I am proud to inform you that the word democracy is a Greek one. It comes from the Greek word ΔΗΜΟΚΡΑΤΙΑ (Demokratia) which literally means ‘rule of the people’. I am sorry to inform you, however, that today’s democracy or, to put it in better terms, the way democracy is being applied in today’s governments is far from what the original version intended.
Before I explain what I mean by that, here’s a brief description of how democracy worked in ancient Greece (and especially the city-state of Athens):
The laws of the state were set out by the Assembly. The Assembly did not have a specific number of members. All citizens were considered to be members and could take part in the meetings and voting sessions of the Assembly. At that time, a citizen was someone who was male (women were not allowed to vote), was from a father who was also a citizen and had done his military service between the ages of 18 to 20. Slaves, foreigners and under 20 year olds were also excluded. In essence, this was a form of direct democracy, rather than a representative one where citizens elect representatives in a parliament.
The Council (Vouli) had 500 members and was a form of today’s parliament. It served as an executive committee for the Assembly and oversaw the activities of certain other magistrates. It coordinated the activities of certain boards that carried out the administrative tasks of the state but had very little latitude for initiative. Its presidency was rotated on a monthly basis amongst the ten prytanies, which were delegations of the 10 tribes of the time. It has been calculated that a quarter of all citizens must at one time in their lives have held that post, which could only be held once in a lifetime.
The third and last body of power was the Courts. Its membership had a minimum of 200 members, all above the age of 30.
Taking aside the characteristics of the time which cannot be considered nowadays (slaves, no voting rights for women, etc), the power of deciding upon various matters and setting rules was with the citizens of the state, rather than the Courts or the Parliament. The citizens were setting the law, the Parliament executed the wishes of the citizens and the Courts upheld the law. A very democratic way of power indeed, since the people had power above any political figure.
When we compare this to todays so called democratic societies, we see nothing of that kind of power being available to the people of a country. The only democratic opportunity comes during elections, when citizens are called to vote for who they consider to be their representative in parliament. But this is where democracy stops too.
Are we actually asked to set out what we would like the new government to address? No. Are we asked after the elections what we would like our government to do in certain circumstances (i.e. going to war, increasing taxes, etc)? Certainly not. Is the elected government free to make decisions which may go against the wish of the majority of its citizens? Absolutely.
In other words, we are given a democratic opportunity once every few years to elect our representative, not on the basis that this representative will then continue to act upon our wishes but on the basis that the representative has set out a manifesto which seems to agree mostly (but very rarely entirely) with our wishes. Once the representative is elected, he can set out laws and take actions according to what he believes, regardless of the people’s opinion and without even asking it. This, to me, is not democracy but oligarchy, the power of the selected few.
Enter into the equation the power of certain lobbies and multinationals, whose interest politicians tend to put above those of the middle and lower classes, and today’s democratic governments tend to work more like a Timocracy (the rule of the class of property owners).
So, how do I see a proper democratic government work? Well, we first have to start by considering what our rights are as citizens of our country. In a recent BBC debate about the increase in state pension age someone said that nobody should expect anything free from the government as we should work to earn our keep. If this is true, why should we pay taxes? If we should not expect anything to come free to us, we should keep all our income and pay for whatever we require (health, police protection etc) when that arises.
Each country has certain assets that do not (or should not) belong to individuals. It has certain resources (oil, gold, gas, etc). It has public land. It has special opportunities to produce energy from other sources such as the wind, the sea, the rivers, and the sun. All these assets belong to the citizens of that country in an indirect way. They are not to be given to them for free, but the benefits from them should be for the benefit of the citizens rather than the benefit of the few individuals that take advantage of them. What belongs to a country is public property; therefore it should benefit its citizens and not the members of parliament, certain individuals or companies.
Why should my electricity and gas bill increase each year (regardless of the movement in the price of oil or gas), making billions of profit to the corresponding energy companies, when my country owns these resources and can provide them to me at cost? You may say that my government instead permits companies to extract and re-sell those resources and gains income through taxing them, which will be used for my benefit. This is not actually true though. In the UK, for example, in 2007 the price of taxation for unleaded petrol was 69.9% of the price paid at a petrol station, and 67.3% for diesel. Add to that the fact that usually I would pay for this from my net salary (meaning that my gross salary has already suffered an income tax deduction) and it’s easy to see that my government charges me way over the top for something I really should be allowed to use very cheap. The government can still apply taxes for the use of resources to companies but not to the individual citizen.
If the government expect us to pay taxes from our work, it should in turn provide us with the basic means of living a comfortable life. After all, the government does not own the state assets. Each citizen has an indirect claim on them, since a country is after all its citizens and any acts for the benefit of a country should, in relative terms, result in a benefit to all (not a few of) its citizens. That means that provisions for work, accommodation, health, education, survival, protection, should be the return for our taxes.
It means strong legislation regarding employee rights, so that no company can just make thousands of employers redundant at the first sign of financial trouble, while its directors continue to enjoy millions in bonuses for their failures. It means provision of affordable accommodation (especially for first time buyers) which will not bankroll them due to unaffordable debt. It means free healthcare and education. After all a healthy and well educated population improves the growth of a country’s economy when compared to an ill health and uneducated one.
So, how the true form of democracy could work on today’s society? Here is what I think.
The power of the citizens should still be greater than that of the parliament. Therefore, instead of the democratic element stopping at the point of voting, the citizens should still decide on every single issue. How this can be achieved? Well, the internet is a very useful way. For those who do not have access, electronic voting booths can be placed in central points of each city/town. Using their national insurance number (to avoid the same person voting twice) a referendum can be held for every decision which is important, if not for every decision prior to setting out a law. Furthermore, each citizen, using the same system, can set out his concerns/ideas/wishes. If a great number of citizens raise the same issue, the parliament can then set a referendum to let the people decide how to resolve these issues.
In other words, the power of the citizens to decide how their country should be run should be absolute. The parliament should simply act upon those wishes and decisions and make the laws that would achieve this. It will have, in other words, only legislative and administrative responsibility.
The courts will keep their responsibility in upholding the laws of the country without the intervention of any member of parliament.
There should not also be a need for a political party to have the majority of votes in order to form a government. This is silly. Anyone should be allowed to put his name forward for election and once all members of parliament are elected (regardless of the percentage each party has received) the prime minister and the various other ministers should be voted to power by the members of parliament (and must be amongst those members). That way citizens will vote for the people they actually believe will act upon their interests, rather than vote politically according to a party’s political stance.
But the most important difference of all would be that politicians would not need to make promises of things to do (which most of the time are lies anyway) because it would be the citizens that would decide what the parliament should do or legislate for. Therefore, a politician will be measured upon his ability to act upon those wishes rather than deliver his own promises.