Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Problems with a Democratic Government

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."

~ Winston Churchill

There are several problems that can happen in a democracy. The worst is that a non-democratic government might be elected. That has happened many times. Similarly, the governing party might suppress any opposition and run unopposed.

Another inherent problem in a democracy is the "cruel majority" where the majority votes to suppress a minority.

There are hints of all of these problems in Egypt. The majority party does not really care for democracy and began investigating the opposition for treason. Also, their new constitution limits the rights on Christians and Jews.

Our own government was created during a period of distrust for strong governments so checks and balances were built in to prevent these problems. We have a strong two-party system where neither party has enough of a majority to suppress the other. We have regularly scheduled elections which are harder to suppress than the election-on-demand that other countries have. Minority rights are enshrined in the Constitution which was designed to be difficult to change.

There is one problem that we have not been able to avoid - the problem of over-promising. Our government has made promises it cannot keep and it has become politically impossible to do anything about it.

Some of the promises were made in good faith. Social Security is an example. The biggest problem with Social Security is demographics. Our birth rate is dropping and seniors are living longer. Social Security has always been a program where the benefits paid to the retired come from the current workforce. Yes, there has always been a surplus but that was never meant to be an investment fund. We are approaching a time when more people will be supported by a smaller workforce.

Medicare and Medicaid have similar problems which are made worse by the fact that medical costs have grown faster than projected ever since the programs were created.

These problems are not going to go away but action will be politically difficult. Because of promises made decades ago, people feel entitled to these programs without change.

If both parties acted with one voice on this then something could be done as happened with Social Security in the 1980s. The Republicans have made some proposals but the Democrats have rejected them.

There are two issues driving this. One is that the Democrats recognized that they obtain a political advantage by claiming that these programs do not need reform. If they admit that there are any problems at all they blame the rich for not paying enough.

The other problem is that the current crop of Democrats believe in big government. They point to these programs as successful examples of government in action. Admitting that there are problems cripples their argument. So they deny reality.

This is where the problem with democracy comes in. We have two parties - one says that the programs are in trouble and that they will cut benefits. The other party says that the programs are strong and that they will save them. In a closely divided electorate the promise that, "You can have anything you want and the rich will pay for it." is the winning argument.

This is the argument at the core of the Fiscal Cliff and the Debt Limit talks. The Republicans want some action before we reach a crisis, the Democrats refuse to even discuss it and point to the last election as justification for their lack of action.

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