Beyond Democracy

People often says that democracy is not perfect but still the best form of government. Living since I was born in a democratic system, I can say that this is not entirely true, especially if we consider this statement within a realistic picture of what is in fact our society.

The founding principle of democracy is that it is defined as the government of people, who exercise the power directly or, more frequently, through their representatives. When the power is not accompanied by a sense of duty and civic engagement however, that is, when it is not managed responsibly according to shared values, it almost always becomes an instrument of special interests, most often to the detriment of society itself. We have often seen that in other political systems where this mechanism is almost physiological, that is, the absolute monarchies and the dictatorships.

A democracy, therefore, works only when the level of maturity, that is, of civilization of a society, is above a certain threshold. Our society, however, although has developed greatly in terms of technology in the last millennium, has not evolved as much in terms of civic values and social relations. Just think how until a few centuries ago, even in the more developed nations, slavery was still considered to be legal and discrimination against particular religions, ethnic groups or social classes, such as women, were the norm rather than the exception. Not only: such discrimination still exist in many less developed countries and, although officially are no longer accepted in the more developed ones, in part continue to exist in all the others too.

Cartoon courtesy of Quino © 2012

In practice, the failure of democracy is not physiological to the system itself, as to the fact that this political system requires a level of social maturity that simply we do not yet have. The most striking example is vote. This right is one of the pillars of democracy and cost the lives of many men and women who have long struggled to get it and to get it to be recognized to all citizens whatever their ethnic, religious and political beliefs or gender be. The problem is that anyone who has earned this right is really no more in life, while those who practice it today have not earned it at all.

The superficiality with which most of us exercise the right to vote is simply a reflection of the immaturity of our society. On the other hand, one thing has value only when we had to struggle to get it. In fact, the more was the effort to conquer something, that is, the more it cost us in terms of commitment and sacrifice, the more that something has a real value for us and then we want to put it to good use.

But when we are given something that we did not earned at all, it turns out that it has no value for us, even if we complain about it if someone deny it to us afterwards. We take it for granted, we pretend it but then, when we have it, we use it with superficiality and often laziness, a bit like a spoiled child that, accustomed to seeing every wishes of his fulfilled, losses, damages or just simply forgets the toy for which he had so insisted, leaving it abandoned in a corner to chase another fad.

Therefore, should we abandon the hope of being able to fully enjoy the benefits of a democratic system? And which system we should direct us to? How to replace it, provided that a better one exists?

Actually, since because the problem is not in the principle of democracy itself but in the requirements necessary to make it work, there is really no need to define a new political system, but rather to establish some rules about the current one. In most democracies, in fact, the access to power, that is, the right to vote, is unconditional, or rather, is only related to a requirement that only superficially can be associated to a certain level of maturity and responsibility: the age. If a citizen has at least sixteen, eighteen, twenty or twenty-five years, depending on the country or the institution to be elected, then he can vote.

The problem is all there: the vote is given to all those who have reached a certain age — and this surely can not be considered a merit — and all votes have equal value, regardless of the level of maturity achieved by the elector. Warning: I am speaking of maturity, sense of civic responsibility, not culture or education. Being more or less educated is important when you are making a decision, and the vote is in fact a decision, but is not essential, especially since each of us, even when expert in a specific field, is in fact entirely ignorant of many others. A worker with the third grade may be familiar with certain topics that even a Ph.D. may not know, and although many elections are played on political programs that deal also with quite complex issues, such as economics and finance for example, we cannot expect that vote is given only to those who had to demonstrate competence in these subjects.

The situation is different if we consider the sense of responsibility. Would you give a weapon to an immature and totally irresponsible individual? We could definitely give it to someone who does not know how to use it, because if he is really responsible it will not be necessary to ask him to take a course to learn how to use it. Conversely, to give a gun, for example, to a psychopath, especially if he were actually able to use it, would be a totally reckless act.

