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.

Economic Human Rights (38): A Silly Argument Against the Right to Food

The right to food (art. 25 of the Universal Declaration i.a.) doesn’t get a good press. Only a handful believe that it’s comparable in importance to rights such as free speech or freedom of religion. This disdain surprises me. And it’s not just that it shows a failure to understand the interdependence of rights – none of our rights make any sense on an empty stomach. If you know that 6 million children under the age of five die of hunger every year there is at least a prima facie reason – although not a sufficient reason, I admit – to claim that there should be a human right to food.

The counter argument goes as follows: if we grant people a right to food, they will stop working and just watch television all day while the government gives them food. That will destroy both the economy and people’s character.

I think that’s really silly. Let’s make an analogy with an uncontroversial right, the right to free movement. This right doesn’t mean that the government should “give people movement”. That doesn’t make sense. People claiming that right don’t ask for the government to move them. What they ask is

  1. that the government doesn’t hinder their free movement (hence a legal prohibition on internal border controls, restricted zones etc.); and
  2. that the government helps people to acquire the capability to move freely if they don’t have that capability (hence assistance to people with disabilities and the construction of public highways).

The same is true for the right to food. This right doesn’t tell the government to give people food. All it demands is that the government doesn’t take away people’s food or people’s ability to acquire food (as it did in the case of Ukraine’s Holodomor), and that it helps people acquire the ability to get food. The latter may imply temporary food provision (or giving cash for food) to those in dire need, but this provision is aimed at capacity building, and should stop when people’s capabilities are restored.

A closely related discussion is the one about positive and negative rights. See here.

The Causes of Poverty (44): Bad Institutions

Botswana is a largely tropical, land-locked country with insignificant agriculture in a geo-politically precarious location. When the British granted independence, they left 12 km of roads and a poor educational system. Making headlines for its devastatingly high HIV rate, Botswana suffers from high inequality and unemployment. Officially a democracy, it has yet to have a functioning opposition party. 40% of Botswana’s output is from the diamond industry, a condition that in other countries casts the resource-curse.

Still, Botswana is a growth miracle. Between 1965 and 1998, it had an average annual growth rate of 7.7%, and in 1998 it had an average per capita income four times the African average. Rule of law, property rights, and enforcement of contracts work; the government is efficient, small, and relatively free from corruption. Indigenous institutions, persisting through colonization, encourage broad-based participation, placing constraints on elites. Institutional quality and good policies are responsible for success against the odds. (source)

Of course, high GDP growth rates don’t always imply low poverty rates, but often they do. About a third of the population still lives in poverty, but this rate has been declining sharply, from 59% in 1985 and 47% in 1992 (source).

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (15): Presidential v. Parliamentary Democracy

This post in the series focuses on the “remain” part rather than the “become” part. Juan Linz has famously argued that presidential democracies don’t work, with the exception of the US. To simplify things a bit, in a presidential democracy – 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 parliamentary democracy 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).

One of the causes of the breakdown of presidential systems is the opposition between legislature and executive: both the president and the majority in the legislature have democratic legitimacy since they are both directly elected. That’s not a problem when both are of the same political family, but when they are not, it’s a recipe for stalemate at best and breakdown at worst.

Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. Theme is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate. It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power. (source)

On the other hand, parliamentary systems seem to be less stable in countries plagued by bitter ethnic conflict, as is the case in many African countries.

More posts in this series are here.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (11): Freedom as Capability

Freedom as independence or the absence of interference (especially government interference) is an important concept but it doesn’t cover all useful meanings of the word. Freedom is more than just the (relatively) unhindered ability to do as you like; it’s also the availability of significant and wide ranging choices and of the capabilities to do the things you choose to do. Choices and capabilities may be enhanced by the absence of interference, but also by interference. Someone who’s doesn’t suffer interference by her government, and who isn’t pressured by her family, tradition or society, may still lack freedom because her choices and capabilities are limited: maybe she doesn’t have a basic income necessary to make choices and act on these choices. Or maybe she didn’t receive the education necessary to have the capabilities to make informed choices. In those cases, government interference in society by way of poverty reduction and the provision of education may enhance freedom. Take an example that’s less controversial than education or poverty: traffic rules. These rules interfere with what we can do, and yet they vastly increase our choices and opportunities and they allow us to do what we choose (getting somewhere), because they prevent chaos and accidents.

