since society is made up individuals, individual progress will lead to social progress as well.
A significant strength of democracy as a form of government is that it makes political dissent less probable. An elected government will have been voted into power by a majority, meaning that a majority should be satisfied. This cannot compare to any other form of government: the only way to ensure majority approval is by hearing from the public, and shaping a government based on their expressed needs. Even if a dictatorship would be in the interest of the majority, this would only be an assumption, since elections are the best way to gauge what the public wants/needs. On the other hand, a democratic government leaves out the needs of minorities, which might leave them feeling unconsidered, resulting in dissatisfaction. However, there is no form of government that can appease all people, and only with democracy can majority satisfaction be assured.
Overall, the philosophical argument for democracy is a very strong one, suggesting that democracy is theoretically the best form of government.
In practice, democracy is not as straightforward and peaceful as the philosophical ideal of democracy would suggest. The faith placed in humanity (as discussed above) might backfire on society, as people might not have sufficient political knowledge and experience to make decisions that would benefit themselves and society as a whole. By the time young people are granted suffrage (often at the age of 18), many of them will not have had any political education in school, and it becomes even trickier to receive such education after graduation. How then, can we be expected to know what voting behaviour will be in our best interest (assuming that we know what is in our best interest)? This problem might be solved by providing effective political education in schools and beyond. However, even when we understand which party/politician is going to act in our interest, we are still susceptible to politicians appealing to our emotions. Extremist nationalist parties, for example, tend to offer highly simplified solutions to controversial problems, without providing clear guidelines of which actions they will undertake. Nevertheless, such parties have received large numbers of support over the last few years, to the point where many European countries came close to electing nationalist governments in this year’s elections. Even if we would have sufficient political education, our voting behaviour would still be swayed by politicians’ promises, but overall it is still important to have quality political education in order for democracy to function well.
Another issue with democracy in practice is that an elected body hardly ever follows up on the promises made in their campaign. The promises that get them elected are of course aimed at gaining support, and often leaders are not sure of what is feasible before entering office. However, surely it is not fair of the ruling body to not fulfil the promises they were elected for? This is a recurring flaw in the democratic form of government, and one solution that is often put forward is to hold referendums, which is when citizens vote on political issues. On the one hand, referendums allow for the public to voice their opinion beyond government elections, and would ensure that the government continues to act according to the people’s wishes. However, in practice, this only perpetuates the problem of insufficient political knowledge for people to fully participate in politics. For example, the question of Brexit was arguably too complex for Britain’s population to fully comprehend its consequences, and when the public was asked about their voting behaviour, many admitted that they did not understand what the EU stood for, but still voted to leave. Whether Brexit turns out to be a success or a failure, it is painful to realise that Britain’s public did not have the political knowledge to handle such an issue. Is it not enough to elect a governing body, and place trust in them to make the decisions that the majority would make if they had the expertise? Theoretically, we could indeed trust politicians to act on our behalf in the way that we expected them to when we elected them, but then again, we can’t be sure that they will remain consistent in their ideals and actions once they enter office.
However, it must be said that referendums can be very valuable when it comes to decisions that are not too politically complex but still heavily affect the majority of the population. For example, the Netherlands is about to hold a referendum on internet privacy. This is an issue that is not too difficult to comprehend, yet would greatly affect internet users. In such cases, whatever the population chooses is in their best interest, which brings us back to the philosophical argument for democracy.
Overall, practical democracy is more problematic than democracy in theory but is still sound enough for democracy to be the best form of government.
In conclusion, democracy is the best form of government, mostly because of its strong philosophical basis. Democracy places the right level of faith in humanity, gives us the autonomy to choose who rules us, and respects our rights of freedom and equality. The political argument for democracy is also the soundest: although democracy today can be improved (through political education, for example), and still faces many flaws, it is more functional than dictatorial forms of government. Democracy is important for individual, social and political welfare, and is, therefore, the best form of government.