What’s the Rationale for Democracy?

Why do we live in ‘democracies’? And why should we want to?

I’ve been watching a conversation recently about the uses/abuses of the word ‘democracy’. Norman Geras castigates Priyamvada Gopal, who demands “real democracy”, for “conflat[ing] political democracy with the substantive social and economic programme that our [loony left] spokesperson favours”. Paul Sagar adds some historical musings on the meteoric rise of the word ‘democracy’, going from marginal and disdained to “the only legitimate form of politics admissible on the world stage today.”

I don’t doubt that the word ‘democracy’ occasions endless conflations, deflations, and inflations (possibly using “meshuggeneh-leftist hot air”, but it’s not clear to me that the conflation of ‘leftist aims’ with ‘democracy’ is more of a mistake than their sharp separation.
What is our rationale for democracy?’ That means both ‘why is it a good idea’, and ‘why do we have it’, which will hopefully coincide to some extent, if we have it because of the actions of various people motivated by various opinions about what’s a good idea. Consider just two possible answers.

The first answer is “to accomodate persistent political disagreement without civil war.” Democratic elections incentivise aspiring political factions, to channel their zeal/ambition into peaceful activities. The ‘carrot’ is that they have a chance of becoming the ruling faction if they’re good enough at politicking, rather than being ‘locked out’ by the present ruling faction.

The ‘stick’ is that, firstly, by holding regular elections you can gauge your popular support – if you lost, you probably wouldn’t win a civil war, and if you won, you don’t need to – and secondly, that by getting various disagreeing groups to ‘sign on’ to the system, you improve the odds that if faction B moves to displace the ruling faction, A, they have to overcome not just A but also C, D, E, etc.

The second answer is “because consent is a necessary condition of political legitimacy”. After all, person A has by default no right to issue commands to person B and back them up with force. Something needs to happen to make that legitimate, such as person B somehow ‘agreeing to it’.

As I said, there are certainly other rationales that one might present – for instance, concerning the quality of actual decisions. But sticking with these two, observe how divergent their implications can be.

For instance, which members of society should receive ‘democratic rights’? The consent-based rational says ‘everyone with a prima facie right not to be coerced’. That would probably exclude children, but it wouldn’t (without a lot of extra argumentative work) exclude the propertyless, prisoners, women, or any racial group.

But the stability-based rationale gives a very different answer: since it’s function is to ‘neutralise’ the threat of rowdy factions, it recommends giving rights to those who would otherwise be potentially rowdy factions, the more so the more of a threat they’d be if excluded.

Depending on various extraneous factors, this could probably justify both universal male suffrage, and highly restricted ‘elite’ suffrage. What I suspect you couldn’t argue for is female suffrage, because throughout history, women more or less never constitute political factions by themselves, in the way that even very marginalised classes or races of men do. Granting women the vote might be pragmatically useful (to stop the suffragettes protesting) but it’s not an advance for democratic principles.

Then ask, what political power should citizens be given? The stability-based rationale is based on appealing to and enlisting the ambitions of factions, of would-be rulers, so the balance of power between factions in general and ‘ordinary people’ is actually fairly irrelevant. There should be ‘checks and balances’ to prevent anyone doing anything really stupid or destabilising, but there’s no real need for the majority of people to exercise more than token power.

For the consent-based rationale, each citizen’s political rights need to substitute for, and thus be relevantly similar to, the sort of ‘consent’ that would legitimate some individual in coercing them. Now, what that actually means is very unclear – if you ask someone like Hobbes, it shrinks down to ‘being smart enough to know that if they don’t have one guy coercing them, the world will descend into violent chaos’. Whereas on the opposite extreme, it might expand to ‘actually consenting, individually, in a situation of meaningful choice’, which would probably be effectively anarchist in practice. Somewhere in the middle, it seems, we modern Canadians accept ‘a few million people you’ve never met deciding on it’.

So I’m just going to say that if we take seriously the idea that political democracy secures ‘the consent of the governed’, then we will also have to take seriously that sharp power differentials, both between citizens and between government and citizens, may impair consent.

Now, my goal is not to disparage the stability-based rationale: civil wars are very nasty things, and if we can make them less frequent, that’s great. I just want to bring out that these are very distinct arguments. In fact, they may be so distinct that to unify them as ‘arguments for the same thing’ is misleading: a powerful, secretive state whose control periodically rotates among factions depending on the votes of an elite of wealthy men is a very different system from one where the entire population exercises political power together.

But here’s an interesting question: what should citizens be taught about ‘democracy’? The consent-based rationale seems to demand honesty, because consent is impaired by misinformation. So we should teach citizens the truth, namely that democracy is a principled requirement of justice based on their individual dignity as people.

