Aber and the World: How much democracy is too much democracy?

YOU’RE going to agree with me this time, I can tell. Of course you’re going to agree with me, because I’m going to talk about democracy and how there’s entirely too much of it around. I bet you’re nodding already.

Voltaire once quipped that “the supreme form of government is a benevolent dictatorship tempered by the occasional assassination”, and I make it a rule to avoid disagreeing with anyone so famous that they only have one name. (This is, incidentally, how Madonna got me involved in Kabbalah). It seems unlikely that this witty Frenchman was looking so far down the line that he had anticipated both Student Union and Police and Crime Commissioner elections, but his wise words have certainly been with me recently, in speculative moments, when I wish that people would stop trying to make me engage, and would just decide things on my behalf.

This attitude will seem horrendously apathetic to some, because it is, and to others it will seem totally natural, because it’s that as well. I should probably get something straight right now; I’m basically on-side with the idea of voting for the leaders of the country. Even as a purely symbolic and arbitrary process, it’s important that we retain that right, and yes, lots of people suffered to secure it. It’s when we decide to apply the same process to the appointment of other, lesser positions that I wonder if this democracy business shouldn’t be in some way contained, to prevent its worst excesses from curbing the effectiveness of smaller but nonetheless significant institutions.

The national example de jour is the aforementioned PCC election, an episode which worryingly suggests that the thing the police have been missing all this time has been input from us. Blimey. I barely know enough about the law to stay on the right side of it – I’m not sure they should be asking my opinion, and I don’t really trust yours either.

There’s more to it than that, obviously; the police are keen to demonstrate that they are responsive to the desires of the general public, that there’s an independent mind within their ranks who represents us and communicates our needs. This is understandable, at a time when the police are under so much fire for a lack of transparency, although, perhaps it would be simpler to stop with all the cover-ups…

The other example, a little closer to home, is this month’s round of Student Union elections. Now, given that I’m that insufferable sort of person who assembles his opinions from a few minutes of light Googling and then publishes them, am I more or less informed than the average student? Well, it turns out that I’m actually pretty average (I Googled it), so it’s safe to assume that I’m representative of the typical malaise-struck student who doesn’t have any strong feelings regarding who should be, for example, the ‘Mature Student Officer’.

I probably won’t vote at all, which puts me in the 75% majority of students who won’t go out and tick some boxes for the sake of exercising their democratic right. Is it really just laziness? Or do we all secretly think that we don’t need an ‘International Students Officer’? Well, neither. I think, and I think you think, so we think, that someone else should be deciding this stuff. Someone who knows what they’re talking about, and who has enough experience to make a decision sensibly. I’m being frivolous of course because I don’t take these roles, or the Union itself, very seriously. However, the Union is a big and an expensive entity, and while most of the jobs I’m casually mocking are filled by earnest and hard-working volunteers, the top jobs, the full time positions, obviously come with a salary. This is where I start to get really confused.

Here’s why – you’ve heard how computer technology giant Apple chooses its senior management by getting all its employees together and letting them decide who seems like the biggest dude? No you haven’t, because they obviously don’t do that. They have interviews where a very small group of people, who explicitly understand what the job entails, question potential employees and make an informed decision based on the responses, while also taking into account the candidates previous experience and the references of other small groups of well-informed people.

This system couldn’t be called democratic. It doesn’t want to be called democratic. It’s got the edge on democracy- it works.

I’m going to take this opportunity to reiterate, before I get added to a Secret Service blacklist, that I still think we should vote for our Prime Ministers. Voting, in that context, is roughly the right way to go about it. I don’t approve of the exact way we go about it, which sometimes breaks and turns out Governments that literally nobody wanted, but the essence of it appeals. However, when you’re giving someone a job, you need to be sure that they have a particular set of skills and, when possible, you should prove that set of skills against their experience. This is the only way you stand a good chance of finding one person among your candidates who has the edge on the others.

This is the part where those who don’t agree with me might argue that we do interview our prospective officials, in a sense, via the process of campaign and debate. The only way I can reply to this argument is take us back to the voter participation statistics: if you were being interviewed for a job, and only 15-25% of the interviewers were listening to you, you probably wouldn’t start ordering business cards.