Wealth, Freedom, and Democracy

by George Hatjoullis

People like to have their cake and eat it as well. In practice you can either have it or eat it, and once you have eaten, it is gone. You have to start again and bake another. This somewhat obvious observation is more profound that it sounds. It implies there are trade-offs and opportunity costs in life but it is extraordinary how often people behave as if these trade-offs do not exist. The recent Brexit vote is a case in point. However, Brexit is not my interest here, at least not directly.

Wealth is a constant theme of human existence. Wealth is about having your cake, not eating it. The mere existence of wealth provides psychological comfort to the holder. It confers security. It is there to be used if need be. It is insurance. It also confers power. It does not necessarily need to be spent to exercise this power. People are deferential to wealth. Their deference is rooted in hope. The main concern of wealthy people is to maintain the real value of their wealth and, if possible, to grow it. Spending it is a secondary consideration. For spending it means eating the cake and not having it. They will typically spend a small fraction of total wealth subject to the objective of retaining its real value. There are exceptions to this rule, but it is a rule. Having wealth confers more benefits than spending it.

The same might be said of freedom. The extent of freedom is socially and legally defined but in western societies we have become used to the illusion of freedom. It is an illusion because we only have it so long as we do not use it too much. Like cake and wealth, you can have your freedom or you can eat it.In principle, I am free to think, say, and do what I want subject to the laws of the land. It is a nice feeling having this freedom. However, I suspect if I started to exercise it, even within the law, I would soon risk losing it. As I have noted in previous blogs, there are subjects I do not even allow myself to think about lest my freedom to think be put at risk. It is hard to illustrate without actually putting my freedom at risk so I will refer you to the present situation in Turkey. There are many people in prison for simply exercising their legal freedoms. In the UK people who wish to continue to argue for remaining in the EU (their legal right) are coming under serious social pressure. Even the government has implied they are unpatriotic. It is not a huge step to the situation in Turkey. You can have freedom or you can eat it. You cannot have both.

Finally we come to democracy. The will of the people. One need not be a deep student of history to realise democracy is a cake or eat it situation. How often has the will of the people, once expressed, been usurped by a military coup and dictatorship. Worse still, democracy can be used to allow a small majority to usurp the rights of a large minority. Brexit again comes to mind but also the situation in Turkey. The rise of populism is the exercise of democracy but history tells us that when populism uses democracy it usually leads to the loss of democracy. Hitler and the Nazi party were elected. What good did it ultimately do those that exercised their democratic rights to elect Hitler and the Nazi party? Ironically, populism is the exercise of democratic rights by people who believe they can have their cake and eat it. They also believe they can have democracy and yet exercise it. The world has a problem

Populist movements are exercising their democratic right to take us away from pluralist democracy to a dictatorship of the lowest common denominator. It is a dangerous direction and history suggests it will ultimately lead to the loss of all democratic rights, and conflict. Only democracies which have strong democratic constitutional safeguards can hope to survive this direction. The UK it seems does not have such safeguards otherwise how could an advisory referendum, ostensibly to restore the sovereignty of parliament, be able to effect constitutional change on a miniscule majority without reference to the parliament it was designed to advise and to which it sought to restore sovereignty?