What is Democracy? (73): A Summary Definition

I’ve now written 72 posts in this series, and so it’s time for a summary. Most of those posts focused on one or the other characteristic of democracy – including characteristics it shouldn’t have – but the big picture is still missing. That’s why I’ll now try to offer my own, undoubtedly controversial definition of democracy.

What is a democracy, or better, what should it be, ideally? The short version: democracy is a form of government – government of a state or of any other group of people – in which all of the main positions of power are filled by way of elections, and in which decisions on important public issues are taken by vote (a vote either among those previously elected, or among the population at large; preferably a mix of both systems).

This core definition comes with a series of prerequisites. Elected holders of power should not be subordinate to other, unelected holders of power, such as the military or religious bodies. In addition, elections, popular votes on issues (e.g. referenda) and votes among groups of elected representatives should be inclusive, competitive, free and fair, and their results should represent the will of the people. Let’s break that down a bit.

  1. “Inclusive” means that all or most adult residents should have a right to vote, and that most of these people actually vote. The word “residents” covers of course citizens, but some non-citizens should probably also get the right to vote. The same is true for ex-felons.
  2. “Competitive” means that there is a real choice between candidates and policies. Also, when there is a real choice, the available options to choose from are not set by a minority or by some authority. Everyone has the right to become a candidate and to put an issue up for a vote. (Some restrictions may be acceptable in order to avoid very large numbers of candidates or issues: for example, candidates or ballot initiatives only pass when there’s a large number of signed approvals). Term limits are also a means to improve competitiveness and to counteract any advantage that incumbents may have over challengers (see below). An election can only be competitive when the merits of each candidate can be clearly established. Government transparency and accountability, including free and equal access to government information, are therefore required. For the same reason, we should try to limit the influence of money on politics.
  3. “Free and fair” means that the choice between candidates and policies should not be  artificially driven towards one candidate or policy, for example by incumbents monopolizing the media or the resources of the state, by efforts to discourage or intimidate certain voters, etc. Media neutrality or media balance may have to be enforced. Vote counting should be correct and independently monitored. The ballot must be secret when voter intimidation is a risk.
  4. “Representative of the will of the people” means that the elections and votes should respect the rule that one person has only one vote. (Representation is, however, not unidirectional: the will of the people may be shaped by the representatives. The latter can present points of view which are then internalized and expressed by the people). The requirement of representativity may entail a need to circumscribe the voting population: local decisions should be decided locally. Having too many people who can vote – including people who do not have a stake in the matter up for a vote –  can be just as harmful as having too few. Federalism, devolution etc. are therefore required by democracy. However, federalism may lead to gerrymandering, which should be prohibited because it reduces representativity.

The inclusive, competitive, free, fair and representative nature of elections and votes is a prerequisite for a democracy, but it also has its own prerequisites. We need political freedom and equality – which means the equal freedom to try to influence the outcomes of elections and votes. All individuals should be free to express their will equally and in peace, to discuss it with others, to persuade and be persuaded, to join forces in free organizations, and to have their preferences weighed equally in collective and peaceful elections and votes. Candidates as well should have this freedom and equality.

Political freedom and equality in turn depend on human rights, the rule of law, separation of powers, judicial enforcement and the regulation of the role of money in politics. Candidates should have physical security, freedom of speech and association, freedom of movement and freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. The same is true for the voting population. If necessary, these rights should be enforced by a judiciary that is independent from the elected legislature and executive (and that is therefore not subject to election itself). Equal influence depends on equal suffrage rights and other rights, on the enforcement of these rights within a judicial system that is protected by the principle of the separation of powers, but also on the regulation of party financing, campaign financing and lobbying.

All these arrangements – rights, separation of powers and the regulation of money – create upper and lower levels of resources and capabilities, and hence create political freedom that is more or less equal (it can never be completely equal for a variety of reasons that can’t be remedied: differences in talent and motivation, social networks etc.).

Why do we need these arrangements? Equal political freedom means equal influence, but some people may lack the rights, resources or capabilities to exercise their influence. People can’t exercise their civil and political rights if they suffer arbitrary arrest, violence or poverty, if they don’t have a minimum of education, lack proper healthcare, or have to spend their time struggling to survive whereas others can spend a fortune to influence politicians. Just as insufficient rights, resources or capabilities undermine the equality of influence that is typical of a democracy, so can large excesses of resources. Hence we need regulations aimed at limiting the political advantage and influence of the wealthy (e.g. limits on the size of individual donations, limits on election expenditure, transparency in party funding etc.).

There are also other, less precise prerequisites. How much confidence do people have in the fairness of elections, in the impartiality of the judicial process, or in each other? How do they perceive corruption? Do they experience the government as a representative institution? And so on. These subjective perceptions of institutional arrangements are just as important as the institutional arrangements themselves.

All the things I’ve listed here are necessary for a full democracy. This doesn’t mean that you can’t call something a democracy when some of these things are missing. There wouldn’t be a single democracy if that were the case. But it does mean that democracy is a work in progress and a sometimes elusive ideal. It also means that it’s wrong to say that a country is either a democracy or something else. The concept of democracy is continuous. A country can be more or less democratic and can evolve up or down the scale.

Given this description of an ideal democracy and the acknowledgment of the fact that countries can be more or less democratic (as well as not democratic at all, of course), the question is whether there’s room for the idea that democracy can be many different and equally valuable things. I think there is. Different circumstances require different institutions, and different institutions may realize certain norms equally well. Conversely, the same institutions in different countries and contexts will yield a very unequal quality of democracy. For example, a very small country may not require a federal structure.

The characteristics of an ideal democracy that I have given here should therefore be viewed as applicable to the average country only. However, while it’s unwise to demand that all countries adopt or strive towards an identical political construction, it’s equally unwise to give every country the freedom to define democracy according to its own wishes. There’s a limit to the flexibility of concepts. A democracy should, ideally, have certain characteristics or attributes, and not others. Over to you.

Advertisements

What is Democracy? (72): Ineffective Governance by Definition?

Democracies are characterized by high transaction costs: it’s tougher to get things done in a democracy compared to systems where rulers don’t have to consult, discuss, compromise, reconsider and revise. A democracy costs more, in every sense of the word: you need more time, more money and more effort to reach a decision, and the final result isn’t always the best possible one because it’s a compromise between the views of every sector of society, all of which have to be treated with respect. These views are often extremely divergent and yet a decision – a law, a policy, a judicial verdict etc. – has to take into account at least those views that together have majority support. It has to do so either by force of law or because the execution of the decision requires popular support in order to be realistically implemented. Viewpoint divergence can in some cases even mean incompatibility, with gridlock as a result. If it’s impossible to arrive at a decision because of gridlock, then the problem goes way beyond high transaction costs. There is no transaction and hence no cost to arrive at it.

All in all, democracy looks like a very ineffective, confused and slow way of deciding things. If this is true, then even an ideal democracy would be vulnerable to this criticism – perhaps even more so than existing democracies since consultation is typically more important in ideal theory than in reality. If even ideal democracy can’t solve the problem of effectiveness, then we should abandon democracy rather than try to perfect it. Forget about it and replace it by the best possible autocratic type of government, in which a leader or group of leaders can make decisions behind closed doors, without consultation or compromise and without having to revisit previous decisions when the democratic balance of power has shifted.

Defenders of democracy have two lines of defense against “dictator envy”: a normative and an empirical one.

Normative defense of democracy

You could concede democracy’s relative ineffectiveness and at the same time argue that effectiveness isn’t the only value. While it’s important to get things done, it’s equally important to get the right things done. Democracy’s widespread consultation of various groups raises the probability of getting things right. When opposing viewpoints have to struggle for supremacy, the arguments behind them tend to be better. I’ve tried to spell this out here and here.

Moreover, while it’s important to get things done and to get the right things done, it’s equally important to get them done in the right way: consultation and compromise result in decisions that have widespread support, and such decisions, while they may take longer, will also last longer. Popular support, while reducing the effectiveness of making decisions, may increase the likelihood of effective implementation of these decisions.

Empirical defense of democracy

It’s also possible to argue that democracy is in fact not relatively ineffective and that autocratic regimes are much less effective then we tend to assume. For example:

Soviet records show that secretive government has high costs, hidden at the time because of secrecy itself. These costs were of many kinds. Transaction costs arose through two channels – one procedural and the other behavioural. First, leak-proof government depended on costly procedures designed to assure secrecy. Second, harsh penalisation for secrecy violations induced fear and mistrust, causing officials to change their behaviour in costly ways. … [O]fficials had to devote considerable efforts to complying with secrecy rules. (source)

At least the transaction costs and other forms of ineffectiveness are in the open in a democracy. Autocratic states also have these problems, and perhaps even to a larger degree, but as they are hidden from sight, these states can give the impression of being relatively effective.

More posts in this series.

What is Democracy? (71): An Instantaneous Face-Based Competence Assessment

We already knew that good looks give political candidates a sizable advantage. We’ve probably known this for ages, even before we had television. Now it seems that looks are important in democracies in other ways as well, and not just because they are intrinsically appealing. They tell us something about candidates’ competence to rule over us, or at least that’s what we think. Let me rephrase that, because “think” is too strong a word here. We “feel” it, and we do so immediately. Here’s a new study that claims voters judge politicians’ competence levels on the basis of a quick, almost instantaneous look at their faces:

[Princeton psychologist Alexander] Todorov showed pairs of portraits to roughly a thousand people, and asked them to rate the competence of each person. Unbeknownst to the test subjects, they were looking at candidates for the House and Senate in 2000, 2002, and 2004. In study after study, participants’ responses to the question of whether someone looked competent predicted actual election outcomes at a rate much higher than chance—from sixty-six to seventy-three per cent of the time. Even looking at the faces for as little as one second, Todorov found, yielded the exact same result: a snap judgment that generally identified the winners and losers. Todorov concluded that when we make what we think of as well-reasoned voting decisions, we are actually driven in part by our initial, instinctive reactions to candidates. … While we are never forced to vote based on one factor alone, the apparent predictive power of competence judgements reveals how deeply that quick impression may color our evaluation of more serious considerations. (source)

This reminds me of the equally well established finding that the voice of a politician also influences his or her share of the votes. I’m not here to undermine your belief in democracy, on the contrary, but a reality based belief is always better than a naive one.

More about lookism. More posts in this series.

What is Democracy? (70): One Intellectually Disabled Man, One Intellectually Disabled Vote?

“One man, one vote” is a basic rule of democracy. However, most democracies make some exceptions: children, some types of criminals and people with certain intellectual disabilities often don’t get to vote. Whereas criminals are supposed to have forfeited their right to vote on account of their actions, children and adults with intellectual disabilities are believed to lack the “capacity to vote”. Let’s focus on the latter category. Just recently, the UN Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities has ruled that Hungary’s restriction on the right to vote for people with intellectual disabilities violates international human rights law. However, Hungary is hardly alone in imposing such restrictions.

The “capacity to vote” is a vague concept. Presumably it means having the capacity to act like a normal citizen, to process information and to make informed choices based on this information. Neither children nor the severely mentally handicapped are believed to have this capacity. In law, the severely mentally handicapped are often even equated to children, in the sense that they require legal guardians. Allowing them to vote would, some argue, undermine the quality of the outcomes of elections. The very definition of mental handicap is the inability to process often highly complex social and political information and to make rational choices based on such information. Not only would the intellectually disabled make uninformed choices, but their guardians are likely to influence them. In both cases, democracy would suffer. At least, that’s how the story goes.

You can see one obvious problem with this story: what about merely “stupid people”? Shouldn’t we also exclude those from the right to vote? The same reasons could be said to apply. Indeed, there isn’t always a clear distinction between low IQ and mental handicap. Seems like a possible slippery slope to me. I’m tempted by this: let’s include everyone. Let children vote (see here for a decent argument). And criminals as well. After all, democracy isn’t just about the quality of political decisions (although it is about that, obviously, and one can make a strong case that democracies do deliver quality decisions on average). Democracy is also about treating everyone as an equal. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget immigrants.

More posts in this series here.

What is Democracy? (69): Direct Participation, But Not Like This

In an older post in this series, I’ve argued in favor of a certain amount of direct citizen participation in modern representative democracies. Referenda in particular are useful as a means to correct certain deficiencies of purely representative systems. However, this argument is often vehemently opposed, even by true defenders of democracy. Referenda, it is said, are open invitations for demagogy and citizen manipulation. They distort the normal representative process and they can lead to horrible decisions based on nothing more than emotion and prejudice.

Indeed, there are many examples of problematic referenda in the history of mankind. The German Anschluss of Austria is one. Schuschnigg, Chancellor of Austria just before WWII, scheduled a referendum on the proposed Anschluss in March 1938 (before the Anschluss actually took place). Schuschnigg was opposed to Hitler’s ambitions to absorb Austria into the Third Reich. He set the minimum voting age at 24, as he believed younger voters were supporters of the German Nazi ideology. He never had time to go through with his referendum because Hitler invaded in April. Had the referendum taken place, the results would obviously have been biased. The fact that Schuschnigg’s efforts were in a good cause did nothing to reassure opponents of referenda in general.

And those opponents have an even better reason for their opposition. After the German invasion, Hitler decided he needed a referendum of his own, which took place in April 1938. As one can guess, this referendum was utterly and completely biased. It officially recorded a support of 99.7% of the voters (with a turnout of also 99.7%). This was only possible because of large-scale propaganda, the arrest of 70,000 opponents, and the abrogation of the voting rights of around 400,000 people (nearly 10% of the eligible voting population, mainly former members of left-wing parties and Jews). Officials were present directly beside the voting booths and received the voting ballot by hand (in contrast to a secret vote where the voting ballot is inserted into a closed box) (source).

However, I fail to see how the history of the Anschluss invalidates referenda in general. Let’s not forget that Hitler also abused the representative process in his own country, and yet few people cite the events of 1933 in Germany as a reason to abandon representative democracy. If there is a risk of manipulation in referenda, deal with the risk. You don’t get rid of your car because you have a problem. You fix the problem. Things are different, of course, when one can point to a general pattern of problems with referenda. But one can’t. There have been many successful referenda throughout the world in very different circumstances.

By the way, after his efforts to keep Austria independent had failed Schuschnigg resigned his office. He was arrested by the invading Germans, kept in solitary confinement and eventually interned in various concentration camps, which he survived.

More posts in this series here.

What is Democracy? (68): The Expression and Aggregation of Bullshit?

Here’s a piece of news that’s both disconcerting and inspiring. We already knew that electorates in democracies are heavily polarized (although we also know that public opinion polls tend to exaggerate the distance and divisions between political groups). Polarization leaves democratic outcomes at the mercy of the undecided and the often clueless middle, ready to be swayed by irrelevant and irrational considerations. However, polarization is not only bad for democracy, it’s also bad for the polarized: if the distance to another opinion is too large, you’ll never be persuaded, and people who are never persuaded are a sad kind of being.

The news is this: apparently, the polarization that we witness is only skin deep. People often express partisan and biased ideas not because they really believe them but as a means to signal affiliation, trustworthiness and identity. In other words: they are bullshitting. Alex Tabarrok wrote:

I am for betting because I am against bullshit. Bullshit is polluting our discourse and drowning the facts. A bet costs the bullshitter more than the non-bullshitter so the willingness to bet signals honest belief. A bet is a tax on bullshit …

A recent paper provides evidence. It’s well known that Democrats and Republicans give different answers to even basic factual questions when those questions are politically loaded (Did inflation fall under Reagan? Were WMDs found in Iraq? and so forth). But do the respondents really believe their answers or are they simply signalling their affiliations? In other words, are respondents bullshitting? In a new paper, Bullock, Gerber, Huber and Hill provide evidence that the respondents don’t actually believe what they say and the authors do so by making partisans pay for their beliefs. (source)

Dylan Matthews:

Those in the control group were asked basic factual questions about politics; those in the treatment group were asked the same questions but were entered into a raffle for an Amazon gift card wherein their chances depended on how many questions they got right.

In the control group, … [t]here are big partisan gaps in the accuracy of responses. … But when there was money on the line, the size of the gaps shrank by 55 percent. (source)

Hence, it seems possible that people are able, given the right conditions, to stop the bullshit and to persuade each other of certain matters of fact. Hence we should be able to reduce polarization and to improve the workings of democracy and of public discourse in general.

The big caveat here is “given the right conditions”. Those conditions are only rarely in place in actual democracies. Normally, when people vote they don’t get paid to vote (and neither do they have to pay to vote). In a certain sense, that’s a good thing: vote-buying is objectionable (as are the property conditions that used to decide who has a right to vote and that were in a sense a price imposed on voting). In another sense, however, it’s a pity that people don’t get paid to vote. The study above shows that if people get some money when their votes are not based on factual mistakes they will tend not to make those mistakes.

If we want democracy to be more than the expression and aggregation of bullshit, we may have to consider paying people to vote.

More posts in this series here.

