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.

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.