Decisions made by a democratic National Assembly (or Parliament or Congress) have democratic legitimacy. That’s what we want in a democracy, decisions that are valid because they are made democratically.

However, strangely enough, the democratic legitimacy of decisions correctly made can sometimes be a problem. Whatever the National Assembly decides, must be correct because it is democratic. If someone is able to get the National Assembly to make a decision in their favour, say in a matter of taxation, they have won, because the National Assembly has put the stamp of “democratic” on that decision.

One agent who has an interest in getting the National Assembly to make certain decisions is the government. Governments have agendas they want pushed through, and they want to do that with as little trouble as possible from the lawmakers. National Assemblies are therefore under pressure to produce certain decisions and to do so without resistance.

The potential problem here is that this may push the National Assembly into making badly planned decisions because the government is desperate to get those decisions made that it has promised the electorate and to get the Assembly’s stamp of “democratic” on them. Such bad decisions are a big problem: since they are democratic, it is very difficult to overturn them and the country is stuck with potentially serious consequences of mistaken decisions.

Such mistakes happen. A case in point is Brexit. Then Prime Minister Cameron was able to get Parliament to sanction a referendum in a quick and easy decision without giving him any trouble or resistance in the matter. That was clearly a mistake. The country is now tearing itself apart and is unable to extricate itself from the mistake that has fallen down upon it. (Although it is my belief that Parliament will eventually find a way of correcting this mistake, it is, as we are seeing, very difficult to overturn a decision that has the legitimacy of a referendum behind it.)

The lesson is that National Assemblies should be able to make good decision and protected from making bad ones. Their decisions should be democratic but they should also be good, productive and workable, and certainly not counterproductive.

National Assemblies need assistance to manage the difficult combination of democratic and productive decisions.

They need the assistance, first of all, of protective procedures. Procedure is a boring matter for those of us interested in politics, but terribly important. National Assemblies need to impose rules upon themselves whereby they force themselves to not making decisions without careful scrutiny of consequences. They must avoid knee-jerk decisions because such decisions are in high risk of being bad. They must give themselves time and they must take themselves through routines of scrutiny. The Brexit decision, for example, was taken by Parliament without any preliminary work on what the consequences might be, and we are now paying the price.

They need assistance, secondly, in knowing what is in the interest of the people. One might think a good way of doing that is to ask the people, for example in a referendum. But we now know, from modern psychological research (such as by Daniel Kahneman who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research), that this is too simple. You and I and all of us are prone to making mistakes about our own good because there are mechanisms of bias at work in our minds. Our instinctive preferences are not necessarily what we really want. It turns out that people often change their minds and correct their preferences if they are given the opportunity to reflect and work on them with some care.

From this, political scientists are concluding that the popular will is not something that just exists in the population but what emerges from what they call “deliberation.” The German theorist Claus Offe has suggested that National Assemblies should have the support of more sophisticated information about “the will of the people” than raw expressions of preferences. He suggests “deliberative panels” consisting of a random sample of the population – he calls them “citizen deliberators” – charged with working their way through appropriate procedures from raw preferences to “reflective preferences” in important political matters. He thinks the panels should be constituted by some kind of lot among all citizens, that their task would be to help both citizens and lawmakers to form considered judgements, and that their authority would be exclusively advisory for National Assemblies.

As often, original ideas on first encounter seem odd, but this suggestion is really quite common sense. The reason we have National Assemblies, is that in a big population we for practical reasons must appoint a sample of the population to make decisions for us. If preferences depend on deliberation, the same logic would apply to the pre-decision process of forming preference. We will not get proper deliberation unless we design proper procedures to do it.

As for additional panels to advise the National Assembly, that’s the rationale of for example the House of Lords in the British Parliament and of various other “upper houses” in other national legislatures. Offe’s idea is slightly different, in how the panels are made up and precisely what they would do, but the idea is much the same.



We are celebrating, in Britain today, the centenary of women winning the right to vote. In 1918, the vote was extended to all men over 21, and to women of the propertied class and over 30 years of age. It was to be ten more years before all women over 21 got the vote.

We are used to thinking that with all adult men and women having the vote, and the voting age having been lowered to usually 18, we have achieved universal suffrage. But that is not right. A whole class of citizens are still denied the power of the vote: children.

That matters. The interests of children are light-weight in the competition over public policy. The Family Allowance that was introduced in the great welfare reforms at the end of World War II, has subsequently shrivelled in real value, the result being high rates of poverty among children. It has not had enough political support. In the great austerity drive after 2008, pensions have been singularly protected from any erosion in value. Pensioners have the vote and use it.

It is mostly though obvious that children cannot have the vote, but that is sloppy thinking. It was once thought obvious that women could not vote. The battle against “the obvious” is the first bastion. In The Subjection of Women (1869) John Stuart Mill said it thus: “.. the burthen is hard on those who attack an almost universal opinion ..”

