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? (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.

Measuring Democracy (8): A Multidimensional Measurement

Any attempt to measure the degree of democracy in a country should take into account the fact that democracy is something multidimensional. It won’t suffice to measure elections, not even the different aspects of elections such as frequency, participation, fairness, transparency etc. It takes more than fair and inclusive elections to have a democracy. Of course, the theoretical ideal of democracy is a controversial notion, so we won’t be able to agree on all the necessary dimensions or elements of a true democracy. Still, you can’t escape this problem if you want to build a measurement system: measuring something means deciding which parts of it are worth measuring.

You would also do best to take a maximalist approach: leaving out too many characteristics would allow many or even all countries to qualify as fully democratic and would make it impossible to differentiate between the different levels or the different quality of democracy across countries. A measurement system is useful precisely because it offers distinctions and detailed rankings and because it makes it possible to determine the distance to an ideal, whatever the nature of the ideal. Obviously, a maximalist approach is by definition more controversial than a minimal one. Everyone agrees that you can’t have a democracy without elections (or, better, without voting more generally). Whether strong free speech rights and an independent judiciary are necessary is less clear. And the same is true for other potential attributes of democracy.

Once you’ve determined what you believe are necessary attributes you can start to measure the extent at which they are present in different countries. Hence, your measurement will look like a set of sliding scales. With all the markers on the right side in the case of a non-existing ideal democracy, and all the markers on the left side in the unfortunately very real case of total absence of democracy.

(The aggregation of these scales into a total country score is another matter that I’ve discussed elsewhere).

Some candidates of attributes are:

  • Does a country include more or less people in the right to have a democratic say? How high is the voting age? Are criminals excluded from the vote, even after they have served their sentence? Are immigrants without citizenship excluded? Are there conditions attached to the right to vote (such as property, education, gender etc.)?
  • Does a country include more or less topics in the right to a democratic say? Are voters not allowed to have a say about the affairs of the military, or about policies that have an impact on the rights of minorities? Does the judiciary have a right to judicial review of democratically approved laws?
  • Does a country include more or less positions in the right to a democratic say? Can voters elect the president, judges, prosecutors, mayors, etc., or only parliamentarians? Can they elect local office holders? Does a country have a federalist structure with important powers at the local or state level?
  • Does a country impose qualified majorities for certain topics or positions? Do voters have to approve certain measures with a two-thirds supermajority?
  • Does a country provide more or less ways to express a democratic say? Can voters only elect officials or can they also vote on issues in referenda?
  • Does a country impose more or less restrictions on the formation of a democratic say? Are free speech rights and assembly and association rights respected?
  • Does a country accept more or less imbalances of power in the formation of a democratic say? Are there campaign financing rules?
  • Does a country show more or less respect for the expression of a democratic say? How much corruption is there? Is the judiciary independent?

A “more” score on any of these attributes will push up the total “democracy score” for a country. At least it seems so, if not for the conclusion that all these complications in the measurement system are still not enough. We need to go further and add additional dimensions. For example, one can argue that we shouldn’t define democracy solely on the basis of the right to a democratic say, not even if we render this right as complex as we did above. A democracy should, ideally, also be a stable form of government, and allowing people to decide about the fundamental rights of minorities is an expression of the right to a democratic say but it is not in the long term interest of democracy. Those minorities will ultimately rebel against this tyranny of the majority and cause havoc for everyone.

More posts in this series are here.