Does democracy work? That was the question in the 2017 Glassen High School Ethics Essay Competition, sponsored annually by the CBC and the University of Manitoba's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics and the department of philosophy. Matthew J. Murphy, a high school student in Kathryn Slovinsky's class at Vincent Massey Collegiate in Winnipeg, won the $1,000 prize with this essay.
The society in which we live generally assumes that democracy is the best form of government. However, over the past decade, anger has been at the forefront of democratic nations. Electorates are becoming more and more aware of the failure of democracy to bring about the equality, social and economic security, and political reform that it promises.
This has caused many to question the effectiveness of democracy. But we shouldn't be so quick to judge a system that has not been fully realized.
We do not know if democracy works because our democracies are so corrupted that they are not true democracies.
Our political parties have become more concerned about retaining power than pushing change. Our democracies also have a tendency to elect bad leaders, who do not necessarily represent the people. As well, our electorates, on whom democracy relies completely, are often short-sighted and fail to see what is good for the collective.
Instead of being focused on the good of the people, our political parties are driven by a desire to retain power. It has become extremely rare for a party member to vote against the wishes of his/her party. This may help to further the party's image of unity, but it does not help the country.
People demonstrate against the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement agreement in Leipzig, Germany, on Sept. 17, 2016. In Canada, voting on the legislation to bring Canada's laws and regulations into compliance with CETA followed party lines. (Jens Meyer/Associated Press)
In the recent vote on Bill C-30 (the bill on European trade negotiation), zero members of Parliament voted against the wishes of their leader. A bill of such importance should not have had unanimous support (or opposition) from within parities, but MPs ignored the wishes of their constituents in favour of the wishes of their party.
In a similar manner, the opposition cares more about fighting the government and interrogating the prime minister (on issues like his winter vacation) than inspiring change. The opposition should focus on building solutions to issues that matter, instead of destroying the ruling party's image.
Collaboration between parties would more closely approach true democracy than our current situation — democracy should not be simply about fighting against something because the person presenting it is on the other side of the table. Good can come from hearing from all elected members; for example, socialized health care, one of the pillars of Canada, was first suggested by the opposition.
If governments had more collaboration between elected members and between parties, we would see a more productive and representative government.
Tyranny of the majority
The first-past-the-post system is another example of how established democracies are not true democracies. First-past-the-post means that to be elected, a political party does not need to win the majority of votes — it just needs to beat the other parties.
Countries are divided into ridings, whose votes are kept separate from those of other ridings. Parties get either a win or a loss for that riding, which renders uninfluential countless votes.
This does not accurately represent the population, and allows governments to be formed without winning the popular vote.
A group of protesters gathered in Winnipeg outside the Liberal Party offices on Broadway on Feb. 11, 2017, to denounce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to abandon an election promise on electoral reform. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)
As witnessed in the recent American presidential election, it is possible for the losing party to have won more votes. It seems outrageous to think that these governments are still considered to reflect the will of the people.
It is natural, according to Plato, for "a democratic society in its thirst for liberty [to] fall under the influence of bad leaders." These leaders are a result of a desire for change, a deep longing for upheaval within the government. They are what the people voted for, some would say, and likewise represent the people.
This is not always the case. Democracy is meant to protect minority groups within society by giving them a voice. However, sometimes leaders rise out of the "tyranny of the majority." In this case, the powerful majority oppresses the minorities within their society, silencing them. True democracy calls for minorities to be properly represented.
Our systems allow for a large portion of society to go unrepresented simply because they are not the majority. How is this any different than an oligarchy where the elite rule?
Electorate plays a role in corruption
The corruption of democracy is not simply the fault of the government. It is, after all, the electorate's job to elect and support the government.
However, the electorate is often unable to see past the present, ignoring the impact of actions and votes. When a campaigning party says it will lower taxes, we fail to see that this means our education and health-care systems will suffer.
Pro-Brexit demonstrators protest in London on July 13, 2016. Britain's electorate failed to see the consequences of such drastic political change, Matthew J. Murphy argues. (Megan Devlin/CBC )
When Britain put forth the Brexit referendum, their electorate failed to see the consequences of such drastic political change. We can become so wrapped up in the politics of the moment that we make choices that are not necessarily in our interest.
In the early 2000s, the Canadian Alliance party suggested that Canadians should have a right to a referendum if sufficient number of citizens signed a petition. Out of context, this seems like an amazing idea; it would have given Canadians the closest possible thing to true representation.
However, instead of embracing the spirit of the idea, 370,000 Canadians mocked democracy by signing a petition to have the Alliance party leader change his name from Stockwell Day to Doris Day, proving the idea unworkable. Our democratic system cannot be considered a true democracy when the people who it hopes to represent act solely out of self-interest and fail to respect their role in the process.
We do not know if a true democracy will work. The flaws in our system have made it so that it has not been tested.
Democracy has the potential to be the fairest, most representative, and least corrupt form of government. However, because of our departure from the principles of democracy, the world is starting to lose faith in this potential.
