Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A sinner repenteth?

It seems that Jon Worth is having a crisis of faith, engendered by a dose of harsh reality.
What do you do when one of the fundamental things you’ve believed in for years, have spent ages working towards, is actually not anywhere near as desirable as you previously thought?

Why, rethink your position, of course.
The old federalist argument, repeated ad infinitum at Ventotene, drawing on Spinelli’s manifesto, is that the nation state is broken and only supranational democratic structures in Europe (a European federation) can fix it.

This is the essentially the same argument that Nosemonkey has used in my discussions with him (over many years now).
That’s all very well if your systems of representative democracy work OK, but what if they don’t? What if political parties are tired and hollowed out, and beholden to narrow interests and are in awe of the power of the markets? With election turnouts decreasing? With messy multi-party compromises, and leaders ready to ditch the few principles they once had? Why should we expect leadership to be any more enlightened at EU level than is the case nationally just now?

The main problem with this idea is that those who are leading the European Union (and other supranational organisations) are those same people who are elected by this tired, worn-out and ultimately corrupt democracy that Jon has decried above.
Make the EU a representative democracy in the classical sense (government contingent on a majority in parliament, executive proposes legislation that the legislature approves and amends, parties run in elections etc.) tomorrow, and we’re just going to replicate all the disfunction on a continent wide scale.

Actually, what Jon has described there is not "classical democracy"—it is representative democracy. And representative democracy is part of the problem.

Because the problem is disengagement—people don't bother voting because they don't believe that it will make any difference. "They're all the same"; "whoever you vote for the government always gets in"—these sentiments are common-place in the British electorate, at least.

And, as Jon also points out, "the illegitimate technocracy of the past that has lacked citizen involvement and democratic control" is not the answer either: first, because technocratic planners are never as good at planning as they think they are and, second, because people feel even more disenfranchised (and that usually ends with blood in the streets).

My objection—put to both Nosemonkey and Jon (over a pint or two)—have always, actually, been much the same as those raised above, i.e. if nation states' governments are tired and corrupt, how does a supranational government differ? And, of course, quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

For what it is worth, I have argued for a long time that national governments are too centralised—hence the electorate's feeling of powerlessness and thus inevitable disengagement.

My argument is that there this centralised model should be replaced by far smaller, more local units of government—with far more power (especially as regards tax-raising) than our local authorities currently have.

The electorate would be able to see the changes that they have voted for—for better or for worse—much more immediately and, as such, would be far more inclined to vote and otherwise engage with the political process.

So, having identified the problems that Jon did, my answer was smaller, more local democracy—not bigger, more remote, supranational governments. And, if those issues that transcend borders are so important—pollution or, if you enjoy that particular scientific perversion, climate change—are so important, then countries can get together to make international treaties (which is more or less how the EU operates anyway).

The difference is that the West is becoming more and more irrelevant in these debates, and increasingly we are hamstrung in these deals by the EU.

Time for a change!


Jon Worth said...

A very fair post DK, and - broadly - on decentralisation I agree with you. I am most definitely not of one entrenched view as to what power needs to be wielded at whichever level.

There is one issue I have with your post though - while I may bemoan many of the EU's failings, in comparison to any other international organisation (OECD, NATO, UN, G20 - take your pick) it's actually quite functional. The fact its decisions are legally binding means some things get done, and majority voting means it doesn't go at the speed of the slowest. That's vastly preferable to the intergovernmental solutions you sketch out.

Hollando said...


The EU more functional than NATO??

The others, fair enough, but NATO is probably the single most important post war organisation, and until recently had a solid reputation.

Michael Fowke said...

I'm not very optimistic. Things will just get worse until we have one world government by lizards or something.

RobH said...

I think that trying to cure the government problem by varying the degree of democracy in local/national/supranational bodies is doomed to failure. As the problem is too much government, then where it is applied, and how many people agree to it, do not fundamentally affect the outcome. There is a strong argument for distant government, with a reduced ability to project their power to the local level and interfere with our lives. Busybodies are a pain in the ass at all levels.

Also, democracy causes a vicious circle where increased socialism causes more interference, causing more nanny propaganda, corrupting the the media, causing ignorance among the voters, causing more stupid leaders to be elected.

The only answer is to limit what the government is allowed to do.

blingmun said...

Re local units of government. How about devolving power to counties? People still identify themselves with counties (esp. if you regard London as an exceptionally large de-facto county). This in spite of decades of effort of the part of the political elites to stamp them out.

blindcyclists said...

Trying to fix national government by having a supranational government is like buying a torch because your lightbulb is broken.

Lola said...


The EU is not 'more' functional than the other supranational organisations you name. What it may be is slightly less dysfunctional than they are. That is they are all wildly dysfunctional and need rapidly shutting down.

NATO has though, worked quite well.

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