On Democracy

And what next for Sri Lanka

“Chaos prevails in Sri Lankan Parliament as leaders hurl chilli powder, furniture” [8]


The Individual (1 Human)

They say “no man is an island” [1]. But suppose you were a man or a woman on a desert island. On one hand, you’d be lonely, facing danger, and trying your best to get off the island. On the other hand, you’d be completely free, and able to do whatever you wanted, and you would make all the “decisions” on the island.

The island (in a trivial sense) would be both a democracy (“A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” [2]), and an autocracy (“A system of government by one person with absolute power.” [2]).

The Family (~10 Humans)

Now suppose you weren’t alone on the island, but were with a small group of people; say about 10; like a family. Would things be different?

There would be some division of labour, based on the skills of the various people. For example, the stronger people would be doing the physical work. Some people (elders, or the “smarter” members of the family) would have greater influence in decisions.

The Tribe (~100 People)

Suppose, now, that your family has grown larger, and there are many families on the island. Everyone still knows everyone, but everything is happening at a greater scale.

The division of labour is more “defined”. There are people in trades, and social stratification is emerging. There are people who have accumulated wealth over time, and these people begin to form a plutocracy (“Government by the wealthy.” [2]). The “smart” people in trades and professions feel their ideas should influence decisions more. They form guilds and other meritocracies (“Government or the holding of power by people selected according to merit.” [2]). Everyone else continues to have some say, and hence the village also has some characteristics of a democracy.

A few people, or perhaps one person might want to gain more power over the tribe. This one person uses a combination of force and influence to achieve this end. He or she might create stories and beliefs to justify his or her aims — for example, that the “Gods want them to be leader of the tribe”. Similarly, the various people favoring plutocracy, meritocracy, and democracy would also put forward their respective arguments, propose new “beliefs”, some of them divine, often putting words in the mouths of gods. ‘

All said, whatever is is “what works”.

The Nation (~1000 People)

Your island has continued to grow. Many tribes have lived and died. The tribes that lived have grown and prospered. Some of them have conjoined to form mega-tribes.

Your mega tribe has over 1000 people. It’s so big that, now, not everyone knows everyone else. There are many people you don’t know, have never seen, and will (probably) never see.

However, you have a connection to these unheard and unseen people. They are all part of your nation (“A large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.” [2]). While you might have nothing in common, at the same time, you have everything in common.

Your nation is united by a common story of how everyone in the nation belongs to it, and how that nation is the greatest, most noble nation in the world. Your nation is also united by common institutions. The tribal guilds are no longer mere functional institutions, but have become part of the nations story. While there are many nations in the world, your nation is the greatest, just as every other nation is the greatest to its people. Different nations are autocracies, plutocracies, meritocracies, and democracies to various extents. Each nation believes that its form of government is the best.

There is a happy convergence of “what works” and “what is right”.

The Emergence of Democracy

Needs, Power and Evolution

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom

What we saw above is an evolution: How individuals become families, how families become tribes, and how tribes become nations. Evolution is defined by the distribution of power. Individuals will promote whatever evolution satisfies their needs. These interests depend on what needs are already satisfied. For example (following Abraham Maslow [3]), an individual would first look to satisfy their basic physiological needs for warmth, air, water, food, shelter, sleep and sex. Next they will try to guarantee their physical safety — physically, emotionally, and financially. Once this is also satisfied, they will try to satisfy more complex, social needs from family and friends. Continuing this process, they will try to higher and higher needs like esteem, self actualization, and transcendence.

The form of government at a given time is defined by the distribution of power at that time. Power is determined by wealth, skills and influence. For example, if one individual has a disproportionate amount of force, wealth, skills and influence, they are going to have a disproportionate influence on the government. The extent to which the government is autocratic, plutocratic, meritocratic, or democratic, depends on the the effect of force, wealth, skills and influence respectively.

Development, Equity, Enlightenment, Identity

There are examples of democracy (“A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” [2]) in various parts of the ancient world — from ancient Greece, to India — though in most cases “the eligible members of a state” was a restricted subset of the population — usually male, and wealthy.

However, in almost all cases, four factors seemed to caused the emergence of democracy, or the “evolution” of government into democracy.

