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Democracy 1

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Colin Bird

on 18 March 2015

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Transcript of Democracy 1

‘The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies “something not desirable.” … In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.’

Orwell, Politics and the English Language
Democracy is not really a noun. It is not one thing. It is really many things, and so I find it more helpful to think of it as an adjective. When we have arguments ‘for and against democracy’ we are really having arguments about whether A, B, C should be organized in more or less democratic ways.

Note that A, B, and C might mean many different things. Jury trials involve a kind of democratic decisionmaking; so do the outcomes of American Idol; so do US presidential elections.

Also, institutions, decisionmaking, public action can be democratic in various different ways.

The only way to make any progress in thinking clearly about democracy is to be alive to these various possibilities.
To see the diversity of possible democratic arrangements, consider:

Election or sortition? (selection by votes or by lot?)

Unanimity (e.g. juries), supermajorities, plain majorities, pluralities?

Different institutional set-ups: bicameralism, different jury-structures

Liberty to vote/participate versus required to vote/participate?

First-past-the-post or proportional representation?

Direct or indirect? Note that this is not an exclusive choice, as there are different levels of government.

If representation, representation of what sort? Trustees or delegates?
I distinguish 5 different arguments for democratic procedures of one sort or another. NB. This list is not exhaustive, nor are the arguments mutually exclusive.

The first three arguments make a positive case for democratic arrangements:

1.The common good defense: democratic arrangements are the best device for identifying the common interests of the public, the best way for the ‘the public to learn what it (should) want’ (adapting a phrase from Rousseau)

2. The argument from self-government: collective self-determination is an intrinsically valuable political good, and only democratic arrangements are compatible with self-government.

3. The argument from justice: it is only fair everyone should have an equal voice in decisions taken in their name (or: that fundamentally affect the terms on which they lead their lives)

The last two arguments are focused less on the realization of positive ideals, and more on the value of democratic arrangements as protections against abuses, or as devices for overcoming certain problems:


The conflict-resolution argument: society needs some way to resolve disagreements peacefully. Democratic procedures provide a way for it to do so.
Less ambitious version: argues on purely pragmatic grounds
More ambitious version (shades into some of the positive arguments): processes of democratic compromise promote ‘legitimacy’

Finally, we have the most boring and modest argument:

5. Safeguarding Liberty against Power: democratic accountability curbs the abuse of power.

Winston Churchill: “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Churchill really did say this, but the actual quote is preceded by the words ‘it has been said that,’ so it’s not really clear that it should be attributed to him)

But what's the baseline for comparison? If the alternatives are ‘tyranny,’ ‘dictatorship,’ ‘oppression,’ etc., then of course ‘democracy’ is going to win. But that's stacking the deck.

Aren’t there lots of nondemocratic features of regimes that are not dictatorships? E.g. is the rule of law inherently ‘democratic’? Should we directly elect Supreme Court justices?

A challenge: are there many examples of a desirable political change that came about directly as a result of a democratic vote, or democratic participation?
The _??_ state is organised and functions on the principle
of democratic centralism, namely the electiveness of all bodies of state authority from the lowest to the highest, ... [and] their accountability to the people.
The common good defense is vulnerable to Plato’s Craft Analogy objection, famously presented in the

Ruling a society competently is a complex skill (‘craft’) that requires expertise, like medicine, engineering, aviation: the common good is not easy to discern.
Hence, trained experts alone ought to rule, just as trained doctors/engineers/pilots alone ought to perform operations/design buildings/fly airplanes
Ordinary, untrained, people are rarely, if ever, expert in the required sense

Hence democratic rule is inherently irrational, the rule of the ill-informed and inexpert
Plato’s objection is still a powerful argument. Do we want Joe Public sitting on the Federal Reserve, making decisions about interest rates and quantitative easing?

Can we solve this problem just by educating people better? Not clear that this is cost-effective.
Note that it's not sufficient to rebut Plato's objection to complain that his view is elitist. It's no more elitist than saying that only trained surgeons should be allowed to perform appendectomies.

