The Catch-22 of Democracy

There have been many things written and said about Democracy. I agree with some of those, disagree with the most. Unlike many people believe, I do not consider Democracy as the best system of governance. In my academically (or otherwise) limited opinion, it’s just the better among all the worst that we can possibly choose. Said in other words, it’s the best that we can possibly do. Outlining everything that can or has gone wrong with Democracy is a tedious process, one that’s best left to a scholar of politics. Here, we just take a look at just one of its interesting paradoxes, a catch-22 if you will.

Before we proceed, we need to establish what a catch-22 even is. Popularized by the American novelist Joseph Heller, a Catch-22 is a situation from where you cannot get out of, simply because any attempt of getting out of it disables you from actually getting out. The example in the book is quite interesting and I’d rather not spoil it for those who’d like to go and have a read. Instead, consider another example of my own. Imagine someone “locking” you inside a room with an open door with a catch (catch-22) that if you move anywhere near the door, the installed sensors will instantaneously close the door leaving you stuck. So, at a glance, it looks as if you can get out (because the doors are open) but any attempt of actually getting out of the room (getting closer to the door) will prevent you from doing so leaving you perpetually confined.

Catch-22. Any attempts to escape the room will end up closing the door.

So now we are in a position to ask, what’s the catch-22 of Democracy?

The catch-22 of a Democracy is that, by the very virtue of how Democracy functions, it is impossible to elect a leader who best represents people’s interests.

This is a rather bold claim to make so let’s substantiate it. Allow me to begin with some excerpts from Plato’s republic.

And this is the reason, my dear Thrasymachus, why, as I was just now saying, no one is willing to govern; because no one likes to take in hand the reformation of evils which are not his concern without remuneration. For, in the execution of his work, and in giving his orders to another, the true artist does not regard his own interest, but always that of his subjects; and therefore, in order that rulers may be willing to rule, they must be paid in one of three modes of payment: money, or honour, or a penalty for refusing.

And for this reason, I said, money and honour have no attraction for them; good men do not wish to be openly demanding payment for governing and so to get the name of hirelings, nor by secretly helping themselves out of the public revenues to get the name of thieves. And not being ambitious they do not care about honour. Wherefore necessity must be laid upon them, and they must be induced to serve from the fear of punishment.

Plato argues that a good leader is the one who rules only for the sake of his people. He has no greed of his own, nor any ambition to hold office. In fact, a true leader is often fearful of his own decisions negatively impacting his subjects and understands that to rule justly is a great responsibility and an even greater hassle. Therefore, Plato says, in a city of good people, there is no direct way of getting a just ruler to agree to rule because he simply has no other incentive to do so by himself. And you see the same argument littered all over the history. From the famed Sword of Damocles to the adages that survived the rust of time like “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”, all of them seem to suggest the same two things a) Ruling is tedious, and its indirect corollary b) The only good ruler is the one who does not seek to rule.

In monarchy, which has been the system of governance for the majority of countries through much of the human history, it is trivially easy to find a ruler who does not wishes to rule. This is because a kingship is inherited, and it is not at all unthinkable to consider someone born into the role of a king who does not actually want to rule. Siddhartha Gautam aka Gautam Buddha would be a good example on one end of it, who relinquished everything to become a philosopher. At the other end, we have people like Marcus Aurelius, who continued to rule because they thought it their divine duty but retained the lifestyle and thinking of philosophers. Of course, this article is not written in praise of Monarchy because it is one of the easiest systems that can be corrupted into Tyranny.

Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher king.

In Democracy, people elect their own leaders. And in theory, these leaders are bestowed with people’s will to act in their interests. But modern Democracy yields anything but such. To begin with, ask yourself this, how does a person even get elected? Of course, he has to participate in the elections but that’s just the start of it. He or She must run extensive campaigns employing not unsubstantial funds to make themselves visible. This automatically implies that a serious investment, of either the person himself or of their backer, has been made, and we know this for sure: investments demand returns.

Another approach to make oneself popular is to vocalize an opinion that strongly resonates with one’s constituency, which, as it often so happens, is significantly polarizing. This requires an exercise in identity politics with the end result often always being hate and oppression of the minority (or the “other” group). And when one does go into the power, he now has to continue appeasing his demographic in order to keep on getting re-elected. For if one denies to do so, then there was never a point in invoking identity politics in the first place.

In all of these cases, either a significant investment has to be made, or an intensive ploy centered on identity has to be orchestrated, which means that there must be an “effort” made in order to “rule”. This is in direct contradiction of what we have tried to establish i.e., a good ruler does not seek to rule. But if one does not seek to rule, one can never organize massive campaigns or appeal to their constituency (whose collective intelligence is often lamentable), and this means that one will never actually be elected! But if one is elected, that means there was an effort and it then implies that the one who got elected, in fact, sought to be elected, invalidating him as a good ruler in the process. This is the Catch-22 of Democracy.

A good leader is the one who does not seek to rule. But in Democracy, if you do not seek to rule, you do not get elected. And if you get elected, it often means that you sought to rule and that you are not a good leader.

Upon careful consideration, it makes sense as well. The kind, virtuous, and the wise among people have no incentive to grind themselves in a race with those who’ll not shirk away from employing all sorts of tactics to win at all costs. No, they’d rather be content with a meaningful job, a family, and a productive life. They have no want or need to rule because it’s an incessant responsibility towards millions of lives where a single bad decision may result in consequences none of them are willing to shoulder for the rest of their lives.

Only those who are not content with what a “normal” life offers are the ones who’ll wholeheartedly submerge themselves in the intricacies of politics and of all unpleasant things that follow. And they do not do this because they want to serve. No, they often do this because they want to be served. Their ambition knows no bound, they have no shame, and they’d beg, borrow, steal, or perjure themselves if they have to, if only they could retain a fraction of that “power”. They enjoy that power. They enjoy being validated and most of them are regrettably so incompetent that their only qualification to hold the office is that they oh so badly want to be there, and nothing else.

While we’ve already treated the subject of the essay, to conclude it here would be to leave it incomplete. There is actually an incentive that still motivates good candidates to stand and compete in the elections and this is the same incentive of those who perform jury duty i.e. they are compelled to do it, by law, or by fear of the otherwise. Plato writes about it in his republic:

Now the worst part of the punishment is that he who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself. And the fear of this, as I conceive, induces the good to take office, not because they would, but because they cannot help–not under the idea that they are going to have any benefit or enjoyment themselves, but as a necessity, and because they are not able to commit the task of ruling to any one who is better than themselves, or indeed as good.

Yes, this is the only reason why a good man will ever present himself as a candidate, for the fear that if he does not, he will be ruled by those more incompetent than him. Sadly, we do not instill this virtue in our society enough as while our children are often taught to vote because it’s their duty to do so, none are taught to stand in elections because, it too, is their duty to do so. Hopefully, this’ll change. In the meanwhile, it is what it is.