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Democracy

Yesterday was a public holiday in South Africa, so that everybody could vote in the local elections. I recently got my South African citizenship and as much as I would have wanted to, it was too late for me to register to vote.

Ingrid has written a piece in which she denounces voter apathy. While I agree that voter apathy is not a good thing, I disagree with her reasons. The common reason given for not voting is, as Ingrid points out, "one vote means nothing". Ingrid's rebuttal is that voting means you did your part in creating the government, and that, therefore, if you didn't vote, you can't complain about the government.

Firstly, "doing one's part" is a bit of a hippie idea that doesn't mean anything. Nobody ever wins the elections by just one vote. Therefore, if you hadn't cast that extra vote, all else being the same, the outcome would not have changed. The spiel about doing one's part is more a personal motivation - it makes you feel warm and fuzzy that you were a part of it, but it really doesn't, on the surface, change the outcome of the election, and is therefore, in my opinion, and taken at its face value, not a good reason to vote.

Secondly, "if you didn't vote, you can't complain". This is absolutely untrue. It's on the same level as saying "if you can't do any better, you can't criticize". It's bollocks. I can read a book and say that it's crap, even if I can't do any better. I can listen to a song and say that it sucks, even if I have nary a musical bone in my body. The point is, the person made the song, wrote the book, put the painting on exhibition, or ran for government. In doing this, they basically announced to the world that they were worth something in that role. If I examine their performance and decide that they're not worth something in that role, I am perfectly within my rights to say so. I'm not claiming I can do better, I'm simply saying that they should not put themselves in a certain position, if they're too inept to fulfill their duties.

So, why should we vote? If it doesn't affect the outcome, and doesn't imbue me with any special rights or privileges, why should I do it? Before I explain why I think we should vote, I think I should pause to point out that there is actually no hard evidence that democracy works at all.

Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, proposes the following thought experiment: take the top 10% (or whatever) of intelligent (or wise, or most-qualified-to-make-decisions, or whatever) people in the world. Only allow them to vote. There are two possible outcomes: the results are radically different to a normal vote, or the results are just the same. If the results are radically different, then it's clear that democracy is simply rule-by-the-stupid, and is badly broken. If the results are the same, then it's clear that democracy doesn't have any effect on the decision process, and is badly broken. I'm not sure about his final conclusion, but I do know that if the results are the same if only a few people vote, then it indicates that democracy isn't all that its cracked up to be. Anyway, that's Scott Adams's view. Terry Pratchett has a similar view. He writes in one of his books that democracy seems fairly fine on paper, and in theory, until you realise that [insert utterly objectionable moron's name here] gets a say in the government, and in fact the same amount of say as yourself, and you realise the fundamental flaw in democracy.

I'm not in full agreement with either Scott Adams or Terry Pratchett, but I am pretty sure that there is no clear evidence that democracy actually works. It's never really been proven, if you know what I mean. Basically, it seems to be the worst of a bad set of options. Rather all the idiots get to rule than one complete prat.

This brings me to why I think we should vote. My reasoning rests on some very shaky premises, and is not at all set in stone, so I'm looking forward to rebuttals.

First of all, we need to introduce the concept of fractals. Fractals are a mathematical concept, which I will try to describe here very quickly. Without going into the details (although I will supply them on demand) of how it works, they are the graphical representation of a mathematical function. So, for example, we have the function:

t = t - t2 + k
This function gets iterated many times for every point in the area, and certain properties of the function contribute to the end colour that the point is given. Thus, after a while, every point is given a colour, and we get the pretty pictures that we're familiar with. The important thing to note is that every point in the image is generated by the same function. So, the entire image is created with the same sort of blueprint. Compare this to an organism, which is created of lots of tiny cells, each of which is constructed from the same DNA. The only difference in fractals are the coordinates of the point, and the only difference in an organism is ... actually, I have no idea what causes cells to differentiate. But there's some difference or other. Same starting point, though.

As the wikipedia article linked above says: "Fractals can be most simply defined as images that can be divided into parts, each of which is similar to the original object". Each part of the image is made from the same blueprint as the original, so no matter how far you zoom in to the image, you'll get similarities popping out. Trees are the same - a branch of a tree looks similar to the entire tree. A twig on the branch looks similar (or has similar properties) to the entire branch, and so on. Coastlines too - you can tell a lot about a coastline from simply looking at a small section of it.

Here we get to my point: society, too, is fractal. This much is clear: if an entire country is happy and prosperous, then individual cities will be happy and prosperous. Suburbs will have similar sociological characteristics to the cities they are suburbs of, and so on, down to personal level. Of course there are divergences - there will always be poor people in prosperous countries, but the point is that, on average, there are similarities at a low level to the high level picture.

Here's the logical leap. If I am apathetic, and I don't care about the government, or the municipality, and I don't care what happens, then the chances are that I live in an apathetic society. This has often been the case: we get reports of "voter apathy" from certain countries. Zimbabwe, for instance. The people just don't care enough to go and vote, because they don't think it's worth it. But in the 1994 elections in South Africa, people turned out in droves, because they really really gave a damn. A small sub-section of society is a good indication of what the larger society is thinking. For this reason, we should strive to care. We should strive to give a damn. We should strive to want things to change for the better. If we care, then a reverse-fractal effect occurs: that small portion of society around us starts caring. And that small portion affects a larger portion. It scales up as well as down.

This is why, even though one vote clearly does not count, one attitude does. I couldn't vote because I couldn't register on time. Mandy and Carla couldn't vote because they lost their IDs. Tim couldn't vote because he was in the wrong ward for the elections. But they would have voted if they could have. And therefore, they have "done their bit" already. They care enough to have wanted to vote, and that is what the country needs. It doesn't need their +1. It needs their give-a-damn.

(Incidentally, this is the same argument used to explain why my own personal activism works. I don't drink Coca Cola and the like, and it doesn't make the tiniest dent on their market - one person who doesn't buy their product doesn't affect them in the slightest. But I'm an activist, and I care, and people around me want to know why I boycott their product, and I explain. Eventually, it ripples out, and it has an effect. Activism works.)

Update: Colin has his own rant.

Update: My boss, Gideon, has his own thoughts:

The problem with Western society is that the rights and the importance of the individual is elevated above those of the group while the contribution and responsibilities of the individual is watered down. That is one reason why people like you and me are at odds with society a lot of the time. There is also this fairygodmotherism we suffer from that gives people the idea that somebody else needs to come and save them rather than they themselves.

(My 2c and not strictly in answer to your blog)

There is this thing on TV called "Home Makeover" or such. These guys take pity on you and show up to re-model your whole house. They usually go for people with some problem, like no parents or a physical disability (not mental, retards don't make cool TV). The actual work they do is really really great and I think it makes the lives of the people they select much better. But I can't watch it. It just pisses me off how they play FGM to people.

Update: I have made another post out of a comment by James Reeler.