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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”