What is Democracy? (67): The Form of Government That Offers the Best Protection Against Human Rights Violations

There is a clear correlation between the presence and quality of democratic government in a country and the level of respect for human rights in that country. That may sound obvious but it’s good to have some measured results. This paper for instance offers some clear evidence:

There is a substantial body of research devoted to understanding the relationship between democracy and government human rights performance. Most research centers on physical integrity rights but does not analyze the broader civil liberties encompassed by the category of “empowerment rights.” The dynamics of the relationship between the degree of democracy in a state and protection of empowerment rights might be different and improvements may take longer to emerge. This study examines the effects of democracy and democratic duration on empowerment rights scores, and it also uncovers time thresholds at which different scores are attained. The results show that regime type is more critical to the protection of empowerment rights than it is to physical integrity rights. Even in the earliest years of democracy there is a positive relationship between democracy and empowerment rights, but empowerment rights strengthen as countries gain democratic experience. …

Thus, countries with more institutionalized democratic regimes, as determined by the quality and longevity of democratic experience, are significantly more likely to respect both fundamental human rights and broader classes of civil liberties. … [A]lthough human rights protection is present in early years, it will usually be even greater after countries have had extended experience with democracy. (source)

Here are some interesting data to back this up.

The interesting thing about all this is not that there is a correlation – anyone following the news could have guessed as much. What we should care about are the reasons why there is a correlation. From the studies cited above we can see that the most important causal link is the one going from democracy to respect for human rights. In other words, there is a correlation because democracy causes respect for human rights. Vice versa may also be possible, although the argument is probably weaker. And then there may also be a hidden variable that can partially explain the correlation. For example, it may well be that prosperity and high GDP promote both democracy and human rights.

But then the next question is: how does democracy cause higher levels of respect for human rights? I guess this can happen in several ways:

  • Democracies are more likely to be systems based on the rule of law and the rule of law is necessary for the protection of human rights.
  • Democratic rulers know that they can’t get away with repression. They’ll be voted out if they try, or, worse, they’ll suffer the consequences of the rule of law, imposed on them by other branches of power in a system of checks and balances and separation of powers.
  • Democracies have systems of judicial review which allow courts to void legislation that contradicts basic constitutional rights.
  • Democracies have powerful non-violent mechanisms for dispute settlement, such as well-functioning courts. People don’t need to take the law into their own hands. Internal peace and limitations on violent behavior have beneficial effects on a number of human rights.
  • Democracy is correlated with high levels of prosperity, and prosperity makes it easier to promote respect for human rights. Rights cost money.
  • Democracies need human rights to function adequately (no democracy without free speech, free assembly, free association etc.), so they have an added incentive to respect them.

None of the above is meant to imply the following:

  1. That we can delay the implementation of human rights norms in non-democratic states. Remember the remark at the beginning that the causal link probably goes in two opposite directions and that human rights can promote democratic government. After all, if people are allowed to express themselves, they will express themselves about the workings of their government, and that is the first step towards democracy.
  2. That rights are never violated in democracies or never respected in non-democracies. It’s merely a matter of probability.
  3. That there are no elements other than democracy that promote human rights. Of course there must be. I mentioned prosperity a moment ago. Democracy is not a sufficient condition, although probably a necessary one, at least in the long run, for the full set of human rights and for the equal enjoyment of all rights by all people.
  4. That the beneficial effect of democracy on human rights is equal for all human rights or for all types of democracy. Well-developed and long-lasting democracies do better, as mentioned above, but perhaps also deep democracies, meaning democracies that provide a wide range of opportunities for democratic say.

More about the link between democracy and human rights here, here, here and here. More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (66): A Sports-Based Selection Process For Politicians

I’ve already documented several ways in which democracy tends to malfunction. Democracy seems to be a system for

Here’s another one:

It is statistically possible that the outcome of a handful of college football games in the right battleground states could determine the race for the White House.

Economists Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Mo make this argument in a fascinating article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They examined whether the outcomes of college football games on the eve of elections for presidents, senators, and governors affected the choices voters made. They found that a win by the local team, in the week before an election, raises the vote going to the incumbent by around 1.5 percentage points. When it comes to the 20 highest attendance teams—big athletic programs like the University of Michigan, Oklahoma, and Southern Cal—a victory on the eve of an election pushes the vote for the incumbent up by 3 percentage points. That’s a lot of votes, certainly more than the margin of victory in a tight race. (source)

Compared to some of the previously cited distortions of the democratic process, this one is particularly disturbing. You could still argue that the way politicians look or sound has at least some relevance to the political process, even though it shouldn’t determine elections. You could also argue, even if it means stretching your neurons to breaking point, that a long spell of bad weather has an adverse effect on the economy, that politicians should take countermeasures, and that they should be punished if they don’t. If you’re feeling very generous, you could even say that the order effect is a general human bias and that we shouldn’t single out democracy for condemnation when we see this effect appearing in elections.

However, there seems to be no possible excuse for voting in favor of incumbents simply because your local football team scores a win. OK, I can understand that the exhilaration makes you feel good about everything, including perhaps the performance of the incumbents and the status quo in general, but that means we should see the same distortions when people vote after having had sex or after having eaten a chocolate bar. And those latter distortions may have an even greater impact on elections, given the fact that eating chocolate and having sex is more common than watching football. Given the large number of possible distortions like these, I simply can’t convince myself that they really do occur.

Bonus malfunction:

In the summer of 1916 … a dramatic weeklong series of shark attacks along New Jersey beaches left four people dead. Tourists fled, leaving some resorts with 75 percent vacancy rates in the midst of their high season. Letters poured into congressional offices demanding federal action; but what action would be effective in such circumstances? Voters probably didn’t know, but neither did they care. When President Woodrow Wilson—a former governor of New Jersey with strong local ties—ran for reelection a few months later, he was punished at the polls, losing as much as 10 percent of his expected vote in towns where shark attacks had occurred. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (65): A Political Decision Procedure Distorted by the Order Effect

People’s choices are often sensitive to differences in the order in which the options appear. This is one among many psychological biases we all suffer from to some extent. For example,

In the Eurovision song contest, for example, the first or later performers have more chance of winning than those appearing in the middle of the show. (source)

Unsurprisingly, democracy is not immune from this bias. Here’s some evidence from the Irish democracy showing that the order of candidates on ballots affects election outcomes:

The estimated effect of being listed first on an alphabetical ballot paper in an Irish general election is approximately 544 first preference votes or 1.27 percentage points for the average candidate. (source)

In California,

being listed first benefits everyone. Major party candidates generally gain one to three percentage points, while minor party candidates may double their vote shares. (source)

And it’s not just candidates’ surnames or positions on ballots that affect democratic selection procedures. The tone of their voice, their looks and a ton of other biases also play a role. And yet I still believe in the value of democracy.

Needless to say that the order effect – or “ordering effect”, or “serial position effect” – isn’t limited to politics. Next time you walk into a shop and ask for advice, you can bet that the sales person will present you the most expensive item first, because having seen this one first, all the others will look like a bargain and will influence your decision to buy.

More on the order effect here. More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (64): Plutocracy?

The role of money in democracy is hotly contested. It’s undeniable that democracies spend a lot of money on campaigns, advertising, lobbying etc. Some argue that wealthy individuals or corporations often use their financial means to distort the outcomes of elections or the framing of policy and legislation. There may also be a problem of vote buying: wealthy individuals or politicians paying voters or giving them some other advantages (such as jobs or cheap housing) in an effort to convince them to vote in a certain way. Worries about the effect of income inequality on democracy are partly based on this type of argument, as are efforts to regulate campaign financing.

And indeed, the huge amounts of money going around in democratic politics could potentially move us away of the democratic ideal of equal influence. So the charge of plutocracy isn’t necessarily ridiculous. However, this is essentially an empirical matter and we should therefore look at evidence from political science. Here’s a short and somewhat depressing overview:

With regard to overall spending, Jacobson (1978) was the first to show an effect on vote outcomes, but this effect was mainly present for challengers [in U.S. Congressional elections]. In subsequent years, the effect of challenger spending was confirmed, but others also found effects for incumbent spending as well (e.g. Green & Krasno 1988, Erikson & Palfrey 1995, Gerber 1998). The basic takeaway is that spending more is clearly effective for challengers, and probably also matters for incumbents too, but solving the causal direction problems involved makes it very difficult to be really certain of any of these findings.

One problem is we know that winning candidates generally have more money, but whether money helps candidates or is just a signal of unobserved candidate quality [i.e., people give more money to better candidates] is unclear. Another problem is that not only are donors attracted to high-quality candidates just as voters are, but they are also attracted to winning candidates—that is, if money is given in order to get access to elected officials, donors are more likely to give to candidates who are expected to do well, because the expected return is greater. In both cases, we could observe an empirical relationship between winning and having more money for your campaign, without the money actually “causing” the victory. (source)

So, maybe the “plutocrats” can’t just simply spend in order to have their preferred candidate elected and instead spend money on the candidate who is good and who will win anyway. However, the fact remains that their spending gives them privileged access to politicians and possibly also privileged influence on subsequent policy, and that isn’t something we want in a democracy. If “winning candidates generally have more money” – whether the money causes the win or not – one can reasonably assume that the candidates will in some way be indebted to or influenced by their donors. Also, even if there are doubts about the causal direction, it is worrying that the evidence doesn’t rule out the possibility that campaign spending – especially spending by challengers – can determine who gets elected.

Regarding deterrence – successful fundraising by incumbents deterring challengers from entering a race – the empirical evidence is weak:

there is no consensus in the literature regarding deterrence, and once again there are major questions about causal relationships (i.e., do high-raising incumbents deter, or is it just high-quality incumbents who can raise a great deal of money and simultaneously deter quality challengers for reasons having nothing to do with funding?). (source)

Whatever the evidence on deterrence, it’s clear that money determines who can run. It’s naive to think that a candidate with few means would be able to run against another having a lot of means. The former would simply be invisible, even if he or she feels undeterred.

What about campaign advertising, one of the more visible ways in which money could play a part in politics?

[A]ds appear to be somewhat effective but have wide variance in their effectiveness (that is, some ads help a lot, most help very little or not at all, and a few are counterproductive). (source)

Voter mobilization – face-to-face canvassing, mailings, phone calls – is also very expensive, hence well-funded candidates can do more of it. Whether they in fact do more of it depends on its effectiveness:

mobilization efforts appear to be effective but costly (face-to-face canvassing appears most effective by far, while phone calls & direct mail have much less effect). (source)

The conclusion is that campaign spending is somewhat effective, and that those candidates with more money do somewhat better. This results in a financial arms race between candidates, increasing the risk of donor indebtedness and of unequal access and influence:

Candidates who raise a lot of money tend to do better, and it’s more likely than not that at least part of this relationship is due to money paying for things like ads and canvassers that help candidates win over new voters and/or turn out their bases. (source)

Vote buying is the other channel through which money could potentially influence democratic politics. Here, some of the evidence is more encouraging:

The experiment took place during the March 2011 elections in Benin and involved 150 randomly selected villages. The treatment group had town hall meetings where voters deliberated over their candidate’s electoral platforms with no cash distribution. The control group had the standard campaign, i.e. one-way communication of the candidate’s platform by himself or his local broker, followed (most of the time) by cash distribution.

We find that the treatment has a positive effect on turnout. In addition, using village level election returns, we find no significant difference in electoral support for the experimental candidate between treatment and control villages.

…the positive treatment effect is driven in large part by active information sharing by those who attended the meetings. (source)

In conclusion: democracy is not simply a market transaction, but neither is it silly to worry about the role of money in elections and legislation.

More on money in politics here. More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (63): Rule of the People, and Not Just of a Part of the People

Voter turnout rates are a constant worry for proponents of democracy. Wherever voting is not compulsory – and that covers the majority of democracies – large numbers of voters choose not to exercise their right to vote, ever. (And it is a right, by the way). Even if it’s wrong to take this as a rejection of democracy – it’s quite possible for an individual to like living in a democracy and at the same time choose not to participate (he or she may count on others to make it work) – it’s not a sign of a strong and widespread endorsement either. It’s probably just indifference and lack of enthusiasm for democracy. But why should we worry about this? Why would we, ideally, want to see higher rates of participation? Is it not enough for the highly committed to vote? Can’t we leave the others alone and stop moralizing?

Many would answer those latter questions affirmatively, and say that there’s really nothing to worry about for one of these three reasons:

  1. There are those who argue that “the common people” should not vote anyway because they are ignorant. So it’s good if they don’t. As a matter of fact, turnout rates should even be lower than they are today given the general lack of knowledge.
  2. Others say that it’s not the people’s fault that they don’t vote; they don’t because they don’t have a choice and because they don’t have a choice they shouldn’t be pushed into voting. Politicians are all alike, at least in their actions, and no single politician accurately represents all the different opinions that single voters may hold.
  3. And then there are those who claim that voting doesn’t make a difference because there are simply too many votes and a single one almost never tips the scales. Rational people, they say, have better things to do with their time and should be free not to vote.

Here’s a short and hasty reply to these “stay at home” arguments, with some links to more elaborate replies:

  1. Is it really so difficult to understand that ignorance – to the extent that it is common – is the result of rather than a reason for non-participation, and that participation creates knowledge?
  2. Also, we could perhaps ask the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the millions of US citizens without health insurance whether voting for one guy rather than the other does indeed make no difference at all. And to the extent that there is sometimes a lack of difference, we should make the case to politicians that rather than chasing the median voter they should take their roles as “authors and not actors” more seriously.
  3. Finally, isn’t voting about more than bean counting? Even if your individual vote doesn’t tip the scales, can’t you have other reasons to vote? E.g. express yourself, make yourself heard, form associations, shape you identity? Etc. The “drop in the ocean” argument against voting can also be recast as an argument in favor of more power for local and small scale government: if a single vote doesn’t make a lot of difference, then instead of telling people not to vote, we can just as well change the denominator: reduce the total population that decides a certain matter by making democracy more local.

Another problem with the “stay at home” arguments: if large numbers of people don’t vote, then they will have to abide by laws that they didn’t approve, that are tailored to the interests of others and that are likely damaging to their own interests. There are two ways of replying to this:

  • Either people will decide to vote if they see that their nonparticipation starts to hurt them – as long as they don’t participate they accept the consequences.
  • Or some people ruling over others is something that happens all the time in a system of majority vote and that is not limited to the situation in which groups don’t vote. However, majorities and minorities are always different – depending on the issue at stake – whereas non-voters tend to be an unchanging block. The latter always bear the brunt. For example, if poor people tend not to vote, do they really have a right to complain when non-poor voters approve the dismantling of the welfare state?

Even for those who do vote, there are some risks attached to the presence of large and possibly increasing numbers of non-voters. If a lot of people decide not to vote, then why should we have to retain democracy for those who do vote? Maybe non-voters are right in their rejection of democracy and then we should get rid of it altogether. That wouldn’t necessarily be in the interest of those who vote.

Those are some of the reasons to worry about voter turnout rates.

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.

What is Democracy? (61): A Euphemism for the Rule of Some Over Others?

How can a system of majority rule be called the rule of the people? There are always winners and losers and the majority rules over the minority. Even democracy is therefore a system of coercion, domination and the separation between rulers and ruled. The majority coerces the minority so that it respects its decisions. The power to set rules that other people can be coerced to obey by threat of penalty is the power to control other people’s lives, and that’s morally questionable. Calling it a democracy doesn’t change the fundamental problem.

Hence, a real democracy seems to require a system of decision by unanimity. In any other system there are always people who do not decide and who do not have autonomy or freedom in the sense of control over their own lives. Is there a difference between being ruled by one person and being ruled by the majority? Not really I guess, just that in the latter case domination is harder to see.

However, unanimity is usually not feasible, and is probably undesirable as well. If anything, democracy promotes plurality. Unanimity, or better apparent and enforced unanimity, is more typical of authoritarianism and is therefore hardly a better route to freedom.

Perhaps we can solve this problem in the following way. In a democracy, there is a majority whose wishes are given priority at a certain moment, but only temporarily. And there is a minority whose wishes are temporarily rejected. The minority’s wishes can always be presented to the general public, even after a decision has been made. These wishes can be promoted and defended, and they can perhaps become a new and future will of the majority. The majority and minority are not fixed groups, and they differ over space as well as over time: for each issue or decision, the majorities and minorities are different. In a well-functioning democracy, no one is part of a permanent and crosscutting majority or minority.

These two attributes of majority rule – possibility to change the majority over time, and separate majority decisions for as many problems as possible – maximize the chances that every individual can fulfill as many of his or her desires as possible. Unanimity rule would seem to offer a 100% chance, but given that unanimity is not realistic, majority rule is the best we can get. It guarantees that as many people as possible can fulfill as many of their desires as possible, because everyone is in the majority for some decisions and even when they’re not they can become so in the future. The minority, the group of persons supposedly living under the rule of the majority, is not a homogenous or unchanging group. It always consists of other persons and this makes the yoke of the minority a bit easier to carry.

