Democracy

Sri Lanka LG Polls: Would USD 27.2 million(Rs 10 Billion) address fundamental questions relating to democracy?

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The following passage from Britannica is a good commencement point to discuss the much debated Local Government poll in Sri Lanka. Conducting the election is said to cost around 10 Billion Rupees of State funds, assuming such funds are available to spend in the bankrupt Sri Lanka. Besides State money, individual candidate spending would be substantial. Two serious questions need to be asked. Firstly, whether the country could afford such an extravagance at this point. Secondly, the current political system being what it is, what benefit such an election would provide to a bankrupt country and an increasing number of people already in poverty and others who are on the verge of poverty. 

Democracy as defined in the Britannica, “is literally, rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek dēmokratia, which was coined from dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”) in the middle of the 5th century BCE to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens.

The Britannica goes onto say “etymological origins of the term democracy hint at a number of urgent problems that go far beyond semantic issues. If a government of or by the people—a “popular” government—is to be established, at least five fundamental questions must be confronted at the outset, and two more are almost certain to be posed if the democracy continues to exist for long.

(1) What is the appropriate unit or association within which a democratic government should be established? A town or city? A country? A business corporation? A university? An international organization? All of these?

(2) Given an appropriate association—a city, for example—who among its members should enjoy full citizenship? Which persons, in other words, should constitute the dēmos? Is every member of the association entitled to participate in governing it? Assuming that children should not be allowed to participate (as most adults would agree), should the dēmos include all adults? If it includes only a subset of the adult population, how small can the subset be before the association ceases to be a democracy and becomes something else, such as an aristocracy (government by the best, aristos) or an oligarchy (government by the few, oligos)?

(3) Assuming a proper association and a proper dēmos, how are citizens to govern? What political organizations or institutions will they need? Will these institutions differ between different kinds of associations—for example, a small town and a large country?

(4) When citizens are divided on an issue, as they often will be, whose views should prevail, and in what circumstances? Should a majority always prevail, or should minorities sometimes be empowered to block or overcome majority rule?

(5) If a majority is ordinarily to prevail, what is to constitute a proper majority? A majority of all citizens? A majority of voters? Should a proper majority comprise not individual citizens but certain groups or associations of citizens, such as hereditary groups or territorial associations?

(6) The preceding questions presuppose an adequate answer to a sixth and even more important question: Why should “the people” rule? Is democracy really better than aristocracy or monarchy? Perhaps, as Plato argues in the Republic, the best government would be led by a minority of the most highly qualified persons—an aristocracy of “philosopher-kings.” What reasons could be given to show that Plato’s view is wrong?

(7) No association could maintain a democratic government for very long if a majority of the dēmos—or a majority of the government—believed that some other form of government were better. Thus, a minimum condition for the continued existence of a democracy is that a substantial proportion of both the dēmos and the leadership believes that popular government is better than any feasible alternative. What conditions, in addition to this one, favour the continued existence of democracy? What conditions are harmful to it? Why have some democracies managed to endure, even though periods of severe crisis, while so many others have collapsed

These questions, and answers to them by the readers themselves will be quite relevant to the LG poll which is to be conducted at this enormous cost. Perhaps the poll could be considered from two key aspects

Firstly, is it the appropriate time to spend Rs 10 billion on the election, when

  1. The country is bankrupt with the forecast for 2023 even worse than the situation in 2022
  2. Would not the 10 billion rupees meet many other critical needs for people who are in poverty and on the verge of it?
  3. Will the local government poll result in a change to the National Parliament, and the effectiveness or otherwise of the national parliament? What power or authority do LG institutions have from a national perspective?
  4. How much would LG politicians be able to do for their constituencies at this stage if the entire country is bankrupt?
  5. Is it not best for the country for a national government to govern the country at this stage rather than spend Rs 10 Billion for a LG poll which will not address the issues that bankruptcy has befallen on the country?

Secondly, in relation to the questions posed in the Britannica

(1) What is the appropriate unit or association within which a democratic government should be established? A town or city? A country? A business corporation? A university? An international organization? All of these?

This has not been addressed and the structure/s of democratic government that establishes and makes good the adage of “a government by the people, for the people” has not materialised. A question must be posed whether the country should have more of the same or whether it should have a discussion on what type of a democratic structure is needed in order to make the masters, the people, dictating to the elected representatives and not the other way around. One has to question whether the best brains of the country are part of the policy making process or whether they are bi standers in a process managed by politicians who think they have brains.

