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.

Migration and Human Rights (39): The Democracy Argument Against Open Borders

Usually, arguments against open borders and in favor of varying degrees of immigration restrictions are based on economic or cultural considerations. Often, such arguments can be easily dismissed as prejudiced, chauvinist and selfish, and the data don’t support them anyway. However, a potentially stronger argument against open borders is based on the requirements of democracy. It’s potentially stronger because it goes to the heart of the same liberal values that animate the push for open borders.

Central to the idea of democracy is that those who are governed by laws should have a say in the drafting of the laws. In the words of Jürgen Habermas:

Gültig sind genau die Handlungsnormen, denen alle möglicherweise Betroffenen als Teilnehmer an rationalen Diskursen zustimmen könnten.

People are obligated to obey the laws of government only insofar as they have consented to those laws (or to the power exercised in passing those laws). That’s the whole idea behind self-government.

Now, what would happen to this idea where we to open the borders? It’s claimed that the constant coming and going of people that would result from open borders, would make self-government impossible. People would vote on laws that would not apply to them in the future because they come and go, and other people would not be able to vote on laws that would apply to them because they won’t be here yet. Open borders would mean that people are allowed to decide on things they don’t care about and won’t have a stake in. Self-government would not be possible because the “self” that governs would never match the “self” that is governed.

Another democracy based objection to open borders is a practical one. The effective functioning of democracy requires a common language, since democracy is essentially deliberation. It also requires knowledge of the political system and the political culture, and a feeling for what is achievable and acceptable to the wider community. Open borders inhibit this effective functioning.

There are basically two ways to respond to these arguments. First, the arguments seem to confuse access rights and citizenship rights. It’s correct that citizenship in a democracy should be tied to certain conditions, such as knowledge of the language and permanence of residence, and that citizenship is a necessary condition for most democratic participation. I made that argument here so I won’t repeat it now. Suffice it to say that there are good reasons to distinguish – but not separate – different parts of humanity by way of conditional acquisition of citizenship – with each part hopefully having democratic rights within its own country. However, these reasons don’t, by themselves, justify closed borders. Access rights and citizenship rights are different things.

However, as Michael Walzer has argued, when we decide to allow people in but at the same time deny them citizenship, we run the risk of creating a permanent underclass of disenfranchised non-citizens, who live and work in the country but can’t effectively protect their interests through political participation. Hence, an open border policy should also include a pathway to citizenship. The problem is then to strike the right balance between the need for flexible citizenship and the risks to democratic governance resulting from a notion of citizenship that is too weak.

Secondly, the central idea of democracy – that people governed by laws should have the right to participate in the framing of those laws – can be used to argue in favor of rather than against open borders. A decision by one part of humanity to exclude others from a certain part of the earth’s surface clearly violates this central idea. The potential immigrants who are excluded obviously don’t have a say in this decision, and yet they are governed by it. If they had a say, they would probably carry the day, given their numerical strength.

Some would claim that it’s foolish to allow potential immigrants to participate in such decisions. Would we allow a mob of homeless people, demanding access to our house, to vote, together with us, whether or not they have a right to access? No we wouldn’t, but the analogy is baseless. We do have a legitimate property right to our house (at least most of us do), but the citizens of a country don’t have a similar right to a part of the surface of the earth.

It’s of course an open question how we would practically organize such a common decision. Perhaps we should take the next logical step and institute some kind of federal world democracy. But that’s for another post.

More on open borders here.

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.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (10): Why Do We Need Democracy?

Regular readers will know that I see democracy as a human rights issue. The standard human rights texts (declarations, treaties and constitutions) all provide a right of the people of a nation to take part in the government, choose representatives in free elections etc. As with human rights in general, many people are in favor of democracy, but are unable to say why, or are unable to agree on the reasons why they are in favor. Some people may not have a particular reason to favor democracy, apart from a pragmatic one: it has worked quite well, especially compared to other forms of government that have been tried before, and it’s such a fuss to change.