However, that is only true in a well-functioning democracy. Asymmetric power relations in non-ideal democracies can increase some groups’ chances of being in the majority. If they have a lot of money or good lobbyists, they can steer decisions towards their wishes. And that can bring back the specter of the rule of men over men. Furthermore, demographics can be such that certain ethnic or linguistic minorities are permanently relegated to the political minority, for instance when the majority ethnic group consistently votes as a block and against the interests of the minority. In that case, democracy will have to provide some form of political autonomy or federal self-rule to the minority.

Another way out of the problem of majority rule is to argue that all rights, including the right of a majority to decide political matters, imply the power to control the lives of others. My right to property gives me the right to exclude others from it; my right to free speech gives me the right to stop others from violating my freedom of speech, etc.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (60): Is Separation of Powers Compatible With All Types of Democracy?

OK, that question is probably way too ambitious for a blogpost. There are dozens of types of democracy, so let’s just look at two types: presidential democracy and parliamentary democracy (PrD and PaD for short in what remains). And that means not only limiting the scope of the investigation but also simplifying it: there are many different types of PrD or PaD (the Westminster model is one form of PaD, the US system is one form of PrD). But that’s what you have to do if you want to keep your blogposts relatively short and readable.

Moreover, separation of powers is an enormously complex topic as well, so again I’ll have to simplify. I’ll focus on two of the three powers that are traditionally distinguished: the executive and the legislative powers and ask how separation between these two powers is compatible with PrD and PaD.

First, why is separation between these two powers an important value? For the same reason that separation of powers in general is important: to create checks and balances and to pit different powers of the state against each other so that there is less risk of tyrannical government and collusion of different powers against the people. The executive power, which normally executes the laws voted by the legislative power, usually also has a veto power against certain acts of legislation in order to limit the risk of oppressive or unjust legislation. Sometimes, when it gets very bad, the executive can also disband the legislative power and provoke new elections. Conversely, the legislative power often has the power to demand accountability and transparency from the executive power. If the legislative believes that the executive power acts in impermissible ways it can vote laws that make those acts illegal. And so on.

What are the main differences between PrD and PaD? In a PrD – where you have of course also a parliament – the executive power is elected directly by popular vote. People elect a president and this president selects her government. The people also elect members of parliament in separate elections.

In a PaD, the executive isn’t elected directly by the people. The people elect only the members of parliament. The political party (or parties) that manage to get a majority of elected members of parliament then form a government (often after coalition negotiations between parties when there isn’t one party that has managed to acquire a majority of representatives in parliament).

A PrD seems better able to respect the separation between the executive and legislative powers. A president doesn’t sit in parliament and doesn’t rely on the approval of the legislative for her political survival and hence she is unlikely to always have the same views as the legislative majority. Checks and balances can work. She has an independent mandate from the people and she can have a view that’s different from the view of the parliamentary majority. In PaD, the executive is a product of a parliamentary majority. It’s often even composed of some members of the parliamentary majority who sit both in the government and in parliament. Therefore, it isn’t common in a PaD for the executive to counteract the legislative or vice versa. In a PaD, these two powers are more or less the same. The executive is the parliamentary majority and parliament as such is systematically in agreement with the executive. It’s only the parliamentary minority that can voice opposition. But that’s it: it has a voice but it can’t effectively block executive initiatives, since it’s merely a minority. The act of legislation often originates in the executive that in fact has the power to enact whatever legislation it wants since it automatically has the support of the parliamentary majority. Why is that the case? Members of the parliamentary majority who aren’t part of the executive are often second rate party members who are easily persuaded to approve the legislative initiatives of the executive because their political career depends on the support from the senior party members who make up the executive. For the same reasons, the accountability and transparency requirements are often sidestepped because the parliamentary majority doesn’t want to embarrass the executive.

So, PaD abandons part of the separation of powers in order to gain efficiency. Parliamentary systems, compared to presidential systems, can act in a more decisive and a quicker manner (in theory at least). In a PrD, the president can block legislation coming from parliament or can have her legislative proposals voted down by a parliamentary majority.

However, this efficiency advantage of PaD compared to PrD is often lost when coalitions are necessary. This is why some parliamentary systems avoid proportional representation – which tends to produce more than two political parties with representatives in parliament – and use some kind of district system combined with first-past-the-post elections – which tends to lead to two party systems and hence avoids the need for coalitions.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that PaD doesn’t have any separation of powers at all. It usually has an independent judiciary that can act as a counterweight and that can use for example judicial review to invalidate laws that are incompatible with the constitution. So it really isn’t easy to say which system is preferable. Efficiency is perhaps just as important as separation. Yet the direct election of the executive, which is typical of PrD and also the basis of many of the advantages of PrD compared to PaD, generates more popular control and hence more democracy, and that is important as well. And finally. PrDs are more stable. So on balance I think I prefer PrD.

What is Democracy? (59): A Money Hole

At least in the US, it seems:

Barack Obama felt that he had to spent $730 million to win the 2008 election. That’s roughly the GDP of Timor-Leste.

The so-called killer argument of those in favor of unlimited election spending is that the cost of a ticket to the White House hasn’t kept up with US GDP, as if it should keep up with US GDP:

I see absolutely no reason why a slower growth of campaign spending compared to the growth of GDP should automatically deflate our worries about campaign spending. After all, it’s not as if a country needs to spend more on elections as it becomes richer. On the contrary. If campaign spending is defended as a means to inform the public, then one could counter with the fact that people in wealthy countries tend to be better educated and to have good access to modern information sources. Hence, they don’t need to be “informed” by political parties or candidates, especially not if this “information” takes the form of a deluge of hatefilled ads and lying propaganda. The absolute level of campaign spending should remain a worry, wether or not it’s higher or lower than GDP or any other unrelated indicator.

And before you ask: yes, money in politics is a problem, and more money means more problems. If you’re not convinced try some older posts here and here.

Also, it goes without saying but I say it anyway: money is an issue in all types of elections, not only presidential ones. A record $6 billion will be spent on the 2012 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Adjusted for inflation, that’s 60% more than the 2000 elections (source).

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (58): A Voice Based Selection Process for Politicians

It’s both a damning verdict on democracy and a charming play on words: voters apparently use their vote to choose politicians with a certain type of voice (the word “vote” being related to “voice”). More precisely, voters prefer politicians with lower-pitched voices:

Participants in the study, published in the journal of Evolution and Human Behavior, were asked to listen to archival voice recordings of nine U.S. presidents. The researchers, from Canada’s McMaster University, created higher- and lower-pitched versions of each voice. Listeners were then asked to assess the attractiveness, honesty, leadership potential and intelligence — among other qualities — of the speakers.

For nearly every attribute they were asked to rate, participants were significantly more likely to prefer the deeper voice. The only category in which higher voices won? Most Likely to Be Involved in a Government Scandal. …

Previous studies have found that both men and women find men with deeper voices more attractive and more dominant. And in eight U.S. presidential elections between 1960 and 2000, the candidate with the deeper voice has won the popular vote. (source)

Politicians’ looks create a similar distortion of proper democratic processes. Hence I guess the answer to the questions I asked here and here should be “yes” after all.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (57): A System For Signaling Disapproval of the Weather

I already mentioned the fact that a country’s economic performance determines to a large extent the outcome of democratic elections, irrespective of the causal link between this performance and the policies or behavior of elected officials. I also stated my disappointment: ideally, democracy is more than a system for signaling disapproval of the economy; it should be a process of judging the desirability and effectiveness of the policies (and proposed policies) of politicians (and candidates). This process is meant to improve the quality of policies (through trial and error) and to guarantee that policies correspond to the wishes of the people (wishes which have themselves been improved through deliberation). Just voting out the “damned bastards” because the economy is tanking, even if those “bastards” prevented worse, is not an approximation of the ideal.

However, things seem to be even worse than this. Although economic performance should not be the main criteria for judging politicians – the economy is determined by many different things, and policies only play a limited role – it does make sense to make it part of the evaluation: in some cases, there’s no doubt that politicians can harm or benefit the economy, and all politicians have some influence on it. The same isn’t true for the weather, and yet there’s evidence that voters use elections to signal disapproval of that as well:

We find that voters regularly punish governments for acts of God, including droughts, floods, and shark attacks. As long as responsibility for the event itself (or more commonly, for its amelioration) can somehow be attributed to the government in a story persuasive within the folk culture, the electorate will take out its frustrations on the incumbents and vote for out-parties. Thus, voters in pain are not necessarily irrational, but they are ignorant about both science and politics, and that makes them gullible when ambitious demagogues seek to profit from their misery. (source, source, source)

Obviously, politicians shouldn’t be punished for natural events, but they should for mishandling the aftermath (rescue, rebuilding, future prevention etc.). The latter should be part of democracy as a decent ideal. Politicians should be judged on the way they handle the aftermath of weather events, especially given the fact that some such events become a disaster only because of the political or governmental reaction to it (or absence of a reaction).

However, many natural disasters that used to be considered purely natural events are now believed to be at least partially man-made (for example, global warming may provoke hurricanes). Hence it’s not always irrational to blame politicians for the weather itself, rather than for their handling of the aftermath of weather events. What is irrational is the attempt, contrary to the scientific facts about natural and political causation, to blame politicians for natural events or their aftermaths when those events or aftermaths are not clearly manmade.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (56): The Effect of Unconscious Priming?

People in advertising have long known that exposure to certain images – perhaps even subliminally – can change behavior. The same seems to be true in democratic politics. Studies have shown that American voters exposed to the American flag are increasingly supportive of the Republican Party, even if they identify as Democrats, and even if the exposure is fleeting. This effect can last up to 8 months. Exposure to the Confederate activates negativity toward Blacks and results in lowered willingness to vote for Obama. In 2007, Israeli researchers showed that even subliminal exposure to a national flag influences voters (in their study, it encourages voters to support politically moderate views).

This is proof of a lack of voter rationality and of the limited effect or even the futility of deliberation. It’s all very depressing and, when taken together with some other disturbing facts about democracy, it makes you reconsider the supposedly good reasons for promoting democratic governance. Let’s hope nobody in the Middle East is listening.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (54): Kalocracy?

Beautiful people have a number of advantages in social life. They earn more, even in occupations where appearance does not seem relevant to job performance. And, somewhat surprisingly, the beauty premium – and the corresponding ugliness penalty – are higher for men than for women. (I say surprisingly because we usually think that women are more often judged on the basis of their looks). A related effect is heightism: tall people, who are often considered to be more beautiful, also earn more.

And it’s not just in salaries that beauty makes a difference. Beautiful people are also more successful in democratic politics. They are more likely to be elected and, again, the marginal effect of beauty is larger for male candidates than for female candidates. So democracy is in fact kalocracy, rule of the beautiful (from the Greek “kalos“).

But why is there a political benefit of good looks? Probably because there’s a general benefit of being beautiful and because people generally – and hence also in politics – value good looking people more than the rest of us. Psychological experiments have shown that a snap judgment of whether we like someone’s face determines what we believe about that person’s character. And character is important in politics. There’s also the fact that the visual media give more attention to beautiful politicians, something which probably translates into a higher voter share.

Makes you doubt the value of democracy, doesn’t it? And makes you wonder whether we wouldn’t be better off handing over politics to some kind of elite. More positively, perhaps we should start seriously considering a type of democracy that isn’t focused on the selection of candidates through the means of a media circus.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (53): Secret Ballot, or Public Vote?

The secret ballot has become so common in modern democracies that it’s hardly ever questioned. And yet, there are good reasons why a democratic vote should be public. So, let’s go over the pros and cons of the secret ballot, and see where that gets us.

Advantages of the secret ballot

  • The desire to avoid voter intimidation or bribery is the obvious and most commonly cited justification of the secrecy of the ballot. If people in power know how an individual votes, then this individual may be pressured to vote in a certain way. And “people in power” should be understood in a broad sense, including employers, dominant husbands etc. This justification is based on certain key features of a democracy, namely equal influence, one-man-one-vote etc. The risk of coercion is present even in societies where the general level of coercion is low and democratic values are widely shared. And it’s often the least advantaged who will be coerced, because they have most to gain from changing their vote to please someone else, and most to lose from not doing so.
  • The risk of pressure can also be present in other, more subtle forms. For example, it has been shown that people are afraid to publicly oppose authority figures. Tests have shown that when an authority figure speaks first, there’s less dissent afterwards. An open ballot can lead to forced conformity.

Disadvantages of the secret ballot

  • Implicit in the doctrine of the secret ballot is the assumption that the electoral process is no more than the aggregation of individual preferences which have been fixed previously and independently of the electoral process. However, the voting process is, ideally, also formative of preferences, and not merely an arithmetic process based on fixed preferences. That means that people deliberate and discuss about the best way to vote, about the best candidates and policies. But that also means that people have to present their positions and preferences in public. Maybe the ultimate vote can still be secret, but the initial voting intention can’t be if we want democracy to be a lively debate. But if the voting intention can be public, why not the actual vote?
  • An open ballot allows representatives to know exactly whom they are representing. One of the advantages of this knowledge is that it allows for some efficiency gains. Representatives know who has to be convinced. Those efficiency gains should improve the electoral process.
  • When you vote in an election for representatives or in a referendum, this vote has real consequences. Taken together with the votes of your fellow citizens, your vote is likely to change the lives of a number of people, and sometimes change these lives dramatically. Moreover, those people are likely to be minorities, and hence relatively powerless. It’s therefore important that voters are accountable to their fellow citizens and that they explain and justify the reasons they have for voting in a certain way. This horizontal accountability is incompatible with the secret ballot.
  • Why should we have secret ballots for voters and at the same time open votes in parliament, as is usually the case? After all, the justifications for a secret ballot for voters also apply to representatives. They also may be subject to pressure when it’s known how they vote. Maybe to a lesser extent than some parts of the electorate, since they tend to be wealthy and generally powerful, but still. Representatives are less numerous, and hence it’s easier and more effective to use pressure in order to manipulate a vote. Also, the public nature of representatives’ positions makes them vulnerable to specific kinds of pressure that can’t be applied to ordinary citizens (e.g. they may be blackmailed for indecent private behavior and thereby pressured to vote in a certain way). Of course, representative bodies are different from electorates, and therefore not entirely comparable. For example, it’s hard to see how a representative body can be accountable to the electorate when it votes in secret. Voters have to know what the individual representatives have accomplished, or not, so that they can “throw the bums out” at the next election if necessary. Also, this threat of non-reelection can pressure the representatives to act in ways desired by the electorate. So, pressure – at least some kind of pressure – is part and parcel of the representative process, whereas it’s incompatible with a popular vote. However, even if a vote by representatives isn’t entirely comparable to a vote by the people, it still is somewhat comparable, and people arguing for a secret ballot in a general election will have to explain why their arguments don’t also apply to votes in parliament.
  • Open ballots, both in representative bodies and in general, force people to restrict themselves to preferences and arguments that they can justify to others. If you vote in a certain way, and are seen to be voting in a certain way, people will ask you why. And if you’re pressured to answer this question and to justify your vote (or voting intention), it’s a lot more difficult to be motivated, or to be seen to be motivated by self-interest only. Hence, the open ballot will make voters more sensitive to the general interest, which is a good thing. Also, this public justification tends to improve the quality of preferences, since people have to think about them, argue about them with others etc. That’s the logic of the marketplace of ideas.
  • And, finally, open ballots make electoral fraud a lot more difficult, if not impossible.

Obviously, not all of these advantages and disadvantages have the same importance, and they don’t make it instantly clear whether a secret or an open ballot should be preferred in principle. Much depends on the specific circumstances. For example, in a country with a lot of economic inequality and gender inequality, the case for a secret ballot for voters is relatively strong. In general, a mixed system is probably best. However, we don’t have such a mixed system at the moment. Most modern democracies strongly favor secret ballots, and seem to ignore the real problems resulting from such a system. I believe some more attention should be given to these problems and to possible solutions, which obviously doesn’t mean that we should go to the other extreme and deny people’s right to keep their opinions to themselves if they so wish. There can’t be a duty of free speech.

What is Democracy? (52): Predictability or Uncertainty?

Why would this question be even remotely interesting? Well, I can see several reasons. Maybe not in the West but elsewhere in the world democracy is often rejected because it supposedly undermines predictability and hence economic performance. A strong central government that doesn’t have to worry about the next election is said to be more efficient, economically speaking, because it can apply long term planning. Talkative democracies with their frequent elections, rotation in office and often federal structures are simply unable to plan and are forced to pander to the short term interests of a lot of small groups because elections are at stake. Also, people seem to prefer predictability over uncertainty in general, not just because of the economy.

Let’s just bracket the question whether or not uncertainty is in general a bad thing, and whether or not we want to limit it (uncertainty is and always will be a fact of life so limiting it is all we could do if we decide that that is what we want). Those are not questions I’m particularly interested in since the answers can reasonably go both ways (planning can be good or bad, certainty can be comforting or stifling etc.). I’ll focus on the relationship between democracy and uncertainty. Is it true, as some authoritarians claim, that democracy promotes uncertainty? Yes, for some reasons, and no, for others.

