What is Democracy? (62): Impossible?

When you start to think about it, democracy looks more and more like an impossible form of government. And this happens not only when you conceptualize it in a maximalist manner – although its impossibility obviously becomes more and more apparent with each additional requirement we impose on it. This is disconcerting for those of us who believe democracy is worth having.

Let’s begin with democracy in its most basic form: a system of government that is supposedly best equipped to help people protect their interests. In the words of John Stuart Mill:

that the rights and interests of every or any person are only secure from being disregarded when the person interested is himself able, and habitually disposed to stand up for them. (source)

Here we already run into problems. What are people’s interests and how exactly do they “stand up for them”? Take the example of alcohol: people have an interest in not suffering the bad consequences of alcohol abuse, either their own abuse or that of others. That sounds simple enough, but upon reflection it’s not so easy to define this interest correctly, let alone act efficiently on the basis of it. At some point in time, the potential or actual alcoholic may believe it is in his interest to have laws that make it impossible for him to buy alcohol. At other points in time, this may seem too harsh and he may believe that it’s better for him to try to restrain himself. After all, a real cure for (potential) alcoholism is inner conviction, not outside coercion. Coercion will simply drive the market underground. But then again, alcohol abuse destroys the inner conviction that is necessary to stop it. So, what to do? Is it in his interest to vote for prohibition and solve the problem of deficiency of conviction? Or is it in his interest to trust human agency?

Hence a first difficulty with the basic model of democracy is the determination of the interests that democracy should serve and of the policies that are best suited to protect these interests. Lot’s of possible choices, value judgments and empirical facts come into play, including facts about future consequences. Moreover, thinking about and examining the facts won’t suffice: testing, trial and error etc. are also necessary.

Hence a second problem: even if interests and the policies that best promote these interests can be clearly determined, it’s not necessarily true that the people are best placed to do this. Experts may be more likely to hit the mark. But how to select the experts? We can’t let the people select them, because if the people were able to select them then they would need to be experts themselves. We can’t just let the experts select themselves, because then everyone could claim to be an expert. Peer selection is also fraught with problems: who’s a peer? How to select the peers?

A third problem: most of us believe, correctly, that people should not simply pursue their self-interest – if that is something they are even able to do. People are expected to discover the common interest as well as those policies most likely to realize the common interest. The common interest can be defined in several ways, but in one interpretation it’s that which is best according to moral standards about justice, rights etc. We also don’t believe that this common interest and those moral standards result automatically from effective self-interested actions.

Here we have exactly the same difficulties as with self-interest: what is the common interest, and which policies serve it best? Arguably the problem here is even more difficult: one’s self-interest is probably less complex, and one is at least motivated to determine it. Obviously, this doesn’t guarantee success – as I argued above – but success in matters of morality and justice is even further away. If even the best philosophers can’t agree on these matters, how could ordinary citizens?

Fourth problem: even if all this is doable in theory, wouldn’t it require an enormous effort? Do people have the time to do all this, or would doing it require the sacrifice of other goals that may be just as important or even more important from a moral point of view? One could argue that the refusal to participate in democracy is a moral requirement given the cost and effort required by democracy. Even voting and participating in an uninformed manner seems to require too much of too many. 

Fifth problem: even if all of the problems above could somehow be overcome, there are huge practical problems involved in allowing large numbers of people to vote on issues. Hence, deliberation about interests, justice, laws and policies takes place not in preparation of a vote on the substance of the matter but in preparation of the election of politicians who in turn will vote on the substance. This results in an additional problem: once – or better if – the people have decided on matters of interest, justice, law and policy, they’ll have to select those politicians most likely to hold the same views. That, obviously, is a problem. Not only can politicians pretend to hold certain views and do something completely different once in office. It’s also unlikely that people find a politician that holds all the good views. Hence, people have to elect politicians who will, predictably, implement some wrong views. This leads to a conclusion in favor of votes on issues rather than votes on people. In other words, a conclusion in favor of direct democracy. However, this type of democracy imposes even more duties on citizens and raises a whole new set of difficulties.

So the conclusion seems to be that democracy is a poor system for generating laws and policies that effectively protect both people’s interests and the common interest. We can try to save democracy by arguing that the problems cited above aren’t caused by democracy and aren’t limited to democracy. They are what life is about: “what is my self-interest” is just another way of asking “what do I want in life”? And people seem to have a hard time ignoring the big questions about morality and justice. The problems don’t go away when democracy goes away. If it’s clear how difficult the problems are for democracy, it’s not at all clear how they are less difficult for other forms of government.

I admit, that is a weak defense of democracy, so more needs to be said. We could, for instance, argue that problems 1 to 3 above are knowledge problems. Now, I’ve argued before that democracy has certain things going for it in that respect. The massive participation in open and free public discussion typical of a democracy makes it possible to show, examine and argue for points of view, and this in turn can lead to a filtering out of weak points of view and a selection of the better ones. In other words, democracy may be able to solve the knowledge problems that seem to render it impossible. In addition, problems 4 and 5 above also don’t look fatal to me: they are of a practical nature and can perhaps be solved by technological developments and increased productivity.

If all that’s the case, then democracy may not be as bad after all.

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