Irrational Choice in Democracy

Is there a problem with democracy today? Is it lack of information and participation? Or is there something more fundamental amiss in politics today? Looking at the proposal to excise Australia from Australia, and the state of the American presidential campaign, I considered that perhaps the system is not broken, but instead we have stopped asking it to do what it was intended to.

When we encounter things that feel ‘wrong’, often our first thought not about the best solution but rather how to get rid of that feeling as quickly as possible. We all face a strange kind of urgency in the face of problems. We want thing to be better, and fast. However, there is a third aspect which we often overlook – convenience. This convenience often comes in the form of simply throwing the problem at someone else, and upon convincing ourselves that it will be dealt with, promptly rid ourselves the inconvenience of giving the situation any actual thought.

This leaves us susceptible to the wild promises of embellished political rhetoric; without thinking much about what we want, or why there is a problem in the first place, we jump at the chance to throw the problem at whoever will take it. More often than not, that someone is a charismatic politician who seems to understand your problems, and holds all the solutions. They need not have a particularly clear idea of the solution, since we need simply to convinced that a solution exists in some form, and that it will be found. The details of the end outcome is of little relevance to those of us who want simply to feel validated in making the ‘right choice’ – the feel-good choice of getting something ‘done’ – without the need to exert ourselves to any actual critical analysis. The recent issue regarding excising mainland Australia from the migration zone is just another perfect example of this in our country’s strange xenophobic asylum seeker saga.

Upon passing voting age, I committed myself to keeping up to date with Australian politics, such that I would be able to make the best informed decision at the next election – as a model citizen should. However, I found myself greatly perplexed by the kind of xenophobic political rhetoric being parroted by both sides of parliament regarding the asylum seeker issue, which apparently is a ‘big issue’ for voters. What does it even mean to save more lives by deterring sea passage to Australia? Saving lives has become a strange kind of euphemism for sweeping the problem under the rug. I often found myself reading opinion articles with compelling arguments for why the boat people issue, really more of a “non-issue”, and should any problem really exist, it was most definitely not what both parties has thus far been presenting. Yet none of this public opinion has been reflected either party’s policies. It seems no party has the confidence to actually define  and admit to the choice we face.

It seems clear that Australian people want one of two things, more efficient and fair processing of asylum seekers in line with human rights conventions or no asylum seekers entering at all. Yet no one will admit to wanting either thing, and debate centres around which is the ‘right’ or ‘justified’ thing. There are some of us who let ourselves succumb to the misleading populist caricature of illegal boat people being the root of all problems, and by ‘STOPPING THE BOATS’ we rid ourselves of unemployment, dependence on our mining sector, and whatever problems our politicians have attached to these sea-born fugitives. But of course, not wanting to feel like terrible people, we let ourselves believe that “The government is committed to … giving people better options than risking their lives at sea,” as expressed by immigration minister Chris Bowen.

Then, there are those of us who in response to the implicit disregard of human rights, argue vehemently against boat stopping solving any of the attached problems. We let ourselves, once again, get bogged down in the mechanics of achieving uncertain future results, and neglect to express clearly that we care about the rights of these people, boat person or not. We neglect to say that we care about these people even if stopping them could, in whatever measure, alleviate some of our first world problems. Only by saying so can we move on from the farcical debate about whether or not stopping the boats is the better option, and actually ask, as Waleed Aly does in his Age opinion article “Shattering the facade of kindness”, to what ends exactly is this the better option – our convenience, or the lives of the asylum seekers we purport to care about?

Moreover, the intricate details of policy, which dominate our political discourse today, are frankly quite boring. Who am I to decide whether one form of tax is better than another at reducing carbon emissions? Sure, I could flip open my economics textbook and read all about consumer preferences, elasticities, and the cost curves, and carefully weigh up the cost and benefits and come to an informed decision about which party has the ‘better’ policy. Even then, I am unlikely to have the time or expertise to give the data and facts the analysis they require. However, all that seems like a great waste of time, when I know, regardless of which policy is more effective, that I want a carbon neutral future.  I would much rather leave the little details to the thousands of government workers my parents’ taxes fund.

It has often been of wonder to me, why democracy has always been sold by the west as the best, one-size-fits-all, form of government. Leaving aside the neo-imperialist conspiracies and anarchist tendencies, the main argument one often hears is that democracy is the fairest, and most representative form of government. The argument often then follows that given it is a representative government, it will implement the policies most representative of what the people want, and given people want good things, good things will be delivered. The only problem with that line of thinking is that often people have given very little thought to what exactly they want. As a citizen of a war-torn country, I would find it surprising if you had much time to consider how you would like your country to be run, or form an opinion on more delicate matters of human rights, international relations and the like. You would probably want simply to have a livelihood as soon as possible. It seems strange then that we expect these people to make informed, rational choices based on some assumed knowledge rather than emotions of despair and desperation for change. Even in Australia, hardly any of us give politics any real consideration beyond who promises us the most things and the least tax; and we are only faced with contrived first world problems – hardly comparable to war or famine.

In response to the dysfunctions of democracy, people often prattle on about the problems of lack of participation, or corrupt election processes. While these may be problems in the execution of democracy, they have in my opinion little to do with the underlying problem that people do not have a clear idea what they want, and therefore what they are voting for. The whole campaign process of the US presidential elections seems to be a prime example of this. Mitt Romney’s campaign is largely based on the idea that people want someone with ‘proven’ corporate credentials running the country, not the comparatively ineffective Obama. Yet in all this fierce political debate about who is most suited to steering the US back to ‘greatness’, I have come across little to no discussion about what it is this American ‘greatness’ is.

In a recent Time magazine article ‘New Culture War over Fairness,’ Jonathan Haidt writes about the comparative effectiveness on the Democrat and Republican solutions to “restore basic fairness and revive the American Dream.” He argues that both offer viable and true solutions for restoring fairness despite advocating polar opposite tax reforms. The reason for the disparity of ‘truthful’ solutions being that each party has a different idea of fairness; the democrats favour “procedural fairness” while the republicans want “proportionality.” Despite this glaring difference in proposed outcomes, the campaign debate has often been reduced down to superficial scare campaigns of the imagined unfairness the opposing candidate will enact if elected, when clearly one system could never achieve both ‘fair’ outcomes.

As such, political debate has become a strange comparison of which orange is better at being an apple, or which apple is better at being an orange, with no discussion of whether the people prefer apples or oranges. Knowing this, politicians campaign on the strange basis of being the better picker of both fruits, in this case ambiguously labeled ‘fair fruit.’ It is little wonder then, that what results is the kind of confused, superficial, finger pointing politics which plagues us today. How can politicians represent what we want, when we give so little thought to what it is we actually want and ask them simply to deliver? It is as though we are given a choice between a hundred different high-tech fruit picking machines, and having been convinced by the better sales person to invest in one policy over another, we wait expectantly for the end of the season only to realise we actually wanted ‘procedural apples’ not ‘proportionate oranges’.

Perhaps it is time we stopped arguing about who or what is the better fruit picker, and start telling politicians which fruit we actually want to eat.

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