There are indeed some forces that compel democratic politicians to favor the short term. Elections need to be won, and voters naturally value short term benefits more than long term benefits, even if these long term benefits are much larger (this is called time preference). They have some good reasons for this: maybe they think that they won’t be around in the long term (or that the probability of being around decreases when the time horizon is further in the future), or maybe they don’t believe in the long term: since life is unpredictable, especially in the long term, it’s better to count on short term benefits, even if they are small in comparison, than on large but unlikely long term benefits. If that is how voters think, then they will favor politicians who focus on the short term. Democracy therefore exacerbates life’s inherent unpredictability.

Also, voters are correct in thinking that politicians have more power over the short term than over the long term, which is another reason to favor politicians who promise short term benefits. This “short-termism” may be misguided for other reasons – especially when the short term benefits are detrimental to long term benefits (e.g. driving SUVs) – but it’s indeed to some extent a fact of life in a democracy, and one which, by definition, produces uncertainty because it makes long term planning very difficult if not impossible.

It’s also true that some non-democracies have proven themselves to be better long term planners, although most non-democracies have been short term kleptocracies that ruined their national economies. Dictatorships have also shown that long term planning doesn’t need to be benevolent: the long term planning they engaged in mostly focused on the long term survival of the ruling class, not the long term benefits of the people or of business. Predictability then means eliminating opposition and dissent. And even if prosperity is the motivation, the result is often the destruction of freedom.

Another reason why democracies are particularly unpredictable is the game of action and reaction. In a democracy, the majority has to take into account reactions of the minority and reactions of a future majority. (Democratic minorities have some power, e.g. their rights cannot be violated by the will of the majority). When people react to what you’re doing, you can never be certain that the actual consequences of your actions correspond to the imagined ones. A carpenter working in isolation can be quite sure that the table he’s making will look a lot like the one he imagined. A democratic politician will most often see things happening quite differently from the way he or she expected them to happen. The plurality of a democracy means that many different kinds of reactions can interfere with actions. As a result, there’s unpredictability. Goals will not be achieved exactly the way they were intended, or will not even be achieved at all.

A democracy does not try to suppress or eliminate reactions and contradictions. It tries to ritualize them, soften them and take the violence out of them, but it needs them. It needs conflicts, opposition, criticism, plurality, rotation etc. Democracy is a game of action and reaction that is institutionalized and accepted as an inevitable fact of life in a community with different people and different goals. It cannot exist without events initiated by some and reacted upon by others. Hence democrats embrace uncertainty and unpredictability, however unpopular this may be. They don’t accept that there is necessarily a purpose, a clear plan unfolding in history, an evolution toward a certain goal, a plan or a process that can be known in advance and implemented in a predictable way. They are weary of planning because they don’t believe that planners can have the necessary knowledge to plan and because of the tyrannical nature of planning: planning has to result in the exclusion of reaction.

However, let’s not exaggerate. Non-democracies can also be quite unpredictable, and beside the fact that short-termism isn’t an exclusively democratic vice there are other things that disprove the claim that democracy is especially bad for certainty and predictability. Democracies are rule based, and much more so than dictatorships. They favor the rule of law, which means that public policy is much less impacted by changing individuals. Governments can only do what the laws allow them to do, and their actions are therefore much more predictable. You could say: so what, they can always change the laws. True, but only within the confines of a constitution which is incredibly hard to alter. Judges in a democracy have the power of judicial review and can undo acts of legislation that violate the fundamental rules of a democracy.

This “hard-coding” of the constitution shows that a democracy, like any form of government, wants to be certain of its survival. In that sense, it needs predictability, but not predictability of policy. A democracy tries to eliminate only anti-democratic reaction and opposition, not opposition to policy. An entrenched constitution is one way it does this; asking people to promise respect for it is another way. Promises produce some certainty, a certainty and predictability based on freedom. Promises imply freedom, because a promise is only valid if it is voluntary. This kind of certainty is therefore radically different from certainty produced by the elimination of reaction. In a tyranny, everybody is certain – to some extent – that the regime will survive because nobody can or dares to react, or because indoctrination and propaganda have conditioned people in such a way that they do not even contemplate reaction. In a democracy, there is relative certainty because enough people keep their promise to respect the regime, and because there are institutions enforcing respect for the basic rules. Those promises are the rationale behind the so-called “pledge of allegiance“.

Of course, this does not mean that everything in a democracy is free and voluntary. There has to be some coercion because some people will not make or keep the necessary promises. There will be coercion, not of promises, but of reactions. Promises cannot be coerced. Anti-democratic reaction is the only type of reaction that is eliminated in a democracy. Every other kind of reaction is cultivated.

An anti-democratic reaction is somewhat of a contradiction in terms. It is because of democracy that reaction is possible: democracy softens and hence promotes reaction. If reaction becomes an activity without risk, as is the case in a democracy, then reaction blossoms. Reacting against democracy is not only ungrateful, it is self-destructive.

But apart from this predictability of the institutions necessary for unpredictable political life, it is clear that the focus of democracy is on conflict, contradictions, opposition, reactions, unpredictability and uncertainty. Freedom does not always go hand in hand with control, although on an individual level this may be the rule. An individual is free if he controls his life. But a society is not free if people try to control consequences and the future. Unpredictability does not mean that people are not free to choose their future. They are just not certain that the future will be the one they have chosen.

The freedom to react disappears when politicians want to be certain of their goals. They want to be like a lone craftsman who makes a product without much interference from other people and other goals. Society is in need of a blueprint and a makeover. Reality has to be made in order to conform to the plan or the model. It is no longer the uncertain and unpredictable result of human action and reaction but the product of a plan and of the concerted efforts to realize it. Freedom is replaced by the execution of a plan and of the orders of those who best know the plan and the means to realize it. (Arendt was one of the first to make this argument).

Politics becomes a goal producer, and is no longer the platform on which different goals can be shown, can interact and can fight peacefully for supremacy. People become a means for the realization of the plan, instruments or material for the creation of society. And if they are resistant material they are forced into line, or perhaps they are even “waste”. In any case, the application of force to the materials is necessary in order to shape them. If you want to create society, you have no other means but people. People will have to be transformed. Their thinking has to be conditioned by way of education, propaganda, indoctrination, punishment, forced labor or genetic manipulation. Perhaps even selective abortion, euthanasia or simply extermination. Some materials do not allow transformation or improvement.

However, it is far from certain that the elimination of reaction is possible. It may be counterproductive and create more reaction than initially anticipated. Plurality is probably unavoidable, and therefore uncertainty as well.

More on the future here and here. More on democracy here.

What is Democracy? (51): Representatives as Actors and Authors

Sorry for this very long post, but I think this is important. During the discussions about healthcare reform in the U.S., opponents frequently mentioned the unpopularity of the proposed Bill (although now, after the Bill has been accepted and turned into law, it seems that its popularity has gone up). I don’t wish to engage in a discussion about the accuracy of the opinion polls that measure the popularity of healthcare reform (it’s obvious that extremely negative political propaganda has played a role, as well as lack of knowledge about the actual proposals).

What I want to do here is look at the deeper discussion about the problems arising from a representative body voting laws that are unpopular (or seem to be). One of the more eloquent dismissals of unpopular legislation, especially the healthcare legislation, comes from Megan McArdle:

Are we now in a world where there is absolutely no recourse to the tyranny of the majority? Republicans and other opponents of the bill did their job on this; they persuaded the country that they didn’t want this bill. And that mattered basically not at all. If you don’t find that terrifying, let me suggest that you are a Democrat who has not yet contemplated what Republicans might do under similar circumstances. Farewell, Social Security! Au revoir, Medicare! … Oh, wait–suddenly it doesn’t seem quite fair that Republicans could just ignore the will of their constituents that way, does it? … What I hope is that the Democrats take a beating at the ballot box and rethink their contempt for those mouth-breathing illiterates in the electorate. (source)

Apart from the fact that we usually mean something else by “tyranny of the majority” (i.e. majority approved and popular decisions violating the rights of minorities), she and others like her seem to have a valid point, but only at first glance. While I don’t believe that they advocate getting rid of the whole notion of elections and just leave decisions up to opinion polls, they certainly want to give opinion polls much greater weight and turn them into some sort of check on parliamentary majorities (however, it’s not clear how that is supposed to work).

I want to argue against this. It’s true that a democracy is all about electing leaders who are supposed to execute the will of the people by way of laws and policies (if we sidestep the important issue of direct participation). The people don’t vote laws and don’t decide and pursue policies themselves. They decide what can and cannot be viewed as the will of the people, but then they give someone else the power to execute this will in their name and to frame the laws and policies necessary for the execution of this will.

That’s because it’s practically very difficult to allow all people to participate in all decisions. In a representative system, the people can influence the laws and the policies of the government only indirectly. They elect those representatives who they think are likely to vote laws and implement policies in accordance with their wishes, and if, afterwards, the people find out that they elected the wrong representatives, they replace them. The desire to hold on to power, forces the representatives to act in accordance with the wishes of the people.

This means that representatives do not necessarily follow their own personal judgment or their own conscience. The people instruct them and tell them, in a general way perhaps, what kinds of laws or policies to implement, or at least they tell them which values should be promoted by laws and policies. In all their actions, the representatives must never forget whence they came, who elected them and for what reason. They are the servants of the people whom they represent and whose wishes they are supposed to realize with the help of laws and policies. If their own wishes and opinions collide with those of the people, then they should either set them aside or resign from their posts.

In other words, representatives are actors and not authors. The people are the authors and the representatives act out the words of the authors instead of their own words (although of course their own words may coincide with those of the people). This guarantees the congruence of power and society. The political actors speak and act the words owned by those whom they represent (the authors) and, if necessary, leave their own personality behind while doing their work. Their official personality must be the sum of the opinions of the electors who, for this reason, recognize themselves in the representatives. The representatives act with authority (a word related to the word “author”) and are likely to remain in office as long as this recognition lasts and as long as the representatives act in the way they were authorized to do. The difference between rulers and ruled is hereby eliminated, notwithstanding the fact that the representatives and the represented are not the same persons. They are not the same persons but they share the same personality (notice also the etymological origin of the word “person”, namely a mask worn by actors). Not only the election results, but also the laws and the government policies must be the reflection of the will of the people. Representatives do not only have authority on the basis of an election result, but also on the basis of their performance in office.

All that would vindicate the position of McArdle and other opponents of the healthcare bill. However, things are not as simple as this. Representation is more than just a convenient tool for self-government in large communities. It has certain other advantages.

[L]imitation to a small and chosen body of citizens … [is] to serve as the great purifier of both interest and opinion, to guard ‘against the confusion of a multitude'”. Hannah Arendt in On Revolution.

It’s not always easy for a representative to know what the people think, if they think something at all. It often happens that a representative guides, purifies or clarifies the thoughts of the people by presenting his own thoughts in a clear and concise way. At the next election, the people are of course free to express acceptance or rejection of these thoughts and to vote for or against the person defending them.

So it’s clear that the definition of the representative as an actor is a simplification. Representatives should be more than mere errand boys faithfully executing the will of their masters and speaking, not with their own voice, but with the voice of the voters. They are more than robots or parrots doing deeds and saying words that are not their own. Of course, a representative of the people “re-presents” someone, makes someone else present in parliament or in an executive function. He plays a part. He represents something that is pre-existent.

However, this is not always the case. What is represented often arises after and through the act of representation. By presenting his ideas in a clear and convincing way, the representative can convince the people to adopt his ideas. He can also try to add a certain clarity, direction, consistency and unity to the opinions of the voters. In the case of contradicting desires for example, he can establish a certain priority and favor one desire while putting another one temporarily aside. He decides an issue in the name of the undecided electorate torn between two conflicting desires (for example employment and limiting the arms trade) and defends this decision by giving clear arguments to the voters.

At the next election, the voters can always disavow the choices of the representatives, but then at least they are forced to decide what is their point of view, to make up their minds, to focus on one of their conflicting views and to end an internal conflict.

Politics should not always focus on every wish or follow every erratic movement in the opinions of the people. It should also try to guide these wishes by offering and forcing a clear choice. This means that it’s quite all right for a representative to follow his own judgment now and then instead of simply saying what his electors instructed him to say. This kind of independence is of course limited. It cannot be applied to fundamental opinions. For example, a representative chosen on a ticket of anti-racism cannot express racist ideas or execute racist policies while in office.

The simple model of democracy—the people making up their minds beforehand and choosing representatives who will faithfully implement their opinions—is sometimes a simplification of reality. The politician is often the midwife of the truth of society, in the words of Guéhenno, and shapes the will of the people. Politicians necessarily take over characteristics of the people and start to resemble the people, otherwise they cannot represent the people and the people will never support the politicians. However, the opposite is also true. The people often start to resemble the politicians because the politicians clarify the sometimes vague and contradictory opinions of the people.

If the representatives were only allowed to follow the instructions of the electorate, then the affairs of parliament would be no more than an exercise in arithmetic, a sum of opinions. Representatives in parliament could not and should not discuss, deliberate and convince each other. If a representative changes his opinions as a consequence of discussion and argumentation in parliament—and this happens very often, because otherwise discussion and argumentation would be useless—then his opinions are no longer those that won him the election and he no longer represents the people who elected him. If representatives must follow the instructions of the electorate in every case, then parliament cannot be a place where different opinions are juxtaposed and discussed and where people try to come to a common opinion based on argumentation rather than the coincidence of identical opinions.

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole—where not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. Edmund Burke

More posts in this blog series.

What is Democracy? (50): The I-Did-It-My-Way Syndrome

In discussions about the promotion of democracy in those parts of the world where it hasn’t been (firmly) established yet, the skeptical side of the argument usually advances either or both of the following positions:

  • Democracy is a political form typical of the West and undesirable or impossible elsewhere.
  • Democracy is a political concept which is defined in different ways according to the culture in which it is applied. When promoting democratic government in certain places, we are in fact promoting standard Western democracy when we should in fact be promoting something quite different.

The first position often includes references to cultural or religious preconditions for democracy which are claimed to be absent in certain countries (notably Muslim countries, which supposedly have a hard time accepting the separation of state and religion, the rule of law, gender equality and other elements of democracy). Or it includes arguments about economic preconditions which are absent (democracy being OK for the wealthy West, but not for countries which have other, more urgent economic concerns). And, finally, the size of countries, or their ethnic mix, is said to make democracy very difficult to achieve, or to make it an element which can undermine national harmony and stability. Democracy is viewed as something which reinforces communal or tribal antagonism because the different political parties tend to be formed along ethnic or tribal dividing lines. As a consequence, these parties see it as their role to defend the communal interest and nothing else, and once they are in power they tend to do so by discriminating against other communities. In such countries, democracy degenerates into an ethnic census.

The second position doesn’t reject the possibility or desirability of democracy in certain countries, but claims that the western definition of democracy can’t and shouldn’t be imposed outside of the West without taking into account the local, cultural, historical and social circumstances. There should be different models of democracy for different parts of the world. The western model is not a panacea and is not adapted to all circumstances.

Needless to say that this second position tends to collapse into the first one: if democracy is a very open concept that can include very different procedures, rules and institutions, then it can also exclude elements of democracy which we normally see as essential parts of democracy. An “African democracy” or “Asian democracy” or whatever, may turn out to be not very democratic. Indeed, such concepts are often mere smokescreens used by dictators weary of rejecting democracy altogether.

However, there is some element of truth in both positions. Democracy is undoubtedly tied to certain preconditions, and is impossible without those. And, in certain specific circumstances, such as a war or a national emergency, democracy – or full democracy – may be – temporarily – undesirable. Moreover, countries have to be able to follow their own path and to organize their societies according to their own views and traditions, and not according to those of the West. The Western model isn’t by definition the only desirable one, or the best one. It is not up to the West to decide what is and what is not politically acceptable in countries with entirely different traditions. Democracy can take different forms. Even among Western countries, there are vast differences between the types of democracy that are applied.

It’s wrong to copy the specifically Western view of democracy “à la lettre” in the rest of the world. Within certain limits, we have to take local and cultural aspects into consideration and we have to be flexible where we can. But there are limits. A democracy can’t be just anything. Otherwise we would be defending nihilism. If some elements are missing – such as freedom of speech, association and assembly, regular, fair and free elections, the rule of law etc. – then we can hardly speak of democracy.

What is Democracy? (49): An Export Product?

I strongly believe that democracy is a universal value and the best possible form of government for any country in the world (which doesn’t mean that democracy should necessarily take the same form everywhere). This is based on another belief, namely that democracy promotes favorable outcomes (such as prosperity, economic growth, quality of governance, respect for human rights etc.) and is also a good in itself.

However, democracy promotion poses some logical, moral and practical problems. I want to focus on the logical and moral ones here.

Shortly after the French Revolution in 1789, Napoleon Bonaparte propelled his armies across Europe on behalf of the universal principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, somewhat in the style of the U.S. forces now deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Napoleon’s armies occupied Europe because they wanted to export French principles and French civilization. Everybody had to follow the French lead and had to enact a “French” Revolution, assisted by France if necessary. France was the advance guard of the struggle of humanity for freedom and against old-style authoritarianism.