Those who have reasons can be divided into two “camps”: those who view democracy as the best means to an independently valuable  goal, and those who view democracy as intrinsically valuable. The former group is the most numerous (and includes me). An instrumental justification of democracy can take many different forms, depending on the ultimate goal that is supposed to be promoted by democracy. The most common forms are:

  • Democracy promotes prosperity, economic growth and poverty reduction.
  • Democracy promotes peace (internally and externally).
  • Democracy leads to better political decisions.
  • Democracy leads to less repression and more respect for human rights.

I believe all of these statements are very persuasive, and taken together they form a very powerful justification of democracy (although we may need to agree on a very specific definition of democracy in order to be convinced by these statements – but that’s another discussion).

The non-instrumental justification, the one that says that democracy is good, not because of what it produces, but because of what it is, is also very interesting and persuasive. It focuses on what happens to people when they participate in government, what happens when democracy takes place, not what happens after it has taken place. So instead of pointing to beneficial consequences of democracy – more prosperity, more peace etc. – it points to the benefits of community, association, participation, self-government, self-determination etc. and how these things improve people’s characters, virtues and happiness. Read more here.

The only problem I have with this non-instrumental approach in which democracy is an end in itself, is that it tends to collapse into the instrumental approach: if democracy improves people’s character, then it’s also instrumental. It’s only an end in itself in the sense that it’s product doesn’t appear afterwards (like peace follows from democratic rule), but is simultaneous with it (people’s characters and virtues improve because of democracy, but only as long as democracy “happens”).

However, often it’s quite irrelevant which type of justification of democracy we prefer, and how successful (or not) the chosen justification is. Such exercises can be no more than “preaching to the choir”, intellectually interesting but practically irrelevant. People who already accept democracy don’t need a philosophical explanation of why democracy is so wonderful. And people who don’t accept democracy are often immune to rational justifications or to philosophy in general. Good luck approaching the Taliban with a philosophy paper on the benefits of democracy… (In fact, good luck approaching them at all).

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.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (4): Freedom as Autonomy

Limits on freedom can equalize freedom. If my freedom is limited by yours, then our freedom is roughly the same. If I’m stronger than you, then a limit on my freedom makes it impossible for me to use my freedom to the detriment of yours. However, the problem of freedom and equality isn’t solved by limiting freedom. Notably the freedom of the poor and the freedom of those who, for one reason or another, don’t have a reasonable set of resources and alternative options to choose from, are still very unequal kinds of freedom. Limiting the freedom of others doesn’t help these people.

The ability to do as you want, limited by those restrictions imposed by the state necessary to ensure that the freedom of one doesn’t harm the freedom of another, does to some extent equalize freedom, but not the freedom of the poor and the freedom of those with a limited set of choices. Another problem is that it is essentially an anti-political freedom. The state is not a place of freedom; the state is a set of institutions which limit freedom.

However, it is my view that the state can be a place of freedom if we understand freedom in another way. Democratic political participation in the decisions of the state (especially on a local level) can be a source of freedom; freedom not necessarily in the sense of the ability to do as you want, but freedom in the sense of autonomy.

Autonomy in this context must be understood as the ability of a group of people, living together, to participate equally in deliberations, and to come to an agreement (by majority vote for instance) on certain matters that shape their living together. It is a more communal and less individualistic notion than the ability to do as you like, since it requires political self-government through democratic participation. It is also closely related to equality since the right to participation is an equal right and the adequate functioning of the decision-taking process requires equal attention to all arguments and alternatives.

Autonomy does not result from the isolated exercise of an individual will outside of state control.  Similar to freedom as self-development – see the previous post in this series – autonomy is mediated through life in a communityFreedom as self-development means that you can only do as you like when you know about the options and when the options appear in public debates, in education and in other circumstance that require a community. Freedom as autonomy profits from the same kind of debate. The advantage of debate in this case is not the clarification and expansion of choice as a precondition of real freedom of choice, but a better decision on things that are common to a group of people.