Democracy “is literally, rule by the people.

(2) Given an appropriate association—a city, for example—who among its members should enjoy full citizenship? Which persons, in other words, should constitute the dēmos?

Is every member of the association entitled to participate in governing it?  Assuming that children should not be allowed to participate (as most adults would agree), should the dēmos include all adults? If it includes only a subset of the adult population, how small can the subset be before the association ceases to be a democracy and becomes something else, such as an aristocracy (government by the best, aristos) or an oligarchy (government by the few, oligos)?

There is a strong case to be made for universal franchise and for all citizens above a given age to be entitled to vote, rather than an aristocracy or an oligarchy. The question of what is “best” of course is very subjective while in fact, the “few” in fact is a reality in Sri Lanka considering that family politics has been the main stay of political power and governance in the country. The challenge is to have a system that is neither an aristocracy or an oligarchy, even by any other name, but a system that provides a wider collection of professional, academic, civil society organisations, unions, women’s organisations to participate in policy making, while policy administration should be entrusted to efficient and effective administrators and not politicians.

(3) Assuming a proper association and a proper dēmos, how are citizens to govern? What political organizations or institutions will they need? Will these institutions differ between different kinds of associations—for example, a small town and a large country?

As touched on earlier, this question is an extremely critical one relating to what democracy is and should be. How do people govern? Is it only by exercising their franchise once in so many years? What mechanisms should be there for people to have a say in governance, and chart their destiny and that of the country? If family power, influence and money results in personalities  being voted in rather than their policies or the policies of the political party’s they belong to, in effect, people will not have any input or a say in governance.

(4) When citizens are divided on an issue, as they often will be, whose views should prevail, and in what circumstances? Should a majority always prevail, or should minorities sometimes be empowered to block or overcome majority rule?

This is probably one of the most contentious issues from a Sri Lankan context and the long standing and ongoing ethnic issue, and which has a direct relevance to this question. The question of all citizens agreeing on all issues is an impossibility and is a highly impractical proposition and majority decision making, with whatever its shortcomings, is a realistic option. However, in Sri Lanka, the majority/minority composition has ethno-religious dimensions, with the minorities, primarily Tamils, but Muslims as well, feeling subjugated by a Sinhala Buddhist majority. It is this numerical strength rather than what is right and fair for all people, from within the majority or the minority, that has dictated how the country is governed. In this context, majority rule has not delivered fairness, justice, and equality for all people, and therefore needs minority empowerment to block and even overcome majority rule when situations demand it. Majority/minority rule issues would become less important  if there is better communication between people, and they understand each other better and they trust each other more.

(5) If a majority is ordinarily to prevail, what is to constitute a proper majority? A majority of all citizens? A majority of voters? Should a proper majority comprise not individual citizens but certain groups or associations of citizens, such as hereditary groups or territorial associations?

Another very valid question. In some countries, the USA being one, the average voter turnout at Presidential elections is less than 60%. If an individual gets 50 % of that 60%, plus one more vote, that person could potentially become the President of the country. One could argue that the other 50% who voted have opposed that candidate. In effect, a candidate becomes the President of the US with 30% of the eligible vote

In Sri Lanka, whether it is at Presidential elections or Parliamentary elections, the voter turn out is greater, perhaps averaging between 55- 70%. However, prior to the introduction of the district based proportional representation system, in 1970, a government was elected with a 2/3 majority with only 49% of the votes cast, and in 1977, with a 5/6th majority with just over 51% of the vote.

These lopsided election outcomes makes a strong case for a change to the system, and a greater involvement of groups or associations of citizens, such a business associations, academics, unions, women’s groups, other groups such as environmentalist groups, etc to play a more active part in political governance, especially policy development.

It is interesting to note the voter turn out in countries where voting is compulsory. For example in Australia, it is in excess of 95%

(6) The preceding questions presuppose an adequate answer to a sixth and even more important question: Why should “the people” rule? Is democracy really better than aristocracy or monarchy? Perhaps, as Plato argues in the Republic, the best government would be led by a minority of the most highly qualified persons—an aristocracy of “philosopher-kings.” What reasons could be given to show that Plato’s view is wrong?

This is a debate on fundamentals and probably suited for another occasion!. Two issues in response to what Plato postulated is (a) who will decide who is most “qualified” and what and who would comprise the aristocracy of philosopher- kings (2) would his theory be relevant and/or appropriate in an age of technology and communication access where information could be just a nano second away from each other, as compared to Plato’s time?