A military type of democratic imperialism in the style of Napoleon is of course only one of many ways to promote democracy abroad and certainly not the best one. Attacking, conquering and occupying other countries, even with the purpose of liberating these countries from oppression and archaic authoritarian forms of government, seems to be highly illogical and self-contradictory. It’s incompatible with the very principles of democracy (democracy is self-determination). This is shown by the fact that, in most cases, the democratic crusade of the French failed to produce democracy in the “backward” countries of destination. On the contrary, it created resentment. The occupied countries, quite understandably, rejected France, and hence rejected its principles as well, perhaps for no other reason than the fact that it were principles of a hostile and conquering country. Traditional and often non-democratic political practices were reinvigorated by feelings of national pride that came with the struggle against France. Grave consequences followed, especially in 20th century Germany. Perhaps something similar can be said of current attempts at military-backed “nation-building”.

Other, non-military means to promote democracy around the world are not without problems either. If you want to liberate the world, then you will tend to see yourself as a model, superior to the rest and more “civilized” than the rest. This kind of megalomania will cause a reaction: people will stress their difference. It will, in other words, create the opposite of what is intended.

If people want to have democracy, then it is of course possible and acceptable, maybe even necessary to assist them and to help them in their struggle against their government. But can we promote democracy if the people of a country do not want to have a democracy? Is it not undemocratic to force someone to be democratic? On the one hand, democracy implies respect for the will, the choice and the consent of the people. But, on the other hand, if we want to create democracy with undemocratic means, we have the analogy that peace is not always restored with peaceful means either.

If, as this analogy suggests, you are allowed to impose democracy from the outside and without the agreement of the people, then you obviously give the appearance of incoherence. You don’t act in a democratic way because you’re not interested in the will of the people (the will of the state is of no importance here, although in most cases it is this will rather than the will of the people which hinders democratization). The question is: are we allowed to impose or enforce democracy in an authoritarian way? Or do the people have a right to reject democracy? Does democracy not imply the right of the people to decide against democracy and to choose something else?

There are several problems with this kind of question.

  • First, it forces a system to be self-destructive (it forces democracy to respect the will of the people in all cases, even when this means respecting the choice of the people against democracy), which is clearly an unreasonable requirement.
  • The second problem is that the question reduces democracy to a system of popular choice and obscures all other functions of democracy.
  • Thirdly, those castigating democracy promotion because it doesn’t respect the anti-democratic will of a people suffer from a paradox of their own: choosing something other than democracy is choosing a system in which you cannot choose. It is difficult to call this a choice. The decision not to decide cannot be called a decision either. A people who choose against democracy contradict themselves and are at odds with their own opinions, in the same way as the democrat forcing democracy down the throat of the same unwilling people.
  • Finally, a people can only choose for or against a democracy when they already live in a democracy. In a non-democratic regime, their choice is of no importance; it is not taken into account and often even impossible to determine.

In spite of all this, however, it’s possible that there is a tentative understanding that a certain people living in a certain dictatorship do in fact make the illogical choice of not being able to choose. So the question remains: are we allowed to impose democracy against the choice of those concerned? Or, in other words, are we allowed to promote democracy with undemocratic means? If we say that peace is not always promoted with peaceful means either, then Stalin could reply that he tried to liberate the Russians from barbarism by using barbaric means. There is not much difference between Stalin’s statement and the statement that we can liberate nations from undemocratic regimes by using undemocratic means. So we must be careful with this kind of reasoning.

The important thing here is the difference between the imposition of democracy on an unwilling (or seemingly unwilling) people, and simple democracy promotion. There’s no contradiction in trying to convince people to choose for democracy.

[I]t is difficult to see on what principles but those of tyranny [a people] can … be prevented from living … under what laws they please, provided they commit no aggression on other nations and allow perfect freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied with their ways …

So long as the sufferers by the bad law do not invoke assistance from other communities, I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied should be put an end to because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant who have no part or concern in it. Let them send missionaries, if they please, to preach against it; and let them, by any fair means (of which silencing the teachers is not one), oppose the progress of similar doctrines among their own people. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty

There is, however, an error is this argument, pointed out by the same author. The reason why we do not meddle with the free choice of someone else, is precisely his or her freedom. By choosing to submit to a tyrant, this person alienates his or her freedom. One free choice makes all other free choices impossible.

He therefore defeats … the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself … The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty.

What is Democracy? (48): One Man, One Vote, Ctd.

It is well known that states are overrepresented in the U.S. political system. For example, Wyoming has 0.2% of the U.S. population but has 0.6% of the Electoral College votes for President, and 2% of the U.S. senators; while California has 12% of the population, 10% of the electoral votes, and still only 2% of the senators. To put it another way: Wyoming has 6 electoral votes and 2 senators per million voters, while California has 1.5 electoral votes and 0.06 senators per million voters. … the 21 smallest states have the population of California but 42 Senators compared to California’s two. … We have looked at other countries (Mexico, Canada, Japan, Argentina, Thailand…) and found similar patterns. Andrew Gelman (source)

To some extent, this has been done on purpose, especially in the U.S. When forming the federation, small states had bargaining power and wanted to have an equal vote – equal compared to larger states – in the federal arena in order to protect their interests and to avoid being outvoted by simple population based majorities. This was called the Great Compromise: the Senate became the “State’s House”, and the House of Representatives the “People’s House” (because it has a more proportional type of representation).

Such systems violate the principle of “one man, one vote”, a basic principle of democracy (which is why some prefer to call the U.S. a republic rather than a democracy), not only because it gives some voters more influence than others, but also because, in extreme cases, it can lead to the rule of the minority: a minority can get its proposals translated into legislation or policy, or can at least block proposals for change.

However, these systems aren’t always detrimental to democracy. In some circumstances, arrangements like these are necessary for the peaceful coexistence of different groups in relatively large states. When certain minorities don’t get certain safeguards, democracy and even the state as such may turn out to be difficult to maintain. There is a type of democracy called pacification democracy or consociational democracy (more here). This type of democracy is characterized by the will to eliminate permanent minorities as much as possible and to create mechanisms to guarantee a certain degree of participation for every group. Some of these mechanisms are:

  • A guaranteed number of representatives (e.g. Senators in the case of the U.S.), government ministers, civil servants etc. from each group (disproportional representation).
  • A second parliamentary chamber exclusively for the representation of minorities.
  • Two-thirds majorities or even larger majorities for important decisions, which guarantees that at least most of the groups participate in these decisions.
  • Veto-powers for important decisions. Each group, even a minority group, can block decisions that are contrary to its fundamental interests. In very heterogeneous and divided societies, this creates a de facto consensus-democracy instead of the classical majority-democracy. This may be necessary to avoid the “dictatorship of the majority” and the systematic exclusion of certain minorities. This system always tries to have the consent of all important groups in society, especially for important decisions.
  • A high degree of local self-government (federalism).

All these things violate the principles of “one man, one vote” and simple majority rule, but sometimes this violation is necessary to have a stable and peaceful democracy. I argued elsewhere that democracy is always more than mere majority rule.

What is Democracy? (47): Something in Need of Innovation

If we agree that democracy is something valuable, and that speaking about democracy means speaking about a “thick” democracy, a “deep” democracy, a “full” democracy or a maximalist version of democracy as opposed to a democracy characterized only by regular and fair elections, then it becomes important to find ways in which to make our democracies more democratic.

Making a democracy more democratic means designing procedures and institutions that make it more likely that government policy and legislation represent the will of the people, but also that processes that guide the formation of this will are improved. A lot of thinking about democracy takes popular preferences for granted, and merely focuses on the implementation of these preferences. However, you can imagine procedures that do a very good job implementing preferences, but what use are they if these preferences are merely unreflected opinions and when there are no deliberative institutions that help to form preferences?

So, if we want to improve democracy and deepen it, we have to focus on two aspects:

  • improve the way in which preferences are implemented
  • improve the way in which preferences are formed.

Innovations in preference implementation

In mentioned in a previous post that a purely representative system of democracy isn’t able to accurately implement voter preferences. The argument in a nutshell: it’s more difficult to express preferences while voting for persons than it is while voting for issues. One person, who is a candidate for representative, holds many different opinions, and voting for this person means voting for the totality of these opinions. As a voter, you therefore vote for opinions which aren’t necessarily yours. You cannot express every single one of your preferences. You express your preference for a person, and this will be a person who more or less has the same preferences as you have, but there is some loss. And when preferences can’t be adequately expressed, they can be adequately implemented either.

For example, suppose your opinions as a voter are generally very liberal, but you oppose abortion vehemently. Suppose also that all liberal candidates for representatives are in favor of abortion. What do you do? You either don’t vote – but then you give up on democracy and the premise of this post doesn’t hold – or you vote for the liberal who holds a set of opinions closest to your own. However, when choosing the latter option you will vote for someone who favors abortion. Hence you were unable to express your preference against abortion, and democratic politics will therefore not correctly implement popular preferences.

If we want to improve this aspect of democracy, we should allow people to vote on issues, at least now and again. A modicum of direct democracy should be available. One institutional translation of direct democracy is the referendum. A referendum can be viewed as an innovation of purely representative democracy, an innovation designed to allow a better expression and implementation of popular preferences.

A vote in a referendum may be better than a vote for a representative in some cases – because such a vote means a more correct expression of preferences – but a traditional criticism against referenda is precisely that they simplify issues: they force people to put their preferences into the straight-jacket of a simple yes-no choice. People may not be able to express their preferences with the means of a simple “yes” or “no”. Many issues on which people are asked to express themselves in a referendum may not be suitable for a simple yes-no question. For example, some people may answer the question “should abortion be illegal” with a resounding “yes” or “no”, but other people may feel that their preferences require a longer, more nuanced answer.

However, instead of using this problem in order to reject the referendum as a democratic tool, we may opt for an innovation of the referendum system. Instead of offering a simple yes-no answer, a referendum can be a bit more complicated. Possible answers can take other forms, for example:

  • “Answer yes or no”; “If you have answered ‘no’, would you be willing to accept the following, less far-reaching alternative …, yes or no?”, etc.
  • “Answer yes or no”; “Since it is likely that the following consequences […] will result from the rejection of this proposal by the majority, would you be willing to accept consequence 1, 2 etc.?”; “If not, would you be willing to accept…?” etc.
  • Instead of a simple yes-no, voters could also be asked to classify a series of options according to their preferences.
  • etc.

So there are ways to improve and innovate direct democracy, which is in itself an improvement of representative democracy. But even if we stay within the realm of representative democracy, it’s possible to make it better. For example, it is well known that the political party system is not perfect. The candidates/representatives that are presented to the people for election, are selected by way of opaque mechanisms, involving power struggles within parties, fundraising, lobbying etc. This  distorts the election of representatives as an expression of popular preferences. Moreover, a party system – especially a two-party system – limits the field of debate. Topics which aren’t interesting for the parties or don’t fit within their overall ideology are ignored. One can reflect on a representative system which does away with parties altogether. Also, why should elections be the best way to represent people and their preferences? Wouldn’t a selection by lot of people from the general public not produce a more representative body of politicians? All such innovations and many more are worth considering.

Innovations in preference formation

However, what is the use of having systems that adequately express and implement citizens’ preferences if these preferences are of low quality, if they’re mere prejudice, knee jerk reactions, parrot talking points or unreflected slogans? Preferences should ideally be the result of reflection and deliberation. If preferences are formed through open discussion in which many perspectives on issues and many arguments for and against certain options can be aired, then the quality of preferences will be greatly enhanced, and that is something that benefits us all, even those of us who don’t manage to get our preferences translated into policy and legislation.

I have an older post here discussing the way in which deliberation improves thinking (based on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant).

However, open and fair discussion isn’t the strongest point of our current democracies, and this is another area in need of innovation and improvement. How can we improve the quality of political discourse? The reinstatement of the “fairness doctrine” is an option, but perhaps not the best one. Citizen juries are another option. Such juries, comprised of randomly selected members of the public, are asked to discuss a topic, interview experts, and form an opinion. Either this opinion is then taken to represent the opinion of the public as a whole and implemented into policy, or the public as a whole is asked to take note of the proceedings and conclusions and debate it further in other forums.

And that’s just one way of considering citizens’ preferences not as a given but as something that has be to formed, and that can be formed in a good way or a bad way.

What is Democracy? (46): The Boundary Problem

Most discussions about democracy take one thing for granted: that the composition of the group of people who (have to) govern themselves democratically is already fixed. The topics discussed are:

  • how can these people govern themselves democratically, or more democratically?
  • which procedures, institutions or voting systems should be used to guarantee the highest level of democracy?
  • is representative democracy best, or should there be some kind of <a href="http://direct democracy?
  • which are the prerequisites for an adequate or perfect democracy (education, free speech etc.)?
  • what happens to the minorities within this group of people?
  • etc.

What is forgotten in all such discussions is that the composition of the group of people governing themselves democratically has an enormous importance. This composition is of course established by boundaries or borders. These boundaries are prerequisites for any democratic decision: before such a decision is possible or even conceivable, there has to be a prior decision on who the “demos” is, on who is included in and excluded from the group that is supposed to govern itself democratically.

There is no problem when the democratic decisions of the group are strictly self-regarding; the “boundary problem” arises when the groups takes democratic decisions that affect outsiders, those who have been excluded from the demos by the initial boundary decision. And that happens quite often. Groups then take decisions that have consequences for other people who have had no say in the matter. Sometimes this happens inadvertently, but other times the boundary decision has been made precisely in such a manner that the outsiders have been excluded on purpose. An example of the former case is the decision by a democratic country to exploit its rainforest for wood exports, impacting the global climate. An example of the latter is the disenfranchisement of felons and the subsequent democratic decision to impose forced labor on prisoners.

This last example already indicates that the boundary problem isn’t limited to national frontiers. These national frontiers obviously raise important problems (and not only when they are contested, as in the case of the occupied territories in Palestine where the excluded Palestinians have to live with the decision of democratic Israel), but other, less material boundaries do so as well. In many cases, the prior boundary decision effectively determines (and in some cases is meant to determine) the consequent democratic decisions. When blacks were disenfranchised under the apartheid regime in South Africa, then this determined – and was intended to determine – the nature of the democratic decisions taken by non-blacks.

As is clear from these examples, the boundary problems arises when the decision-makers don’t include all those who are affected by the decisions. The boundary problem therefore violates a basic democratic principle, namely self-government and self-control. The purpose of democracy is precisely the avoidance of heteronomy, the political subjection of a community to the rule of another power or to an external law. The boundary problem can mean the reintroduction of – intended or unintended – heteronomy. Boundaries are obviously necessary for the creation of democracy – no democracy without a fixed demos, and no demos with boundaries, exclusion and inclusion – but they can also undo it, namely when they exclude people who are affected by the decisions of those who are included.

The rule that we should try to include in the demos all those who are affected by democratic decisions sounds good in theory but raises problems of its own. For example, it’s never clear beforehand who will be affected by a decision, and hence it’s impossible to include all those who may be affected. In addition, the affected population is extremely different from one decision to another, meaning that the rule would force us to radically reconsider and alter the demos for each decision. That seems practically impossible. And finally, the affected population may be very far away, physically, or may cover the entire world population, including those not yet born. Again, difficult if not impossible to solve this in practice.

Bob Goodin, who has thought about this a lot more than me,  states that we may perhaps not be able to always include all those affected by all decisions, but there is less and more. He states that over-inclusiveness is less of a problem than under-inclusiveness, and proposes some practical ways in which to promote inclusiveness.

Another way to solve the boundary problem is international democracy – i.e. the creation of democratically governed cooperative inter-state institutions. This can solve the problem of negative externalities imposed by the democratic decisions of one state on other states.

We can also do something about the boundary problem by granting immigrants some degree of voting rights. Immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees typically have no voting rights, even in the most democratic of countries. This is exacerbated by the often very restrictive citizenship application rules. And, finally, issues of global justice are also instances of the boundary problem. Decisions by rich countries regarding import quotas, free trade arrangements etc. obviously impact the poor in other parts of the world.

There is also another problem, similar to the boundary problem. People may not be de iure excluded from the demos, but de facto. I’m thinking here of so-called permanent minorities. Permanent minorities are groups of people who, although not officially disenfranchised, are always subject to the decisions of majorities.  Federalism would allow those permanent minorities that are regionally concentrated, to have self-government. When they are allowed, in a federal system, to make their own self-regarding decisions, they will no longer be affected by national decisions over which they have almost no influence, not because of a lack of voting rights, but because of a lack of voting weight. Federalism can solve the problem of a minority negatively affected by the decisions of a majority, not because it is disenfranchised but because it is a permanent minority.

