The ninth advantage of democracy: poverty. In a democratic system, there is less risk than otherwise of citizens being left behind in poverty. There are two reasons. First, the country is more likely to be prosperous, and with more prosperity there is likely to be less poverty. Second, it is more likely that there are antipoverty policies in place. The reason for that is that even the poor have a share of political power. Competing political parties and élites need the votes of the poor, as they need other votes, and must therefore to some degree satisfy the interests and demands of the poor and those in risk of poverty. If you have the vote, someone in government is likely to take an interest in you. If you have the right to stand up for your interests, you are less at risk of your interests being disregarded.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On democracy and redistribution, see The Possibility of Politics and What Democracy is For.


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?


From a previous blog: “The trouble for democracy, at this time in history, comes from our own poor ability to reform.”

Here is a short list of pending reform issues:

We need systemic economic reform. Societies that define themselves by security and inclusion cannot live by deprivation and division. Globalization and automation, the targets of the politics of discontent, come with enormous benefits in the form of affluence and quality of work and life. But we have not found a way of combining this progress with inclusiveness. To underwrite democracy under advanced capitalism, we need a new social contract. The shallow individualism and small-government gospel of Reaganism and Thatcherism has shipwrecked. Before inclusiveness in public policy must come inclusiveness in mindsets. It is a matter of nothing less than the reinvention of democratic political culture.

In Europe, the mindset of reform needs to include the European Union. British and European leaders should swallow their pride and sit down to devise a reformed union that can embrace all of Europe. The European Union is already a structure with many different forms of adhesion, from Swiss and Norwegian types of quasi-membership, via various combinations of inside and outside of the Schengen and the euro, to the comprehensive arrangements of the full-membership countries. Flexibility has proved to work and is now needed in respect to Brexit and to pre-empt other possible exits. Brussels may have to sacrifice a battle to win the war, but better that than to lose the war.

In Britain, the time is over-ripe for constitutional reform. It is a misunderstanding that Britain does not have a written constitution just because constitutional provisions are not collected into a single document with “constitution” its heading. But the constitution is poorly protected and open to political manipulation. The Brexit referendum was called by Prime Minister Cameron ahead of the 2015 general election for opportunistic party-political reasons. If they can, politicians of the day will manipulate the constitution for their own advantage. That should not be possible. By coincidence, the week after the vote, the Chilcot report of the inquiry into Britain’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath was published, with deep criticism of a dysfunctional system of decision-making which resulted in colossal mistakes both on the entry into war and post-war management. Britain does not have a safe system of political decision-making.

In America, what burst through the surface in 2016 was the pent-up pressure from a long, relentless, step-by-step erosion of political culture in which big business has fortified itself as the power behind the throne. The reason there is gridlock in Washington is that the holders of office, in Congress in particular, are not free to make policies for the public good. When big money is allowed to transgress massively into politics, those who control it gain power to decide who the successful candidates will be—those they wish to fund—and what they can decide once in office—that which is acceptable to those who hold the purse-strings. The representatives, or most of them, may not be personally corrupt, but the system in which they work is one of deep collusion between big politics and big money. It is a misunderstanding that politicians chase money; it is money chasing politicians.

Read the full article in the Cairo Review.


Brexit. Trump. In Britain, the country’s membership in the European Union is rejected in a referendum. In America, a maverick anti-establishment political outsider wins the presidency. These results are monumental political upheavals in the two countries, with consequences that reach beyond their shores and throughout the world.

Britain and America are the world’s core democracies. These countries have been bearers of a political-economic venture that has come to define the meaning of modern democracy. In 2016, to the surprise of winners and losers alike, the idea that the future is liberal and that history is moving in that direction, has suffered a defeat from which it may not soon recover. What was lost in these tests was finally a set of ideas.

Read the article in the Cairo Review.