Monday, December 29, 2014

Democracy and Technology

The oft-repeated explanation of democracy - (of the people, for the people, by the people) highlights the significance of "people" in the concept and practice of democracy. And who are people? General human beings! In democracy, power is supposed to be vested in people. And there comes the dichotomy. Democracy is all about general people who hold power. When they hold power, socially speaking, they should be responsible in exercising the power. Responsibility has to have in it elements like accountability, awareness wisdom and freedom of choice. If that be so, are all people involved in democratic process (like the voting, election etc.) responsible enough to hold the power (even of voting)?

A democratic theorist may bank on people's voting power as democratic power. It sounds good and is good to fantasize too. But when people apply their voting power, no one questions the factors like their responsibility towards the choice that they are making. Their choice or decision may be influenced, conditioned, bribed, threatened, biased, by proxy or out of a sick mind. Choices or decisions made under such circumstances may, in reality, render the process of democracy undemocratic!

Unless people are aware, informed and uninfluenced, the processes of decision-making, choosing, selecting, electing etc. will turn out to be farce in democracy. So, for the success of any democratic process, people need to make informed choices. The choices also have to be coming out of an aware mind. This is where technology, as it is available today and even beyond, can play a major role in ensuring greater credibility of democratic processes.

To begin with, today's need for a person to be at a particular place (like in the voting booth which may be far from her / his place of living) to exercise democratic choices can be eliminated. Ensuring bio-metric identification (like through scanned fingerprints and retinal imprint) of the individual at a remote place is very much possible, using technologies like that of cellular phones, scanners etc. Through the same, simple choices like "yes" or "no" can be communicated to any distant democratic choice processing center.

Television debates and video conferencing can be used for people's debates and consequent opinion formation at various centers and those opinions being gathered and processed centrally can eliminate the politically and personally motivated decision-making by people's representatives in the legislative bodies concerned. This will also ensure that the opinions of better informed and aware people are available for collective decision-making, as the debates / discussions are available for assessment of their quality even at a later stage.

Technology can ensure gathering people's choices on important matters instantly. With this, the need for depending directly on the politics, motives whims and fancies of the elected representatives on democratic decision-making can largely be eliminated.

Politics is often dirty. Political motives are often harmful to peoples' interests. In most democracies, politics is also corrupt, one way or the other. With this, use of technology directly in the democratic processes is unlikely to find support from the few power-wielding representatives of people who have to adopt it into the system. This may be the reason for many obvious advantages of technology being not available in many democratic nations world over. But the inherent strengths of technology itself will force them to embrace it, sooner or later. By Vijay Nambiar

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Pitfalls of Democracy

All democracies have certain structural defects, which are related to the nature of democracy. Although all forms of government have defects, supporters of democracy are often reluctant to concede that it is less than perfect, which in turn may hinder its reform.

Probably the most quoted criticism of democracy is the fear that it will become a 'tyranny of the majority.' It can apply in both direct democracy and representative democracy. 'Tyranny of the majority' implies that a government reflecting the majority view can take action that oppresses a particular minority. It might decide that a certain minority (religion, political belief, etc.) should be criminalized (either directly or indirectly). This undermines the idea of democracy as an empowerment of the electorate as a whole.

Democracy necessarily assumes a sense of shared values in the demos (otherwise political legitimacy will fail). In other words, it assumes that the demos is in fact a unit. For historical reasons, many states lack the cultural and ethnic unity of the ideal nation-state. There may be sharp ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural divisions. In fact, some groups may be actively hostile to each other. A democracy, which by definition allows mass participation in decision-making, by definition, also allows the use of the political process against the 'enemy', which is especially visible in established democracies, in the form of anti-immigrant populism.

Another persistent critique of democracy is the claim that it encourages the elected representatives to change the law without necessity, and in particular to pour forth a flood of new laws. This is seen as pernicious in several ways. New laws constrict the scope of what were private liberties. Changing laws make it impossible for a willing non-specialist to remain law-abiding. A legal system where any ordinary citizen can expect to be breaking some law in ignorance most of the time is an invitation for law-enforcement to misuse power. This continual complication of the law is also seen by some as contrary to the simple and eternal natural law- bringing the whole legal system into disrepute.

Democracies have also been criticized for slowness and complexity in their decision-making. Modern liberal democracies, by definition, allow for regular changes of government. That has led to a common criticism of their short-term focus. In four or five years the government will face a new election, and it must think of how it will win that election. That would encourage a preference for policies that will bring short-term benefits to the electorate (or to self-interested politicians) before the next election, rather than unpopular policy with longer term benefits.

The cost of political campaigning in representative democracies may mean that the system favors the rich, who are only a very small minority of the voters. It may encourage candidates to make deals with wealthy supporters, offering favorable legislation if the candidate is elected.

Hence, we can see that democracy is not without some drawbacks. It of course has some merits for example, political stability, and effective response during wartime, etc. But we have to be aware of drawbacks stated above. By carefully analyzing the demerits and finding solutions we can expect a more perfect democracy. By Mahbub Hasan

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