The logic is that children should not have the vote because they cannot vote, but that is to confuse two separate questions, the should-question and the could-question. If we for a moment set practicalities aside in our minds, and ask only the should-question, we would surely conclude, theoretically, that children should have the vote. The principle of universal suffrage is that all citizens have an equal interest in government matters and that therefore all citizens should have an equal say. In the abstract, that must include children no less than other categories of citizens.

The question, then, is really if they could have the vote. If a practical way could be found, there is no issue of principle standing in the way.

In recent years, great advances have been made in the recognition of children’s rights. In many ways children are now, in law, citizens rather than subjects. For example, children have property rights. Children cannot manage property, but that is not taken to mean that they cannot have property. The practical solution is that someone is appointed to be the custodian of the property on behalf of the child, until the child is old enough to take care of it himself or herself. The custodian has a duty to manage the property in the best interest of the young owner.

The similar logic in respect to the vote would be that all children have the right to vote but that this right is managed on behalf of the child by a custodian until the child comes of age, now sometimes referred to as demeny voting.. That’s a practical solution that solves the could-question. Since there is no independent should-question standing in the way, the matter should be resolved.

The solution I have advocated  is that the children’s vote is managed on their behalf by the mother (or the father if the mother is absent) so that the mother is the custodian of a second vote in addition to her own irrespective of the number of children. There are other ways it could be done, but this has been my preferred arrangement. There is every reason to trust that mothers would manage the second vote on behalf of their children and not as a second vote for themselves, just as we trust custodians to manage property.

There is a small lobby in democratic countries in favour of the children’s vote. Not a powerful lobby – we have not yet won the battle against “the obvious” – but a persistent lobby. I first lent my voice to this following in an article in the then International Herald Tribune on 14 December 1996, under the heading “In a Democracy, Children Should get the Vote.” The progress that is being made is for a lowering of the voting age to 16, which has been introduced in some democracies and is coming elsewhere. But since there is a way that concurs with current legal thinking to include all children in the power of the vote, there should be no reason not to go the whole way.


Relevant, perhaps, but a democrat? Was he not the author of a book of tyranny? Perhaps not quite.

In The Prince, the most famous how-to about governing ever composed, Niccolò Machiavelli speaks to the man set to govern the state of Florence. His message is straightforward: if you are to govern, you better be effective.

Well, exactly who he is addressing himself to, and why, and what he means to say, is a bit of a mystery. He does preface his tract with a letter to “the Magnificent Lorenzo de’ Medici,” but when he started to write it he did not know that Lorenzo would be selected by the Pope (in 1513) to be the new Florentine leader after the collapse (in all but name) of the Republic. Perhaps he wanted to flatter the young and inexperienced prince to get himself a job, but it is likely that his friends advised him to hold back and that he never presented his text to Lorenzo or anyone else in his circle. Perhaps his intention was not at all useful advice but rather to confuse the autocrat with inconsistent and counterproductive ideas and thus entice him to failure. Machiavelli was after all a man of and for the Republic who had every reason to resent the new regime. Or perhaps not. Although a man of the Republic, he was also desperate for job and position, and in need of income, and probably very ready to compromise on his principles if he could get himself back into government service. He wrote the tract quickly, finishing it the year after he was deposed from his post as second chancellor to the Republic, having endured a spell in prison and under torture. Could it be that he wrote it in anger, or to get some resentment off his chest? We do not know. However it came about, it is a tract full of mystery and contradictions.

Machiavelli had good reasons to occupy himself with effectiveness. Italy in general and Florence in particular were in decline, suffering from internal disarray and threatened and to some degree subjugated by foreign powers. That, he thought, was the result of weak and inept governing. So when he reflected on the doings of the new the prince and the need for effective rule, what he had in mind might have been less the glory of the prince and more the standing of the state. Even if not a Republic, Florence was still Florence and needed the order of being governed. His message, then, was one of effectiveness for a purpose. He thought that effective rule was necessary if the ruler were to have any chance of winning the goodwill of the people and hence for the cohesion of the ruler and the ruled that would make for a solid state. It is in the interest of those who are ruled that the rule they are exposed to works. Otherwise, not only the state but also the lives of its citizens are in peril.

For Machiavelli, then, effective rule is a noble ambition. But it is also, in another piece to his puzzle, a difficult ambition. The world is not an easy place, people are not easy to deal with, the times were brutal and turbulent. Rule in such a way as to create order is difficult.

From this comes his many and well known recommendations for ruthlessness on the part of the ruler. There is no escaping his cynicism on the use of hard means, to put it carefully, but was he an apologist for tyranny? The reason, or at least one reason, he was a man of the Republic, was that under republican rule, where there is a division of power and where those in power are answerable to at least some of the people, there is ideally no need for tyranny. He also thought that kind of rule was the best basis for a stable state. Although republican rule is not democratic, that is as close to democratic thinking as was available at the time.

