What is Democracy? (45): Freedom of Information

In a previous post I discussed the concept of “accountability” and how it’s typical of democracy: politicians, legislators, judges etc. have to give account of their actions. They have to explain what they did, why they did it, and how they did it. Democracy means that the people can dismiss their leaders if they believe they haven’t carried out their job according to the wishes of the people or according to the law. This possible dismissal can only happen if the people have complete and accurate information on the job performance of their leaders. That is why democracies have a free press that can investigate the conduct of politicians. That is also why they have parliaments where the opposition can question the government or the majority, and why they have “freedom of information acts” (see also here). Such acts – often called “sunshine laws” – impose mandatory disclosure of government records, with some exceptions. The people have a right to know, but unfortunately even countries with a long tradition of democracy often find it difficult to be completely transparent. Certain circumstances such as the war on terror make it easy for the governments of those countries to restrict their information obligations. Freedom of information legislation is often full of exceptions or subject to emergency restrictions.

Freedom of Expression, or a Duty of Expression?

I often have the impression that people transform the right to free expression into a duty to free expression. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. For example, Muslims in western countries are often told that they should distance themselves from the more violent members of their religion. We require them to speak out against Muslim terrorism.

Another example: politicians, especially in the U.S., are required to speak out on a number of subjects, e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, their faith in God etc. As if it would be a disaster to elect a politician who happens to doubt about abortion. After all, many people do (myself included).

A somewhat exaggerated view on democratic transparency is undoubtedly a small part of the explanation for this. Democracy can’t function without public knowledge of politicians’ opinions, or without some sense of what our fellow citizens believe (part of democracy is group formation, and group formation is based on discussion and persuasion; and you can’t persuade someone if you don’t know what he or she believes).

But the most important cause of this “duty of expression” is, I think, the manichean nature of contemporary politics. Every issue is painted in black and white, good and evil, for or against. We force people to express themselves on issues so that we can see if they are with us or against us. And if someone expresses him or herself in a nuanced way we automatically assume that he or she takes a position opposite from our own. For example, if Muslims reject Islamic terrorism but at the same time point to the situation in Palestine, we assume that they really think terrorism is OK, or justifiable given certain circumstances. We can’t accept muddled or nuanced middle ground positions, or positions which change according to the circumstances. Gray isn’t an option.

Clarity, simplicity and certainty are important human objectives, but often they aren’t appropriate in thinking. Of course, sometimes manicheism is the only possible position: you either believe the holocaust is a fact of history or you don’t; there’s no middle ground, and those who don’t believe in it are either stupid or evil. But when it comes to political or moral opinions (rather than facts), those who really think about them often find themselves occupying a gray, complex and uncertain position.

I suspect that the difficulty to let go of manicheism and to accept uncertainty and nuance has something to do with the nature of democratic politics. It’s hard to vote for nuance, and easy to vote for or against a clear and simple proposition. And simple propositions get more attention, sell better and make it easier to mobilize large constituencies (see the cartoon below). But then again, when we look at political reality, manicheism is much more common in autocratic societies. The public debate on issues which is made possible by democratic societies forces nuance to appear.

The difficulty to let go of manicheism also has something to do with the fear of the other extreme: the paralysis that follows from endless nuancing and thinking. Politics is a realm where decisions have to be taken, contrary to philosophy where thinking is unending in principle.

However, it doesn’t follow from this that decisiveness has to be manicheism. Decisions can be based on nuanced thinking. The risk of paralysis is averted by the realization that our decisions, often taken under the pressure of urgency, are necessary yet provisional, based on the best thinking available at the time, and open to revision when time has improved our thinking.

What is Democracy? (30): Control, Transparency and Publicity

Plutarch believed that politicians should live in houses with big windows, so that the citizens would be able to check at any time the morality or absence of morality of politicians. One essential characteristics of democracy is indeed control. Politics and government must be transparent and public, and citizens use this transparency and publicity to verify the actions of politicians and the government. The citizens, more specifically, verify whether these actions are in accord with the elections promises and the will of the people as expressed in the elections.