Normally, the point of driving is to get somewhere. The traffic laws enable us to get where we are going much more quickly and safely than we would if each of us had to decide for him- or herself which side of the street to drive on. The traffic laws do not tell us where to go. They leave the choice of destination, and for that matter the decision whether to drive at all, entirely up to us. They simply tell us which side of the road to drive on, that we should stop at various points, and so forth. By taking away our freedom to drive on the left, or to blast through busy intersections, they grant us much more freedom in the form of a greatly enhanced ability to get wherever we want to go quickly and safely.

Anyone who thinks that the traffic laws enhance our freedom should acknowledge that in some cases, including this one, government action can enhance our freedom, even if that action takes the form of restrictions on what we can and cannot do. An enormous number of questions about which (other) forms of government action might enhance our freedom would remain to be answered, but the fact that some government policy involves either a more active government or new restrictions on our action would not, by itself, imply that it diminishes our freedom. Hilary Bok (source)

Traffic rules are a form of government interference that enhances our capabilities. And while they may not be representative of all government rules, we can safely conclude that some constraining rules can also be enabling rules. By limiting certain kinds of behavior, government actions and laws can greatly expand the range of possible behavior. Paradoxically, limiting freedom can mean expanding freedom.

Government can enhance our freedom by helping us to expand our choices and foster our capabilities, and by giving us the opportunity to exercise our capabilities as often – or as little – as we want. It does so especially for those of us who would struggle to foster and use our capabilities by ourselves. Hence, government enhancement of capabilities often means equalization of capabilities. Not in the case of traffic rules because in that case everyone equally depends on government intervention; in the case of education and poverty reduction, however, some will benefit much more than others.

The important thing, according to Martha Nussbaum (who, together with Amartya Sen, has written a lot about the capabilities approach), is not that we exercise all our capabilities all of the time, but that we all have an equal opportunity to exercise our capabilities as much or as little as we choose. People who starve cannot exercise their capabilities, but people who fast could exercise their capabilities but choose not to. Only in the former case is there a task for government. Likewise, something must be done when people in a totalitarian state can’t read the books they want, not when people in a free country decide to be coach potatoes. The power of choice is the central concern, not what is actually chosen. Capabilities are important, not actual functionings.

Read the other posts in this series here.

The Causes of Poverty (34): Desert

Those who agree that the government should help the poor usually don’t make qualitative distinctions between different kinds of poor people. They only separate the mildly poor from the horribly poor and modify the assistance policies accordingly.

My personal views are similar to these, albeit that I want to promote private charity before and above government assistance. The recent debates about healthcare reform in the U.S. were in essence about one type of assistance to the “poor”, namely those not poor enough to be eligible to existing government programs yet not wealthy enough to be able to buy adequate private insurance. During these debates, Bryan Caplan – a libertarian – proposed to make a distinction between deserving poor and non-deserving poor:

All [the government] needs to do is provide a means-tested subsidy to make private health insurance more affordable for those who need it most. The subsidy should be based on income, wealth, chronic health status … on past and current behavior. People who engage in voluntary risky behaviors – smoking, drinking, over-eating, mountain-climbing, violence, etc. – should receive a smaller subsidy, or no subsidy at all. The same goes for people who failed to buy long-term insurance when they were healthy and employed, then ran into health or financial troubles. (source)

We can broaden this to poverty assistance generally. And we can also expand the argument to a moral one rather than one that is simply about the need, appropriateness or scope of government intervention in poverty reduction, since I believe government intervention in poverty reduction is simply a fallback option in the case of deficient private charity (see here for my argument). The government should step in when individuals and groups fail to honor their private duties towards fellow human beings. The proper question is then: do we, as individuals, have a moral duty to help the poor, directly and through the taxes we pay to the government? I think that’s the case, and if I’m right we should ask if this duty is limited to the deserving poor. In other words, can we ignore the predicament of those who are themselves the cause of this predicament through overly risky behavior, self-destructive behavior, or stupid and irrational behavior?

