"Complacency among democratic countries that they will muddle through is dangerous if we are faced with something like climate change that needs pre-emptive action. The risk is that if we wait too long to adapt we won’t adapt in time.""—David Runciman
Complacency among democratic countries who think they can just "muddle through" could make them unable to tackle long-term problems like climate change, a University of Cambridge academic told the Hay Festival earlier this month.
David Runciman, Reader in Political Thought, told a debate on democracy which formed part of the Cambridge series at this year’s Hay Festival, that the last 10 years had been bad for western democracies in terms of their involvement in war, their economic policies and their ability to confront climate change. "There in no evidence that they know how to face up to the challenges we are facing," he said.
Nevertheless, the last decade could be seen as a blip, he said, in the last 100 years which had been good for western democracies. They had risen to major challenges in the 20th century: they had won wars, got richer, enriched their citizens and created welfare states.
"However," he added, "the last 100 years could be seen as a blip against the last 2,500 years when democracies were seen as an attractive idea, but one which would always fall apart, be bad at long-term planning and be easily swayed by populists who shied away from making difficult decisions."
Nevertheless, Runciman said one of the strengths of democratic states was their adaptability which made them "better at failure than autocratic systems because they can correct their mistakes more easily".
This could also be a weakness, though, because the knowledge gleaned from the last 100 years that they could adapt and overcome problems created a moral hazard. It made democracies believe they could afford to make mistakes because they would eventually muddle through.
"That complacency is dangerous if we are faced with something like climate change that needs pre-emptive action. The risk is that if we wait too long to adapt we won’t adapt in time," he said, counselling "cautious pessimism" about the future.
Professor Andrew Gamble, Head of the Department of Politics and International Studies, spoke about the rise of popular resentment and disenchantment with political elites in Europe and the current parameters of the political debate.