WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?

In a recent debate (at this event in Berlin), I and others were challenged to explain, no less, the meaning of democracy. I suggested a partial answer along three lines:

  1. Democracy is A PACT between the state and citizens in which the state makes two commitments, it promises citizens order and it promises to protect their liberty. Autocratic systems, even benevolent autocracies, if there is such a thing, can at best promise order, but always on the condition that citizens surrender their liberty. The democratic idea is audacious, the autocratic idea petty.
  2. Democracy is A CULTURE. A well functioning democracy is made up of a constitutional order that sits on a democratic culture. Constitutional order is necessary but not sufficient. The purpose of democracy is safe and effective rule. No constitution can provide for that without being embedded in a democratic culture. A democratic culture is one in which citizens and leaders support democratic ideas, values and practices and where these beliefs are upheld and transmitted from one generation to the next.
  3. Democracy is a continuous CONVERSATION between citizens and between citizens and leaders, based on freedom of information and assembly (the constitutional provision) and an inclination in the population to engage (the cultural predisposition). The object of this conversation is a workable (if moving) consensus on the rights and duties of the state and of citizens respectively.

It then follows that democracy can be constituted and work in very different ways from one country to another in the service of these purposes, depending on historical circumstances.

Democracy is now challenged on all three lines. Autocratic systems, such as in China, that do not recognise liberty and hence reject the double pact, are confident enough to claim moral superiority. In America and Britain, the Trump election and Brexit are symptoms of fractured democratic cultures. A consequence of fractured culture is that the conversation disintegrates into a shouting match of polarisation.

 

WHY DEMOCRACY XII: THE ACCEPTANCE OF IMPERFECTION

(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.

WHY DEMOCRACY XI: THE MANAGEMENT OF DISAGREEMENT

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.

WHY DEMOCRACY IX: POVERTY

In a democratic system, there is less risk than otherwise of citizens being left behind in poverty. There are two reasons.

First, your 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 power in the vote. Competing political parties or 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 do not have the vote, it is unlikely that anyone in government will speak for you. If you have the right to stand up for your interests, you are less in risk of your interests being disregarded.

One of the great movements in the twentieth century was the emergence of mature welfare states in most democratic countries. That followed on from democratisation in the first half of the century, with the extension of the vote first to all men and then to women. There is a causal link from political democratisation to the inclusive welfare states. To be sure, democratisation is not the full explanation. Other factors include economic crisis and precariousness, demographic fluctuations, the experience of the Second World War, and post-industrial economic restructuring. But democratisation is an essential contributing part of the explanation.

WHY DEMOCRACY VIII: PROSPERITY

In today’s world, democracies are prosperous countries and prosperous countries are democracies. The established democratic countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania are also the most democratic countries. In Europe, recent democratisation has been followed by increasing prosperity in Spain, Portugal, Greece and the countries of Central Europe. In Latin America, the democratic exceptions (until recently) of Costa Rica and Uruguay are also the region’s most prosperous countries. In Africa, Botswana is the most successful country both democratically and economically. In East Asia, it is the democratic countries of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan that have risen to the level of high-income countries.

The significant exception is India. Although economic growth is now very strong, India remains a democracy with widespread and oppressive poverty. It is a country that should have done better in prosperity. But within India, the rule still applies. Kerala is the leading state in both democracy and prosperity.

China is sometimes thought of as the great economic success story of our time. But except for the bigness of the economy, and its therefore clout in the world, China’s economic performance falls short of the standard in the region set by neighbouring Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Are democratic countries prosperous because of democracy? We cannot say for certain, it could be the other way around. But there are good reasons to think that democracy is conducive to prosperity. In some cases, the sequence is in favour of this hypothesis. The new democracies in Europe have grown to prosperity after they became democracies. South Korea and Taiwan took off in development under autocratic regimes but went on to grow economically to the level of high-income after having transformed politically to democracy.

Some of the reasons we should expect democracy to encourage prosperity are the following: Citizens are more likely to feel secure under regimes of protection and predictability and therefore more confident in enterprise. They have free access to information and deliberation and are therefore better positioned to entrepreneurship. They are more likely to have the protection of safety nets to fall back on and therefore more able to take on economic risk. There is rule of law, including property and contract law, and therefore more security in enterprise and occupation and less susceptibility to corruption and gangster rule. Governance is more likely to be effective and therefore more likely to deliver infrastructural and other forms of support. Democratic polities co-exist with market economies and market economies have proved to be more efficient than command or monopolistic economies.

Autocracy with prosperity is not inconceivable. The Chinese party-state defends autocracy with the claim that it is delivering prosperity for the population. There has been impressive economic growth in recent decades. However, what has been delivered so far is elevation to a level of middle-income. The promise of prosperity depends on China escaping the middle-income trap, which is yet to be seen. Furthermore, the party-state promises people prosperity on the condition that they surrender their freedom. Only democracy holds up the audacious promise of both prosperity and freedom.

WHY DEMOCRACY VII: EFFECTIVENESS

In my experience, the most common judgement to democracy’s disadvantage is that autocracies deliver while democracies dither. That, however, is a myth which does not square with experience. Generally, democratic government is not only more fair but also more effective.

One might think autocratic governments have the advantage that they can just get on with it without having to face dissatisfied and possibly organising NIMBY citizens (NIMBY: not-in-my-back-yard) or succumb to the short-termism of pandering to the next election. The delivery of, for example, high speed rail and new airports and city subway networks in China in recent years is evidence of that advantage.

But democratic governments have advantages of their own over autocratic ones. Firstly, they have an interest in delivery since citizens hold power over them. Autocratic governments might possibly be able to get on with it, but that assumes that they are intent to deliver for citizens in the first place. Secondly, democratic governments have the advantage of ruling by consent, whereby they may tend to get their policies accepted, since they are policies agreed upon through reasonably fair process. The experience of effective rule in for example, Northern Europe and Scandinavia is evidence of these advantages.

And they have a third advantage: they are meritocratic. Political position is attained through intense competition. In representative democracies, citizens, in theory, elect representatives who are more qualified than themselves to govern. Political competition works out so that more qualified and motivated candidates prevail. Citizens can thereby have some confidence in their representatives and the policies they enact.

Of course, it does not always work out in real competitions that that the most qualified candidates win. Sometimes, far from it. But generally, elected representatives are probably better at their jobs than critical citizens are prone to granting them. In autocratic systems, political position is attained by selection from above. Here, the most important qualification is usually obedience upwards and trustworthiness in the maintenance of autocracy.

The best evidence on effectiveness in government is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators,” with “government effectiveness” a main indicator. The highest scores are for the countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all democracies. There are no non-democracies in the top range of this indicator. In East Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have high scores for government effectiveness, while China, the darling of democracy’s detractors, is in the middle range, in a group of countries including also, for example, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico.

The other main indicators in the project are “voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence, regulatory quality, rule of law, control of corruption.” There is a high level of correlation between these indicators and government effectiveness, suggesting that it is the institutional solidity which is a feature of democratic systems, that gives these systems the edge in effectiveness.

We are right today to be concerned about democratic delivery. We are in the aftermath of the most dramatic economic crash since 1929, with extremes of economic inequality and social polarisation in democratic-capitalist countries. Social groups that are on the losing side of globalisation have rather experienced abandonment than protection. However, the lesson from experience and evidence is solidly that more effective government is to be found in better democracy, not less democracy.

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.