Sunday, April 3, 2011

Is Capitalism the Problem with Democracy?

Now that Democracy has won the battle of the political systems, I find myself underwhelmed. I suppose it’s capitalism that’s the problem and not Democracy itself, but let’s look at both to examine the relationship between them.

Democracies generally foster a capitalist economy because the promote freedom to the individual and the state generally does not have ownership of industry. Some industries may be controlled by the state (health care) but these are usually components involving social services. It’s quite possible to have a capitalist system operating outside of a democracy, but that situation is rare. Some would say contemporary China is an example.

Comparing the Greek Democracy to the democracies of today is complicated by perspective. We can document the development of the Polis over time and understand the dynamics at work easily enough, but when we look at contemporary political structures we find ourselves in the middle of something with no way to gain an external point of view. Political systems evolve over time, much time, and a decade is too short a span for analysis. I century is better, but even that is not a long time. Without perspective we’re left to speculate about the dynamics we’re observing and how they relate to similar forces seen previously.

In ancient Greece, during the time of the mature Polis, the political system was structured to include significant participation by the people. The council of 500 consisted of citizens from each tribe and the citizens were chosen by lot. The assembly was the main voting body for new laws and its members were any citizens who chose to attend the assembly meetings. Participation was a right, but also voluntary.

This Athenian system worked because people were interested in making it work and had a common goal of building a society that would prosper within the context of the their culture. People who cared to participate got involved: people who didn’t participate could not complain about the results.

There were certainly capitalist elements in ancient Athens, including industries, such as mining, along with trade and investment, but there were no governmental systems designed to control business, which operated in a free market.

In the United States we have an system of indirect elections where the people elect representatives to act in their best interests rather than participating themselves. This form makes sense when the people are separated by great distance, and cannot easily participate in government. Here, the contract between the elected representative and the people is “serve me or lose the next election”. In recent times, however, the quality of that service has degenerated to the point that Congress has the lowest rating of all the agencies of our government, yet the same politicians keep being elected.

In my view, there are three reasons for our poor representation.

First, capitalist forces have too much influence over our elected representatives. Corporations have become powerful influencers of the political process in the United States and their rights (meaning interests) are now placed ahead of the needs of the American people. Capitalism is corrupting in the sense that it always puts its own interests above its workers or society, in order to please the shareholder. As corporations become larger and competition is reduced, the influence on government increases. Certain industries, like the financial firms of Wall Street defy all attempts to regulate them. When laws are passed to prevent illegal activity, they move on to new approaches outside the law.

The second reason for representational decay is the cultural relativism that has become part of the American fabric, splintering the unity of the people and eliminating the most important tool that can be used to influence Congress. The people can exert power if they are united, but when they aren’t, the special interests prevail. Somehow Americans have become convinced that they are more “different” than “like” other Americans. In other words, we feel that the need for individuality is more important than the need for unity.

Congress has lost effectiveness since the mid-nineties when the budget was balanced for the last time, and can now be called completely ineffective, in my view. No controversial issues are tackled, regardless of importance, because politicians are driven by factors that work against the public good. There is also tremendous momentum to keep the status quo, which works against the elimination of ineffective programs.
Pick an issue – military base closings. No politician will vote to close a base in his district because some people will lose their jobs. Doesn’t matter that the base is obsolete. Doesn’t matter that continuing to spend money there is wasteful. Doesn’t matter that we don’t have the money to waste. So we create a welfare system where American taxpayers fund jobs that should be eliminated.

Few politicians will vote to improve the tax code. Few politicians will vote for tort reform. So we tread water.

The third reason contributing to poor representation is the bloated federal bureaucracy, which threatens to drain all of the resources of the government while it ineffectively delivers services. Everyone has seen the data. Eighty percent of the federal budget is tied up in Medicare, Social Security, and defense. Congress is afraid to cut the budget in these three areas so the bureaucracy continues to grow out of control. Bureaucracies operate outside the control of government once they are put into place, so they are removed from the people’s control. How can our interests be served when there is no control?

In antiquity, the problems I have outlined did not exist, because of the immaturity of political systems, nationalism, and man’s notion of personal responsibility. That mix meant that people had greater influence than they do today.

Business was not in a position to influence the governments of antiquity because it was not a large component of the economy. Athens was mainly an agrarian society and the farms were small and privately owned. Tribal and clan systems were the sources of power because they were the historical human organizations.

Nationalism produced a unity that kept the people together through wars, famines, and other times of trouble. To be anti-nationalist was not normal:  personal responsibility was.

The Athenian government would never have conceived of a government programs of the type we see today. The poor were certainly recognized and helped by the government when possible, but people believed that their success and well being in life was their responsibility – not the government’s. The government’s main role was to keep out the invader and provide basic rights that could be turned into a useful life for its citizens.

There were essentially no bureaucracies in antiquity until the time of Caesar Augustus. Augustus built the first civil service system by taking work that had previously been contracted out to businessmen and bringing it into the government. Even then, the goal of the bureaucracy was to manage the machinery of government, not provide for the public welfare.

So what can be done about the fact that the American system is in a period of ineffectiveness? I don’t know the answer to that question. Progressives want more government not less, so their desire is to see the bureaucracy grow. Corporations are not going to lose their influence as long as they can buy politicians and turn policy in their direction. Can anything unify the people in a way that will make them hold their government more accountable? I can’t imagine what that would have to be.

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