(7) No association could maintain a democratic government for very long if a majority of the dēmos—or a majority of the government—believed that some other forms of government were better. Thus, a minimum condition for the continued existence of a democracy is that a substantial proportion of both the dēmos and the leadership believes that popular government is better than any feasible alternative. What conditions, in addition to this one, favour the continued existence of democracy? What conditions are harmful to it? Why have some democracies managed to endure, even though periods of severe crisis, while so many others have collapsed

The maturity of a democratic governance system, traditions, how such a system fits within an overall framework of governance perhaps matters a lot for the sustainability of a democratic system. It could be argued that diffusion of power as against the concentration of power, particularly in the hands of a few, could encourage the few wielding that power to change the system if they feel their power is ebbing or there is potential for that to happen if pressure builds up to diffuse power. An independent Judiciary, other stakeholders such strong business entities, academic institutions, unions, women’s organisations, civic entities, and as many peoples organisations could act as deterrents to changing a democratic system to more autocratic systems. The democratic governance system in Sri Lanka has been minimally democratic as the demos or peoples component of it has limited themselves to voting in or voting out governments every five years or so. The money, power and acquiring more money symbiotic link has thrived, and it has been used basically to buy votes in one way or another. Policy debates have been confined to a few living rooms.

So, what is or should be the practical alternative to the LG polls? Assuming politicians love the country more than themselves, and considering the deep pit the country is in, a national government with no more than 15 ministers could govern the country under a national economic plan approved by all political parties in Parliament at least for a period of 2 years. During this period, a national political commission could be constituted with wide, nonpartisan political representation to seek the views of the people, political parties and others, to design a new political system for the country. If the existing system is retained, it will produce the same output of substandard politicians, and an ongoing policy vacuum that will lead the country further down the precipice. As Einstein would have said if he was around, Sri Lankans would be mad to expect different outcomes doing the same thing with the same system in place.

The Global Inflationary Tsunami Is Made in the U.S., Not Ukraine

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An inflationary tsunami is passing through the world economy, creating economic disorder—in some cases acute political crisis—in every country it touches. This is gathering momentum as the U.S., which is leading other Global North economies, attempts to control inflation by rapidly raising interest rates—forcing the Global North economies into recession.

The Global South economies have been thereby struck by a quadruple whammy producing still more severe stagflation, rising inflation, and slowing growth than in the Global North. First, rising U.S. interest rates force up the dollar’s exchange rate against the currencies of developing countries, increasing import prices that are usually set in dollars, thereby worsening inflation for these developing countries. Second, the dollar’s climb against the currencies of developing countries increases the cost in their currencies of repaying international debts, which are dollar-priced. Third, to attempt to prevent a very sharp fall in their exchange rates, and to try to prevent capital from flowing out of their economies into the U.S., the Global South countries raise interest rates—pushing their economies toward recession. Fourth, the Global North’s recession lowers the demand for Global South exports, putting further downward pressure on their economies.

Politically, this situation creates crises for several right-wing regimes in the Global South, but also adds negative pressure on the policies of progressive left governments and leads to the threat of “color revolutions.”

U.S. Inflation

The U.S. claims that this global inflation, and the downward pressure on living standards it creates, is due to the Ukraine war—and that therefore, countries should blame and unite against Russia. But a brief look at the facts refutes this claim.

The Ukraine war started on February 24, 2022, but U.S. inflation had already been rising sharply for nearly two years before that. U.S. price rises were 0.1 percent in May 2020, but by January 2022, before the Ukraine war, prices had risen to 7.5 percent—U.S. inflation rose by 7.4 percent before the war. In August 2022, U.S. price rises were 8.3 percent, a rise of only 0.8 percent since the war began.

More than 90 percent of the U.S. price rises took place before the Ukraine war. Therefore, it is important to think critically when the U.S. blames Russia for the worldwide inflation and the resulting reduction in living standards. The huge U.S. inflationary wave, which spread globally with only a two- to-three-month delay, since the U.S. is the world’s largest economy, took place before the Ukraine war. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board noted: “This isn’t Putin’s inflation… This inflation was made in Washington.”

What Caused the U.S. Inflation?