There is a human right to privacy, and a democracy is hell-bent on protecting human rights, all human rights. But there is no contradiction between democratic publicity and the protection of privacy. Democratic politicians have a right to privacy. Control, transparency and publicity are limited to a politician’s official function, and do not extend to his personal life. Of course, if his or her personal life has an impact on the politician’s function, then intrusion is allowed, because a political function serves the realization of the will of the people, and the people must be allowed to check this realization (or the absence of it).

In an ideal democracy, one cannot govern against the will or without the consent of the people. Those in power are chosen by the people and receive from the people an assignment to rule in a specific way, an assignment given on the basis of an election manifesto. Power is temporary because it is a loan, rather than a gift. The loan is conditional upon the way in which power is used. Power continues to belong to the people and the people can take it back if they consider that it has not been used in a satisfactory way and that the assignment has not been properly fulfilled.

The people know whether or not they are pleased with government policy and with the way power is being used, because they ask those in power to give account of their actions and to inform the people of the way in which they use power. If, on the basis of this top-down flow of information combined with journalistic efforts, the people are not satisfied – for example, because the decisions taken by those in power contradict the wishes of the people, even though these decisions have been taken in the name of the people = then the people judge those in power in a negative way and decide to give power to someone else. If they are satisfied, then the loan is renewed for another fixed period of time.

This kind of accountability implies free flows of information and openness, transparency and visibility of power. Democracy and publicity are necessarily linked and all the actions of a democratic government must be public (except perhaps, for certain actions that cannot be successful when done in public, such as matters pertaining to national security; in these cases, however, publicity is only postponed, not eliminated).

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (8): Lack of Good Governance

Bad governance is a cause of underdevelopment, poverty, war and human rights violations. Major donors and international financial institutions are increasingly basing their aid and loans on the condition that the recipient countries reform their systems so that these conform to the requirements of good governance.

Good governance means a good way to take and implement government decisions (corporate governance is the way to take and implement decisions in a company, but that’s another topic). When judging whether governance is good or bad one has to look at:

  • the way decisions are taken and implemented
  • the structures and rules that govern the decision making and implementing process
  • the people involved
  • the decisions themselves
  • the outcome and consequences of the decisions.

The focus is both on what is done and on the way it is done.

Criteria for judging governance

The criteria used to judge governance are the following (some are partially overlapping):

  1. Is the government accountable or is there no way to criticize it, to replace it or to correct it?
  2. Is the process of decision-making and implementation transparent or is it hidden from public criticism? Is information freely and directly accessible to those who will be affected by decisions?
  3. Is the process of decision-making and implementation responsive to the needs of the citizens or does it follow other needs (such as business needs, international requirements, selfish needs’85) and ignores or misrepresents the needs of the people?
  4. Is the process of decision-making and implementation inclusive, just and fair? Are the needs of the most vulnerable taken into account? Do all the members of society feel that they have an equal stake in it, or do some feel excluded, left out, treated unfairly or discriminated?
  5. Is the process of decision-making and implementation effective and efficient? Does it produce the results that meet the needs of society or results that are demanded by an elite? Does it deliver rapid service or are the procedures slow and cumbersome? Does it make the best use of resources or is it wasteful and time consuming? Does it make use of natural resources in a sustainable way and a way that protects the environment?
  6. Does the process of decision-making and implementation follow the rule of law or is it arbitrary? Are decisions based on enforceable rules that apply equally to all? Are these rules enforced by an independent judiciary and an impartial and incorruptible police force?
  7. Is the process of decision-making and implementation participatory or is it exclusive? Does it respect equality and non-discrimination? Is the participation ad hoc or organized and structured?
  8. Is the process of decision-making and implementation oriented towards consensus, towards mediation of and compromise between different interests, or is it divisive?

The concept of good governance is therefore not limited to the government, but to the whole of society, including the effects of government on society and the input of society in government.

The criteria to judge governance are universal, but it is important to take into account local circumstances, historical “baggage” (like previous regimes, colonialism etc.), a country’s position in the international system etc.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (1): The Free Market

The relation between economic freedom and political freedom is that initial growth in either political freedom or economic freedom tends to promote the other. Milton Friedman in The Wall Street Journal, February 12th, 1997.

