VENEZUELA, BRITAIN AND DEMOCRACY

In Venezuela, Nocolás Maduro is the democratically elected president. It then follows that he is the legitimate president and that it is undemocratic and wrong to seek his ouster (ahead of the next election). This argument was put on last night’s Channel 4 News here in Britain by Chris Williamson, a Member of Parliament from the Labour Party who is opposed to the government joining other European governments in recognising the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as legitimate acting president. Who is right, democratically speaking?

Let us assume that the two following statements are true:

  1. Maduro was elected democratically. (There are questions about the honesty of the election but let us assume it was democratically sound.)
  2. Under the governance of his regime, the country’s economy is falling apart, people’s living standards are in steep decline, social order is disintegrating, and liberty is eroded by police state tactics.

Is it then still true that democratic logic dictates that Maduro has the right to be president? That sounds absurd, and as so often when conclusions are absurd there is something wrong with the underlying logic.

In Britain, the Brexit referendum resulted in a majority for Britain exiting the European Union. It then follows that it is democratically necessary for the government and Parliament to implement the majority vote. Anything else would be undemocratic and democratically damaging. That is the consistent line of the Prime Minister and many others.

Let us again assume two statements to be true:

  1. The referendum was democratically correct.
  2. Leaving the European Union on available terms would be damaging to Britain’s economy and the people’s standard of living, would reduce Parliament to a rule-taker, would put the continuation of the United Kingdom at risk, would reduce Britain’s standing and influence in the world, and would impose damage on friends and allies in Europe.

Is it then still true that democratic logic dictates that Brexit must go ahead, come what may? It would seem again that there is something wrong with the logic.

What goes wrong in these cases is a misunderstanding about democracy. Democracy is a method. It is not its own purpose. The purpose of democracy is to provide for effective and safe rule. Rule is effective to the degree that it delivers order and safe to the degree that it so does without undermining the liberty of citizens. We subscribe to democracy because it is more likely than any other form of government to make for effective and safe rule.

But only more likely. Democracy is not infallible. Things may go wrong. If they do, they should be corrected, not persisted with because the mistake was made democratically. Parliaments correct and overturn democratically made decision all the time. The American constitution has provisions for the removal from office of an elected president who is unable to manage his duties.

In the Venezuelan case, if statement 2 is true, the democratically correct view must be that Maduro has forfeited the right to office. In the British case, if again statement 2 is true, the democratically correct view must be that Brexit should not be implemented.

That still leaves the question of how, practically speaking, to overturn the outcome of correct democratic process when it turns out to be perverse or counterproductive. As can be seen in both these cases, that can be extremely difficult. But the democratic argument, in the abstract, should not be difficult. It is not undemocratic to obey the facts and change one’s mind.

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.

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.