  • Development: The “eligible members of a state” had their basic physiological, safety, and social needs satisfied, and hence they wanted to satisfy esteem, and self actualization. This was in turn caused by prosperity, and technological developments.
  • Equity: At least some group in the population had sufficient freedom to demand democracy, and hence they would have had some equity of power, relative to those with the most power.
  • Enlightenment: The enlightened belief that all “eligible members of a state” were indeed eligible would have been more radical that it sounds, particularly since most of the early democracies evolved from autocracies with beliefs in the divine rights of kings and chiefs.
  • Identity: The “nations” that adopted democracy had a strong national identity. Especially, relative to other nations. The citizenry felt a strong need to be part of the nation, and defend its nationhood.

The Second Wave, and a causal fallacy

This emergence in the ancient world was again replicated in post-industrial-revolution Western-Europe, and then gradually spread to the rest of the world. All the early examples in the “second wave” of democracy (like the first wave in the ancient world) emerged out of development, equity and enlightened beliefs and a sense of identity. Like the city states in ancient Greece and India, the second wave democracies had smaller populations, adopted democracy in small evolutionary and partial steps. The choice of democracy also tended to be more pragmatic than ideological.

All this changed with US independence.

While the causal factors (development, equity, enlightenment, and identity) were similar to earlier examples, the ideological aspect of democracy was given precedence over the pragmatic aspect. For the first time, the “what is right” aspect took precedence over the “what works” aspect. Along with this ideological view of democracy, opinion on causality also began to reverse. While before democracy was a emergent property of development, equity and enlightened beliefs and a sense of identity, a new class of intellectual began to forward the idea that a democratic government will cause development, equity and enlightened beliefs and a sense of identity.

Flawed Democracy

The success of the US and the west in the 20th century (particularly their cold war victory over communism), hugely increased the “brand value” of democracy. In fact, all the countries of the world but six (Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, Brunei, Fiji, and the Vatican) officially admit to being democratic de jure [4].

“Democracy’s de jure status in the world as of 2018; only Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, Brunei, Fiji, and the Vatican officially admit to be undemocratic” [4]

The reality, is a bit different. According to the Economist’s “Democracy Index” [5], only 19 of the 167 countries surveyed are rated “Fully Democracy” (or score 8.0 or above on the index). The US (7.98), Japan (7.88), India (7.23), and Sri Lanka (6.48) are all rated “Flawed Democracy” (6.0 to 8.0).

Democracy’s de facto status in the world as of 2017, according to Democracy Index by The Economist [5]

The 10 most democratic countries (in order, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland, Canada, Australia, Finland, and Switzerland) have several striking characteristics:

  • While they obviously claim to be democratic, and in every respect are, they are not “ideologically” democratic. Their most important reason for being democratic is “because it works”, not “because it is right”. This difference is obvious from their relationships with non-democratic countries — whom they don’t “look down” upon. Note, this last point does not mean that these countries don’t condemn human rights violations, terrorism etc, by non-democratic regimes. It’s just that they don’t hold a causal connection between these negatives, and a lack of democracy.
  • They are small countries with high levels of development and strong national identities, where equity is easier to implement.
  • Historically, they became more democratic has they become more developed, equitable, and enlightened, as opposed to the other way around.

In contrast, many of the worst democracies have had democracy imposed on them — sometimes by force. In such places democracy is unstable, and certainly not in equilibrium.

Post Democracy

Our current decade is further proof of the causal direction of development, equity and enlightened beliefs and a sense of identity, and democracy. Many countries that self describe as “strong democracies” are battling authoritarian forces. It’s difficult to ignore the following observations:

  • Falling development. While the US and Europe continue to develop economically, there are significant sections of the population (e.g. Less educated white men in the US, and the youth in southern Europe) are seeing a significant decline in their quality of life.
  • Falling equity. As Thomas Piketty pointed out [6] huge increases in inequality are rampant across the world, especially in the said faltering democracies
  • Falling enlightenment: The internet is breaking the monopoly of a few “enlightenment” ideas, including the idea that “democracy is right”. The distribution machines of Google, Facebook and Twitter mean that new ideas (both good and bad) proliferate (literally) at light speed. The filter bubbles and echo chambers created by “personalization” and “optimization” mean that discussion and deliberation is minimal, instead replaced by reinforcement of a narrow set of memes.
  • Falling Identity: All but the smallest democracies had weak national identities. “Credal” identities like that in the US have always been fragile, and can easily breakdown. The strong “race” based identities in England, Germany and France are breaking down with immigration. These countries are struggling to replace their former identities with more “Credal” multicultural identities.