A vote is like a weapon. As we be tempted to overlook the single vote compared to the mass of votes necessary for an election, every vote counts. Voting means to delegate that portion of power that democracy gives to each of us to a single person or institution, which then can use it to make decisions that will shape the lives of all of us and our children. Voting in an irresponsible or immature way leads to a class of irresponsible and immature politics, which is what we are experiencing in Italy, for example.

There is only one way out of this situation: to break a fundamental assumption of modern democracies, namely that the vote should be given to all unconditionally. Probably, in front of this statement many of you will be horrified, yet, if you think about it, is not so outrageous or impractical, especially if the requirement for voting is civic sense.

But how do you measure an individual’s sense of civic duty? You cannot do it, and in any case we cannot subordinate the right to vote to an examination from some committee because it would be easy to degenerate into a selection and discriminating on the basis of ideological bias to a specific culture or religion. However, if we can not measure the civic sense that an individual has at the moment, it is possible to identify a path of growth that can develop in most cases a good level of public spirit in an individual: devote part of own time to volunteering to the service of others.

Whether supporting the care of sick, disabled or elderly, in a department of Civil Defense or Red Cross, in a peacekeeping mission abroad, in the ranks of the army or in a nongovernmental organization, to devote to others is the best way to grow. By volunteering we get in touch with reality that are hard to accept, we have to face human suffering, and end up developing a sense of solidarity that makes us grow and allows us to become better men and women. Of course, this is not always the case and not for all, but anyone who has done at least a couple of years in a volunteer service knows that it changes you. Of course, no system or method can give us absolute guarantees to work, so it does not even make any sense to expect them.

At this point I assume you realized what is my proposal: to give to any citizen who has over fourteen years the opportunity to perform some form of voluntary and thus to accumulate a certain number of hours of service. It is not necessary that such service be continuous and that be always performed with the same organization. Each of us faces many challenges in life: study, work, a family to maintain. A boy who studies and should also work to help the family keep a disabled sister, for example, has already enough to do and certainly does not have hours to devote to other activities. It’s just a matter of time, however: someone will need two years, some three, others may decide to take longer and give priority to other things in the meantime. No foreclosure or obligation. In theory, nothing precludes that one can take perhaps ten years to accumulate the hours needed to earn the right to vote, but all, without exception, will have the opportunity to succeed. It should be a personal choice, of course. In a certain sense it will be a sign of a certain level of awareness and maturity too.

Some may point out that a person with high physical or mental disabilities may not be able to collect the hours requested to earn the right to vote, but this is not necessarily true. Of course, if a person is unable to understand or to will, can not even carry out any activity, but in such a case it make no sense that he can vote too. In contrast, an individual with a highly disabling disease such as Stephen William Hawking, is perfectly able, for one thing, to teach. In this case it would be not rewarded the commitment to serving others but the the capability to not being totally constrained by the disability and to gain a minimum amount of autonomy.

It is clear at this point that it is necessary to define a list of activities and organizations delegated to issue a certificate for the service hours good to earn the right to vote, as well as to clarify the criteria to be applied to disabled or other citizens who have real difficulties to carry out such activities. There are points to be clarified, rules to be defined, controls to be provided and much more, but the principle remains valid: the vote must be earned. Then, the time and manner will be decided independently by each individual citizen and this will be another indicator of how effectively each of us is really interested to obtain this right. I would not be surprised to discover that a significant percentage of the population could decide to give it up at all. There are already countries where 70% of the population does not vote by choice. There is nothing wrong, as long as it is a choice and not an imposition.

In the end, probably a majority of people will decide not to engage in voluntary work and they will use leisure time for themselves or their family, giving up the chance to vote. Given that this decision will not affect any other rights and duties established by the Constitution, in fact, they will not be penalized in any way. The only exception, of course: those who do not vote can not even stand to be elected.

Practically everyone will be able enjoy the benefits of a democracy built on a foundation of maturity and responsibility, ensuring a greater sense of civic duty of both voters and elected candidates, not to mention an important side effect: more support to all those in need of help because an increased number of individuals who are dedicated to volunteering. In practice a democracy really built on solidarity.

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