Autonomy is not a freedom outside of the state. It is necessarily a part of it and cannot survive without it. Autonomy is a kind of self-government. It’s a community that determines the social conditions in which it lives. People usually engage in self-government within some form of state institutions, local or even national. By determining the structures, laws and rules which govern their lives, people govern themselves. So we see that freedom and the state are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

What Are Human Rights? (14): Rights of Citizens

Political rights are rights that guarantee participation, directly and through freely chosen representatives, in the affairs of government (mainly legislation). These rights are legitimately reserved for citizens only. A state should guarantee the freedom rights of all persons within its territory, irrespective of their nationality or citizenship, so including the citizens (those people having acquired the nationality of the state by birth, naturalization etc.), immigrants, refugees, stateless people, visitors, tourists etc.

However, political rights may be excluded from this rule because otherwise these rights would become unworkable. This means that people only have political rights in the state of which they are citizens. This in no way limits the universality of political rights. Everybody has political rights, but not everywhere. Furthermore, it must be possible to grant citizenship and the political rights connected to it in a selective way, so as not to empty the meaning of the restriction of political rights to citizens. And this is also what happens in reality. I think there are four good reasons for doing so:

  1. A definition of citizenship purely based on the physical presence within a territory would be too vague. People would enter and leave the community of citizens all of the time and this would create permanent modifications in the image and identity of the political unity (or the political community). This would endanger the stability and the permanence of the state and would allow passing residents to use political rights in order to shape the future of people with whom they have nothing in common. It would therefore be contrary to the democratic ideal of self-control and self-government, an ideal which is the basis of political rights and which I believe to be universally accepted (even tyrannies justify many of their actions on the self-determination of their peoples).
  2. Political rights and citizenship cannot be exercised effectively if the people do not speak a common language (not necessarily their native language). There is no persuasion without mutual understanding and there is no common will without persuasion. On top of that, the effective use of political rights requires that the participants in political life know the political system and the political culture in which they participate. There is even a case to be made for knowledge of general cultural customs as a requirement for granting political rights. All these conditions for the effective use of political rights and hence for citizenship and nationality, seem to imply a further condition, namely a certain stability of residence. It is therefore normal to decide a request for naturalization on the basis of these conditions. However, these conditions do not imply the rejection of multiculturalism. The common language does not have to be the native language and it is possible, in many cases, to know and practice other political and cultural customs without denying your own customs.
  3. Non-citizens usually do not pay taxes. As political decisions often deal with the way in which tax-money should be spent, it seems fair to exclude those who do not contribute to that sum of money. Why should you be allowed to decide what is done with someone else’s money? Let alone spend it for your own purposes?
  4. If a country allows too many people to become its citizens, it can endanger its economic prosperity, especially when the majority of these people are poor and unskilled. This is not egoism. Economic ruin does not help anybody.

Because everybody is not always or cannot always be in his or her own state, and because political rights embody very important human values such as self-government – which means the values of non-citizens as well – we should try to limit the conditions for the enjoyment of these rights by non-citizens to what is absolutely necessary. Foreigners who know the language, the political system and the general culture, who pay taxes and who have lived a certain time in the country should be allowed to enjoy political rights, even when they are not yet citizens in the sense of having acquired the nationality of the country. Not doing so would be discrimination, would lead to frustration and resentment, and would lead to the very problems the first point mentioned above is framed to avoid.

Only freedom rights are universal and come with no strings attached. Citizens and non-citizens alike should have freedom rights everywhere. Freedom rights are the rights of everybody in all places. Political rights are to some extent national rights or rights of citizens only. This does not contradict the principle of the universality of human rights because everybody is a citizen somewhere. Or better, everybody has a right to be a citizen of his or her own state and has a right to be a citizen of a state which protects all the rights of its citizens. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

1. Everyone has the right to a nationality. 2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

 

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? (13): International Democracy

There is a need for global democracy or international democracy. The power deflation experienced by the states vis-à-vis the market, multinationals, and each other means that decisions affecting the well-being of the people are taken by outside forces (the market, companies, other states etc.). It is obvious that this is incompatible with democracy and with the sovereignty of the people. Democratic control over events is an important value, but one which implies the presence of a state and a people capable of imposing their will. If they cannot impose their will, as is shown by many problems of globalization, then we have to look beyond the level of the state. International institutions can sometimes solve problems that are beyond the power of one individual state and one people.