However, in the setting in which he reflected and wrote, republican rule was not going to happen. The problem to hand, then, was how to secure effective rule when power was in the hands of a ruler whose position rested not on the institutions and conventions of the state, but on a foreign authority (that of the Pope). The prince had been parachuted in by the enemy, yet that same prince was the only hope. That kind of ruler does not have the luxury of being able to trust that the people trust him. It is to rule under those circumstances, or so we may think, that Machiavelli’s hardest recommendations apply.

Those of us who are concerned today with the future of democratic government have much the same reasons to occupy ourselves with effectiveness. Democracy is challenged and in some ways in decline in quality and delivery. Movements of anti-politics and anger are taking hold. The core democracies of Britain and America are in a terrible way, in crises of identity and gridlocked governance. Their predicament is not unlike that of Machiavelli’s Florentine Republic: the constitutional institutions function poorly, in Britain and America’s case in particular their national assemblies, Parliament in Westminster and Congress in Washington. Cohesion of the rulers and the ruled is much wanting, as is goodwill from people to governors. Admirable constitutions are falling into disrespect and are weakened by internal divisions, lack of confidence and poor leadership. External powers of non-democratic persuasions are asserting themselves. In Europe, authoritarian Russia, with customary paranoia, is busy stirring up disorder in the democratic part of the continent, and winning admiration for “strong government” in particular in some of the younger democracies. In China, a re-constituted People’s Republic is on a mission to make totalitarianism work, racking up followers in democratic countries who either admire authoritarian force or hate democracy, or both. However you read The Prince, it is a reminder that the elementary condition of good government is effective government. We today need to be reminded that this is as true of democratic government as of any other kind. The purpose of democracy, after all, is not to be democratic but to provide for safe and effective government.

For more on Machiavelli, read Erica Benner: Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom.


In modern democracies, public policy decisions are usually made by assemblies of elected representatives, such as national parliaments and regional and local councils. They have a mandate from being elected by the people and decide on taxes, public services and the like, until they put themselves before the people again in the next election.

Sometimes, however, issues are put directly to the people to be decided by a referendum in which all voters can participate. This may be laid down constitutionally, such as in Switzerland and for some matters in some American states and cities. Or referendums may be ad hoc in that an elected assembly chooses to put some matters directly to the people.

These are two methods for making policy decisions: by elected representatives or directly in a popular vote. Both are democratic. Is one method more democratic that the other?

In the pure theory of representative democracy, the people elect representatives for the purpose of making policies on their behalf. When the elected representatives meet in assembly, that assembly is the people and when the assembly makes decisions, it is the people deciding. Constitutional thinking in Britain has traditionally been more or less in this line, and the use of referendums is therefore a bit of an anomaly.

What counts in favour of the pure theory is that when elections work as they should, the people elect representatives who are the more competent to make policy decisions and it is therefore in their interest to leave it to their representatives to govern.

In Britain we see this theory at work in the question of the death penalty. A referendum might well go in favour of reintroducing the death penalty but it is accepted that it should be left to Parliament to decide on the matter.

What counts against the pure theory is that elections may work out so that the assembly is not representative of the people and may therefore be biased and make policies that do not reflect the popular will.

A referendum is obviously a democratic way of making a decision, but it is not necessarily an effective corrective against bias.

First, this is not generally the rationale for having referendums. Where the method of referendum is a constitutional provision, the logic is usually that this is a way of constraining elected representatives, for example from taxing the people too heavily. Ad hoc referendums may be called for a range or reasons, some of which may be all but democratic, for example a government seeking to subvert the will of its parliament.

Second, while elected assemblies may be unrepresentative, so too may referendums. Although all voters can participate, not all voters do. A referendum is like a big survey that may get it wrong if those who vote do not make up a representative sample of all voters. In fact, referendums are likely to be unrepresentative because of selective bias in the motivation to participate.

Third, a referendum may not be an effective way of expressing “the will of the people.” We might think that people always know what they want and prefer and that it is only a matter of asking them. But if we think “the will of the people” is what they would have wanted if they had the opportunity to be properly informed about the matter to hand and to deliberate carefully with each other about it, we might suspect that a referendum is too crude an instrument and too much at risk of populist manipulation. If so, we might, in the interest of “the will of the people” put more trust in the indirect method of decision-making by elected assembly. We might do that if we thought (1) that representatives are likely to be better informed than the average voter and (2) that decision-making in assembly is subject to more rigorous deliberation.

Referendums are appealing because people participate directly. They have the ability to lend legitimacy to big policy decisions, which counts in their favour. But democratically, like the alternative method of decision-making by elected assembly, they have both advantages and disadvantages. The referendum method, although democratic, is neither more nor less democratic than the alternative. A democracy with a reasonably well functioning national assembly has, for reasons of democracy, no need for referendums. There may be various reasons for calling a referendum, of which adding democratic quality is not one.