What is Democracy? (45): Freedom of Information

In a previous post I discussed the concept of “accountability” and how it’s typical of democracy: politicians, legislators, judges etc. have to give account of their actions. They have to explain what they did, why they did it, and how they did it. Democracy means that the people can dismiss their leaders if they believe they haven’t carried out their job according to the wishes of the people or according to the law. This possible dismissal can only happen if the people have complete and accurate information on the job performance of their leaders. That is why democracies have a free press that can investigate the conduct of politicians. That is also why they have parliaments where the opposition can question the government or the majority, and why they have “freedom of information acts” (see also here). Such acts – often called “sunshine laws” – impose mandatory disclosure of government records, with some exceptions. The people have a right to know, but unfortunately even countries with a long tradition of democracy often find it difficult to be completely transparent. Certain circumstances such as the war on terror make it easy for the governments of those countries to restrict their information obligations. Freedom of information legislation is often full of exceptions or subject to emergency restrictions.

What is Democracy? (43): A System Characterized by Free Speech

The principle of the freedom of speech springs from the necessities of the program of self-government. It is not a Law of Nature or of Reason in the abstract. It is a deduction from the basic American agreement that public issues shall be decided by universal suffrage. A. Meiklejohn (source)

Democracy is a power struggle. The participants in this struggle have to be able to express themselves, to present themselves to the electorate, to create a distinct profile for themselves, and to make the electorate familiar with their political program. That’s one reason why democracy needs freedom of expression. The participants in the power struggle also have to be able to organize and associate in a group that is free from government control, because this allows them to gather strength and have a more influential voice. So they need the freedom of association and the separation of state and society. And for the same reasons they have to be able to meet and demonstrate. So they also need the freedom of assembly. If they want to organize, associate and assemble, it’s because they want to convince new people to join them. And they can’t do that without free speech.

Without the guaranteed right of all citizens to meet collectively, to have access to information, to seek to persuade others, as well as to vote, democracy is meaningless. Democratic rights, in other words, are those individual rights which are necessary to secure popular control over the process of collective decision-making on an ongoing basis. David Beetham (source)

The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) as well has long recognized that the facilitation of self-government is one of the main goals of free speech and the First Amendment. Take, for example, Mills v Alabama:

Whatever differences may exist about interpretations of the First Amendment, there is practically universal agreement that a major purpose of that Amendment was to protect the free discussion of governmental affairs. (source)

Or Brown v Hartlage:

First Amendment [is] the guardian of our democracy. That Amendment embodies our trust in the free exchange of ideas as the means by which the people are to choose between good ideas and bad, and between candidates for political office. (source)

Or Roth v United States:

The protection given speech and press was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people. (source)

There’s also Justice Louis D. Brandeis famous (concurring) opinion in Whitney v California, in which he described the democratic function of freedom of speech. According to Brandeis, every citizen has the right to

endeavor to make his own opinion concerning laws existing or contemplated, prevail. (source)

Brandeis believed, correctly I think, that free speech is necessary for democracy in three ways:

  • to inform the people about the workings and policies of the government (a free press being an important part of freedom of speech)
  • to inform the government of the the will of the people (an election – or “vote” – being the voice of the people)
  • to allow the people to deliberate, to discuss government policy and the merits of representatives.

What is Democracy? (42): A Luxury That Some Countries Can’t Afford?

Are some countries better off with a dictatorship? With a strong man able to make tough and unpopular decisions without fear for the next election? Are some populations willing to accept this and trade some political freedoms for more security and physical safety?

However, in what way is democracy deficient in delivering security? And is dictatorship better equipped? Let’s look at these two questions in turn.

Democracy and human rights are said to promote discord, chaos and even violence, especially in ethnically or religously divided countries. Indeed, rights such as free speech can be used to incite communal hostility and violence, and democratic elections cannot function if there is no division and contest between groups. The adversarial aspect of democratic elections often results in communal tension and even violence, especially in what we could call immature or imperfect democracies.

The argument for stability and security seems stronger when it is used against democracy than when it is used against human rights. It is evident that most groups that use violence do so because they feel that their rights are somehow violated; respect for human rights will therefore diminish rather than increase violence.

Regarding democracy, it is obviously adversarial and it does divide society into different, antagonistic groups. However, it does not push divisions to such an extreme that living together peacefully becomes impossible or undesirable. The unwillingness to live together is not caused by democracy but by fundamental convictions concerning religion, morality, justice etc. Democracy does not even enhance this unwillingness. On the contrary, it offers ways to bridge fundamental differences between groups (e.g. it offers places of discussion and negotiation) and it creates mechanisms which guarantee peaceful coexistence when it is impossible to bridge differences (such as federalism, power sharing, tolerance, religious freedom etc.).

We can see a two-way causation at work here: although democracy undoubtedly needs national unity, it is also a prerequisite for this unity. A group will question the national unity, will revolt, will cause violent conflicts or will try to separate only if it is discriminated against, if its human rights are violated, if it does not enjoy tolerance and respect for its difference, if it is excluded from power or if it is not granted local autonomy. If, in other words, it does not live in a democracy. National unity, the conviction of belonging to the same group and of sharing the same destiny whatever the differences, can only arise as a result of debate. Freedom of expression and elections can indeed be dangerous in a divided society, but without it, it is hard to see how divisions can be overcome or accommodated, as opposed to merely suppressed.

And this suppression is precisely the so-called major advantage of authoritarian regimes, compared to democracies. An authoritarian state is undoubtedly better equipped to suppress communal hostility. The ability to maintain communal peace is a classic argument in favor of authoritarian forms of government. Indeed, these forms of government seem to be able to separate warring factions, to avoid chaos, violence, separation and disintegration and to focus attention on loyalty, patriotism and the community. They limit the use of rights because rights are a means to incite or aggravate divisions. These regimes are able to violate rights if this is deemed necessary in order to keep antagonists apart.

However, what is the cost of authoritarian peace? Grave violations of human rights in the first place, and more violence than before. Rights violations often create more violence than the violence which was the initial reason to violate rights. Violating rights in order to suppress communal tensions is counterproductive in the long run. A strong hand always causes revolt and violence, the opposite therefore of what is intended. Rights violations, which are deemed necessary for the preservation of communal peace, cause violent opposition and revolt. They can lead to violent revolt even when they do not imply the use of violence. Without human rights, it is impossible to express claims and people who cannot claim something will resort to more extreme means in order to get what is theirs. Authoritarianism promotes the evil it wants to combat, although in the short run rights limitations and the use of violence may seem the only alternative.

Democracy is necessary in a divided society because the alternative – oppression – only reinvigorates what is tries to eliminate.

What is Democracy? (39): Government of the Stupid, by the Stupid, and for the Stupid?

When the merits and demerits of democracy are discussed, we often hear that it’s not very wise to let the people govern themselves. Democracy must be rejected because the will of the people is necessarily ill-considered, emotional, stupid, based on instinctive and hasty reactions and so forth. The people are said to be disinterested, apathetic, indifferent and generally not smart enough to deal with the complex problems of today, and this is a sufficient reason to exclude the people from political decisions. They are not qualified to rule and are perhaps not even qualified to choose their rulers. Something which no amount of education can possible remedy. Politics should therefore be something inherently unequal.

This rejection of democracy is only correct when applied to a limited kind of democracy in which there is no place for public debate and active participation guaranteed by freedom rights. It is evident that the debates which precede and which are almost automatically engendered by a democratic vote, a referendum or a council meeting, vastly increase the willingness and the ability of the people to judge complex matters. If the people are allowed to vote on a certain issue, then many of them will instantly start to debate the issue and will become aware of the different arguments in favor of and against a certain solution. The same is true for those merely watching the debates.

This awareness not only increases the knowledge of the people, but also their interest in the issue and in related issues. Political participation eliminates the lack of knowledge and interest harmful to its functioning, at least to a certain degree. Why would you be interested in and knowledgeable about something if you can never use your knowledge in active deliberation and decision taking? Why would you have an opinion if this opinion will never have serious consequences, and if nothing depends on your decision?

The “stupidity argument” against democracy is therefore circular: it excludes people from politics because they are supposedly too stupid for this “profession”, but they lack knowledge precisely because they are excluded.

What is Democracy? (38): Equal Representation and the Share of Women in Parliament

In a representative democracy, one can reasonably expect to have a parliament that is roughly representative of the population in general: poor people should have their representatives or delegates just like rich people, women just like men, minorities just like majorities. This representativity or representativeness isn’t an absolute requirement. One can have a democracy without it. The people, after all, may decide that their views are best represented by an all-male, all-white body of parliamentarians for example.

However, it seems statistically unlikely that this would be their decision in each consecutive election in each democratic country. Imbalances in the demographics of parliament that persist over time and space are probably not the result of the choices of voters but of other factors, such as discrimination, unequal opportunities etc. If that’s the case, we are dealing with an imperfect democracy because democracy means equal influence and an equal chance to get elected (art. 21 of the Universal Declaration and art. 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

And that is the case. Take the share of women in parliament for instance. In almost every major democracy of the world, election after election, women are a (tiny) minority in parliament. It’s very unlikely if not impossible that women are systematically less competent than men to serve in parliament, or that the voters sincerely, rationally and objectively believe this to be the case. There must be other, more deeply embedded psychological motives for such a choice, related to the generally inferior position of women in patriarchal societies.

What is Democracy? (37): One Man, One Vote

Or better, one person, one vote. It’s not until relatively recently that women and minorities have been given the vote, even in the most advanced democracies in the world.

In most modern democracies, most adults have a vote. Few large groups (felons, children and immigrants excepted) are excluded from voting, and no one has more votes than anyone else. (In the early days of many democracies, some people had a larger number of votes; this was called plural voting).

However, it’s not because all people have one vote, that all votes have the same weight and that all people have an equal weight in the aggregate outcome of the vote. They only have in democracies that use proportional representation. PR results in a political spectrum in parliament that roughly coincides with the spectrum of the voters. No part of the electorate is over- or under-represented.

Democracies which do not use PR often use district systems (e.g. the U.S. and the U.K.). This is also called the “first-past-the-post” system – whoever has most votes in a district (not necessarily the majority of votes) gets the seat in parliament reserved for this district and becomes the only representative for the district (“winner takes all”). In some cases, this electoral system gives power to a relative majority and therefore, not necessarily an absolute majority. A party that has a few more votes than all other parties in a majority of districts, will have a majority of seats in parliament, but perhaps a minority of the votes. As this example indicates, a district system can result in the rule of a minority. An important minority or maybe, even a majority may not be represented at all. Political equality and majority rule, the basic values of a democracy, are affected. There is no longer a perfect match between the views of the people and the views present in parliament.

In such a system, the one-man-one-vote principle can be further harmed If the districts are not equal in proportion in terms of population. If both a small group of people and a large group of people have one representative, then we can hardly claim to have political equality, regardless of the possible problems created by the winner-takes-all rule. In some countries, rich minorities have often been given small districts, which favored them politically and offered them a very large and disproportional share of the seats in parliament. This is called gerrymandering.

For these and other reasons, the type of democracy instituted in the U.S. deviates, in part, from the principle of one-man-one-vote (a reason for some to call it a republic rather than a democracy, although the difference between these two concepts is spurious, see here). Whereas each member of the House of Representatives represents more or less the same number of voters (even though the system is based on voting districts), the Senate seats are not allocated according to population. Each state, large and small, gets two seats. Wyoming, with barely half a million citizens, has exactly the same political influence in the Senate as California (37m citizens). If you view U.S. states as large districts, you could say that the U.S. Senate has institutionalized the bias that gerrymandering can create in district systems.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the U.S. Senate, the Second Chamber in the U.S. parliament, didn’t have so much political power. Its powers, defined in the Constitution, include

  • consenting to treaties as a precondition to their ratification
  • approval of both chambers is necessary for the passage of legislation.

Even a minority of Senators can block legislation. The filibuster is a tactic used to defeat bills and motions by prolonging debate indefinitely. As it takes 60 votes out of a total of 100 Senators to stop a filibuster, a minority can block everything if it wants. So again, a further restriction of the democratic principle of one-man-one-vote. The Economist has calculated that if the least populous states ganged together, senators representing 11% of the population could thwart the will of the remaining 89%. Speaking of tyranny of the majority … The filibuster has often been used for very conservative and ill-intended purposes such as the preservation of Jim Crow laws and wasteful farm subsidies.

It can of course be used for more positive purposes as well. It can slow down over-anxious House representatives and hence improve the quality of legislation. The division of the legislative power into two parts, an Upper House and a Lower House or a House of Representatives and a Senate, is typical of a democracy and makes it possible to correct mistakes made in one House. One House can slow down or stop another House when some decisions are too risky or are taken without the necessary reflection or discussions. This system

doubles the security to the people by requiring the concurrence of two distinct bodies in schemes of usurpation or perfidy, where the ambition or corruption of one would otherwise be sufficient. James Madison in the Federalist Papers.

If we expect two houses or chambers to control and correct each other, then the participants of both must be selected in different ways. But it seems that this can still be done with a higher degree of respect for the principle of one-man-one-vote.

The reasoning behind this deviation from the one-man-one-vote system in the U.S. was to ensure equal representation of each state in the Senate, so that populous states can’t take measures that harm the fundamental interests of small states and therefore can’t violate the federalist philosophy of the U.S. It was supposed to be a counterweight against the “people’s house” (the House of Representatives) that would be sensitive to public opinion. Trust in public opinion has never been very high (which I argue is a self-fulfilling prophecy). But rather than protect the U.S. from the tyranny of public opinion, one has delivered it to the tyranny of the minority. Hardly democratic at all.

What is Democracy? (35): A Complete Waste of Time?

The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of an election are very small. Close elections are very rare, and even rarer are those in which one vote is pivotal. So it doesn’t make a difference whether you participate or not. In light of this, it’s a small miracle that turnouts are as high as they are, and it’s ridiculous for people to lament a turnout that’s “only” 60%.

Clearly, people know that their votes don’t affect the outcome and vote for other reasons than a mere sense of responsibility. But what reasons? Signaling is certainly part of it. People vote because they are more than individuals. They identify with others, they want to belong and they want to be part of a “movement” or party that has a certain set of beliefs. Voting makes them such a part, and hence gives them an identity and a cause. Let’s not forget that an identity is highly dependent on expression and on recognition of this expression by others. Elections, even with a secret vote, are highly effective tools for the production of identity. The seemingly meaningless anf futile vote of an individual becomes quite meaningful when aggregated with the votes of like-minded individuals.

It’s only when you adopt an economic and reductionist view of people, in which individuals only pursue their self-interest, that you cannot make sense of apparently silly behavior such as voting in which the costs (transport, risk, time etc.) outweigh the benefits (if any).

There’s also the mysterious force of the “if-everyone-were-doing-this” rule, which we apply regularly. Throwing one piece of garbage in the park is almost absolutely harmless. Someone will clean it, and if not no one will notice. And yet most of us just don’t do it because “if everyone was doing it” – which they are not – it would be hell, and that’s how we teach our kids not to do it. And they understand. And they – or most of them – listen and don’t do it. Part of the reason why this rule works is the force of example. We don’t want to give a bad example because when people follow it, we will suffer, even though we may in the short run benefit from doing what we shouldn’t.

Similarly, when large numbers of voters believe that their vote doesn’t make much of a difference and isn’t worth the cost of participating, then they give a bad example which can be followed by large numbers of people. As a result, the usefulness of the remaining votes increases, and these votes will then determine the behavior of the rest of the population. People will be ruled by a minority with perhaps harmful views. So in order not to find themselves in this situation which is detrimental to most people, most people choose to vote.

A better way to express this idea:

The idea is not that one person’s decision to forgo voting would crash the system—how would that possibly happen?—but that it is immoral to act on a maxim that we cannot imagine everyone else acting on. So if I … will abstain from voting because the costs of voting outweigh the benefits, I will first need to see if the maxim passes a test implicit in Kant’s categorical imperative. I ought not act in accordance with the maxim if it fails the test.

So let’s see: can I universalise the non-voting maxim? Can I imagine living in a world in which every eligible voter opts for a nap or a game of Temple Run in lieu of going to the polls? No. The logic of American democracy does not support such a universalised principle. No one votes, no one is elected, a moment of constitutional failure brings an emergency convention in which unelected delegates draft a new constitution calling for an alternate system of specifying leaders that doesn’t involve the public. The franchise, and America as we know it, disappears. Since the logic of the system cannot be sustained were everyone to adopt the nap-over-voting maxim, I am morally bound not to act on it.

Now, again, the force of Kant’s argument is not empirical: you don’t need to show that a decision not to vote will actually bring a constitutional doomsday. You just need to show that if universalised it would. (source)

What is Democracy? (34): A Civic Responsibility

In most democracy, voting is a right and not a legal duty. Hence, political participation is less than 100%, sometimes a lot less. Some people vote, and vote only in some elections. The number of people who vote is called voter turnout. Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. In U.S. Presidential elections, for example, turnout is usually between 50 and 60%, with slightly more in the 2008 election which saw many first-time African-American voters vote for Obama.

