6.3.8 The Ideal Political System?
It has been argued that there must be an ideal political system, but that ignores the reality of different cultures and situations. Some of the arguments and counterarguments are listed below.
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)
Michael Oakeshott challenged this assertion in his essay Rationalism in Politics, describing Godwin 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.
Francis Fukuyama also believed in a single best political 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).
Fukuyama 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. It might seem obvious that democracies are more responsive than authoritarian systems – but that isn’t always true. The differences between political systems are not necessarily as great as they appear to be:
● 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 are comparatively immune to public opinion in the short-term – but their survival depends upon their overall political legitimacy. They have to be sufficiently acceptable to avoid a revolution (18.104.22.168).
● 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 people 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) and negotiate (6.8.4) with them.
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 and circumstances. All political systems have weaknesses. Whilst it might sound reasonable to Western ears to argue that everyone wants to be free, authoritarian political systems can justify themselves on a Utilitarian basis by offering peace and stability: avoiding the open confrontations and the short-termism associated with democracy. And 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 (22.214.171.124), and China has a justifiable fear of revolutions (126.96.36.199).
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/edition04/638.htm.