6.3.8 The Ideal Political System?
There is no ideal political system that would work well everywhere: no system is perfect, and societies face different circumstances
It is tempting to argue that there should be a single best way of governing a society. William Godwin, in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, vol. 1, 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.” (Book III, chap. VII)
That assertion is a prime example of progressivism, as defined earlier (6.2.5). Progressives believe that politicians can and should improve people’s lives by making political interventions.
Michael Oakeshott expressed the contrasting conservative viewpoint (6.2.4). He challenged Godwin’s assertion in his essay Rationalism in Politics, describing him as “an intrepid Rationalist” and arguing that “the politics of Rationalism are the politics of the politically inexperienced” (p. 23). He argued for pragmatism, based upon experience of what works.
Oakeshott’s argument draws attention to one reason why there can never be an ideal political system. As societies have different cultures and face different circumstances, there is no basis for supposing that there is, or ever will be, a single perfect answer to the question of how a country should best be governed.
Another issue is that both authoritarian and democratic systems have structural weaknesses as well as some strengths – as described previously:
● Authoritarian systems can deliver stability, but they can also be repressive (6.3.1).
● Democracies allow people to choose who governs them, but there are the practical problems of imperfect representation, short-termism, and open confrontations (6.3.2).
Francis Fukuyama nonetheless thought that he had found the perfect system, as described in his essay Have We Reached the End of History?:
“the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. (p. 2)
He amplified the point in his book, The End of History and the Last Man, as described in the review Happily ever after. When he reviewed his work in an interview, ten years later, he still maintained that democracy would eventually triumph (although he retracted his idea that ‘history would come to an end’ – acknowledging that progress in science would continue to change societies).
Isaiah Berlin, as reviewed by Michael Ignatieff, showed a sense of realism that contradicts Fukuyama’s facile utopianism:
Berlin “frequently quoted Herzen’s remark that “history has no libretto” … liberal democracy might not advance, but in fact recede; that in many countries, liberal democracy might not be workable at all. This bleak historical realism has proved more prescient than Francis Fukuyama’s claim after 1989 that liberal democracy had proved itself to be, at last, history’s destiny”.
However attractive democracy might be, when working well, it may be an unattainable vision for some countries if there is no practical route to implementing it without bloodshed and prolonged instability. As described earlier, Russia had a disastrous experience of democracy under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s (18.104.22.168), and China has a justifiable fear of revolutions (22.214.171.124). And attempts to impose democracy from outside a country have proved disastrous in practice (126.96.36.199).
Responsiveness to public opinion is a mixed blessing in today’s world. Misinformation circulates rapidly on Internet social media, and it can be deliberately manipulated by a country’s enemies (188.8.131.52). Authoritarian government by professional officials is less vulnerable to being misled.
There are logical flaws in Fukuyama’s argument that Western liberal democracy is the ideal political system. He had 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 “desire for recognition”. The first of these arguments can be refuted simply by looking at China, which has allowed the forces of economic supply and demand to have almost free rein whilst retaining its authoritarian political system.
It is harder to refute his second argument, where he argues that having a vote is a basic form of recognition that only democracies can supply. Recognition in this sense of the word, though, can be given by any government that visibly responds to people’s wishes – and the differences between political systems are not necessarily as great as they appear to be in their degree of responsiveness. It might seem obvious that democracies are more responsive than authoritarian systems – but that isn’t always true in practice:
● Having a vote does not necessarily result in people’s voices being heard. Minority views might never emerge, especially if the voting system is ‘first-past-the-post’ (184.108.40.206), and recent outbreaks of populism indicate voter dissatisfaction in many democracies (220.127.116.11).
● Authoritarian governments must govern well enough to keep control (18.104.22.168). They are comparatively immune to public opinion in the short-term, but they need to be sufficiently acceptable to avoid a revolution.
● All governments include elements of both democracy and authoritarianism. A British government, for example, can have almost dictatorial powers if it has a substantial Parliamentary majority – although it can be democratically removed at the end of its term of office if the population dislikes its performance.
Politicians need the support of the population in any system, but no method of appointing them can guarantee that they will respond to people’s wishes and needs. As summarised towards the end of this chapter, responsiveness depends upon how effectively people can influence politicians (6.8.3), political negotiability (6.8.4), and the measures in place to ensure that politicians perform well (6.8.5).
This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books. An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/638b.htm.