Conversely, the stability-based rationale has no particular interest in honesty. But what makes the system stable is that people will stand up for ‘democracy’ even when it doesn’t fit with their personal ideology, which is helped if people are deeply committed to democracy. So even though it’s not, citizens should be taught that democracy is a principled requirement of justice based on their individual dignity as people.

That is, one of these rationales actually includes a rationale for fostering confusion about rationales. If our government had evolved primarily in light of people wanting a ‘stability-guaranteeing’ “democracy”, we should expect it to legitimate itself in terms of a ‘consent-securing’ “democracy”, in spite of their differences.

Given the enormous malleability of the term ‘democracy’, this seems like something worth bearing in mind when considering the value we place on “our democracy”.

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4 Responses to What’s the Rationale for Democracy?

  1. Pingback: Extra Votes for Prisoners! | Majestic Equality

  2. Hi Luke, for some reason this entry only just today appeared on my blog reader.

    I want to suggest another view of democracy, similar to one that Paul Sagar wrote about in an earlier post of his, and slightly closer to your stability-based one than the consent-based one.

    In my view, we don’t talk about the rationale for democracy, we instead look at it in historical context, at what its effects are, and think about what we do and don’t like about it. A concise description of democracy historically, then, is that it’s a system that was developed incrementally over several centuries in order to stop various forms of systematic abuse by the government against the people. In other words, democracy’s achievement is negative rather than positive: it stops the worst forms of abuses that governments are prone to.

    So this sort of agrees in some ways with your stability-based argument. For example, the Magna Carta was introduced as a way of avoiding civil war, but to avoid that civil war it had to give some power to the barons rather than just the king. This fits with both accounts. But as you say, what about giving women the vote? The stability-based argument doesn’t fit with that, but the negative conception of democracy does.

    I don’t think the consent-based argument can be seriously maintained, because in democracies as they actually exist, you don’t have a choice about whether or not to be governed, and indeed probably most of the time the majority of the population wouldn’t choose to be governed by the people who end up forming the government.

    I only briefly read the articles you linked to at the beginning, but I felt like some of the reactions to the first article might have been missing the point. It’s true that the notion of “real democracy” is philosophically meaningless, and it’s annoying when you see articles that promote meaningless ideas. But, with a more sophisticated notion of democracy, I suspect you could quite satisfactorily make all the arguments in the original piece virtually unchanged. They wouldn’t be arguing “this is how we should achieve real democracy” but rather “this is how we should achieve a better society” or “this is how we should achieve a society that doesn’t systematically abuse a large proportion of its population” (the latter reformulation particularly fits with my notion of democracy). Incidentally, I suspect that Paul Sagar appreciates this, but just likes being a cranky contrarian. (Fair enough, me too. ;-).)

    A discussed some of this stuff a few years ago on my blog, you might this article interesting: http://thesamovar.wordpress.com/2008/03/29/democracy/

    • lukeroelofs says:

      Yeah, the ‘prevent very destructive decisions’ thing works as well, perhaps better than either of the two I mention. I think you’re right that a consent-of-the-governed rationale for democracy doesn’t work very well as an explanation of what we in fact live with, but it is, I think, a dominant (even when unarticulated) part of how ‘common sense’ sees ‘democracy’, and how it sees ‘democracy’ as being justified. So the very fact that it seems fairly remote from the historical story of how our governmental systems evolved makes it worth talking about – it’s worth noting when the overt justification of something diverges from the function that serves to explain it.

      Regarding whether a stability-focused conception of that function should be preferred, or your ‘negative conception’, and noting first that they could very easily be two components of the truth, I won’t take a side, but I’ll point out what seems to me the relevant difference.

      Civil war is something which everyone has some interest in avoiding (think mutual defection in the prisoner’s dilemma), and so it’s easier to imagine how this functionality might have led to multiple, diverse, political actors being motivated to adopt it (though further explanation will be needed of how the collective action problem is overcome, of course). Whereas the idea of democracy as preventing major abuses allows that these abuses might have been pro-stability of the system, and in accord with many people’s interests, even while they were against other people’s interests – this focuses our attention on democracy as something a particular segment of a population might fight in favour of, while other segments fight against it. As I said, I suspect the two tendencies are both operative, but if we wanted to find out the balance in more detail I think the thing to look at would be the balance between ‘common’ and ‘sectional’ interests/motivations.

  3. Yep, agreed that the consent-based approach is the common sense one you hear a lot. And in a way it’s not entirely wrong, and not entirely inconsistent with the other ideas we had. If we ‘consent’ it’s because the cost of revolution is higher than the cost of consent. In other words, as long as we’re not too badly abused by the government we will consent (by omission). Perhaps this way of framing it synthesises all three views?

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