It is easy to explain in technical economic terms why U.S. inflation soared—it was analyzed as it occurred by U.S. economists such as former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. In May 2021 Summers warned: “We’re taking very substantial risks on the inflation side… The Fed’s idea used to be that it removed the punchbowl before the party got good… Now, the Fed’s doctrine is that it will only remove the punchbowl after it sees some people staggering around drunk… We are printing money, we are creating government bonds, [and] we are borrowing on unprecedented scales.”

The U.S. budget deficit rose to 26 percent of GDP and the annual increase in U.S. money supply reached 27 percent—both by far the highest in U.S. peacetime history. With a huge surge in demand taking place, and no major increase in supply, soaring U.S. inflation was inevitable.

What Was the Role of Inflation?

But more important than a technical explanation is understanding the social role of inflation. Inflation showed that demand was far higher than supply—putting upward pressure on prices of goods and services. So, with no increase in supply taking place, demand had to be cut back. The key social question was: Which U.S. spending would be cut?

Many U.S. reforms could be implemented by cutting demand and reallocating spending, thereby reducing inflationary pressures, while not reducing U.S. living standards—indeed, these reforms would improve U.S. economic efficiency and living standards. U.S. military expenditure is the highest in the world—more than the military spending by the next nine countries combined. This 3.7 percent of U.S. GDP spending could be reduced with no fall in U.S. living standards.

Equally, in 2020 U.S. expenditure on health care reached 19.7 percent of GDP—almost one-fifth of its economy. But the U.S. private health care system is very inefficient. The U.S. spends a higher proportion on health care as a share of its economy than any other economy in the world, but the U.S. life expectancy is only 77 years, compared to an average of 83 years in other high-income economies. The cost of private health care system in the U.S. comprises a higher proportion of the country’s economy for its citizens to live around six years less than comparable countries.

But reducing U.S. military expenditure, or rationalizing health care, would go against the vested interests of arms manufacturers and Big Pharma in the U.S., respectively. Reducing U.S. military spending would force a lessening of its aggressive overseas military policy. Rationalizing U.S. health care would entail a move toward a public health care system as more successfully used by other countries and would cut profits of big private health care corporations. The U.S. government’s vested interests in supporting arms manufacturers and Big Pharma means that no such actions will be taken.

But if no measures are taken against these vested interests, then the only alternative way to reduce spending is to cut working-class living standards. This is what happens during inflation. As John Maynard Keynes explained it is much easier to cut real wages by high inflation than by directly reducing money wages—it is a partially concealed cut and workers cannot negotiate with their employers over inflation levels.

The medium- and long-term inflation is destabilizing and must be controlled—normally in capitalism this is achieved through recession. But short-term inflation is a powerful tool to reduce real wages which is what is happening.

The average U.S. money wages are increasing—in August they rose by 4.6 percent. But prices increased more rapidly—by 8.3 percent during the same period. U.S. real wages therefore fell, as they have every month since April 2021. In August 2022, U.S. real weekly earnings were 3.4 percent lower than a year previously.

But this inflation, which is cutting U.S. workers’ real earnings, spills out into the rest of the world creating a crisis in the Global South. U.S. inflation, therefore, attacks both U.S. workers and the rest of the world.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

United Kingdom: Legal Basis for The Constitutional Monarchy

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Do not be fooled by constitutional theories (the ‘paper  description’)  and  formal  institutional  continuities  (‘connected  outward  sameness’)  – concentrate  instead  on  the  real  centres  of  power  and  the  practical  working  of  the  political system (‘living reality’).  Walter Bagehot (1867)

This article commences with profound appreciation of Her Majesty the late Queen Elizabeth II and her service to the Nation and concludes with every good wish for the reign of His Majesty King Charles III.

At this turning point in the history of the United Kingdom the most fundamental truth and point of clarity is that the King reigns (as head of nation) but does not rule.  This legal profundity is founded on the philosophy of John Locke ( 1632-1704) who propounded the concept of the “Moderate Monarchy” – a new political idea – that infused certain limitations of power on the Monarchy based on the principle that laws should be enacted for the common good of the citizenry.  Having introduced this approach,  Locke advocated residual powers for the sovereign, ascribing discretion to the sovereign to change or amend laws – again for the common good -a practice  now known as the Royal Prerogative. 

It is the Parliament that rules and the King is obliged to follow the advice of Parliament. The King has meetings once a month with his Privy Council – his advisory body – and approves Orders in Council that emanate from the consultations with and advice of The Privy Council.  The King also performs, with the advice of the Parliament,  several key functions such as appointing the Prime Minister and senior judges and  receiving  incoming and outgoing ambassadors. The King also signs State papers which he receives daily and conducts weekly meetings with his Prime Minister as well as other meetings regularly  with senior officials.