The affirmative answer to that question has some intuitive appeal. And it’s also coherent with a long tradition in moral philosophy that argues against paternalism as an attitude that protects people against their freedom to damn themselves. However, things aren’t quite as intuitive as this. A duty to assist only the deserving poor requires a clear and unambiguous distinction between desert and lack of desert. I don’t think it’s really possible to decide in all cases, or even most cases, that someone has or hasn’t been deserving. Take the case of a person engaging in systematic over-eating and thereby destroying his or her health and ending up in poverty. At first sight, that person deserves poverty. People are agents with a free will and have a choice to engage in self-destructive behavior. However, we know that education and culture influence eating habits, so the causes of this person’s poverty are far more diverse than simply his or her lifestyle decisions. Even if there is an element of voluntariness in this person’s decisions, at what level of voluntariness do we put the threshold and say that this person does indeed deserve his or her predicament, notwithstanding the effect of outside causes?

There is also a problem of information deficit. People can act in a bona fide way, believing that they don’t act in a self-destructive way, based on the information that they have gathered using the skills that they have been taught. How on earth can you go and judge whether people were sufficiently bona fide? You’d need the KGB to do that, and still…

In addition, there may be a chain of desert: if, through some miracle of understanding and close monitoring, you can determine that a person isn’t to blame for his or her own predicament, maybe you can decide to assist that person but reclaim the money from his or her parents because those parents were undeserving while educating the person. In that case, the least of your problems would be an infinite regress.

Also, given the fact that poverty reduction, because of the regular failure of private charity, isn’t simply an interpersonal matter and that therefore the government will have to step in at some point, do we really want the government to start separating the deserving from the undeserving? Look at the answer of another libertarian, Tyler Cowen:

First, I am worried about a governmental process which first judges the “deservingness” of each poor person before setting the proper subsidy. Do they videotape your life as you go along, or do they convene a Job-like trial when you submit receipts for reimbursement? (source)

So we have a fundamental tension between on the one hand the value of individual responsibility and the need to have people make their own choices and suffer the consequences (if no one has to suffer the consequences of choices it’s hard to call them real choices), and, on the other hand, the need to help the wretched of the earth, even those who may be (partly) responsible for their own wretchedness (I say “may be” because I don’t believe there’s a way to know, not even with a KGB).

The useful thing about this dilemma is that it makes clear that people are indeed in some cases the cause of their own poverty, at least in part. It’s very important to determine the real causes of poverty if you want to do something about it. Helping poor people after they have become poor is just part of the solution. It’s better to prevent poverty altogether, and this dilemma helps doing that because it forces people to see that behavior is a cause. Hence they should be able to adapt their behavior.

Measuring Human Rights (7): Don’t Let Governments Make it Easy on Themselves

In many cases, the task of measuring respect for human rights in a country falls on the government of that country. It’s obvious that this isn’t a good idea in dictatorships: governments there will not present correct statistics on their own misbehavior. But if not the government, who else? Dictatorships aren’t known for their thriving and free civil societies, or for granting access to outside monitors. As a result, human rights protection can’t be measured.

The problem, however, of depending on governments for human rights measurement isn’t limited to dictatorships. I also gave examples of democratic governments not doing a good job in this respect. Governments, also democratic ones, tend to choose indicators they already have. For example, number of people benefiting from government food programs (they have numbers for that), neglecting private food programs for which information isn’t readily available. In this case, but in many other cases as well, governments choose indicators which are easy to measure, rather than indicators which measure what needs to be measured but which require a lot of effort and money.