However, even if voting is not a legal duty in most democracies, it is generally considered to be a moral duty and a civic responsibility. A high voter turnout is generally considered desirable for many different reasons, and most democracies spend a lot of energy on “get the vote out” efforts. One reason for these efforts is the fact that low turnouts lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. Policies will reflect this and will be to the benefit of those who vote. This can result in discrimination.

High turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the system and low turnout as a symptom of disenchantment, indifference and ultimately of the demise of the system. Of course, a single vote doesn’t make a lot of difference – except in very close races – and hence it’s normal that people feel indifferent. An individual, when faced with a monolithic monster of a state, threatening and distant at the same time, feels insignificant, like a grain of sand on the beach. Powerlessness becomes a fact of life and people retreat from democratic politics. A single voice is not noticed in the noise of millions and is reduced to insignificance. The state does not react to individual claims as quickly as it is supposed to, if it reacts at all. The bottom line is that individuals or small groups cannot hurt the state. Their votes are less than pinpricks. The only elements in society able to influence the centralized state are large, national and centralized pressure groups or political parties that are just as distant from the citizens as the state and equally insensitive to individuals’ claims.

But there is a solution. Federalism and decentralization encourage participation and counteract alienation and a feeling of distance between the citizens and the state.

Apathy and indifference are also the consequence of the impossibility in many democracies to vote for issues. When people are allowed to take decisions on issues, they will be more eager to debate the issues and to inform themselves on the pros and cons of possible solutions. Relying exclusively on representation creates apathy because people can only vote on persons. Take a look here for the reasons why representation creates indifference.

Other ways to promote civic responsibility are better education, a well functioning civil society in which free associations can mobilize citizens, modern information technologies such as the Internet etc.

Greg Mankiw has a different take on the problem of voter turnout:

Voting is a civic responsibility, they tell us, because democracy works best when everyone participates. … But relying on your fellow citizens to make the right choice … can be perfectly rational. If you really don’t know enough to cast an intelligent vote, you should be eager to let your more informed neighbors make the decision.

Eligible voters who are less informed about the candidates than their fellow citizens choose to stay at home, knowing the outcome will be more reliable without their participation. By not voting, they are doing themselves and everyone else a favor. If the ill-informed were all induced to vote, they would merely add random noise to the outcome.

What’s the evidence that this theory is right, that nonvoters are less informed than voters? Studies of voter turnout have found that education is the single best predictor of who votes: The highly educated turn out more often than less educated. A classic argument for why democracies need widespread public education is that education makes people better voters.

Granted. But rather than encouraging the less educated to stay home, as Mankiw seems to do, we should perhaps try to give them a better education.

What is Democracy? (31): A Pathological Attention Seeker, Not an Inflatable Parliament

The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment. Robert M. Hutchins

Democracy is not being, it is becoming. It is easily lost, but never finally won. William Hastie

A democracy, contrary to any other form of government, requires continuous and massive popular attention. In other words, it requires a deep-rooted, strongly held, and widely shared democratic political culture. The large majority of the people have to believe in the moral, practical and theoretical value of democracy as a form of government. If this is not the case, then democracy inevitably dies. The people of a democracy may be divided on almost everything, but they must be united in the belief that democracy is the best way to resolve or contain their divisions; the best way to find the best and the most reasonable solutions to common problems, if such solutions are possible, and to avoid escalation of conflicts, if solutions are impossible.

Democracy has to be created and maintained everyday all over again. Every day, the voters have to control the government, to judge it, to take an interest in it. Democracy does not arise nor survive automatically and it’s not just inherited and passed on to the next generation without any effort. It has to be fought for, over and over again, against all kinds of internal and external elements, not the least of which is the fighters own fatigue and indifference. There is not a moment’s rest.

Democracy is first of all a conviction and a state of mind. Institutions such as elections or parliaments are relatively easy to install and even maintain. They will survive even when support dwindles. Institutions can even be imposed. It is much more difficult to create real political participation, because this implies the existence of political convictions and a democratic culture. This culture entails not only strong pro-democratic convictions and the willingness to actively participate in politics, but also respect for institutions that protect democracy, such as the rule of law, the judiciary and human rights.

The same is true when trying to promote democracy abroad. When engaging in such a project, the political culture is the most important thing to change. The effort to change political convictions should be directed in the first place at influential groups in society, such as the media, the military, the police, the judicial system, and the business class etc. It is very important that these people accept the values and institutions of democracy because they can do a lot of harm if they don’t. If they embrace a democratic political culture, then chances are high that the democratic institutions can function adequately and can help to generate a more widespread democratic culture.

But, ultimately, the large majority of the people has to be convinced, because democracy is the rule of the people, and the rule of the people is impossible without massive support. Elections can be imposed and can even be relatively fair – on the condition that the various elites have adopted the values of democracy – but the convictions and the support of the majority of the population cannot be imposed. This often requires a very long learning process and a process of discussion, persuasion, reform, education and construction.

The best way to create support is to guarantee the adequate functioning of democracy. Experience with a well-functioning democracy – even if it is a half-empty democracy – has a positive influence on the political views and behavior of the people.

Foreign intervention or imposition of “instant democracy” is indeed like “dropping an inflatable parliament (or pneumatic parliament) from a bomber plane”, in the words of Peter Sloterdijk. This will at best create an empty shell, a democracy which is indeed nothing but air. Democracy can only be the result of the will and activity of the people, although an empty shell is often better than nothing because it can create its own momentum. Democratic activity has a tendency to create its own support. Once there are democratic institutions, even institutions in which only a handful of people participate, we often see that people tend to be attracted by these institutions.

Of course, as indicated by the second quote above, democracy as attention seeker is an ideal. It’s never finished, not only in the sense that it has to be remade day by day, but also in the sense that citizen participation can always be improved. Many citizens don’t participate, even in the best existing democracies. Or they participate less than others and therefore have less and unequal influence.

What is Democracy? (30): Control, Transparency and Publicity

Plutarch believed that politicians should live in houses with big windows, so that the citizens would be able to check at any time the morality or absence of morality of politicians. One essential characteristics of democracy is indeed control. Politics and government must be transparent and public, and citizens use this transparency and publicity to verify the actions of politicians and the government. The citizens, more specifically, verify whether these actions are in accord with the elections promises and the will of the people as expressed in the elections.

There is a human right to privacy, and a democracy is hell-bent on protecting human rights, all human rights. But there is no contradiction between democratic publicity and the protection of privacy. Democratic politicians have a right to privacy. Control, transparency and publicity are limited to a politician’s official function, and do not extend to his personal life. Of course, if his or her personal life has an impact on the politician’s function, then intrusion is allowed, because a political function serves the realization of the will of the people, and the people must be allowed to check this realization (or the absence of it).

In an ideal democracy, one cannot govern against the will or without the consent of the people. Those in power are chosen by the people and receive from the people an assignment to rule in a specific way, an assignment given on the basis of an election manifesto. Power is temporary because it is a loan, rather than a gift. The loan is conditional upon the way in which power is used. Power continues to belong to the people and the people can take it back if they consider that it has not been used in a satisfactory way and that the assignment has not been properly fulfilled.

The people know whether or not they are pleased with government policy and with the way power is being used, because they ask those in power to give account of their actions and to inform the people of the way in which they use power. If, on the basis of this top-down flow of information combined with journalistic efforts, the people are not satisfied – for example, because the decisions taken by those in power contradict the wishes of the people, even though these decisions have been taken in the name of the people = then the people judge those in power in a negative way and decide to give power to someone else. If they are satisfied, then the loan is renewed for another fixed period of time.

This kind of accountability implies free flows of information and openness, transparency and visibility of power. Democracy and publicity are necessarily linked and all the actions of a democratic government must be public (except perhaps, for certain actions that cannot be successful when done in public, such as matters pertaining to national security; in these cases, however, publicity is only postponed, not eliminated).

What is Democracy? (29): Vote Buying

Or, rather, what it should not be. Vote buying is a perversion of democracy. It is a system in which groups of citizens try to force the government to take decisions that correspond to their self-interest and that give them certain advantages, such as tax breaks, subsidies etc. Citizens try to force politicians by giving or threatening to take away their votes. They desire something and the price they pay is their vote. They give their votes and expect to be compensated for this. They sell their votes and their electoral fidelity for certain advantages. Citizens have votes and politicians need these votes; politicians have access to government-provided benefits and citizens need these benefits. Hence, it is natural that exchanges take place.

However, this kind of logic is of course detrimental to democracy. A first problem is that a benefit for one group is always at the expense of the rest of the population. The financial loss that results from a tax cut or a subsidy for a certain group, has to be compensated by increased contributions by the rest of the taxpayers. The advantages given to some people in return for their votes are, of course, not paid by the politicians themselves, but by the rest of the population. In fact, politicians buy their votes with the money of others. It is often the less vocal and hence those already disadvantaged who end up paying the bill.

Because politicians run the risk of losing power when voters go elsewhere to sell their votes, we often find politicians outbidding each other and promising ever more important benefits, to preserve or conquer power. They have to buy votes and fidelity by way of more and more benefits. Politics becomes a kind of inverted sales. Politicians have to grant ever more important benefits to entice voters in their camp. Votes are scarce and demand is high, especially before election periods. If demand is high and if there are several competing buyers, then prices go up. Votes become ever more expensive because buyers can be played off against each other.

This results in budget deficits, an over-sized state, and dependency. An economic logic is applied to politics, which as a result loses its identity. Democracy degenerates into an economic system in which groups of citizens use the competition between political parties (the competition for the votes of the citizens instead of the competition for the money of the citizens, as in the real economy), in order to achieve as many material benefits as possible in return for their votes (their only political capital). The political process has become a market process. The laws of economics (offer and demand, free competition etc.) take over politics.

Of course, it is true that democracy is a free competition between would-be leaders searching for as many votes as possible, but it should be much more than that. It should be a place of debate and discussion, of freedom and equality, and of the pursuit of the general interest.

In a system of vote-buying, politicians represent groups and interests instead of society as a whole and the will of the people as a whole. Resources are redistributed, not from the rich to the poor, but from everybody to those who are vocal and have the best bargaining power. Transfers depend more on electoral importance than on real needs.

Direct democracy is the only solution to the problem of vote buying. In a direct democracy, there are no representatives who have to grant all kinds of benefits to pressure groups, in order to cling to power.

What is Democracy? (28): A Way of Life

He who is without a city is either a poor sort of being, or a being higher than man. The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the city, and must therefore be either a beast or a god. There is therefore, a natural impulse in all men towards an association of this sort. Aristotle

Citizens in a democracy which allows some kind of direct participation, are active citizens. They can decide on issues and not only on their representatives. Because they have a right to decide, they will, in many cases, become automatically interested in the topics on which they will have to decide. Discussions will take place. Arguments are exchanged. And, as a result, people will be interested in public affairs and have knowledge of these affairs. They are able to transcend their private interests and to take part in community life and group identification, which are important human values. They also have some measure of control over their lives, another universal aspiration.

This means that democratic political participation is not only a means to an end (for example, the end of having decisions that are acceptable to the people). It is also an end in itself because some important values become real only when people participate. These values are not the result of the process of participation; they are part of the process itself. People participate for the sake of the things that happen while they participate (knowledge, activity and a feeling of self-control or control over the decisions that affect them), and not only for the sake of something which results from the process of participation after it has finished (for example, certain kinds of decisions).

Democratic political life is something valuable for human life. The ancient Greeks even considered political life as the essence of human life, as something that corresponds to the nature of man. Man, in their eyes, is a creature destined for political life, a “zo-on politikon”. This is expressed in the quote from Aristotle.

So democracy is more than a form of government. It is a way of life, the life of the “homo democraticus”, the citizen who participates in politics, as directly as possible and as much as possible, in order to realize some of the things which he or she deems important in life.

The importance of political life shows how foolish it is to reduce democracy to a system in which people can give or take away the consent to be ruled. A form of government that only allows the people to express or withhold consent can never be called a democracy. A dictatorship can also rule with the consent of the people, can realize the will of the people and can collapse once this consent disappears. A democracy is more than just an elegant and peaceful way to change the rulers. It is also a society, which can determine the rules for and the conditions of its own life. It gives people control over their own fate and at the same time guarantees some other fundamental values.

Where democracy is end as well as means, its politics take on the sense of a journey in which the going is as important as the getting there and in which the relations among travelers are as vital as the destinations they may think they are seeking. Benjamin Barber

People do not engage in political life for the sole reason of regulating their non-political life. They participate in politics because something important happens when they participate. Political life realizes certain values, but these values are not a result or a product that political life leaves behind when it is finished. They are real only as long as political life takes place. Political activity is not purely instrumental; it is valuable in itself.

An individual actively engaged in political life is not only able to belong and to have an identity. He or she can also lead an informed and educated life (because participation and control require knowledge and education) and can be attentive to politics and to things, which he or she has in common with all the other citizens, and which transcend his or her own private needs.

Democracy needs communities and therefore, corresponds to the widely shared need to belong, to associate, to cooperate and to interact. Community life and common action are as important for democracy as for human wellbeing. We are dealing here with important human values, shared by most people across all cultures. These values are important as such, but are also important because they assist the development of an individual identity, another important and universal value. Membership of groups is an important source of identity.

What is Democracy? (27): Independent Political Parties

Disadvantages of private funding for political parties

What is necessary is that political parties be autonomous with respect to private demands, that is, demands not expressed in the public forum and argued for openly by reference to a conception of the public good. If society does not bear the costs of organisation, and party funds need to be solicited from the more advantaged social and economic interests, the pleadings of these groups are bound to receive excessive attention. John Rawls

The financing of political parties in a democracy is a controversial matter, especially in a democracy such as the US where parties and candidates have to spend huge amounts of money on advertising and promotion in highly mediatized campaigns. If parties and candidates’a0have to rely on private donations, there is indeed the danger of unequal influence: parties are likely to listen more closely to the requests and opinions of private groups, and these groups then acquire more influence than the ordinary citizen. A democracy should try to achieve the ideal of equal influence.

Moreover, the unequal influence of donors is likely to be self-interested and non-transparent. And it can become corruption.

Party financing scandals have rocked countries in every region of the world, generating increased contempt for and public disillusionment with parties and politicians, and undermining public confidence in the political process. (source)

Disadvantages of public funding for political parties

On the other hand, when you don’t allow private donations you probably alienate the public from politics. A donation is an expression of a political opinion and of support for a candidate, and should be protected by the freedom of speech. Most people want nothing in return, except for the keeping of promises. If the system is widespread and popular, the risk of favors in return for donations is small. Also, government subsidization of political speech may be as unfair as private funding: how shall the state decide which candidate to fund and which not? And, finally, it seems unjust that citizens’a0are forced to subsidize with their tax dollars candidates and political speech with which they disagree.

Mixed and limited system

So perhaps a limited system could work:

  • maximum amounts of donations
  • income disclosure obligations for politicians
  • general transparency of the system including expenses by candidates
  • bans on some kinds of donations (for example donations from racist organizations)
  • a mixed private-public funding system
  • prohibition of “indirect funding”, funding to front organizations not legally linked to a candidate or a party but promoting their election nevertheless (e.g. the infamous Swift Boat Veterans)
  • rules on equal media access as a limit on the publicity opportunities of the wealthiest candidates
  • anonymous campaign contributions
  • voting with dollars“: voters would be given a $x publicly funded voucher to donate to federal political campaigns’a0as they please (see here as well)

This is a good database of the funding and spending situation in the US.

What is Democracy? (26): Democracy or Experts?

The proper judge of the expert is not another expert, but the user: The warrior and not the blacksmith for the sword, the horseman and not the saddler for the saddle. And evidently, for all public (common) affairs, the user, and thus the best judge, is the polis. Cornelius Castoriadis

The best method of choice is to choose experts by their success. The best experts to choose are the ones whose bridges have not fallen down. In this the more views about what is actually happening, or has happened, the better. Dictators or oligarchies are more insulated from what is going on than the people at large. To find out whether the people have actually been fed, the best people to consult are the people themselves. Ross Harrison

A frequently heard argument against democracy is that the job of governing requires expert knowledge. The government is better left in the hands of experts. The “populace” has other things to do than investing in the knowledge necessary for governing. I’ve mentioned this argument in my post on Plato.

Now, let’s leave aside for a moment the obvious objection against this argument – that many acts of government have nothing to do with knowledge but are rather a matter of judgment, values, personality, character, conviction, courage etc. All things in which no one is an “expert”.

Let us grant that certain parts of the act of governing are better left to experts with the appropriate knowledge, for example the management of the road and bridge infrastructure as in the quote above. But even though the people sometimes need individuals with expert knowledge in places of government, it is up to the people to choose and judge the experts and the result of the experts’ work, because this kind of judgment requires as much information on what is happening as possible.

It is wrong to say that you always need an expert to judge an expert. The role of experts must always be integrated in and subject to a democratic system. Experts should only play a supporting role. They use their knowledge and truth to assist the people, often at the level of means and not at the level of goals.