Additionally, the Monarch can declare war and peace; sign treaties; dissolve Parliament; confer peerages and knighthoods.

In 1689 co-rulers of England King William III and Queen Mary II signed into law the English Bill of Rights.  For the first time in English history the bill adumbrated explicit constitutional and civic rights and it is believed by many that it was the genesis of the constitutional Monarchy (where the monarch’s discretion is limited) and Parliamentary power over the Monarchy. Arguably, The English Bill of Rights greatly influenced the draughtsmen of the U.S. Bill of Rights. The English Bill of Rights came into being after the ouster of King James II who was largely considered autocratic and was subsequently ousted.  Ineluctably therefore the document identified the misdeeds of James II.  The English Bill of Rights clearly ascribed to the king or queen the exalted position of head of State but circumscribed some of his or her powers which were considered as limited by law. Some of the rights contained and embodied in The English  Bill of Rights were: freedom to elect members of Parliament, without the king or queen’s interference; freedom of speech in Parliament; freedom from royal interference with the law; freedom to petition the king; freedom to bear arms for self-defence; freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail; freedom from taxation by royal prerogative, without the agreement of Parliament; freedom of fines and forfeitures without a trial; freedom from armies being raised during peacetimes. The English  Bill of Rights also prohibited Catholics from becoming the Monarch and required that Parliament be convened regularly.

The Monarchy was obligated to rule under the consent of Parliament, with the recognition that the people had individual rights. Therefore, it would not be incorrect to say that in the  British constitutional Monarchy, the king (or queen)  plays a largely ceremonial role. However, the monarch stands out as the symbol and inspiration of national unity and earns the respect of the local and international community as an apolitical figure.  The famous former editor of The Economist Walter Bagehot described the monarch as the “dignified part of the Constitution”.

At law, there can be no civil or criminal proceedings against the sovereign. It’s par for the course that this exemption notwithstanding, the King or Queen (as the case may be) is careful to act within the bounds of law and tradition. The genesis of this tradition arguably lies in The Magna Carta Liberatum (Great Charter) signed between King John and a group of barons in 1215 laying out the freedoms of individuals.  The document was composed of 63 Articles, one of which said the king must follow the law and could not simply rule as he wished. The Magna Carta stands as the monument of the constitutional history of England.

One of the legacies, and indeed a blessing of the Moderate Monarchy as espoused by John Locke is that between the Monarchy and parliament, these two institutions effectively preclude the infestation of insidious and invidious autocracies in the community. A corollary to the harmonious blending of the two institutions is The Rule of Law.  One of the most significant features of the majesty of the law as the queen of humanities is the elegance of the Rule of Law as the foundation of humanity.  The Rule of Law is the hallmark of democracy.  Regrettably, at the present time, the aspirations people had of equal rights and representation by the people of the people for the people have gradually  eroded into a quagmire of ambivalent populism that is shrouded in mendacious and self-serving casuistry. A whole new phenomenon called illiberal democracy has been identified by the intelligentsia as a definition of this  phenomenon. The hallmark of illiberal democracy is the ignoring by those democratically elected by the people – in many instances those that have been re-elected or reaffirmed through referenda – of constitutional limits on their power, thereby depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedom.

The Rule of Law, which is entrenched in the unwritten British Constitution reflects the quintessence of Constitutional Monarchy. To this end Lard Bingham has attempted a definition of the Rule of Law thus: “all individuals and organizations within the State, whether public or private, are bound by, and entitled to the benefit of laws prospectively promulgated and publicly administered in the courts”.  This definition can be expanded to several corollaries. Laws should be intelligible.  They should not be couched in a plethora of pages in convoluted language and expanded to hundreds of regulations.  Nor should they be orally delivered  through speeches and pronouncements.  Any written amendment to a law should be brought to the attention of the people.  A society should be governed by law and not by discretion granted to or assumed by public officials.  Additionally, they should be equally applied.  To expand further, laws should not favour a particular category of individual.  Past examples are the depravity of slavery, servanthood  and the arbitrarily perceived  inferiority of women in some jurisdictions.

It can be argued that the sustenance of the modern-day British Monarchy and its dignified relationship with the Parliament would continue to ac as a buffer against populism, illiberalism, and autocracy.