By Bayo Ogunmupe
THE most famous definition of democracy was given by the former U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln. While adducing reasons for taking up arms against his own kinsmen which culminated in the American civil war in 1860, President Lincoln said he had to wage war so that "government of the people by the people and for the people may not perish." This Lincoln quotation has come down as the authentic definition of democracy for more than a century. In cognisance of the celebration of May 29, a memorial for the election of Moshood Abiola as president in 1993, it is pertinent to augment efforts to make democracy work by reviewing the ideological foundations of our society.
Democracy, which is the best system of government in my view, consists today of mutually incompatible ideas which originated with the Greeks. These contradictions after two millennia were reasserted either as precursors or as ex post facto justifications for the revolutions in England, America and France. What space and time have been to nature, liberty and equality have been and still are to democracy. More than any others, these two ideals serve as the basic concepts of democratic government. By compressing its meaning: democracy has been summarised as the form of government which combines for its citizens as much freedom and as much equality as possible. Albeit, liberty and equality are mutually exclusive and therefore incompatible. In fact, it is the inherent contradictions in these ideals which make for much of the problems of democracy in the developing world.
Europe and North America have successfully nurtured liberty and equality to be able to domesticate them. However, liberty or freedom, its synonym, is in opposition to equality. Therefore, when equality and freedom are combined, their contradictions are compounded. Discussions on freedom are often negative. Freedom to act. But action affects another person, sometimes harmfully. If so, is not the person harmed justified in demanding that society should restrain or punish the wrongdoer? In the illustration of this dilemma, it is said that the freedom to swing my arm ends where another person's nose begins. Thus, others have the right to be protected from the injury which the reckless swinging of my arm could cause.
Like liberty, equality has varying connotations. Examples of this choice abound in the field of tax policy. Osun State of Nigeria charges car owners an annual registration fee proportional to the market value of their vehicle. Hence, the fee reduces every year where you continue to own the same car. Some states, however, prefer to charge a flat rate for the privilege of operating a vehicle which is the same for everyone and does not diminish as the car's value depreciates. Which version of equality is appropriate in this context?
Thus far, the exploration of the contradiction between freedom and equality leads us to their resolution in the common phrase 'equality of opportunity'. Here, the two concepts are yoked together in a framework of equalised liberties. We often hear it said that all should start equal in the race of life. If so, what follows as a consequence? Do not the different runners display their inequalities? And is not the winner who demonstrates the most superior skill? Or consider what takes place in an election. Everybody we insist, has the right to seek office. In this respect, all are equal, all are free. More precisely, all are equally free. But since one candidate wins, by so doing that person becomes unequal.
Our new democratic concept of equality of opportunity appears most visibly in the economic sphere. Assume a condition of perfect competition, which we do not now have and which contrary to the projection of Marxists, we have never had in history. Under this model of classical economics, all would be equals initially and would be competing freely on the same footing. What would happen?
The manifest superiority of some, due to their skill, cunning, energy or luck - will result in their outdoing the rest. It follows that they will accumulate disproportionately, large shares of wealth. Not only does this gain enhance their status in society, but it augments their power. Power is a capacity to act, unrestrained by others. It is freedom manifesting itself. In other words, freedom becomes a function of power which a materialistic society translates into monetary terms. What is then left of the equality of opportunity proclaimed with fanfare at the beginning? Indeed, it is because of the contradictions inherent in democracy that in contemporary party politics, the Left has appropriated to itself the virtues of equality, while the Right identifies itself with freedom. The process of achieving democracy therefore, is to seek to attain justice in the society. To do this is to strike a mean, harmonious fusion of the two concepts of equality and freedom.
Now, the Left representing or leading the underprivileged, has sought radical changes in the society. It hopes to reduce the inequalities of wealth and social status, employing the powers of the democratic state both to raise the minimum and to lower the maximum. Its philosophy, intended to appeal to the masses, has viewed the individual as a particle within the social nucleus. On the other hand, the Right reflects the attitudes of conservatives who are well satisfied with unequal privileges which they wish to retain. Their emphasis is on the liberty of the individual which they consider threatened by free this, free that, and the graduated taxes needed to finance them. Early in the history of political philosophy, Plato identified justice as the supreme virtue of an ideal state. This identification is very true. But Plato's particular formulation of justice, built as it was, around inequalities maintained by authoritarianism is objectionable. What distinguishes the others, is that justice consists in the pursuit of equality and freedom.