Getting democracy right one restaurant at a time

Let it burn!You’re going to find this outrageous.

Last week, the wife and I went out for dinner to a new restaurant in our neighbourhood.  The food was awful and the service insulting.  Afterwards a few of the patrons gathered outside.  One man was particularly engaging and inspired us to take action.  We formed an angry mob, set fire to cars in the parking lot and threw stones and burning wood through the windows of the restaurant.

A few days later we went back to the restaurant and – this is the bit you’re going to find outrageous – their service had NOT improved!

Afterwards I led the riots.  We destroyed nearby shops and looted what we could.  Next week we’ll go back and see if they’ve recognised our concerns.

All of this may seem a somewhat surreal way of grappling with a bad customer experience. After all, if it was so dreadful, why not just refuse to go back?  If enough people stay away, wouldn’t the restaurant close and someone else have the opportunity of making a better go of it?

It would seem to make sense.  In the midst of municipal elections in South Africa, voters in numerous towns rioted and vandalised businesses in protest against a lack of service delivery by ruling African National Congress councillors.  Once the votes had been tallied, those same rioters returned those same councillors with an overwhelming majority.

This sort of errant behaviour isn’t limited to South Africa’s fledgling democracy.  Protestors at global summits often attack local businesses when expressing their frustrations.

Democratic governments often assume that Democracy is some natural order that people gravitate towards.  The US has been genuinely surprised that Iraqis and Afghanistanis didn’t become instant democrats when their previously autocratic rulers were removed.  Europeans appear authentic in their conviction that increased aid and negotiation will convert even the most recalcitrant of dictatorships into wealthy democracies.

The people at the receiving end of voting and aid don’t seem to see things the same way.  Their confusion, and the contradictions of the participants’ objectives, are what gives rise to conflict.

Consider the rural, traditional, approach to conflict resolution and discussion.  Whether it be the loya jirga of Afghanistan, the imbizo of Sub-Saharan Africa, or even the folkmoot of ancient Germany, all have a common pattern and purpose.

This is not democracy, it is agreement.  The participants at these gatherings expect to remain in negotiation until all agree.  This can take time.  Members of such a gathering will meet for days to discuss matters of group importance.  If there are people who disagree then the majority do not impose their will on the few.  Rather, they offer compromises until, eventually, an agreement is reached that suites everyone.

This isn’t something that happens only in rural backwaters or amongst unsophisticated societies.  The World Trade Organisation has the same approach to negotiation.  The Doha Round of trade talks started in November 2001.  No-one has any idea when they are likely to conclude, if at all.

Such a leisurely approach to law-making and arbitration can only work where the pace of life is slow and the complexity of relationships is moderate.  If the majority are subsistence farmers then a discussion that affects water rights or requires collective action does demand that everyone agree.  Where the pattern of life has changed, as division of labour creates increasing social complexity, such collective collaboration is impossible.

Complexity requires that individuals negotiate solutions for themselves and only when such processing reaches an impasse does one involve higher authorities.  Complexity also imposes time-constraints.  Others get on with their lives and leave the debatants to their problem.

Where faster solutions are required courts and calls to standard legal frameworks ease litigation.

Even the process of national rule has been converted from a process of negotiation with an hereditary ruling class to one of periodic and total renewal through general elections.  This is only the most obvious end of the chain of democracy.

The United States, the United Kingdom, did not become democracies because the “people” suddenly decided to have set elections.  They became democracies because their complex societies needed a fast and stable way of changing leadership and trying new ideas without having a war every time the prevailing tyranny fell.

If an entire town had to get together to discuss the poor offerings at their only restaurant and numerous ideas were proposed, shot down, and reproposed, nothing else would get done.  Far easier to simply allow anyone to open a restaurant and let individuals make up their own minds as to where to spend money.

Once people get used to this casual act of opinion-forming the obvious next step is to allow similar shopping amongst political representatives.

The problem in the world’s unstable places is one where the forms of democracy are imposed from the top while the institutions of individual interaction still offer no choice at all.

Aid agencies divide up countries into individual fifes.  They don’t compete for beneficiaries through innovative and diverse offerings.  They merely dish it out.  Even where businesses do exist, they are indistinguishable and collusion in pricing and offerings is normal; whether it be the regulated mobile phone services, or even the local grocery store.  Poverty offers little choice and little experience of choice.

With a foundation like that, it is unsurprising that people would rather negotiate with the rulers they know than try anything new.

Even nations with complex patterns of labour division have doubts about distributing choice all the way down to individuals.  Market collapses, such as the 2008 credit crisis, appear to reinforce the view that some things are best left to collective decision-making.

This reflexive return to centralisation is likely to be reversed.  A single person can only have strong opinions on a limited number of things.  A centralised decision-making system would have to have strong and consistent opinions on everything.  This isn’t possible and any act of centralisation must be to the detriment of individual choice, overall economic activity and democracy.

The real social divide is not of wealth and poverty, but of choice and monopoly.  If governments, social activists and aid workers are genuinely determined to promote democracy around the world, then the best way to start is through promoting consumer choice at its most basic level.

A person who has a real choice of business offerings will learn that changing a mind does not have to involve physical conflict.  And democracy really can be built one restaurant at a time.

3 replies »

  1. Ok, ok, but are you telling us that you didn’t enjoy the riot? ‘Cause it seems like humans love a good riot. Why we Americans (at least) even like to have a riot when we’re happy, like our favorite team being declared World Champions of sports played only in our country.

    That’s something to think about, eh? Not only do we riot but we confuse the whole world with our little slice of it.

  2. Very insightful. I’m convinced democracy isn’t the best form of government, but I have no idea what possibly could work better. These thoughts make me depressed.

    Lex: That’s just Los Angeles. And maybe Detroit.