The fifth advantage of democracy: equality. At the ballot box, every citizen is equal: rich and poor, capitalist and worker, black and white, man and woman. Each has a vote, and no more influence than sits in the vote, and all votes count the same. Then and there, for a moment, power is equalised. The logic of equality is commanding. To the degree that there is political equality, the agenda of public policy is likely to reflect the balance of opinion and of interests in citizenry. To the degree there is political inequality, special interests will be able to distort the agenda of public policy.

But there is an uneasy coexistence of political equality and economic inequality. Near to a century ago, Justice Louis Brandies of the United States Supreme Court warned, dramatically: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” That was at a time of economic crisis combined with extremes of inequality in wealth, much as our own time. But it turned out he was wrong. Democracy in America survived, much thanks to political responses in the policies of the New Deal to excesses of economic inequality. Economic inequality is a strong force in society, but so is political equality.

Could economic inequality reduce political equality to irrelevance? It would seem that the answer in the first instance is, no. Where democracy is established and has taken hold, the fact of economic inequality does not in itself turn political equality into an empty shell of formality. There are still equal rights and equality before the law. However, it would also seem that economic inequality combined with other conditions could make political equality redundant. In an elegant book on economics and politics titled Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff, published in 1975, the economist Arthur Okun gave the relevant condition the name of “transgression.” Economic inequality is not necessarily a threat to political equality by its mere existence, but becomes a threat if economic power is allowed to transgress from markets into politics.

The crude mechanism of transgression is corruption. If money is allowed to buy policies, political equality is reduced to a pretence. The sophisticated mechanism of transgression, however, is to use economic power to usurp political power in ways that may not be technically corrupt or illegal but which nevertheless destroy the impact of political equality. The increasing sway of private money in American politics is of this kind.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On democracy and equality/inequality, see What Democracy Is For.

On the danger to democracy in America, see Is American Democracy Headed for Extinction?

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