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.

 

DECISION AND DELIBERATION

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.

 

UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE? AND THE CHILDREN?

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.

HOW DEMOCRATIC IS A REFERENDUM?

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.

CAMPAIGN FOR DEMOCRACY: AN APPEAL TO PRESIDENTS BUSH AND OBAMA

Look carefully. Something is happening in American politics. For the good. Democracy itself is striking back against the onslaught of anti-politics.

In Washington, Congress is doing its job and holding the zeal of an erratic president in check. Out in the country, states and cities are running policies of their own, on health care, climate change, gerrymandering, campaign finance and more.

We are seeing the volatility of the politics of anger. Anger is still involvement. Democracy would be worse off if the grass-roots were in apathy. Involvement can be turned from revenge to engagement.

In unrelated events but on the same day, October 19, George W. Bush and Barack Obama both stepped on to the political stage and spoke in defense of the values and principles of democracy.

Mr. Bush’s message, at a conference he himself convened, was stark. He spoke of fading confidence, a society torn apart by hatreds, the absence of common purpose, challenges to our most basic ideals, and the need to “recover our own identity.” Mr. Obama, for his part, had offered the same analysis in his final State of the Union Address, in January 2016. He called on his fellow Americans that “we fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.” A better politics, he said, “doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but it does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”

Much is at stake. Radical populism is sweeping America and Europe. The core democracies, the United States and the United Kingdom, are in crises of identity, following through to dysfunctional governance. Societies are torn asunder by extremes of inequality and animosity. Internationally, the People’s Republic of China is claiming the mantel of world leadership.

Leaders of authority in America and Europe are seeking to stimulate engagement from below to revitalize democracy. The George W. Bush Institute is launching a “call to action” to affirm democratic values and restore trust in democratic institutions. The recent Obama Foundation “summit” was a celebration of civic engagement trough examples of good practice. In Germany, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is orchestrating a nation-wide deliberation for better understanding of the imperative of democracy. The concern is the same as expressed by Bush and Obama, to fortify the foundations of democratic culture.

The day Bush and Obama spoke for liberal democracy in America was also the second day of the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Here, the leader Xi Jinping, who in his first five years has tightened all the screws of dictatorship, was celebrating, with audacious self-confidence, the superiority of autocracy over democracy.

In a comment (in the Süddeutsche Zeitung), the German author Kai Strittmatter called on the liberal democracies to “find their voice” up against the challenges of a threatening new world order under a totalitarian power state. Chinese autocracy promises prosperity on the condition that citizens give up their liberty. Liberal democracy promises both prosperity and liberty. Democracy has the moral high ground. But during his recent trip to Asia, the American president, the leader of the free world, had nothing to say about even basic human rights. The voice of democracy is not heard.

The politics of anger can go both ways, to more revenge or to more engagement. It is not unusual these days to find opinions in the press that democracy has had its day and is finished. But experienced leaders like Bush, Obama and Steinmeier are telling us that there is engagement out there waiting to be mobilized.

The time is right to turn from despondency to action. That requires a catalyst to tilt the balance. Democracy is ready to strike back, but that will not just happen, it must be taken in hand. As always, the democratic world needs American leadership. If America can “recover its identity” it can help the rest of us to “find our voice.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have committed themselves. Let us ask these two most recently retired Presidents, who, from each side of the political divide, see the same problem and understand the urgency of action in the same way, to join forces. Let us ask them to teach us that our divisions are not irreconcilable. Let us offer to join them with our engagement. Let us ask them to make themselves the catalyst of the democratic revival that is ready to happen. Let us ask them to merge their formidable authority to mobilizing groups and communities into a Campaign for Democracy. Let us ask the Campaign for Democracy to spread through the democratic world.

PARTICIPATION IV: “THE PARTICIPATION STATE”

“Participatory democracy” is a bit of a misnomer. Democracy is by definition participatory: citizens vote and engage in the making of public opinion into a political force. On this level, the role of citizens is to make demands on the governance that is in the hands of representatives and officials.

But there is now a view that this is not enough of a role for citizens if democracy is to be vibrant and responsive. There is a demand not just for different policies but for a different way of doing politics.

A first response is to improve the channels for citizens to provide political input. Much can be done here, for example with techniques such as deliberative opinion polling. That is important, but still limited: citizens are allowed opinions, but the doing is by “those up there.” Can citizens participate directly in the doing?

They already are. People do voluntary work in the provision of services and make financial contributions to charities that do good works. Governments support this with tax exemptions for charitable givings. This is a form of participatory provision of public goods. More could be done by building on this experience.

Here is a proposal: Governments step up their contributions from tax exemptions to obliging themselves to match the contributions of citizen. Whatever citizens provide, either in money or labour, would generate an equivalent provision from the government. That would be a huge stimulus to citizens to engage in good works.

It would also represent a shift in decision-making. The deciding on what to do would be in the hands of citizens. They would have contributory support from the government but the doing would be theirs. We would then have a model in which citizens are in charge of deciding and doing, with the government in the more limited role of facilitator.

Say, as an example, a group of parents think the local school should offer pupils more physical education. They raise half the money to employ a teacher for the purpose, knowing that the government is obliged to match their contribution. The parents have decided what service should be offered and are able to get it done.