If we do not change our course, we will continue to witness both political apathy and backlash against democratic values. Our governments should focus on reforms that will bring us closer to the ideals of democracy so that we might one day be able to answer the question: "Does democracy work?"
This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.
Student Essay Contest Winner: The Educated Democracy
Published November 5, 2012 | September 2012 issue
The Educated Democracy
The Blake School
In evaluating the beneficial externalities that justify government support for higher education, society must look beyond the economic benefits, such as increased productivity. Individuals who have invested in higher education develop stronger civic and communal values. Education strongly encourages political activity, public awareness, community involvement, personal and familial health, reduction in crime and acceptance of basic democratic values. These behaviors occur because investment in human capital increases the opportunity cost of inefficient time and resource allocation. Government investment in education is not only an investment in the economy; it is also an investment in the strength of the democracy itself.
The economics behind the higher rates of civic activity resulting from education can be explained by examining the costs and benefits of socialization. Glaeser, Ponzetto and Shleifer (2007) state, “A primary aim of education is socialization” (p. 79). Fundamentally, education imparts stronger communication and social interaction skills. An individual capable of effective communication increases his/her potential contributions to a group effort and the group’s potential as a whole. As communication becomes easier, the cost of collaboration decreases. The opportunity cost of rejecting cooperation also increases with communication proficiency. The well educated spur their peers to participate in politics by using their developed persuasion/communication skills. Educated individuals are drawn toward collaboration because a group of efficient communicators is more effective than the sum of the individual parts (due to specialization). These individuals understand the necessity of cooperation to effect political change (see Glaeser, Ponzetto and Shleifer 2007).
The effects of education on democratic activity are clear. Dee (2003) states that college entrance correlates to an increase in voting by almost 30 percent above the average. He finds that education increases the rate of newspaper readership and significantly raises support for free speech. Glaeser, Ponzetto and Shleifer (2007) show that college graduates are overwhelmingly more likely to join groups and organizations. Dee (2003) and Glaeser, Ponzetto and Shleifer (2007) demonstrate that college graduates are more likely to “volunteer” to combat local problems (20 percent and 29 percent, respectively). Wolfe and Zuvekas (1995) state that, after income, education is the “primary determinant of donations” (p. 8) to charitable causes. Their research finds that college graduates dedicated twice as many hours toward volunteering as did high school graduates. Educated individuals pursue these civic behaviors because their stronger social interaction skills increase the benefits and decrease the costs of social interaction.
Beyond direct civic values, education reduces crime and promotes healthy lifestyle choices. A report issued in 2000 by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress (Saxton 2000) states that the average crime rate in the top 15 “most educated” states was 20 percent lower than the same rate in the 15 “least educated” states. The report concludes, “Education has a greater effect on crime reduction than the higher income that is associated with superior educational attainment” (pp. 10-11). The high costs, both direct and indirect, accompanying the legal consequences of criminal activity discourage individuals with higher education from participating in illegal behaviors.
Wolfe and Zuvekas (1995) document additional benefits of education. They indicate that education positively affects the individual’s life expectancy and health. They propose that these health improvements arise from better information about nutrition, healthy activities and use of health services, along with a decline in health-harming activities. This claim is supported by their quantitative conclusion that additional years of schooling decrease the amount of cigarettes consumed, reduce the likelihood of heavy drinking and increase the average amount of exercise. Wolfe and Zuvekas (1995) also realize that children of more-educated parents tend to experience lower rates of infant mortality and low-weight births. Education helps individuals recognize the benefits of healthy behavior and the costs of unhealthy habits, positively affecting the health of the individuals and those closely associated with them.
Higher education, by increasing an individual’s marginal productivity, raises the opportunity cost of nonoptimal choices. This higher cost induces individuals to make better choices, which generates beneficial externalities that are highly desirable in a democratic society. Higher education produces individuals who effectively cooperate to accomplish their political aims. These individuals are politically invested, active in their communities, charitably oriented, healthier and law-abiding. Utility-maximizing, educated individuals will avoid costly behavior while realizing the benefits of civic participation.
The presence of these beneficial externalities indicates that the free market alone will fail to produce the optimal supply of individuals with higher education. Government policy should aim to increase the number of educated individuals by reducing the costs of higher education through subsidies. The government currently subsidizes higher education through student loan programs and scholarship opportunities. Such subsidies are currently under attack for their “inefficiency.” Before reducing funding for student loan programs, voters and policy officials must understand that cuts in funding will reduce the presence of the externalities brought about through higher education. Cutting subsidies could weaken the vitality of our democratic society. Before slashing these valuable aids, the “inefficiencies” of education subsidies must be weighed against the political virility, community health and civic values they bring about.
Dee, Thomas S. 2003. “Are There Civic Returns to Education?” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 9588.
Glaeser, Edward L., Giacomo A. M. Ponzetto and Andrei Shleifer. 2007. “Why Does Democracy Need Education?” Journal of Economic Growth 12 (2): 77-99.
Saxton, Jim. 2000. “Investment in Education: Private and Public Returns.” Washington, D.C.: Joint Economic Committee, U.S. Congress.