The Bureaucratic Cost of Democracy

Democracy is a concept that both looks and sounds appealing to the eyes and ears of those who benefit from its tenets.  But it is important not to forget that democracy, as a process, needs nurturing and above all, understanding.  The idea of creating a society where everyone is allowed to participate in the everyday running of social and political affairs, is one that is usually not met with the oftentimes cumbersome challenges of increased inclusion.  One of such challenges is the bureaucratic process related with allowing a greater number of individuals to have their views heard in our political institutions.

It is important never to disassociate the demos from the kratia, and to remember that the rationale behind democratic rule is precisely the participation of “the many”, not “the few.”  It is intended for democratic entities to have the necessary mechanisms to allow for its constituents to engage in informed, free and overarching deliberation, and to be willing to use said mechanisms.  A problem arises when a government renders democratic rule more important than its substance, for it risks over-focusing on procedural steps that may or may not be related with the common good.     

As is true in most political explorations, it is interesting to strip social relations from their flesh, in order to uncover the machinery that are our political bones.  In this case, I find it pertinent to use one’s interactions with others at the dinner table to illustrate the relation between democracy and bureaucracy.  When faced with the situation of having a meal alone at the dinner table, every decision taken pertaining to what is being cooked, where people will be seated, and who will do the dishes, falls on the shoulders of only the person who is eating.  If an additional person decides to join in, the ability to make an independent decision gets cut in half, and the second person will have an equal right to decide and disagree on matters of the table.  As the number of guests increases, the ability of each individual to push forth with his/her own culinary leanings gets diminished drastically, and the only way of deciding something that will please the palates of most is through dialogue and debate.  What is essential in understanding the dinner table dynamic is that democratic decision-making processes are not meant to be straight forward, and even less so linear.  Constant consideration of other guests’ leanings needs to be explicitly accounted for in order for one’s own rationale to be welcomed by the rest.

This example leads to one conclusion:  The delivery and substance of democracy are inseparable; cumbersome and time-consuming processes are at the core of inclusive democratic practices.  Having the participation of “the many” is directly linked with having to develop mechanisms that will allow these voices to be heard, which in most cases, is not an easy task.  Using this logic, it is unsurprising that politicians, in an attempt to untangle the bureaucratic complexities of policy-making, may attempt to shun certain sectors of society from active debate.  After all, the less people eat at the dinner table, the easier it will be to decide on things.

I believe that our present-day politicians, whether on purpose or not, have become entrenched in the paper-trailing, process-based, and time-reducing nature of their profession, and as a result, it has become easier for them to make decisions that will allow for more fluid processes, but that ultimately, undermine the very principles of our democratic institutions.

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4 Responses to The Bureaucratic Cost of Democracy

  1. jgmelara says:

    A few things that your post left me pondering. First, I think one of the challenges in our society is to get people to participate in the decision-making process. The society you describe seems to be one where people want to participate but are prevented from doing so (whatever the political reasons might be). Is apathy (essentially) just a facet of democracy or is there more to it, where people have been left with the right to decide whether to participate or not? I also liked the dinner table analogy and would push it even further to explain how in certain contexts there is no choice for people joining the table (as may be the case in younger democracies outside of the West, for instance). Good post!

    • adanesuazo says:

      Thank you for you kind words. Your analysis for my post is very accurate. The conception of this post came to fuition due to several reasons. Firstly, it derived from Canada’s government’s refusal to allow comprehensive dialogue for the passing of Bill C-38, where, in my view, bureaucratic expediency was put before open deliberation. Secondly, it derives from The Quebec government’s delay in starting negotiations with student groups during our on-going conflict. I feel this case goes in agreement with your question of what happens when individuals are not allowed to participate at the dinner table. Lastly, it is also based on my main academic interest: inclusion issues in peace processes. Many scholars argue that exclusive peace agreements are better suited for achieving peace in a conflict situation, for it makes for shorter and more fluid peace pricesses. But I have argued in the past that, while the process itself is indeed shortened by exclusiveness, the peace produced by such agreements are short lived, and fail to cover those rebel groups that were not included in negotiations.

      All these elements, in varying degrees and capacities, showcase elements of exclusion. However I tried to focus this post on the bureaucratic labrynth that democracy is and that we as a society often forget exists.

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for the “like” on my Bali post; I needEd to go on a little vacation.

    It is quite amazing to me that the omnibus act is pushed through, not democratic if you do not allow the basics of debate and the opportunity for potential opposition to even voice that, by bundling laws that have nothing to do with each other, and/or then push a deadline that is not realistic. I guess democratic principles are not as valued as they were in Canada, or were they ever? About the student movement: I recognize the situation in the late sixties in the Netherlands were students were not heard and wanted more say in the administration of the university, and have access to housing etc. The movement spread to all homeless young people who then squatted housing, empty banks and office buildings in the inner city and eventually got the ear of the city council. Then council passed laws that forbade vacancies of homes and commercial buildings (speculation properties) for longer than 1year. To get the squatters out, council also converted city owned buildings to apartments for young people for subsidized rents etc. It had an effect. Apparently, it took occupations and riots (many, many buildings were occupied by squatters). It had become a common practice to break into empty houses and occupy it, squat, until you were offered a decent replacement and the squat was then a semi-legit way to obtain housing in Amsterdam, for anybody, and it got council to address several issues that council ignored for years and were stuck on, so they had to negotiate and talk to the young people who were sidelined in that society and did not put up with it anymore. That’s how democracy works!

  3. Pingback: Why Pure Democracy is Impossible « Writer's Block

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