Is democracy possible at a level that is higher than that of the state? A number of problems can only be solved at a transnational level, so we need this level. If democracy is important, then it is important that transnational decisions and organizations are democratic and based on the agreement of the people.

But is it possible? Democracy is not at its best on a large scale. Efficient participation is difficult in very large groups. On the other hand, international cooperation can stop events taking place without the agreement of the people. If we have international cooperation, we can avoid the situation in which one country takes a decision that has a negative effect in another country (for example, the decision to build a nuclear plant just at the border with another country, without involving the people of this other country; or the decision of one country to start destroying its rain forests, irrespective of the consequence for the global climate). And the agreement of the people is the hallmark of democracy.

International cooperation in the sense of defense cooperation in institutions like NATO can protect the national sovereignty of individual states and therefore also the right to self-government of the people of these individual states. And finally, international cooperation allows a nation to solve problems which it cannot solve on its own (pollution for example). In everyone of these three cases do we see that international cooperation has a positive influence on self-government and hence on democracy.

It is obvious that international organizations, set up to solve international problems and hence to give control to the people, must be democratic, at least when we remember that self-government is among the reasons for solving international problems. Some of these problems inhibit self-government because an individual nation is not able to deal with them.

International organizations are set up to recreate self-government by solving problems that inhibit self-government. Therefore, one should not create an undemocratic international institution, because the purpose of such an institution is precisely self-government.

How can we make international organizations more democratic than they currently are? There are not many examples to inspire us. In any case, the people of the different states have to be represented in these organizations and not only in their own states. Direct democracy is also a possibility.

Perhaps we can presume that we have a democratic decision from the moment that democratic states, in their position of members of the organization, take a common decision. These states represent the people and hence the people are indirectly involved in the decision. However, do these states have to decide unanimously? Or can we also apply the system of majority rule at an international level? In the latter case, we put aside entire nations.

Is this acceptable? It is certainly not acceptable for the nations concerned. The reason why these nations joined the organization in the first place, was to solve problems that escaped their power and to recapture their sovereignty. They will never accept to be outvoted.

The fact that international organizations take away a part of the sovereignty of states in order to be able to solve certain problems, does not have to imply a weakening of democracy. On the contrary, it can imply the rescue of democracy, on the condition of course that these organizations are governed democratically. The people of every individual state have less democratic power because they are minorities in a larger entity, but the “people” of the whole have more democracy because they are now able to solve problems they were not able to solve when they were still divided.

International cooperation can also promote democracy because it implies mutual influence. A state that needs other states in order to solve environmental problems for example will find it more difficult to ignore demands from these other states aimed at an improvement of the human rights situation or a strengthening of democratic institutions. The shield of sovereignty loses its strength and can no longer be used to counter criticism of human rights violations, because it is precisely the lack of sovereignty or self-government which forced the states to cooperate.

What is Democracy? (9): Self-Government

Democracy is the right of the people and of every member of the people to participate in the decisions of the government and in the framing of the laws. The underlying justification of this right is the wish of the people to control their own lives.

Control over your own life is a universal value. Few people are willing to accept that their lives are controlled by others. Democratic participation and democratic political life guarantee this value and this is one of the reasons or justifications for the universal application of democracy.

Underneath the principle of self-control or self-government lies the claim that people can only be subject to those laws and decisions to which they agree, either because they voted for these laws themselves or because they have chosen the people who vote for these laws. This is a fundamental claim of democracy. If you have to obey laws you do not agree with, you do not control your own life.

There are two ways of guaranteeing that the people agree with the laws they are supposed to respect. One way is to allow the people to make the rules themselves, for example, by voting in a local meeting or in a referendum. That would be direct democracy. The other way is to allow the people to elect or dismiss representatives who frame the laws. In the latter case, the people contribute indirectly to the framing of the laws. Participation or control can be exercised on two levels: either directly or through the election or dismissal of representatives; election in the case of representatives who vote for the laws the people would also have voted for themselves, dismissal in the opposite case.

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.