Human rights measurement also fails to measure what needs to be measured when the people whose rights we want to measure don’t have a say on which indicators are best. And that happens a lot, even in democracies. Citizen participation is a messy thing and governments tend to want to avoid it, but the result may be that we’re measuring the wrong thing. For example, we think we are measuring poverty when we count the number of internet connections for disadvantaged groups, but these groups may consider the lack of cable TV or public transportation a much more serious deprivation. The reason we’re not measuring what we think we are measuring, or what we really need to measure, is not – as in the previous case – complacency, lack of budgets etc. The reason is a lack of consultation. Because there hasn’t been consultation, the definition of “poverty” used by those measuring human rights is completely different from the one used by those whose rights are to be measured. And, as a result, the indicators that have been chosen aren’t the correct ones, or they don’t show the whole picture. Many indicators chosen by governments are also too specific, measuring only part of the human right (e.g. free meals for the elderly instead of poverty levels for the elderly).

However, even if the indicators that are chosen are the correct ones – i.e. indicators that measure what needs to be measured, completely and not partially – it’s still the case that human rights measurement is extremely difficult, not only conceptually, but also and primarily on the level of execution. Not only are there many indicators to measure, but the data sources are scarce and often unreliable, even in developed countries. For example, let’s assume that we want to measure the human right not to suffer poverty, and that we agree that the best and only indicator to measure respect for this right is the level of income.* So we cleared up the conceptual difficulties. The problem now is data sources. Do you use tax data (taxable income)? We all know that there is tax fraud. Low income declared in tax returns may not reflect real poverty. Tax returns also don’t include welfare benefits etc.

Even if you manage to produce neat tables and graphs you always have to stop and think about the messy ways in which they have been produced, about the flaws and lack of completeness of the chosen indicators themselves, and about the problems encountered while gathering the data. Human rights measurement will always be a difficult thing to do, even under the best circumstances.

* This isn’t obvious. Other indicators could be level of consumption, income inequality etc. But let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that level of income is the best and only indicator for this right.

Measuring Human Rights (6): Don’t Make Governments Do It

In the case of dictatorial governments or other governments that are widely implicated in the violation of the rights of their citizens, it’s obvious that the task of measuring respect for human rights should be – where possible – carried out by independent non-governmental organizations, possibly even international or foreign ones (if local ones are not allowed to operate). Counting on the criminal to report on his crimes isn’t a good idea. Of course, sometimes there’s no other way. It’s often impossible to estimate census data, for example, or data on mortality, healthcare providers etc. without using official government information.

All this is rather trivial. The more interesting point, I hope, is that the same is true, to some extent, of governments that generally have a positive attitude towards human rights. Obviously, the human rights performance of these governments also has to be measured, because there are rights violations everywhere, and a positive attitude doesn’t guarantee positive results. However, even in such cases, it’s not always wise to trust governments with the task of measuring their own performance in the field of human rights. An example from a paper by Marilyn Strathern (source, gated):

In 1993, new regulations [required] local authorities in the UK … to publish indicators of output, no fewer than 152 of them, covering a variety of issues of local concern. The idea was … to make councils’ performance transparent and thus give them an incentive to improve their services. As a result, however,… even though elderly people might want a deep freeze and microwave rather than food delivered by home helps, the number of home helps [was] the indicator for helping the elderly with their meals and an authority could only improve its recognised performance of help by providing the elderly with the very service they wanted less of, namely, more home helps.

Even benevolent governments can make crucial mistakes like these. This example isn’t even a measurement error; it’s measuring the wrong thing. And the mistake wasn’t caused by the government’s will to manipulate, but by a genuine misunderstanding of what the measurement should be all about.

I think the general point I’m trying to make is that human rights measurement should take place in a free market of competing measurements – and shouldn’t be a (government) monopoly. Measurement errors are more likely to be identified if there is a possibility to compare competing measurements of the same thing.