This post examines the links between the free market and democracy, especially the causal links. I believe that an increase in the level of one causes an increase in the level of the other. This may be helpful information for those who want to promote democracy around the world without the resort to violence.

I’m sure Karl Marx would have appreciated the irony of finding one of his favorite concepts at the beginning of a post defending the free market: dialectics. There is, in fact, a dialectical relationship between democracy and the free market. They may often contradict each other: the uneven distribution of wealth which one can often find in a free market system tends to falsify democratic political processes because wealth means influence; and democratic decisions often impose restrictions on a free market. However, democracy and the free market often also encourage each other.

Let us first take a look at the way in which a free market can promote democracy. A free market loosens the control of authoritarian states over their societies. If states give up control over the economy, then perhaps they will also give up control in other fields. If a state does not control all economic means, then people will have more freedom to oppose the state because the state cannot as easily take away their jobs or put them out of their houses. A planned and regulated economy usually means a planned and regulated society

A free market also promotes democracy because it requires:

The rule of law

In itself, a free market does not guarantee the rule of law but, in a certain way, it does help to promote it. Private companies like predictability. They want their investments to be protected by the law, they want a state that protects their goods and their personnel, and they want to be able to use the judiciary to enforce their contracts. Companies moreover like to have an international rule of law. They want the same rules applied everywhere. For example, if labor regulations are not the same everywhere, then companies in certain countries have an unfair competitive advantage, because they have to pay their workers less, they have to invest less in safety etc. “[T]he rule of law enforced by an independent judiciary is a condition for modern market economic relations . . . ‘Markets need laws’ claimed a businessman . . . criticizing the pervasive inefficiency and corruption of the judiciary” * . Because the free market requires the rule of law, and because the rule of law is best protected by democracy (this is an empirical fact **), one can conclude that the free market will strive towards democracy.

A limited state and a free society

Both the free market and a democracy require a limited state and a free society. Only a free society can serve as a base for the democratic control and criticism of government, and an unlimited state is the main characteristic of tyranny. The free market promotes a limited state and a free space for society because it limits state regulation and intervention in the economy. The free market is the freedom to produce, to buy and to sell and this kind of freedom promotes freedom in general.

Transparency and free flows of information

Businessmen need free flows of information in order to be able to make the best economic decisions. Hence, a free market promotes democracy, the most transparent form of government and the form of government most dependent on free flows of information.

Means of communication and transportation

A free market economy promotes the development of the means of communication and transportation. It is difficult to image a democracy without means of communication and mobility. Furthermore, increased communication and mobility weaken the power of habit and tradition, which in turn can weaken the grip of traditional authoritarian structures and forms of power.

Social mobility

Traditional authoritarian social structures, and social structures in general, are less stable in a free market, and subject to the free choice of individuals.

International trade

The free international circulation of goods can promote the free circulation of ideas. Inter-cultural communication between people who can trade freely with one another can promote democracy because it can allow people to question their habits, customs and traditional power structures. After all, you start to realize that things can be different when you see that they actually are different elsewhere in the world. In cultures that cannot trade freely and therefore do not communicate much with the outside world, most habits are considered to be self-evident and are accepted without questions. Undemocratic habits are then difficult to change. If we eliminate international trade barriers, then we can open up traditionally closed societies.

A democracy also tends to adopt a free market system. A democracy is a limited state because it necessarily (or ideally) adopts the rule of law and hence creates a space for free economic activity, exchange and competition between a variety of groups and persons. A democracy also – ideally – respects human rights and many human rights, such as the right to private property, promote the free market. It is difficult to imagine a free country, a democracy which guarantees all civil liberties, but does not allow the freedom to produce, to buy and to sell goods and services. However, a democracy may find it necessary to limit the free market, or correct for some of its injustices. It may want to redistribute some of the wealth created by the free market to those of us who cannot use their freedom to become economically successful.

There have been numerous studies measuring the degree of political freedom (or democracy) and measuring economic freedom. If you combine these measurements you can see the correlation.

* F. Panizza, in Beetham, D. (ed.), 1995, Politics and Human Rights, Blackwell, Oxford, p. 179.
** There are also many theoretical reasons to defend the link between democracy and the rule of law.