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? (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? (5): Federalism

A democracy, a real democracy, is by definition a federal state (but a federal state is not necessarily democratic). Democracy is all about people controlling their own lives. Now it seems reasonable to state that the smaller the group of people, the more control over their lives they have. If you’re a part of a very large group, your individual voice counts for very little. The smaller the group, the more influence you have.

Also, cutting up a democracy in relatively small federal or even local entities allows people to control matters which are uniquely theirs: the city planning, the local public transport etc., matters which are of no concern to people elsewhere in the country and therefore matters over which these other people should have no say.

Instead of concentrating all power – even democratic power – in one central body, certain very important powers are the reserved domain of local entities. A federal system grants the local entities a right to decide on certain topics. The centralized power is either not allowed to intervene in these topics, or can only intervene when certain conditions are present (e.g. when the entities violate human rights, when there is a two thirds national majority in favor of intervention etc.).

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. This, of course, does not encourage participation or the feeling of self-control. Powerlessness instead, becomes a fact of life. A single voice is not noticed in the noise of millions and is reduced to indifference. 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 that are just as distant from the citizens as the state and equally insensitive to individuals’ claims.

For the individual or for small groups of individuals, there does not seem to be any reason to participate in politics or in pressure groups; there does not even seem to be a reason to uphold democracy. Bigness may be good in some circumstances (national defense, for example), but has to be considered as an exception and a necessary evil.

Federalism is necessary in both large and relatively small countries. In both cases it will encourage participation and counteract alienation and a feeling of distance between the citizens and the state.

Decentralization and participation at a local level diminish the number of participants and increase the importance and the influence of each individual.