6.3.8  The Ideal Political System?                              

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/638.htm)

William Godwin wrote:

“There must in the nature of things be one best form of government, which all intellects, sufficiently roused from the slumber of savage ignorance, will be irresistibly incited to approve.” [1]

This statement might appear to be reasonable on a first reading, but it ignores the complexities of real societies with people’s different circumstances and traditions.[2]  Francis Fukuyama went further and, in his book The End of History and the Last Man, identified what the “one best form of government” should be:

“the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.[3]

When he reviewed his work, ten years later,[4] he stood by this comment (though he retracted his idea that ‘history would come to an end’ – acknowledging that progress in science would continue to change societies).  He justified his position on two bases: (a) that prosperity depends upon market economies, which he associated exclusively with liberal democracy; and (b) that only democracy satisfies a deeply felt human need for recognition.  Both these statements are questionable:

·      China, for example, has allowed the forces of economic supply and demand to have almost free rein whilst retaining its authoritarian political system.

·      In theory, a one-party State which is based on shared values can accord equal recognition to all citizens (6.3.1.2).

It is argued here that the apparent differences in the responsiveness of different systems are not as great as they appear to be:

·      Politicians’ need for votes gives them an incentive to be responsive in a democracy, but the vote alone does not give them enough information to understand what the people want (6.3.2.2). 

·      It might be thought that self-appointed authoritarian governments might be unresponsive, but they want to retain power so they have an incentive to respond informally to what they perceive to be the people’s wishes (6.3.1.7).  They are comparatively immune to public opinion in the short-term – but their survival depends upon their internal political legitimacy.  They have to be sufficiently acceptable to avoid a revolution. 

Politicians need the support of the people in any system, and in practice no method of appointing them is sufficient per se to guarantee responsiveness to people’s needs.  As described later, responsiveness also depends upon the effectiveness of the mechanisms available for people to put pressure on politicians (6.4.1), to participate in consultation (6.5.3) and to negotiate (6.8.4) with politicians. 

Either style of political system can put minorities at a disadvantage, but most human rights can be protected in any political system (6.3.7).  Responsiveness depends more on individual behaviour than upon governance structures, so it is also possible in any system. 

Democracies clearly offer people a say in who governs them.  There are many democracies which have demonstrated the ability to change their leaders every few years without losing stability, so people have some sense of control over their governments – but that alone is not sufficient to ensure good governance. 

In summary, Western liberal democracy may be an attractive mechanism for encouraging economic growth and human rights, but other systems might also be able to deliver these benefits.  Authoritarian governments which try to retain power through repression of dissent are failing their populations in several of the requirements for good governance – but some democracies also fail to meet some of these criteria.  Fukuyama’s "Western liberal democracy" isn’t just a simple formula that can be applied to any society, and there is no "one best form of government" that would suit all societies at the present time.  It must be regarded as highly unlikely that there will ever be worldwide uniformity in how people are governed.  Societies have to make a pragmatic assessment of what works with their cultural background in their current circumstances.

There is evidence of people’s dissatisfaction with politicians in very different political systems:

·      There is a low turnout in many democratic elections.[5]

·      There have been protests against several democratically-elected governments, for example during the 2011 Eurozone crisis.[6]

·      Some authoritarian governments which lacked acceptability have been overthrown; the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ provided examples.[7]

And any system can become dysfunctional if people aren’t vigilant or if individual politicians perform poorly (6.3.3).  The topics of transparency (6.8.5.1) and accountability (6.8.5.2) are examined later.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 



[1] William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, vol. 1.  Book III, Chap. VII, was available in May 2014 at http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/90/40289/684843.

[2] Michael Oakeshott quoted the above excerpt from William Godwin (whom he described as an “intrepid Rationalist”) in his essay Rationalism in Politics, which appeared in the book of the same name.  The essay categorises the use of reason as merely theoretical or "technical knowledge" which can be learned from books, whereas proficiency in political decision-making, as in cooking, also requires "practical knowledge" (pp. 6-8).  He argued that "the politics of Rationalism are the politics of the politically inexperienced" (p. 23).

[3] Francis Fukuyama argued for the superiority of Western liberal democracy in an essay entitled The End of History?, p. 2, which was available in May 2014 at http://bev.berkeley.edu/ipe/readings/Fukuyma%20(corrected).rtf.

He amplified the point in his book The End of History and the Last Man.

[4] Fukuyama revisited his thinking in an article published by National Affairs in 1999; the text was available in May 2014 at http://bev.berkeley.edu/fp/readings/Fukuyama.htm.

[5] In an article entitled Voter Turnout, the FairVote web-site drew attention to very low turnout in some American elections, put forward possible reasons for this and proposed remedies.  It was available in May 2014 at http://www.fairvote.org/voter-turnout#.TxlMe6VgKf4.

[6] The Economist noted that “There were also large protests in many European countries, including Britain, Portugal and Spain, in response to austerity” in its summary of The world this year, which was published on 17 December 2011 and was available in May 2014 at http://www.economist.com/node/21541870.

[7] A brief overview of the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ was included in the above summary.