Ed West

The Cincinnati zoo backlash shows how democracy is just a step away from mob rule

The Cincinnati zoo backlash shows how democracy is just a step away from mob rule
Text settings

Here's a really heart warming story, about a young criminal and all-round bad guy who became a dad and turned his life around, working a regular job and looking after his four kids. Anyway, one day he decides to take his family to the zoo, perhaps thinking, what can go wrong? And, well, the rest is history.

It's a shame about that gorilla, but I can't see how the zoo could have done anything else in the situation, and the main thing is the boy is safe. Taking aside whether apes should be in zoos (I'd prefer they weren't) and our hypocritical attitude to animals, it's startling that almost 500,000 people signed a petition effectively calling for parents to lose custody of their 4-year-old boy, without even knowing the details of the incident they were so enraged about or having any expertise on the animal in question. The petition includes the words:

'We believe that this negligence may be reflective of the child's home situation. We the undersigned actively encourage an investigation of the child's home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death.'

By 'we believe' they mean 'we reckon'. This is democracy in action, but in all the worst ways, and it most resembles the Athenian custom of ostracism, where a mob could vote a citizen into exile, a system used to pick on unpopular or controversial members of society. We saw this in Britain last month with the Laura Kuenssberg petition on 38 Degrees, a menacing and spiteful scheme against a journalist for doing her job.

But then most online petitions are idiotic and encourage people to act without any reflection on subjects they mostly know little about. Only we're supposed to take them seriously, rather than treat them as communal hysteria, because of democracy. It's almost considered a truism that democracy is a good thing, and that anyone who disagrees is an extremist, but too much democracy leads to poor decision making.

In fact there is robust data suggesting that non-democratic states can be better for economic growth and development, with Ben Southwood of the Adam Smith Institute summarising that 'the evidence seems to suggest that insofar as we can help countries to develop, the key institutions we should be supporting are markets, property rights and the rule of law, and considerably less significance should be accorded to democratisation.' There is also research pointing out that less voting means better governance, so that in a democracy it might be best to limit the amount of direct decision-making, or have a mixed system, like the House of Lords.

Part of the reason, as Isabel Hardman pointed out recently, may be that good government goes unrewarded, and so there are few incentives for politicians to consider the long term rather than tomorrow's headlines. And now the internet allows us to become truly democratic in a way Athens was, with the people making decisions rather than politicians - and I suggest we should avoid it like the plague. Democratic Athens only lasted two generations before its hot-headed population led it to disastrous war and decline.

I used to be a big supporter of direct democracy and referendums because politicians are prone to become part of ruling-class groupthink, but there are good reasons to delegate decision making away from the people, and to be wary of too much democracy. Contrary to what we're often told, our grandfathers did not fight for 'democracy'; they fought to protect us from tyranny, a different thing altogether. Democracy may be the best protector against tyranny, in most instances, but often mob rule can be the tyranny. What matters is the rule of law.

The current referendum is a necessity because it will answer once and for all an important constitutional issue, but I feel about it the same way I felt after flying with young children - that was interesting, now let's never do that ever again, ever. Roll on June 24.

Written byEd West

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion, 1215 and All That and is writing a series of books on medieval history

Topics in this articleSocietybrexiteuremain