Warning: This is a long post. You might want to get a nice cup of tea and a biscuit.
Deep in the body politic of every western government, there is an ugly truth: our people are assholes. Now, you say that and people get very upset and no politician will every admit it, at least not in public. They’ll talk about the shrewdness and wisdom of the hardworking ordinary family who can do no wrong, but let’s get to the heart of it. The west’s problems are caused by a majority of voters wanting more stuff off the government than they are willing to pay for in either taxes or productivity. That is our problem right there.
In fairness, it is not solely the voters fault. Since WW2 we have had politicians of left and right telling people that you could have your cake and someone else’s cake as well. The left promises huge social spending. The right promises significantly less social spending (and only sometimes delivers) but also pledges increases in war spending, coupled with lower taxes. The system trundled along, funded largely by the bond markets, until the 1970s when high taxation became politically unpopular and economically less tenable as capital controls were abolished and the brain drain punished high tax countries.
But no one educated the voters, and when the wheels came off and the bond markets realised that the west’s IOUs were essentially written on toilet paper, and not even that nice quilted one with the aloe vera sold by puppies, the flow of easy money stopped suddenly.
As Luxembourg prime minister and EU elder lemon Jean Claude Juncker has pointed out: “We all know what we have to do. We just don’t know how to get re-elected afterwards.”
Such is the crisis in the west that developing countries are beginning to look enviously at China’s quick and long-term decision making process, as opposed to the quivering jellies of Europe and the US who strut about talking tough but get humiliated by the bond markets and their own self-deluding voters.
At its core, the problem is this. Modern democratic politics does not permit long-term “You’ll thank me in 20 years” politics. Political advisers wrack their brains looking for short term gimmicks to win the next news-cycle, and the public will not tolerate truths it does not like. As a result, we end up with a democratic system that is paralysed, incapable of making unpopular but necessary decisions.
It should be stressed, however, that whereas democracy is by no means a guarantee of good government, it does prevent tyranny, which is pretty much a golden reason in itself. Say what you will about Nixon, or George W. or Charlie Haughey or Berlusconi. They all left the most powerful offices in their respective lands in accordance with the law and not as shells landed on their official residence. But long-term decisions in the common good? Not so much.
What needs to be done to bring democracy and good government closer together?
For a start, good government needs a well-informed electorate. Hoping that the voters will somehow improve their grasp of why decisions must be made is very hopeful. But tying knowledge to actual decisions of voters would be a first step. A move to more managed direct democracy where the public have to choose themselves between spending cuts and tax rises, as opposed to the lazy Yes/No option of the conniving populist could be considered.
Secondly, the failure of governments to point out that most voters claim far more in benefits and spending than they contribute in tax must be addressed, if only to confront the general population with reality.
The political system itself requires radical change. Across the west, the influence of powerful business and union interests in the political funding process is detrimental to the concept of all votes being equal. Whereas banning political donations would be the desirable option, it may be legally difficult on freedom of speech grounds. On the other hand, putting a 1000% tax on political donations, with the proceeds of the tax used to fund lesser candidates, would surely improve voter information about competing candidates without restricting anyone’s freedom?
Electing our leaders to a single non-renewable term of reasonable length (six years maybe?) could allow reforming candidates to win public office, achieve the specific reforms they wish, and return to ordinary life. From day one, they would know that they could not seek the people’s approval again and so could pursue more long term aims. As to the argument that term limits are undemocratic and will deny us the type of long-serving experienced professional politician we have today, I say two things: One, if the people demand that is how they want their parliament or president chosen, that is their business. Secondly, it probably will deny us the type of long-serving experienced professional politician we have today. As part of such a system, we would have to ban retiring leaders from working for interests they policed when in office, at least for five or ten years. If they don’t like that, then they should not run for office.
Finally, there is the money issue. The clustering of wealth at the top of western society coupled with the falling living standards of the middle classes is a threat to the western free market and democratic system. Whilst we must be careful not to extinguish the incentivising power of capitalism, we must recognise that wealth redistribution is a concept that must return to the political agenda. We either have the mega-wealthy buy slightly smaller yachts or face mobs willing to torch their yachts. Reform or revolution is what is on the table.