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Chris Fox's Politics Section

My Views: Liberty and Democracy

Liberty is based on the principle that people should be allowed to decide their own beliefs and actions.

To deny people the right to conduct their lives as they see fit is to imply that they are incapable of thought. That may be true up to a certain age, but it is more productive to teach people to think for themselves than to seek to constrain their lives. It means they will not be so dependent on others - who may not always be available when needed - while other people can get on with their own lives. Furthermore, were people to be denied the right to take decisions solely because there was no guarantee that they would take the "correct" ones, it would follow that nobody could be trusted to decide anything.

In order that people can conduct their lives as they see fit, harmful activities must be curtailed; this applies regardless of whether harm is conducted physically or verbally. If an activity harms nobody, nothing is lost by allowing it. However, what kind of freedom would people have if others were allowed to harm them at will? Human rights are based on the principle that people's rights should be restricted only to the extent necessary to protect others.

All of the above applies to everyone. Furthermore, an action is no more harmful when done by one person than when done by another. It follows that everyone should have equal rights.

There are those who believe that some people are inherently superior to others and therefore deserve more rights. It is true that some people do better than others, in whatever way; and it may be that in general, certain groups do better than others. But for this to be meaningful, everyone must have an equal opportunity to prove themselves; otherwise, those who succeed will have shown themselves to be not the best, but merely the best of a select few. This point, incidentally, strengthens the case for restricting harmful actions. Allowing people to harm others would reduce the ability and possibly also the willingness of those other people to prove themselves; this would undermine the principle of equal opportunities.

Discrimination assumes everyone in one group can be ranked above everyone else. This is fine in such cases as forming relationships and voting in elections, which are based on personal opinions. It is also valid when the factor that is on the receiving end of discrimination is one that prevents people from carrying out the relevant role. Elsewhere, however, discrimination distracts from the objective of finding the best people available. Aiming to select the best person from the best group is not sufficient. Given a series of individual test results, one can calculate statistics for particular groups. But can anyone take the group results and work out the individual results? No. So how can anyone, given only the group results, claim to know in which group the best person lies?

If people are to have equal rights in general, it follows that they should have equal political rights. This means that, with valid exceptions, they should all be allowed to participate in politics as they see fit; otherwise, some people will effectively have more power than others. The conclusion is that government should be democratic. In any case, as will be seen, democracy is the type of government best able to protect people's rights.

Anarchists favour the abolition of government, believing people should be allowed to conduct their lives as they see fit. There are two problems with that approach. The first is that with no legislature to make laws, and no judiciary to enforce them, there would be no restrictions on people's actions and people would be able to harm others at will. The second is that without government, there is no automatic way to decide what should be done, and no automatic co-ordination of efforts or prioritisation. It may be said that even in the absence of government, people will do what they believe is right. But with people having different views on what is right, we need a way to decide whose views should prevail. This leads to the question of why something is right, a question that is best answered by debate and discussion between people with different views.

Supporters of undemocratic government believe either that some people are inherently superior to others and therefore have an automatic right to rule, or that there is an objectively correct viewpoint that must prevail without question. The question of superiority has already been covered. With undemocratic government, the rulers' views hold whether they are doing what they believe is right or are merely acting in their own interests. Those who believe the rulers have an automatic right to rule will say this is no problem. However, belief in the superiority of the rulers can only be undermined by incompetent or corrupt government.

Regarding the idea of an objectively correct viewpoint, one's views depend not only on logic but also on one's own interests and experiences. This, incidentally, provides a case for allowing people with different views to share power.

In a democracy, legislation and policies are ultimately decided by the popular will. If people want their views to be carried, they must convince others. This forces the arguments on all sides to be progressively strengthened. Furthermore, as almost anyone can express their views, a wider range of opinions is heard than under an undemocratic government; it may be that the viewpoint that is considered the best is one that would not otherwise have been heard. These two points mean that decisions are based on a comparatively strong argument. If there were an objectively correct viewpoint on anything, I expect it would be easy for that viewpoint to gain enough support to be carried.

Those who favour (automatic) rule by experts believe those with greater knowledge or experience of particular issues have more right to comment on them. But rule by experts is subject to the same problems as any undemocratic government. Furthermore, while ordinary people are capable of thought, they are also capable of forming a reasoned opinion on hearing all viewpoints. In any case, experts are better able to put together a convincing argument, and there is no reason why they cannot take power in a democracy.

Theocrats favour government based on their religion, believing society should be run according to the will of God. But with several religions claiming to carry the will of God, how can we be sure which one - if any - is right? In any case, when we ask why God allows suffering, we are told it is because He wants us to think for ourselves, instead of controlling us; God wants us to follow His will, but because we believe it is right, not simply because it is His will. Therefore, while the will of God may be adopted by a government, this need not be compulsory.

It is said that politicians cannot be trusted. In a democracy, however, access to political power depends on support. Untrustworthy politicians can therefore be removed peacefully from office. Furthermore, people can elect those who they believe would make good representatives and leaders. Because politicians need support to remain in power, they are forced to defend their actions and to at least listen to those they represent.

Decisions are considered more carefully if taken by the people they affect, as the decision-makers have to face the results of their actions. This applies by definition in a direct democracy. In a representative democracy, the legislature comprises directly elected representatives, and the executive is elected either directly or by the legislature, depending on the system. If politicians keep their promises, the people are indirectly responsible for legislation and policies. Even if promises are broken, people still have more control over their representatives than they have over an undemocratic government.

Another advantage of liberty and democracy is their contribution to peace. Peace depends on political and cultural tolerance, and on the ability to resolve disputes by discussion. Those who tolerate different beliefs and customs will not seek to eradicate them by force. In any case, there is no reason why people cannot practise their own cultures while leaving others to practise theirs. Democracy aids peace by allowing debate and discussion between people with different views, thereby allowing disputes to be resolved before war is considered.

I will now turn to the question of whether to have direct democracy or representative democracy. I prefer representative democracy. The legislative process involves not only the tabling of a proposal and the final vote, but also a debate and votes on amendments. I believe that for any society consisting of more than a few hundred people, such procedures would be too cumbersome.

However, there is one instrument of direct democracy that can be used in a representative democracy, namely the referendum. Because, in a democracy, power belongs to the people, it is they who should be allowed to decide how that power is exercised. This means that major constitutional issues, at least, should be decided by referenda.

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