In one of those “suddenly everyone gives a damn about Egypt” pieces, David Aaronovitch (£) says that scepticism about democracy “dovetails into the aggressive apologia that undemocratic regimes invent for themselves.” This is silly.
Those of us who are sceptical about democracy do not deny that democracy is superior to dictatorship - not least because, As David says, democracy is intrinsically good even if its consequences leave something to be desired.
Instead, our concern is that there are trade-offs between democracy and other values such as liberty or justice. These trade-offs are not a big problem in benighted nations, as these are so far from the efficient frontier of values that they can (possibly) achieve more of every one. But they are more pressing in liberal democracies.
And herein lies my beef with the so-called decent left. For me - and I’ll grant this might be just a personal idiosyncrasy - the issue is not one of liberal democracy versus dictatorship. Arguing that the former is superior is like me saying I’m a better guitarist than Abu Hamza. It is uninterestingly true, because our standards should be much higher,
Instead, there are two more interesting questions. One is: are there ways of improving existing democratic institutions? In particular, can we mobilize the local knowledge of people, rather than their mere irrationalities and prejudices?
My hunch is that this might be possible - be it through more associative or deliberative democracy such as citizens’ juries; through demand-revealing referenda (making people pay is a way of making them think); or perhaps through efforts to wise people up to their cognitive biases.
The second question is: why are there trade-offs between democracy and other values? Could it be that it is (partly) because cognitive biases and adaptive preferences help to entrench support for inequality.
The problem is that empty sloganeering about the value of democracy, in effect, functions to deflect attention away from these questions. In doing so it helps to entrench an imperfect - and, I would stress, inegalitarian - quasi-democracy.