European Politics

Bailing out Democracy (November 2011)

On October 27th, following seemingly endless negotiations in pursuit of a new debt reduction deal for Greece, the Eurozone leaders emerged with an agreement which cut Greek debt in half and pledged another €130 billion in bailout money to be delivered early next year. The relief was palpable, market surges were predicted and Sarkozy gushed that ‘the results will be a source of huge relief worldwide.” The Eurozone finally appeared to have pulled itself back from the brink.

Europe’s new found serenity was however, short-lived. The following day Greek PM George Papandreou announced his plans to put the acceptance of the new bailout, and the austerity measures which came with it, before the Greek people in a referendum. The action drew widespread condemnation from the media, from within his own cabinet and from the other European heads of State. The markets plunged once more into chaos, with the DOW-Jones dropping almost 300 points, along with a 5% decline on both the French and German stock exchanges in a single day. Crisis meetings were held, the question of a Greek exit from the euro was again a serious possibility and Papandreou’s own hasty exit looked more or less inevitable.

After negotiations with other European leaders, the plans for a referendum were abandoned and Papandreou agreed to step down to allow the emergence of a new national unity coalition government.

It seems an excessive response to a referendum which trusted in the people of Greece. Almost two and a half thousand years after they first began the great democratic experiment, it appears that the Greeks have been told that there is a time and a place for democracy, and this isn’t it. The questions this raises for our democracies are difficult ones. We are taught to value our systems because of the influence the people have on the government, but what happens when we don’t want whats best for us? Is it the duty of the government to ignore our irresponsible desires? Or is it despotic of the government to assume it knows best?

It is clear that the people of Greece were opposed to the terms of the bailout and would almost certainly have voted against it, however without a further injection of bailout money, Greece would be broke by Christmas, effectively halting the implementation of welfare payments, healthcare services and all other government services too. The people cannot therefore, always be trusted to want what is best for them. There must therefore be times when the government steps in to save the people from themselves by ignoring the wishes of the people. This belief is nothing if not despotic, however it appears the Europe’s heads of State have collectively decided what is best for Greece and are determined that the Greek people must not be consulted. The great European bid for unity and equality seems to have been chipped away at by the economic crisis until now we see only France and Germany struggling to hold the jigsaw together above all else. Principles such as equality, democracy and self determination have all succumbed to the desire of Europe’s two great powers to protect the Union.

This idea runs contrary to all of the notions we hold dear, glorifying our system of democracy, a system so successful that the West has been exporting it for decades, imposing it on far away places ruled by tyrants. The most popular retrospective justification for the war in Iraq is that Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship was removed and democracy implemented in its stead. Papandreou’s referendum however, the purest expression of democracy which remains in our society, was condemned widely for the risked it posed both to the euro and to his country. Here we see the message once again, there is a time and a place for democracy, and this isn’t it.

With the suppression of the Greek referendum, rightly or wrongly, we have seen that democracy is a luxury afforded to calmer times. Whilst Europe may speak eloquently and emotively on the subject of democracy, it is clear that in times of crisis, our governments believe that there are some decisions that are simply too important for the people to be left to the people.

3 thoughts on “Bailing out Democracy (November 2011)

  1. Hey Paddy,

    Your brother’s pal Neil here. Good work on the blog. Very interesting, well written, well researched, and thought provoking, all of which puts it clearly in the top 0.1% of blogs out there. So good, in fact, that I’ve subscribed for updates and linked to you from my own blog (wow, eh?).

    I want to leave a couple of thoughts with you about the part of this blog on democracy, with which I don’t find myself entirely agreeing.
    -You seem to start from a position of belief that democracy is a good in itself; that is to say, because something is democratic, therefore it is good. Your piece here also gives the impression that you believe the less democratic a given process is, the worse it is. I don’t think this is necessarily true. There’s a chap writing his PhD thesis here about exactly this question – is democracy a good in itself? – who doesn’t seem to think so. His arguments make a lot of sense for legal theorist, most of whom I don’t even begin to understand. He points out that we’re sort of programmed to believe that democracy = good without ever really questioning the validity of that premise. He gives some good examples of when democracy is (or might be, depending on your view) seen as the wrong option, one of which that sticks in my head is judicial appointments. Judicial elections politicise the judiciary and make judicial decision making more about public opinion than about enforcing the law, which I think most people would agree is undesirable. There are any number of examples to draw on from the US, where some states do elect their judges, but the one that sticks out in my mind is the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, and the aftermath for the judges who decided it. So I don’t think I’d want to start from a position that democracy always = good.
    -Even accepting that democracy is, by and large, a good thing, I’m not sure I buy your premise that the purer the democracy, the better it is. To put it another way, I’m not sure you can argue convincingly that a referendum is better than a decision taken by elected representatives. As a politics student, I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about the pitfalls of the referendum, including that it’s the last resort of a weak government, and that it can become a tool of the despot (for example, think of Hitler or Mussolini disguising through referendums their fascist, oppressive policies as populism. (I know you’re not meant to use Hitler as an example in an argument, but I think this might be one of the few contexts in which it’s justified!) These, as well as practical concerns, are probably why the referendum is used sparingly if at all in modern democracies. At any rate, I think it’s hugely unfair to describe the exercise of their constitutional function by elected representatives “despotic”.

    That said, I did enjoy your blog hugely and will be back for more. I think it’s great that you’re taking on a project like this, and taking it on so well, at your young age!

    • Hi Neil, thanks very much for checking out my blog and I really appreciate the link you’ve given me on your site as well.
      As far as the question of whether or not democracy is an inherently good thing I am, like yourself, not entirely convinced. I completely agree that there are times when it is far from prudent to allow majority rule to dictate aspects of public life especially in the case of bodies such as the judiciary. There is, however, an element of hypocrisy within our current political system which extolls the virtues of democracy and self-determination, but equally is quietly aware that the people cannot always be trusted to act in their own best interest. If they could,6 then there would be no problem in having an elected judiciary as the best people for the job would still be impartially chosen as they are now (at least in theory). I do have some trouble with the implications which this has for personal liberty and with the sense that the people cannot be trusted to rule and therefore must be ruled over. The obvious solution to this is the current ‘trustee’ model of representation, whereby the people entrust their elected representatives to act in their interests as well as in the wider national interest, regardless of the immediate misgivings of their constituents. Essentially, we are electing our own short term dictators rather than people who will be truly representative of us. This places a level of trust in the benevolence and idealism of politicians which I find hard to accept, especially given their apparent reluctance to risk upsetting public opinion, even if they believe that it would be in the country’s best interests to do so. This model relies on the politicians being more virtuous than the people and that is something which I find it difficult to put my trust in.
      In short, I’m on the fence. Instinctively, (no doubt due in large part to the fact that we are indeed programmed to accept that it is a force for good) I feel more comfortable with the idea of a direct expression of democratic feeling. I do however completely agree that this is not always feasible and it is certainly not always desirable.
      Thanks again for reading! Paddy

      • Again I think “short term dictators” is a bit of a strong expression, especially given that we have systems in place – what the Americans would call “checks and balances” – to ensure there’s not too much power vested in any one branch of government; or even in any one part of any one branch of government. I get what you’re saying, of course, but I’m just not sure we quite agree with one another.

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