All these points to a weakening in the “causes” of democracy. It also highlights the fallacy of ignoring the fact that democracy is more an complex, emergent effect, than a simple cause.

Sri Lanka: To Democracy or Not To Democracy?

For the first 2 millennia of our recorded history (~500 BCE to 1500 CE), Sri Lanka was an absolute monarchy. For the next ~450 years it was ruled by European powers who were in turn absolute or constitutional monarchies [7]. We have been a democracy for a relatively insignificant 70 years. And when I say “been a democracy” — I don’t imply things have been perfect. Our democracy has been marred by violence, corruption and exclusion.

While, the last couple of elections in Sri Lanka have been relatively free and fair, the politicians elected have been, with a few exceptions, abysmal. This begs the question — “What’s wrong with our democracy?” And more significantly, “Is democracy the right way for Sri Lanka?”

Reading so far, you might assume that I’m skeptical about democracy. You might even assume that I’m opposed to democracy, and am directly or indirectly proposing an alternative. If so, you misunderstand me.

Let me summarize my feelings towards democracy as follows:

Qualities of Democracy

  1. Democracy is an emergent phenomena caused by development, equity, enlightenment and identity. In a nation with development, equity, enlightenment and identity, democracy emerges as a pragmatic and effective form of government. There is no special justification for that, other than it works.
  2. The causal relationship is not true in reverse. I.e. democracy doesn’t necessary cause development, equity, enlightenment and identity. There are plenty of nations which are democratic which don’t have development, equity, enlightenment and identity, nor have an increased chance of achieving these.
  3. Many nations (including some of the most successful democracies) took undemocratic paths to democracy. A “bad means doesn’t justify good ends” argument does not work in this case, because “no-democracy” in isolation is not necessarily bad.

So what should Sri Lanka do?

As Sri Lankans we should not be overly obsessed by Democracy as a virtue by itself. Instead, we should focus on the causal factors out of which democracy will emerge.

  • Development. While Sri Lanka has achieved significant development in the last couple of decades, the job is by no means complete. We should focus on continued development, particularly in terms of technology, product development and intellectual property.
  • Equity. Sri Lanka is, to a large extent, controlled by a small elite of wealthy, influential people. Law and Order, and Institutions are, to a large extent, subservient to this elite. The most effective way to create an equitable society is to make institutions, and law and order, strong, and this elite weak. Again, technology might come to the rescue.
  • Enlightenment. While Sri Lanka has a relatively literate population, it is still somewhat backward in terms of intellectual freedom. Philosophy and thought are still very much grounded in religious texts and feudal identities. Technology and the internet have mostly made things worse. We need to find ways of turning this around, including finding more enlightening uses of technology.
  • Identity. Last and most important. Sri Lanka has no national identity. We have various racial, religious, caste, and class identities, but these always trump the national identity. Hence, everyone is more Sinhala, Hindu, Govigama or “English-Speaking” than they are Sri Lankan. Our island need a strong identity and a unifying story.

If we achieve progress in these dimensions, we’ll get democracy for free. If we just blindly focus on democracy (because it is the right thing), then we’ll probably end up like “Democratic” Republic of the Congo: 1.51 on the Democracy Index, but still proudly (i.e. de jure) “democratic”.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devotions_upon_Emergent_Occasions

[2] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index and https://www.eiu.com/topic/democracy-index

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_in_the_Twenty-First_Century

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Sri_Lanka

[8] https://www.dnaindia.com/world/report-chaos-prevails-in-sri-lankan-parliament-as-leaders-hurl-chilli-power-furniture-2686428

[a] They style and spirit of this article was inspired by https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapiens:_A_Brief_History_of_Humankind, and Yuval Noah Harari other writings.