Perhaps surgery and politics are different: but
a. the burden is on the democrat to justify the difference
b. the common good defense presumes that there is a truth of the matter about what is in the public interest, just as there is a truth of the matter about how to cure appendicitis. So again, why think differently about the two?
Perhaps the answer is: but judgments about the common good are 'subjective', not 'objective' like medicine.
We've already suggested that the language of 'objectivity' and 'subjectivity' is unhelpful. But even if you're not convinced about that, consider:

1. Surely not every policy proposal is equally good, or equally defensible. Governments make mistakes, and it's often not controversial that they do. Appeasement in the 1930s was a mistake. Voting for Hitler was a mistake, but recall that the Fuhrer came to power in part by democratic vote.

2. Relatedly, is it controversial that ordinary people are often very ill-informed about complex policy questions? Note that this needn't be because they are inherently dumb: it may be that democratic citizens are
rationally ignorant

3. Note that Plato anticipated the objectivity/subjectivity response, though not in so many words, and he offered an interesting reply: the belief that questions about the common good are 'subjective' is a delusion
caused by
democracy. It's not the other way around.
On Rational Ignorance
Are voters rationally ignorant? Economists say yes: the odds of your vote being decisive (moving Candidate to +50%) are so infinitesimal that it's not worth spending time and energy learning about the candidates/policies etc.
This argument is widely accepted by economists and political scientists. But it has recently been questioned by Richard Tuck.

Tuck: economists ask the wrong question. Not: 'what's the chance that my vote will be the decisive one' but:
'what's the chance that my vote will be one of those necessary for X to win'.

e.g. Romney needs 50 million votes to win and you along with 60 million others vote for him. Then the odds that your vote was NECESSARY for his victory are 5/6. NOT infinitesimal!
What about the argument from self-government: democratic procedures allow societies to be in charge of their own destinies
1. Skepticism about the ‘popular will’ – see Schumpeter. Does it make sense to say that society follows 'its own will'? Is there any such thing?

2. Even if there is such a thing, how valuable is collective autonomy compared to

a. individual autonomy? Don't we want to give individual self-determination priority over collective? But that could sharply limit democratic discretion.

b. the best interests of society? If a society autonomously bankrupts its economy, oppresses its own citizens, etc. is it good news that 'at least they did it to themselves'?
Not clear that majority rule = equal justice. What if the majority are racist bigots?

What is an ‘equal voice’? How determined? Informal restrictions on 'mainstream' opinion? Do we actually have an equal say in actual democracies? Isn’t ‘equal say’ just a fantasy on close inspection? Perhaps this standard applies only in small groups.

Does it make sense to give both dumb and intelligent views about public policy an ‘equal say’ (back to Plato’s objection)

One might try to simplify: 'All affected' are entitled to
voice. But 'those affected' might include immigrants and those overseas. And some are affected

than others.
The argument from justice: are democratic institutions necessary to ensure fair representation of interests or equal voice/influence?
How about the conflict-resolution argument?

Whether democratic procedures always help reduce rather than exacerbate conflict seems highly contingent. Lots of unstable democracies and lots of stable autocracies.
'But the Western democracies are very stable' But how far is that stability due to their democratic features?
Finally, there is the argument that democratic procedures preserve liberty.

As much an anti-democratic as a pro-democratic argument, as it provides reasons to curb and check the power of potentially tyrannical democratic majorities.

Hayek and classical liberals: you don't need democracy to preserve liberty. The rule of law is sufficient.
Five arguments for (different sorts of) democratic rule:

Common Good: Democracy allows societies to identify and intelligently pursue their common interests

Self-Government: Democracy secures the value of collective self-determination and independence

Justice: Democracy allows everyone affected by government decisions an equal say in those decisions and (for that reason) promotes the equal rights of all citizens – in this way, it promotes justice.

Conflict-Resolution: Democracy is a particularly good way for societies to manage potentially destabilizing disagreements and conflicts

Safeguarding Liberty: Democracy provides a salutary check on the tendency of powerful elites to menace the personal liberties of individual citizens.
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