(This is the final post for now under the WHY DEMOCRACY heading. To friends who follow this blog: all good wishes for the holidays and the New Year.)

Ideally, democratic governance is fair and effective and conducive to equality and human dignity. In fact, however, real democracies are always imperfect and fall short of the blueprint of ideal democracy. There are degrees of democracy, and some democracies are not very democratic at all. Democratic governance may sometimes feel tyrannical – the tyranny of the majority is a real predicament – theoretical rights are not always fully operational, freedoms get curtailed and the rule of law manipulated, and there are many shortcomings in equality and citizenship. Democratic governance can be frustratingly ineffective, prosperity may not be advancing or poverty retracting. Democracy is not incompatible with international aggression, nor with domestic repression. It does not always present itself to citizens as a recipe for dignity.

The claim for democracy, however, is not perfection. It is more modest: democracy is likely to be the better form of rule for most people since it has a range of advantages over any attainable alternative.

The unavoidable imperfection of democracy is itself a core principle in democratic thinking. There is no such thing as the perfect or ideal democracy. Democratic forms and practices differ from country to country, depending on historical experiences and contemporary circumstances. Democracy is never finished but always in the making, and will so forever remain. There may be forms of democracy not yet invented. The vibrant democracy is not the finished one, but the one in which shortcomings are acknowledged and the imperative of continuous betterment and reform recognised.

Only dictatorships can aspire to perfection. The philosopher Karl Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies, argued that the idea of perfection is itself dictatorial, since the next logical step is then that ends justify means. Democracy is built on tolerance, of human differences and disagreements first of all. But also on the quirky shortcomings of the human animal and how we humans are honed from, in the words of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, “the crooked timber of humanity.” That which gives the spirit of democracy its majesty, is tolerance of the imperfect in the human condition.


People have different interests and different outlooks. Conflict and disagreement is the normal state of affairs in social life. Democracy is, among other things, a way of managing disagreement and forging cooperation out of conflict.

In autocratic systems, the social good is defined from above and people have a duty of obedience to the ways and means that are imposed upon them. Autocratic governance depends on a pretence of agreement and therefore the repression of disagreement.

Democratic governance is grounded in an acceptance of disagreement and an ideal of cooperation without repression. To get on in society, we need agreed upon goals and procedures on many matters, some of which are controversial, say the always contested business of taxation. There is no such thing as a public policy that is the preferred policy of everyone, and there is no such thing as a public policy that does not come with a cost to someone. In a democracy, ideally, everyone is entitled to state their views and to defend their interests vigorously. At some point, however, a shared position needs to be found somewhere in the landscape of disagreement. That can be done democratically, for example by voting in a national assembly, or in a general election or a referendum. Some citizens will unavoidably be disappointed in what becomes the shared position, since it will not be their preferred position. The ingenuity of democracy is that since everyone has had a say in the debate and procedure leading up to joint decisions, or the opportunity thereto, everyone should be able to accept the outcome, even when it is not their preferred outcome. The access to discussion and deliberation is conducive to willing collaboration.

When this works, on the one hand society is able to get on with it and move forward, and on the other hand no one has been trampled on and humiliated. Democracy, then, is a method for peaceful resolution of conflict and for collaboration with dignity.


Democratic countries do not fight wars against each other. This is true today, was true in all of the twentieth century, and was true in the nineteenth century in that countries with then democratic institutions and with a substantial part of the male population enfranchised, did not fight wars with each other. Hence, a more democratic world would promise to be also a more peaceful world.

The observation that countries in which governments are under some form of popular check are less likely to be warring, was first made by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in a publication of 1795 entitled Perpetual Peace (Zum ewigen Frieden). Here he not only proposed the equivalent of a UN Charter in which countries commit themselves to peaceful coexistence. He also recommended that countries should adopt republican constitutions since that would make them less prone to war.

The peaceful inclination in democratic governments is due partly to the distribution of power in the population. Since the glories of war accrue mainly to élites and the costs of war fall disproportionately on the populace, élites may incline to war where they are not answerable to the populace and be more constrained from war where they are under popular control. Other reasons may be a high level of trade between democratic countries, that democratic leaders and citizens learn the art of compromise, that they see people in other democratic countries as similar to themselves, and that their communality encourages a habit of peaceful negotiations and treaties.

Regrettably, democratic countries have not in the same way been able or willing to avoid war with non-democratic countries. They have fought wars of more or less defence against non-democratic aggressors, as in the Second World War, and then with uninhibited brutality. And they have fought wars of aggression in self-interest, as for example the many and violent colonial wars that for example Britain and France engaged in during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Democracy, then, is good for peace in the world – but does not guarantee peace.