First, there has to be a decision on whether or not to build a bridge and only then can the experts come into play. The decision to build a bridge is not only based on facts, mathematics, if-then calculations etc. Values and interest play an important part (for example, ecological values). It is up to the people to decide on their goals, and when values come into play there often is no knowledge available to do this. They decide if they need a bridge and they determine which values will be served by having a bridge and which other values can possibly be harmed by the bridge. These value-questions will rarely be the consequence of knowledge and truth. They cannot, therefore, be left to experts.

In politics, values are more important than truth or knowledge. I do not think that there can ever be a certain answer to the question whether a particular bridge ought to be built or not, whether dishonest asylum seekers ought to be expelled or not, whether education has to continue until the age of 18 or not, etc. This kind of decision will be based on discussion, debate and arguments, not on truth. Once there is a decision on these questions, we can leave the technical aspects to the experts: how do we expel dishonest asylum seekers, which techniques do we use, what is the planning etc. It may be possible to find elements of truth and knowledge at this level, in which case we may need experts. But it can happen that these techniques again give rise to value questions (for example, the use of stock cars for the expulsion of dishonest asylum seekers).

What is Democracy? (25): Corporate Democracy

Given the importance of work and production in the life of individuals, it is justified to give them some say in the way in which the means of production are used. The owners of the means of production should not be entitled to decide unilaterally on the conditions, organization, purposes, processes and meaning of production. Production is an important part of human life and people should have a say in it.

Concretely, this means a kind of corporate democracy and participation. Communism traditionally proposes common ownership of the means of production. The workers in the factory, rather than the capitalists or the shareholders, would own the factory in common. Or, rather, society as a whole, which in communism means the class of workers, would own the totality of all means of production. This would obviously spell the end of private property, not necessarily private property as such, but in any case private property of the means of production.

This is unacceptable because private property is an important value. It’s unequal distribution should be criticized, as well as the exclusive right of decision of the owners of the means of production, but there are good reasons to keep the right to private property more or less intact (or, more specifically, the right to legal protection of private property and the right to use it freely).

Common ownership of the means of production, as proposed by traditional communists, is not the only means to create corporate participation and worker control over production. Modern-day capitalism has in some cases reconciled private ownership with large measures of worker participation. Many decisions in companies are now taken by the owners and the workers together. This participation is not incompatible with the free market either. A free market is a system between economic agents, not within them.

What is Democracy? (24): A Short History of Democracy

1. Ancient Greece

Democracy is a Greek invention, created by some of the ancient Greek city states, in particular Athens. Athenian democracy was a direct democracy. Citizens – not including women, children, slaves, resident foreigners, i.e. the majority of the population – gathered together to discuss and decide on the policies of the state. Within this minority (the proportion of which is difficult to estimate but some put it at 10% of the total population), participation, equality and freedom was unrivaled. The quintessential description is given in Pericles’ Funeral Oration, still today one of the basic texts in democratic theory.

The word “democracy” combines the elements demos (which means “people”) and kratos (“force, power”). Kratos is an unexpectedly brutish word. In the words “monarchy” and “oligarchy”, the second element arche means rule, leading, or being first. It is possible that the term “democracy” was coined by its detractors who rejected the possibility of, so to speak, a valid “demarchy”. Whatever its original tone, the term was adopted wholeheartedly by Athenian democrats. People in the ancient times wondered if the Athens could ever survive this devastating lifestyle. (Wikipedia)

Indeed, Athenian direct democracy required much personal effort of those participating. The meetings were long, frequent and intensive. It has been said that without the slave-economy and the imperial subjugation of other cities, this experiment would not have been possible. More on direct democracy.

Athenian democracy had some of the characteristics of representative democracy. Some decisions were taken by chosen representatives, such as judicial decisions. However, the choice of officials was not by election but by lot.

2. Medieval taxation

One of the historical origins of the representative system is the principle that prohibits taxation not based on laws approved by the people who pay the taxes (“no taxation without representation”). At the time when this principle came into force, the taxpayers were mainly the wealthy members of the new middle class or bourgeoisie.

These people demanded representation in return for their money and used this representation to control the expenditures of the government. If the government wished to spend a lot of money on a stupid and unnecessary war for example, then the representatives would refuse to vote in the laws required to spend this money. Still today, budgetary control as a means for the people to check if government spending is worth paying for is an important function of parliaments.

Parliaments and representation owe their existence to taxation. The increasing costs of warfare, administration and infrastructure made the kings of the late Middle Ages dependent on the money of the wealthiest class of the moment, which happened to be the new middle class. Now and again, these kings were forced to organize meetings (for example the so-called “States-General”) where the representatives of the cities and the middle class could or could not agree to finance certain government projects. If they agreed, they did so because their interests would be served by the project. They always agreed by way of covenants, contracts or laws, whereby they not only authorized spending but also received certain rights and privileges in return. Because they paid, they were able to enforce certain reforms, at first only local and specific privileges, but later also more abstract rights, which had the advantage of being applicable in very different situations.

 

These meetings were gradually institutionalized into what we now call parliaments. Parliaments therefore existed before modern democracy. Starting out as an instrument for budgetary control in the hands of a part of the population, they gradually acquired more power compared to the executive (in most cases compared to the king) and they gradually engaged in legislation.

3. Contemporary evolutions

The most important evolution in modern times was the extension of the franchise. In the early period of the modern state, democracy implied the right to vote only for a small portion of the make upper class population. Gradually, more and more groups gained equal political rights: workers, women, and in some contemporary democracy, even resident aliens. This has been called universal suffrage.

The two world wars and the end of the cold war were considered victories of the democratic states over dictatorial ones. The end of colonization, however, although theoretically a victory for democracy, was in reality a mixed blessing for many new third world states, with the notable exception of India.

An analysis by Freedom House argues that there was not a single liberal democracy with universal suffrage in the world in 1900, but that in 2000 120 of the world’s 192 nations, or 62% were such democracies. (Wikipedia)

Also important and promising is the advance of corporate democracy.

4. Communes

Throughout history, and in many different countries and circumstances, small groups of people organized themselves democratically. Examples are the workers in the Paris Communes in the 19th century, the Swiss Cantons, the New England towns, the Italian medieval cities, the Early Bolshevik Soviets etc.

What is Democracy? (23): Democracy is Peace, Ctd.

Tyrannies, compared to democracies, are more likely to cause wars. Tyrannies violate human rights and these violations make it very difficult to maintain the rule of law (different human rights institute the rule of law, and the indivisibility of human rights means that the whole body of human rights is in danger when some human rights suffer). Without the rule of law, it is very hard to maintain a justice system which that can channel conflicts away from violence. As a consequence, these conflicts can escalate and can become violent. People start to take the law in their own hands. They start to steal, to compensate for goods stolen, and to murder, to compensate for murder. Revenge is seen as the only alternative for justice, and revenge tends to escalate. Large-scale conflict and civil war become a very real threat. And civil wars have a tendency to become international wars.

Moreover, violations of human rights create anger, frustration and revolt (this is true for all types of rights, economic rights included), and can therefore be a direct cause of civil war. And civil war can lead to international war.

However, there is an even more direct link between rights violations and international conflict. Rights violations can create tensions with neighboring countries because of refugee flows, which result from rights violations or civil war. Neighboring countries can decide to intervene in these rights violations or in a civil war, to protect their own safety and prosperity. This intervention can, of course, lead to an international conflict. It is, however, the internal situation in a country and not the intervention from the outside, which causes the conflict. It is the country in which human rights are violated, which creates international instability.

What is Democracy? (20): Rotation in Office

One of the arguments against democracy and in favor of authoritarian forms of government turns to the economy. Economic development requires consistency, coherence, long term and central planning, all of which is said to be incompatible with democracy. The rotation in office typical of a democracy puts always other people in power, with other priorities and laws. Democratic governments, laws and policies change continuously. This goes against the interests of long term planning, as well as the interests of companies that need stability for their investments.

Furthermore, the constant pressure of public opinion and the next election, forces governments to sacrifice long term benefits for short term advantages that may even have negative consequences in the long term.

However, it is difficult to deny that the democratic procedures for changing governments create stability because they help to avoid revolt. Opposition movements do not have to resort to extreme measures to gain some influence. In addition, if the people decide to change something, this is because they believe that it ought to change, that it is not good as it is. Consistency is not the only value.

What is Democracy? (19): Democracy is Peace

The democratic peace theory, stating that democracies do not wage war among themselves, is one of the main arguments in favor of the international promotion of democratic governance. It has been around since Immanuel Kant who, in his essay Perpetual Peace, postulated that constitutional republics, or what we now would call democracies, was one of the necessary conditions for a perpetual peace. Recently, this theory has been abused by the US government in order to justify a war against a non-democracy – Iraq – in order to bring lasting peace to the world, but this abuse has not diminished the strength of the argument.

Democracies do not wage war among themselves mainly for the following reasons:

  • Democracies are able to make and keep international agreements and to create mechanisms which make it possible to solve international conflicts in a peaceful way. Publicity, as we find it in a democracy, tends to enhance respect for agreements because it makes it harder to cover up violations of agreements. A mentality of respect for the law, which is typical of a democracy because the rule of law is typical of a democracy, promotes respect for international agreements.
  • Democracies are able to avoid civil strife because they have judicial systems for solving conflicts between persons or between groups. Civil strife often spills over to other countries and can cause international conflicts (international violence is often the consequence of internal violence). Therefore, avoiding civil strife means avoiding international conflicts. Tolerance, respect, religious freedom and non-discrimination, as guaranteed by human rights and democracy, also protect civil peace and therefore international peace.
  • Democracy promotes peace because it provides mechanisms for the peaceful transition from one ruler to another. There is no need for a violent succession struggle which can have international consequences. Opposition movements do not have to resort to extreme tactics in order to prove their point or to take over power. Leaders do not need to engage in dangerous international adventures in order to increase their legitimacy etc.
  • Governments which treat their own people with tolerance and respect tend to treat their neighbors in the same way.
  • Governments which cannot force people to do something against their will, will find it much harder to go to war. The people most often do not want to go to war, because it is they who suffer in the first place. To some extent, a tyranny does not need the agreement of the people to start or continue a war.

What is Democracy? (18): Self-Government and Self-Legislation

Self-government (the equality of rulers and ruled, government of the people by the people instead of government of the people by an elite sprung from the people) is an important value because it gives people control over their own lives. Most people want to be masters of their own lives and want to be involved in the creation or transformation of the conditions and circumstances of their lives.

These conditions and circumstances include, of course, legislation. You have self-control and self-government only when the laws you have to obey are laws that you agree with; “quod omnes tangit, ab omnibus approbetur”, what concerns all has to be approved by all. And the best way to have this kind of approval is to allow the people to make the laws themselves or at least to allow them to participate in the process of legislation, for example by way of the election of the legislators.

What is Democracy? (17): Equality

A democracy regards and must regard all people as equally valuable (the equal worth or the equal dignity of the human being, see art. 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). A citizen of a non-democratic society can be considered as more or less valuable than other citizens because of his or her family, class, status, sex, race etc. In a democracy, however, nobody is a lesser human being because he or she is poor, black, stupid, non-Muslim, female or whatever. Nobody is inferior or superior; nobody’s life is worthless, expendable, disposable or in any way less valuable; and nobody’s interests are less worthy of protection. Democracy tries to give equal protection to everybody’s interests. Every human being has a certain value, simply because of his or her humanity, not because of the person he or she is, the things he or she has done or the group he or she belongs to. Being human automatically means having a certain value and this value is by definition equal for all human beings.

This is a principle of democracy because you cannot at the same time give everybody equal influence – as is the purpose of democracy – and believe that some people are inferior. If some people are inferior, then it is natural to think that they have interests that should not be taken into consideration in an equal way. However, if everybody’s interests must have an equal weight, then everybody must have equal influence and vice versa. It is impossible to consider everybody’s interests in an equal way if everybody cannot participate equally in politics and if everybody’s voice does not have an equal weight in decisions. Democracy promotes the equal value of each because

  • It protects everybody’s equal human rights
  • It is a system, which gives everybody’s interests an equal chance of being protected (even on the assumption that not all interests are morally entitled to satisfaction)
  • It gives everybody equal influence and an equal right to participate and to pursue interests.

What is Democracy? (16): Strong Man?

Democracy means continuous confrontations between a maximum number of different opinions coming from a maximum number of levels of society, all of which have to be treated equally, with the same respect and attention. We have to listen to and take into consideration every opinion on an equal basis. This confuses, complicates and extends the debates. Debates have many different antagonists and often take a very long time before they reach a conclusion. This introduces an element of slowness and inefficiency. A democracy does not seem to be a very efficient system of decision-taking.

Furthermore, the larger the number of different interests or different groups participating, the more difficult it is to reach a decision which pleases a majority. It often takes much effort, time and complexity to unify different and contradicting interests into a single compromise decision. This again introduces elements of inefficiency. And as if this is not enough, a democracy makes it possible to question a decision over and over again. New arguments have to be taken into account and the debate is open-ended. As a result, decisions change and a feeling of insecurity and instability prevails.

Democracy equals complexity, obscurity, confusion, chaos, slowness, unpredictability, doubt, insecurity and discontinuity. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people long for the relative simplicity, certainty, clarity, invariability, reassuring stability, order and swiftness of the decisions in a dictatorship, where there is only one voice that speaks.

Efficiency, resolve, clarity of vision, firm direction and the ability to do things become the most important values and the equal participation of all has to be sacrificed in order to realize these values. Tyranny becomes less objectionable when people tire of social conflict, struggle, confusion, compromise, insecurity and change resulting from equal democratic participation. To decide once and for all, quickly and in a simple way, to do something and to be active is indeed easier when decisions are made by only one person who must listen to nobody but himself (in most cases it is a him). The decisions of a dictator can be fast, efficient, simple, clear and definitive. He does not have to take other opinions into account, he does not have to consult all layers of the population, he does not have to wait and see which opinion wins the struggle of ideas and he does not have to make compromises. He is master of the situation because he can force people. As a result, he can act and he can develop an image of resolve, forcefulness, decisiveness and efficiency. People may even accept the violations of human rights that result from dictatorial action, if this is the price to pay for clarity, decisiveness etc.

It is true that democracy is sometimes incompatible with simplicity, clarity, speed, steadfastness and continuity. In a democracy, it is sometimes difficult to take fast, efficient, simple and definitive decisions. This is a weakness because swiftness, simplicity, efficiency etc. are important to many people. Insecurity, unpredictability, obscurity, confusion etc. generally cause dissatisfaction and even fear. Every individual tries to avoid obscure, uncertain and unpredictable situations for him or her personally, so why cherish these “values” at the level of society and politics? Only those who want to hide something can make use of them. On the other hand, discussion, equal participation and massive consultation do not have to be an impediment to action as long as decisions are not postponed indefinitely. On the contrary, they are necessary conditions for wise action because a wise decision needs a maximum number of arguments and points of view.

Decisiveness is clearly not the only or most important value. Quality and acceptability are also important. What is the use of having a fast and simple decision if it is a stupid one or if it is unacceptable to the people and therefore thwarted by the people? Acceptability is one of the justifications of democracy because large-scale and equal participation guarantees a large degree of acceptability. Acceptability and easy implementation are therefore also elements of efficiency, just as speed and simplicity. In a democracy, decisions may be more difficult and more time-consuming because of the large number of equal participants and equal interests, but they are also more acceptable and therefore easier to implement and enforce.

What is Democracy? (15): The Willingness to Live Together

Democracy is impossible when there is fundamental hostility between large groups in the state, when one group fears that a political victory of another group will harm its fundamental interests and when, as a consequence, groups are unwilling to live together. The tensions between communities resulting from this kind of situation makes the functioning of democratic procedures impossible and can lead to rights violations and even to civil war.

To some extent, national unity is a prerequisite for the preservation of any form of government, although an authoritarian state is undoubtedly better equipped to suppress communal hostility. The ability to survive in a situation of communal hostility and to maintain communal peace is a classic argument in favor of authoritarian forms of government. Indeed, these forms of government seem to be able to separate warring factions, to avoid chaos, violence, separation and disintegration and to focus attention on loyalty, patriotism and the community. They limit the use of rights because rights are a means to incite or aggravate divisions. These regimes are able to violate rights if this is deemed necessary in order to keep antagonists apart.

However, what is the cost of authoritarian peace? Grave violations of human rights in the first place, and more violence than before. Rights violations often create more violence than the violence which was the initial reason to violate rights. If you hit me, I will hit you back and if I hit you back, you will hit me back again, and so on. Violating rights in order to suppress communal tensions is counterproductive in the long run. A strong hand always causes revolt and violence, the opposite therefore of what is intended. Rights violations, which are deemed necessary for the preservation of communal peace, cause violent opposition and revolt. They can lead to violent revolt even when they do not imply the use of violence. Without human rights, it is impossible to express claims and people who cannot claim something will resort to more extreme means in order to get what is theirs. Authoritarianism promotes the evil it wants to combat, although in the short run rights limitations and the use of violence may seem the only alternative.