Two virtues

The democratic advisors: should you trust these guys?

About two weeks ago, my friend W. downloaded Civ I (maybe the best computer game ever made) after we got to talking about it at work. He got it from abandonia, and, let this be a warning to you, if you’re about my age and wasted a lot of time playing computer games as a kid, don’t go to this site. Supaplex is there. King’s Bounty is there. Death Rally is there. Little Big Adventure (the other candidate for best game of all time) is there. Whatever game YOU played is probably there too. You’re just gonna start feeling nostalgic and play a bunch of games with 640×480 pixel screens. But Civ I is almost unique in the sense that it is exactly as good as you remember. Download it now, and you’re still gonna find yourself as Julius Caesar, waging an armor attack against the Aztecs sometime around 1860 AD game-time and 3:30 am real-time. Sure, I like it because going to the Edgewater pool and playing “shtuchki” and everything else that we bookended with this game was an enjoyable part of growing up. But I also surprisingly remembered most of the unit stats and wouldn’t get past that one time my battleship (18-12-4) lost to a militia (1-1-1) that wasn’t even fortified or on a mountain or anything. Point is, playing the game itself is the memorable thing, and that’s because the game mechanics are fantastic. Apparently, Sid Meier is coming out with a Civilization for Facebook. Like all Civ I fans, I am both awaiting the game with trepidation and ruing the decision. An inevitable fanboy response that I last felt about the first Lord of the Rings movie… But anyway, this post isn’t about any of that, it’s about democracy (did you see that one coming?). In Civ I, there are several ways to conduct your government. Initially you start with despotism, because that’s all that’s known, but given time, you may run monarchies, republics, democracies and communist states. W. and I got to talking overarching strategy, and found that while I usually ran my world using monarchy (and then communism), he preferred democracy. In the game, there are very specific meanings to these choices, whereas in real life it’s a bit more complicated, but the question of the merits of democracy that remains is what I want to explore for a little bit.

Everyone loves democracy, and since I am a subset of everyone, I do too, but what are the potential reasons for doing so? I can think of two interdependent, and yet different ones.

One is that democracy gives the best outcome. In other words, in a real-life version of Civ, picking democracy is probably going to get you the win. But this reason is not foolproof. After all, examples of democracy leading to horrible results are well-known, enough that I will not recount them. By this line of thought, as in Churchill’s memorable quote, democracy is just “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Nor is there a dearth of examples of effective government that show dubious respect for democracy either globally (shout-out to Lee Kuan Yew!) or small-time (shout-out to Harper!). This line of argument is susceptible to being situational – democracy may be good some times, and not others. Some polities may “not be ready for democracy” by this formulation.

The second is that separate from its outcome, it is intrinsically good. The argument here is that it the form of government that is the most responsive. That is, whether it leads to good outcomes or bad, the citizen is endowed with some responsibility, and as such is both more dignified and more free and more able to affect his fate. Like I said, this is not entirely separate from the first point – responsiveness means governments which very clearly ruin the short term lives of their populace are unlikely to be kept. Responsiveness means less entrenched corruption, which is also usually a good outcome. And yet, the arguments are not the same – Lee Kuan Yew’s government still gives a good outcome, but no, it doesn’t have the responsiveness nor the dignity of democracy.

Although I would associate the second view with “classical liberals” and so basically the centre-right, you can also see the echo of the question in these dueling columns between Bobo and Krugman – as a side note, you can marvel at how long I’ve been thinking about making this post! – showing that the political mappings of the two viewpoints aren’t so simple. I obviously don’t have a clear-cut answer to the question of what’s so great about democracy, and I’m very interested in different perspectives. I just wanted to point out that the distinction between these two virtues is something I’ve often seen people elide in discussing democracy – and yet to me it seems pretty vital.

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4 Responses to Two virtues

  1. Zuuko says:

    a beast of a post. i fear my comments may end up constituting a post in of themselves. So, I’ll prolly end up doing a series of comments over the next few days.

  2. Zuuko says:

    #1. I have never played Civ 1 (or 2, 3, etc. for that matter). So, your post barely makes sense to me 😉

  3. Zuuko says:

    I think you can put me in the second camp. Democracy doesn’t always lead to the best outcome. So, that viewpoint barely makes sense to me. At the risk of violating Godwin’s Law, the Weimar republic was a democracy. We know how all that turned out.

    The inherent appeal of democracy is that, right or wrong, the voting public can be blamed or praised for a particular outcome. This applies both to the majority (for voting for something stupid or smart) and the minority (for not being able to convince enough of the voters to vote against something stupid or smart).

    So, given the inherent appeal argument, I guess that puts me in the democracy is “intrinsically” good camp.

  4. zolltan says:

    Well, it’s true, like you say, that there are lots of examples of democracy leading to bad things. But I’m willing to bet that overall, just statistically speaking, its record is fantastically better than other systems of government. That’s a big non-intrinsic argument in democracy’s favour.

    As to the Weimar republic, it was a democracy, sure, but the Third Reich was not (I think I, rather than you, lose the Godwin’s Law sweepstakes here).

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