Deconstructing Democracy, Part 3: Uncertainty.

datePosted on 20:42, June 2nd, 2009 by Pablo

The thing people fear the most is uncertainty. Bad or good, things that are known can be prepared for and dealt with. Things that are unknown can be ignored. But things that are known in the abstract but unknown in their specifics cause visceral angst in human beings. We know that we are going to die, but not how. We know that airplanes crash out of the sky, but not when. As someone who enjoys open water swimming, I always enter the ocean (particularly new bodies of water) with the knowledge that big toothy fish inhabit the sea, but I do not know if they will be sharing proximate space with me at that particular moment. That makes me anxious (after all, if I know that they are there, I do not go into the water; if I do not know that they are there, I do not worry when I do so–although I might subsequently be surprised). Many terminally ill people have noted that it is the uncertainty of their prognosis that is the hardest aspect of their condition, and that the final prognosis gives them the peace of mind to accept their fate (I experienced this first hand with my father). The bottom line is drawn by none other than Donald Rumsfeld: There are known knowns and  known unknowns, but the problem lies with the unknown unknowns.

People consequently spend their whole lives hedging against uncertainty. We cling to our parents at the sight of new and strange things, waiting for their reassurance that all is OK. We go to school and educate ourselves so that we can increase our career and income prospects. We form emotional attachments and enter into relationships in order to to fill the uncertainties of solitary existence. We buy insurance. We double check our parachutes and bungy cords. We clean our guns, we check the oil and fluids before long trips–our lives are a long list of hedging against the uncertainties of the moment. The point is simple: there is an innate fear of uncertainty inherent in the human condition, which we constantly try to overcome by imposing degrees of certainty in our lives.

That makes democracy a most remarkable and unnatural form of political rule. As part of the quest for certainty, humans establish social hierarchies. Firms, schools, churches, unions, parties, even the family itself, are hierarchical organisations. Thus authoritarianism, as the ultimate political expression of social hierarchy, is also the ultimate guarantor of political certainty: as the saying goes, Mussolini made the trains run on time. Many have argued that authoritarianism (especially in non-Anglo Saxon societies), is the more natural form of political regime. Perhaps there is some truth to that. After all, under authoritarian regimes there is the certainty of punishment for voicing opposition, the certainty of favour given to allies and toadies, the certainty that you will not be bothered if you keep your head down and go to work or school, the certainty of imprisonment or death should one confront the hierarchical status quo. Authoritarians are all about certainty, and in that measure they are naturally reassuring to a risk-adverse and uncertain public.

Yet, democracy is unique in that it takes what we fear the most–uncertainty–and turns it into the centerpiece of the political system. Elections are no more than institutionalised (if not ritualised) uncertainty. At the moment of ballot casting, no one knows the outcome. To be sure, incumbents may have an advantage over opponents, opinion polls attempt to semi-scientifically show clear tendencies among voting preferences, and electoral fraud abounds at all levels in many democratic regimes. The point is that these occur precisely because contenders for elected positions are trying to achieve some measure of certainty over the outcome, which creates a whole industry of prognosticators and facilitators attempting to do the same for profit. In other words, the measure of a mature democratic system is the relatively high degree of uncertainty of its electoral processes. The more certain the outcome of any given election, the more undemocratic the political system in which it occurs (fully understanding that popular support in advance of elections can make outcomes all but certain–but the point is that we do not absolutely know that at the time our ballots are cast). But that still does not address the existential dilemma: we want to have some degree of certainty about where out lives are heading, politically and otherwise.

The answer, as it turns out, is counter-intuitive yet simple. Institutionalised uncertainty in the form of regular free and transparent elections amongst a universally enfranchised adult population is not only a  contradiction of the social hierarchies that are the organisational bulk of most human society; they are also a guarantee of accountability. That is the beauty of the mechanism, and why it needs to be protected. Hierarchy may guarnatee some degree of certainty, but it reduces accountability in most instances. The duty of those at the top of social hierarchies are to themselves and other social leaders, and much less so to their subordinates. The reason? Such hierarchical accountability leads to more certainty in decision-making (if not outcomes). That is why genuine grassroots consultation in hierarchical social systems is an exeption rather than the rule. 

Uncertain electoral outcomes are what keep politicians honest and accountable. No matter what they do, they know that at regular 2, 3, 4 or 6 year intervals they will be held to account by the voting population. While they may try to hide their corruption and personal malfeasance, politicians ultimately have to deliver on the promises and behave according to popular expectations of office-holders (or at least disguise their behaviour accordingly). It is the uncertainty of the electoral moment that hangs, like the shadow of the future, over present political decision-making; politicians need to think of the future  electoral consequences of their current decisions. This may, from time to time, lead to sub-optimal policy outcomes since popular majority opinion may not always be informed on specific subjects (the despicable treatment of Ahmed Zaoui by the Fifth Labour government was due, in part, to its calculation that rough treatment of a Muslim asylum seeker would be countenanced by the NZ public in the wake of 9/11–and so it was). But the larger point is that institutionalised uncertainty in the form of open and transparent elections at regular intervals is a hedge against unaccountability on the part of the political elite. Thus we must resist the siren song of politicians who say that is in the general interest for them to enact policy unencumbered by popular opinion or who ram through policy without popular consultation. Politicians  that do so believe that the public are either stupid or suffer from short-sightedness and political amnesia, leading to no adverse electoral consequences and a reaffirmation of the certainty of hierarchy (in which elite interests are satisfied first). Instead, the voting public must run against its baser instinct and embrace uncertainty when it comes to the political system, since it is that embrace that promotes accountability from those chosen to lead it.

Next post: entitlements.

One Response to “Deconstructing Democracy, Part 3: Uncertainty.”

  1. Matt on June 3rd, 2009 at 06:35

    “That makes democracy a most remarkable and unnatural form of political rule.”

    I disagree. Democracy is an entirely natural state. The instinct to cooperate makes it so. Authoritarian societies are also natural; the instinct to dominate makes it so.

    That both types of society can exist side by side is a source of uncertainty in itself.

    I agree with your general thesis, though.

    Perhaps the people who argue that authoritarian regimes are more natural are overlooking something: Democracies are easier to defend.

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