democImage: Wikimedia Commons

Democracy is going through a difficult time, and not only in places where it is a relatively recent development – in Africa, for example – but in its heartland, the United States and Western Europe. In recent years New York has had its Occupy Wall Street movement, London its hooligan riots, Madrid its furious protests by the young unemployed, Paris its huge “demonstrations for all” against new marriage laws. Liberal governments installed by free and fair elections in some countries are mistrusted by a majority of citizens, and populist (right-wing) parties are on the rise again.

Are the protestors in Kiev barking up the wrong tree? Sacrificing their lives for a system that is spent, and unable to deliver on its promise of liberty, equality and fraternity? Was Winston Churchill wrong in propagating the view that democracy would be the worst form of government – except for all the rest?

“The rest”, of course, includes China, where, as a recent essay in The Economist points out, an authoritarian regime delivers rates of economic growth and of improving living standards that leading democracies can only dream about today. A 2013 Pew Survey of Global Attitudes showed that 85% of Chinese were “very satisfied” with their country’s direction, compared with 31% of Americans. The United States is mired in debt and politically gridlocked over what to do about it. The Great Financial Crisis has left many citizens seething over bailouts for bankers at public expense while financiers continued to pay themselves huge bonuses.

What is stirring these discontents? The Economist identifies three main factors:

Globalisation. Modern democracy has expressed itself through nation states and national parliaments, but national politicians have surrendered ever more power to supranational bodies such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the European Union. This has also led governments to hand more power to unelected technocrats.

Separatists and micro-powers. Breakaway nations such as the Scots and Catalans, and a vast array of NGOs and lobbyists challenge democratic governments from below. These are aided by the digital revolution and social networking.

A pampered electorate. “Democratic governments got into the habit of running big structural deficits as a matter of course, borrowing to give voters what they wanted in the short term, while neglecting long-term investment. … The financial crisis starkly exposed the unsustainability of such debt-financed democracy.” However, the populace do not take kindly to austerity measures.

Other factors include ageing populations that have increasing political power, alienating younger citizens; and a cynicism towards politics (very few join political parties now and voter turnout is falling) which saw a quarter of the Italian electorate last year voting for a party founded by Beppe Grillo, a comedian.

“The result can be a toxic and unstable mixture: dependency on government on the one hand, and disdain for it on the other. The dependency forces government to overexpand and overburden itself, while the disdain robs it of its legitimacy. Democratic dysfunction goes hand in hand with democratic distemper,” says The Economist.

Its remedy for democracy’s ills is one that most conservatives would basically agree with: “a narrower state”, one that hands out fewer goodies and promises less. One that delegates power both upwards, to non-partisan technocrats, and downwards to ordinary people – through direct democracy exercised through ballot initiatives and use of the internet. California and Finland are apparently models of this path – through which democracy can “zig-zag its way back to health.”

So far, so plausible. But there are some big things missing from this picture.

The first is virtue. Self-government does not begin at the ballot box, even if the ballot is citizen initiated and accessible via the internet. It begins with people who know how to govern themselves – to obey their conscience, to delay gratification, to do the good that is difficult – and this is precisely what has been undermined in democracies where the state has grown by the political process of buying power with ever-extending handouts and entitlements.

How can what Nicholas Eberstadt has described as a “nation of takers” (with reference to the US, though it applies to all welfare states) produce a more just and economically viable democracy simply by having more political power delegated to them? Would such morally enfeebled citizens not tend to put themselves in the hands of special interest groups which also promise them illusory rights and unearned benefits?

The second thing missing from The Economist’s prescription for sick democracies is the institutions that come between the individual and the state: the family and civil society.

It is in the family that the individual learns the virtues basic to a democratic society: in addition to those already mentioned, responsibility, justice and respect for the freedom of others. But this can only happen in a family that has not had its authority snatched away by an intrusive state and its favourite experts.

As Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Centre has written (in reply to Eberstadt): “Liberal democracy has always depended upon a kind of person it does not produce, and which must be formed by institutions that are not themselves liberal or political, but that are given room to function within our liberal society.”

It is no accident that democracy thrived when civic institutions were strong, when communities, churches and voluntary associations of all kinds helped the family with its task and introduced the individual to the larger society. Robert Putnam’s now famous Bowling Alone captures the decay of these institutions — at the same time as the state and its bureaucracy has ballooned, giving people the message, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll look after all that for you,” whether its sex education of the young or support of the aged.

The remedy for this situation therefore is not the “delegation” of powers by the state, as The Economist suggests – as though they belonged to the higher authority by right and could be shared at its discretion – but the relinquishing of powers that it should not have had in the first place. According to the principle of subsidiarity, a central authority should do only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. People who understand that they have real authority regarding their children’s education, for example, are going to be a whole lot more engaged with their society than if it were all determined by the state or central government.

Certainly we need government to do the more complex tasks of a state or nation, such as protecting its citizens from aggressors and crime, providing national transport and communication systems, providing a social safety net, and dealing with the international community on matters such as trade and defence. But a dictatorship could do all that quite effectively. If we want flourishing democracies governments must see their first task as protecting the space in which individuals can become self-governing in a truly virtuous sense. And that means, first of all, giving much more credit to the family.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet