Understanding what’s at stake in SA’s watershed election – Martin Van Staden

Every few years, South Africans vote on local, provincial, and central government issues through multiple-choice ballots. The upcoming election on May 29 involves three ballots. Contrary to the myth that there are no wrong answers, democracy aims to prevent tyranny. Voting for parties that undermine individual liberty, private property, free enterprise, or limited government is irresponsible. Sensible voting should prioritise these values to ensure a legitimate and just government.

By Martin Van Staden*

Every few years, South Africans write two important multiple-choice tests, one relating to local government and the other to provincial and central government. A prevalent myth is that there are no wrong answers. To suppose that this is true is to completely misunderstand what democracy was meant to be.

The next test takes place next Wednesday, 29 May, and is spread over three ballots.

Will we pass or fail?

Democracy’s purpose

While one can say that the right answers are elusive (which is, of course, the point of a test), the fact that multiple, clear forces of destruction are displayed clearly on the ballot puts it beyond doubt that one cannot say that “there are no wrong answers” in a democratic contest.

Indeed, the notion that all options on the ballot are equally valid is one of the (many) problems with modern democracy: The will of the people is the will of the people, it is said, so as long as you “vote your conscience”, there are no wrong answers when you submit your five-yearly test.

But practical, tangible democracy (as opposed to the concept of and theorising around democracy that has existed for millennia) was introduced very deliberately as a mechanism to subvert or forestall tyranny.

Alongside a variety of other constitutional institutions, that was and remains democracy’s ultimate purpose.

The thinking is relatively straightforward: If “the people” are ultimately sovereign, and choose who will govern them, they will (as a matter of pure self-interest) never allow anyone to hold a position from which they can tyrannize or oppress them. It is a neat and tidy theory.

A key aspect of this nice theory is that voting for tyranny or oppression would be an invalid choice, because it undermines the very purpose of the democratic system.

Read more: Ian Cameron: ANC opens unstaffed SAPS station in newest electioneering tactic

To put it another way, democracy could never have been “an answer” to the autocratic power of the king if the people simply voted to give the king absolute power. Democracy would then not be an alternative to autocracy, but simply one of the mechanisms through which autocracy may be realised.

In the past century, democracy has however (increasingly) suffered from concept creep.

Today, democracy is treated as a policy-and-law shopping expedition: If you desire a particular political or legal arrangement, you simply have to vote for it, rather than doing the work of creating that reality for yourself and your community.

Want more wealth? Health care? Lower rent? Cheaper electricity and higher education? Do not work for it: vote for it. Democracy, then, is a free-for-all.

But if this is your approach to democracy, you are doing it wrong. To stick with our test analogy, you intended to write a philosophy test but ended up sitting down for the engineering exam.

At the end of the day, it cannot simultaneously be true that one “cannot vote wrong” and that “voting is an important civic duty”. Anything and everything important must be done responsibly, and if “vote responsibly” is something we admit exists, then “voting irresponsibly” also exists.

Forces of destruction

Voting for the forces of destruction that propose to bring about the very tyranny democracy is meant to hinder, then, would be voting irresponsibly and voting invalidly.

The forces of destruction are those political parties that in word or deed have undermined individual liberty, private property, free enterprise, or limited government. These four institutions are the building-blocks of prosperity, and the main motivating agenda of liberalism.

This is by no means an exhaustive exercise, but these are some pointers:

Individual Liberty: If the party supports restrictions on free expression, like hate speech or obscenity laws, or privacy, like internet or financial surveillance, it cannot be said to favour individual liberty.

Private Property: If the party supports property confiscation (incorrectly named “expropriation without compensation”), National Health Insurance, substantial tax increases, or water or electricity use restrictions for paying customers, it cannot be said to favour private property.

Free Enterprise: If the party supports, from the default of current government interference, more government interference in the economy, whether that is more strictly enforced competition policy, greater labour “protections” (read: hindrances), or moralistic nonsense like puritanical alcohol or tobacco policies, it cannot be said to favour free enterprise.

Read more: Constitutional court bars Jacob Zuma from contesting parliamentary elections

Limited Government: If the party supports expanding the size of the civil service, amending the Constitution to enable (rather than further restrict) government conduct, or centralising power away from more local (provincial or municipal) jurisdictions, it cannot be said to favour limited government.

Governments that do not protect or – worse still – even recognise, individual liberty, private property, free enterprise, or the principle of limited government, are not valid governments.

Individuals sacrifice their total, uninhibited freedom to the state so that the state might protect their residual freedom. If the state does not recognise this as its core directive, then the purpose of individuals sacrificing their total freedom to the state falls away. Ergo, state legitimacy evaporates in the absence of adherence to the (for lack of a better word) liberal social contract.

Put another way, unless the state recognises and protects individual liberty, private property, free enterprise, and respects the principle of limited government, nobody has any duty in conscience to obey the state or its laws. Why obey something that is nothing more than a naked exercise in unjustified coercion?

Nonetheless, no political party is perfectly supportive or perfectly against individual liberty, private property, free enterprise, or limited government. It is, however, not a very difficult exercise to determine, on a spectrum, which parties are closer to being forces of destruction, and which parties are closer to being sensibly constitutionalist.

Democracy, wielded irresponsibly, is no better than dictatorship

Venezuela and Zimbabwe are two pertinent examples of countries that invited ruin by democratic means. Democracy was utilised irresponsibly, and this led to disastrous results that are comparable to autocratic tinpot dictatorships. Democracy did not save the people of Venezuela or Zimbabwe – it helped doom them.

This is not an endorsement of dictatorship, but a warning that democracy is not a golden ticket to success, or a one-way street away from “bad” to “good”. Democracy, irresponsibly utilised, can produce exactly the same humanitarian disasters that dictatorship does.

I am not trying to convince anyone of who, precisely, to vote for, and who not to vote for. Rather, in the abstract, my point is that not every choice is a valid one. Every voter will need to exercise wise judgement.

Read more: SA rides wave of investor cash ahead of crucial elections

There is a party that I would like nothing more than to vote for (again).

But because that party has not – with any degree of sincerity – ruled out the possibility of it going into a formal coalition with the African National Congress after the election, I (probably) cannot in good conscience vote for it. At least, not on the national ballots.

I encourage every sensible voter to make their tick next to the name of a party that both advocates the values of individual liberty, private property, free enterprise, and limited government, and has publicly committed itself – at risk of dishonour – to not cooperate with the forces of destruction.

Anyone who votes for the forces of destruction or those open to cooperating with them is doing democracy wrong. Only those voting to keep government in check and away from our personal, communal, and commercial domains of responsibility, are doing so correctly.

Read also:

*Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation and former Deputy Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission.