WHY DEMOCRACY VI: CITIZENSHIP

Where a country (or state or municipality or organisation) is governed democratically, ordinary people are citizens, with the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Where they are governed autocratically, they are subjects, or dependents or no-ones. Citizens are partners in self-governance. Subjects live according to the discretion of their betters. Even in a benevolent autocracy, if there is such a thing, people are still subjects and dependent on the discretion of those who rule over them.

Citizens have rights. They are participants and partners in the polity and have the dignity of being included on similar terms as others in the political community. They enjoy freedom of speech and of assembly and association. They can freely seek to make themselves informed about governance and about their world and community. They can congregate with fellows and deliberate freely on political and social matters. They can organise to protect their interests. They live under the security and predictability of the rule of law.

With rights come responsibilities, primarily the duty to respect the rights of others. There is no freedom for me that does not acknowledge your freedom. Your right to promote your interests is tempered by your duty to accept that I have equally valid interests. Democratic citizens should contribute some participation to the polity. They have a duty to make themselves informed and to make their views and interests known. They are expected to participate in elections (although in most democracies this duty is not absolute). It is the dialectic of rights and duties that makes for grown-up citizenship.

The citizen can hold his or her head high in public. The subject must keep his or her back covered.

WHY DEMOCRACY V: EQUALITY

At the ballot box, every citizen is equal: rich and poor, capitalist and worker, 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. It is when citizens are equal politically that a system can be democratic. To the degree that there is political equality, the political agenda reflects the balance of opinion and of interests in citizenry. To the degree there is political inequality, special interests will distort the agenda.

Political equality coexists with economic and other forms of inequality. Away from the ballot box, the rich and the poor are all but equal, nor are the capitalist and worker or men and women. The professor who has a reputation to lean on, the ability to write persuasively and access to space in high-minded newspapers or websites, has more influence than the immigrant who is just passably literate in his adopted language. Once you step out of the voting station, you step back into a land of unequal power.

But the fact of manifold inequalities, even rampant inequalities, does not mean that there is no political equality. In free and fair elections, there is equality of opportunity and impact. Under a democratic constitution, people have equal rights (if not necessarily equal ability to make use of rights). Under the rule of law, people are equal before the law (if not necessarily equal in their ability to work the law to their advantage).

The situation of the humble citizen is vastly different in any democratic system from any autocratic system.

The coexistence of political equality and other inequalities is unavoidably uneasy. Near to a century ago, Justice Louis Brandies of the United States Supreme Court warned: “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. But he was wrong. Democracy in America survived, possibly because of 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 root, the fact of economic inequality does not in itself turn political equality into an empty shell of formality. However, it would also seem that a high level of 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 conditions the name of “transgression.” Economic inequality is not a threat to political equality by its mere existence but becomes a threat if economic power is allowed to transgress from markets, where it has a role, to politics, where it by democratic principles should have no part.

The crude mechanism of transgression is corruption. If money is allowed to buy public policy, political equality is reduced to a pretence. A contributing cause to democracy not taking hold in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union is entrenched corruption.

The sophisticated mechanism of transgression 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 in recent years is of this kind. Politics have become mega-expensive – actually have deliberately been made mega-expensive for the purpose of making money the ultimate political resource. Candidates and representatives cannot (mostly) hope to win or retain office without raising large amounts of money from sponsors and have thereby become more beholden to the givers of money. Sponsors are now organised in PACs, super-PACs and otherwise and are increasingly able to decide who will be elected – those the money is willing to sponsor – and what policies they can promote and support when elected – those that are acceptable to the money. Furthermore, monied interests have added organisational power to their already formidable economic power and have become able to more decisively dominate language, agendas and discourse.

President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union Address in January 2016 to warn against “democracy grinding to a halt.” In Washington, he explained, elected representatives are “trapped” by the “imperative” of raising money, which pulls everyone into the “rancor” of having to outshout each other. “Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”

WHY DEMOCRACY IV: RULE OF LAW

In democracies, the law prevails. Governments cannot do what is not authorised in law. Retribution cannot be brought down upon citizens that is not sanctioned in law and managed through due process. Basic rights have statutory protection. Private property has legal protection and cannot be expropriated except by due process and with compensation. Contract is regulated by law. Public policy, policing, surveillance, land and property management, punishment – none of these are at the discretion of governments. Citizens have protection and predictability in life and business.

Furthermore, rights and regulations are effective. There are institutional arrangements that secure that the law prevails and that not even governments and ministers are above the law. Primary among these arrangements is an independent judiciary.

In short, there is rule of law.

Autocratic governance can be regulated by law. In China, the most sophisticated autocracy ever invented, both public policy and civil life have in recent years been increasingly regulated by law. That is an improvement for citizens in that there is less unpredictability. But in this and other autocratic systems, what results is at best rule by law, not rule of law. None of the criteria I have listed above apply. Under autocracy, the rulers are above the law, not the law above the rulers. The reason a regime needs to be autocratic is that it cannot prevail with rule of law.

Rule of law is not impossible in political systems that are not democratic, or very imperfectly democratic. Hong Kong is in one meaning a city state which is not governed democratically but which has still (recently) benefitted from a rule of law regime, including with an independent judiciary. This regime has come under stress after Hong Kong was reintegrated into the People’s Republic of China, but continues to prevail reasonably well.

However, while rule of law without democracy is not impossible, it is very unlikely. Democracy without rule of law, on the other hand, is not possible.

WHY DEMOCRACY III: AUTONOMY

With democratic rights comes liberty. People have the right to live their lives as they wish (with due consideration to the rights of others) and the right to have their liberty protected.

The liberty that comes from a regime of rights goes broader than to freedom from coercion. That is basic, but rights also ensure the opportunity to deliberate rationally on the purpose of liberty.

Autocratic regimes may allow people a good deal of choice in their daily lives. From my study of the Chinese political system, The Perfect Dictatorship: “Many Chinese, notably in the urban population and its middle and upper strata, can live distinctly modern lives. They have property and are home owners and consumers. They have household appliances and flat-screen TVs. They have smartphones, computers and internet access with a great deal of content. They travel the country and the world. They go to other cities on fast trains. Those lower on the ladder can aspire to move up.”

But they cannot allow them autonomy. The people I describe in that paragraph may have joined the world of modern consumerism but not that of modern autonomy.

What is lacking under autocracy is, firstly, political liberty and basic human rights. But then, secondly, free access to information. This is because of censorship, control of the press and internet, and propaganda. Under autocratic rule, people are denied the opportunity to search freely for relevant information and make themselves reliably informed about their society, the world they live in and their own place in it.

And lacking, thirdly, is the freedom of assembly and hence of political deliberation. Autocracy denies people that freedom because they may use it to form networks or organisations that may enable them to stand up to their dictators.

What democracy allows, then, and autocracy refuses, is finally the opportunity for citizens to work on understanding themselves and their social condition by seeking freely for information and to improve their understanding of politics and society through free and critical deliberation with their fellows. They may have some freedom of choice in their daily lives but they are denied the social existence of the autonomous citizen.

Those of us who live under democratic regimes enjoy the freedom of information and assembly and perhaps take it for granted as obvious. The Chinese example perfectly confirms the logic of autocracy in this respect.

WHY DEMOCRACY II: RIGHTS

What enables the people to control the government, is that they have rights. Under democratic constitutions, citizens have rights: the right to life, the right to speak, the right of assembly, the right to discuss, the right to information, the right to criticise, the right to worship (or not to worship), the right to publish, the right to property, the right to fair trial, the right to vote.

Furthermore, democratic constitutions impose on governments a duty to respect the basic rights of citizens, to protect those rights, and to maintain institutions dedicated and empowered to upholding citizens’ rights, such as an independent judiciary.

If a constitution does not enshrine basic rights and ensure institutions for their maintenance, it is not democratic. If it is democratic, it enshrines the protection of rights. Democratic rule is premised on a system of rights and is impossible without that grounding.

In non-democratic systems, people do not have a similar array of rights. Here, governments rule without the consent of the people and therefore, necessarily, in fear of the people. Such governments rule not for the people but usually for themselves or for the benefit of a minority or an élite. Autocratic governments cannot allow the people basic rights because that would give them the tools to challenge the governments’ right to rule. Under autocracy, it is governments that have rights, not people. A non-democratic constitution that effectively awards citizens basic rights is an impossibility.

Nor does any such constitution or political system exist. Non-democratic systems can be more or less hard but they all, by definition and necessity, deny citizens basic rights.

WHY DEMOCRACY I: THE AVOIDANCE OF TYRANNY

(I will issue 12 post under this heading over the next days – inspired by a list compiled previously by Professor Robert A. Dahl. Comments and discussion most welcome.)

We humans are a dangerous species. We are dangerous to each other. If we can, we will trample on others, or damage or kill them, for our own good. If they can, those who are stronger will supress or abuse those who are weaker. If they can, majorities will persecute minorities and élites will exploit those lower down the ladder. We need to be governed. We need protection.

Orderly social and economic life depends on governing authority. There must be defence and there must be police. There must be laws, regulations, courts and prisons. There must be infrastructure and public services. There must be taxation. For order, societies need governments with power. Modern societies and economies have governments with vast powers.

All governments are themselves dangerous to the people who live under their rule, the more powerful the more dangerous. Power corrupts. We depend on authorities with power for protection but we must also have protection from their potential excesses. The danger is that the governing we need turns into tyranny. Writes Robert A. Dahl (in On Democracy): “Perhaps the most fundamental and persistent problem in politics is to avoid autocratic rule.” That tyranny is an endemic danger in government is abundantly clear from history, and clear enough today when we look to, for example, China or Russia. In all autocratic systems – absolutist monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, outright dictatorships – there is an overwhelming risk of tyranny.

Under democratic constitutions, the governments that rule over the people are themselves under the control of the people they rule. The people can dismiss those who have the power to govern them, and they can threated the government of the day with being dismissed tomorrow. That counter-power is in the hands not of an aristocracy or some other minority, but of the people themselves. They exercise their counter-power by acting collectively, such as in elections, with equal right of participation by all, rich and poor.

In democracies, then, the combination of government above and safety below is possible. It’s ingenious: we get both protection and protection from the protectors. Without democratic checks, that combination is unlikely. Autocracy can provide the protection of stability, as now in China, but it cannot provide the combination with also protection from the protectors.

WHY BREXIT WILL NOT HAPPEN (revised)

In spite of the referendum, Brexit or not is still the responsibility of Parliament. Parliament does not abdicate. Its charge is to look after the wellbeing of the population and country, and it is not possible for Parliament to walk away from that responsibility, nor in its nature to do so.

That is clear enough constitutionally. The referendum was advisory. Parliament could have decided to make the referendum binding but deliberately did not. It retained in law the authority to make the final decision and is not constitutionally bound by the referendum.

It is also clear politically. As we have moved on from the referendum, circumstances have changed and we have learned more about the meaning and consequences of Brexit. Brexit on the terms suggested in the referendum campaign is not deliverable. It is Parliament’s job to decide on the impact of how things are working out and what we are learning.

Imagine you are an MP today. You look into the future. You see, from one side, coming towards you an avalanche of necessary public investments: in infrastructure, in defence, in housing, in education, in social care, in the NHS. And you see, on the other side, low growth, low investment, lagging productivity, skill shortage. That adds up to an economy that cannot generate enough public revenue for necessary maintenance of society. You cannot avoid the question of whether it is compatible with your responsibility to let the country cut itself off from its most important community of trade and economic partnership.

You look to the British national landscape. In Scotland, Brexit will give the nationalists the arguments they need to push through independence. The Union will break up. In Ireland, a new border, more or less hard, will cut through the island and disrupt the peaceful coexistence that has been achieved. The worst scenarios may or may not materialise, but you cannot avoid the responsibility for exposing the Union to high risk. You turned you back on that responsibility in sanctioning the referendum. You cannot do it again.

You look to your own institution, to Parliament. You there see no settlement and no coming together around any shared strategy for implementing the referendum. Parliament has asserted its authority and to some degree taken charge, and pulled towards Brexit moderation. It has refused the government a free hand. The government’s original hard Brexit strategy has been killed. The principles of payment and a transition period have been conceded. You have learned that Brexit is not a simple matter of cancelling a club membership and you are trying to sort out in your mind what it really means.

Parliament’s confusion mirrors the population’s confusion. There is no “will of the people” out there. There is division, as reflected in the snap election. The division in the population carries through into Parliament and the Cabinet, and into the relationship between Parliament and government. Parliament is refusing the government a mandate of clarity and the government can do no more in the negotiations than muddle through without initiative, determination or direction. The risk is high that there will be no deal. Most MPs sit on the fence. They believe it is in Britain’s interest to be inside the European Union and they believe they cannot go against the majority in the referendum. That dilemma remains unresolved.

Politics in Parliament are even more tenuous than they look. Not only is the government without platform or support, both major parties have leaderships that in the European question are at odds with the majorities in their respective parliamentary parties. Leavers do not trust Remainers, Remainers do not trust Leavers. Backbenchers do not trust the front benches, and vice versa. The government does not trust Parliament, Parliament does not trust the government. The parliamentary truce is phony and not durable.

The talk of the town in Parliament that reaches the public is “how Brexit?” The talk of the town in Parliament that, for now, does not reach the public, is how Parliament can extricate itself from the mistake it itself made in calling the referendum.

MPs fear the uproar it would create if they exercised their constitutional authority to override the referendum. However, they also recognise themselves to be caught up in a dilemma from which there is no happy outcome. The choice they see in front of them is between uproar now or long term damage to the country. What may look like a mess, is Parliament’s lumbering, convoluted, step-by-step manner of resolving its terrible dilemma.