You might argue that it is the government’s responsibility to provide services. Well and good, but if you insist that all the doing must be the responsibility of the government, you are also saying that your own role can be no more than to put pressure on the government. If the starting point of this argument is that the participation available to citizens is too limited, why not welcome the opportunity to take charge directly in the deciding on what should be done? Why not welcome a participation that comes with both power and responsibility?

In the example given, there is a lot in it for citizens, in this case the group of parents. They get a teacher job established by raising only half of the money needed. For every £1 they provide, £2 go to the school. They get to decide what teacher job should be established – they have the power. They get involvement with the local school. They get an opportunity to shift a bit of their family spending from yet more consumption trinkets to socially useful doings under their own control.

There is also much in it for the government. As a result of its facilitation, it sees a useful service being provided. It has let citizens decide which service and helps realise something citizens want. It is cheap for the public purse. Not only have citizens raised half the money needed, much of the additional money the government puts in, it gets back. The money goes into a salary on which the school pays social insurance contributions and the new teacher pays income taxes. The teacher spends the remaining income, generating VAT revenue back to the public purse. That spending in the next round stimulates further economic activity, which generates further public revenue.

Step up a notch and imagine thousands and thousands of such initiatives throughout the land. You then have a democratic structure of social justice: doings are in response to needs identified by citizens and under their authority. Citizens massively decide on the provision of public goods, in a decentralised pattern. Ordinary people here, there and everywhere make decisions. They take power and accept responsibility. The government facilitates and supports their doing. Much of that doing will be in the form of job creation. You therefore have a structure that creates jobs, and by and large good jobs. And an efficient structure free from stifling bureaucracy.

In the aggregate, there is again much in it for the government as well. It offers a way out of the blight of public poverty within private wealth. Things get done which the government itself could not do. When the government is the doer, all doing needs to be funded from taxes. But the raising of new taxes for additional doings is now very difficult. By and large, tax revenues are committed to existing doings, and by and large tax extraction has reached its limit within the constraints of global capitalism. Cynically, the arrangement I am suggesting is a way to get people to pay voluntarily what they would not be willing to pay in taxes.

I have had in mind a country like Britain, which is relatively poor in the provision of public goods and in which tax extraction has (pretty much) reached its social limit, but which is rich in what might broadly be called public provision institutions. That includes, for example, institutions like the National Trust or English Heritage and many similar ones, many local, schools and universities, and a vast network of charities. These are institutions rearing to do more work in their respective fields. Along with a strong tradition of voluntary and charitable participation, they represent an underused national capital. With more stimulus, it would be meaningful for citizens to get together and create their own institutions, small or larger, to work for causes of their interest.

Obviously, there would have to be a regulatory regime for which private provisions would trigger an equivalent government provision and which institutions are eligible partners. Obviously, there would have to be oversight to avoid exploitation and corruption. Not easy, the devil is in the detail, but doable.

My argument is that with strong government encouragement in the form of a 100% matching commitment, a second level of public provision, grounded in citizenship participation, would be possible. On the first level, citizens pay taxes and the government provides services. This, roughly, is the “welfare state.” On the second level, citizens take in hand service provision and are able to do that thanks to government facilitation. This we might call the “participation state.”

 

PARTICIPATION III: AN IDEA FOR PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY

The classical theory of representative democracy is that citizens elect representatives who then do the governing until it is time for the citizens again in the next election. That puts power in the hands of the people but gives them no other role in governance than to vote.

This theory has much to it, but has been overtaken by history. The age of deference has passed. There is now an expectation that democracy will be participatory.

But what does that mean? While the classical theory of representative democracy is clean and straight, we have no theory of similar clarity for participatory democracy. Enthusiasts sometimes speak of it as the more participation, or activism, in whatever form, the better and the more democratic. But that is superficial. We have some serious thinking to do about participatory democracy in practice.

In representative democracy, the executive listens to divergent opinions in the legislature and shapes public policy accordingly. In a participatory democracy, one might think, the public is brought into the process directly and continuously. Policy then results not only from the exchange between executive and legislature, but between executive, legislature and the public.

That’s well and good but does not take us very far towards a different kind of democracy. First, representative democracy has never functioned the way the classical model has it: the public is already involved. Second, it does not give the public any other role than to exercise pressure on those who make decisions, which is not much by way of participation. Third, it leaves aside a big problem of unfairness, the interests of those who do not engage, who do not march, who do not demonstrate, who do not write newspaper opinions, who do not have think-tanks working for them. And fourth, there is a cost to incessant participation in decision-making in the form less efficient governance.

A different line might be to think of participation not only in exercising pressure on decision-making, but also in public management. The classical model here is again one that gives the public only limited roles. The government taxes the people to fund public services that are delivered back to the people. The role of the public is to pay taxes and consume services, all managed by the government.

I suggest we think of participatory democracy as involvement by citizens not only around the making of decisions but also in their implementation into practical management.

Here is one way that could be done: Services, broadly understood, are brought to recipients by agencies of various kinds. These may be public or semi-public agencies, say, thinking of Britain, the National Trust, the Environment Agency, the universities. Or they may be private, such as charities of various kind. Such agencies are engaged in works to improve social quality.

Participation in the works of such agencies could come about by government encouragement. Citizens could be encouraged to invest in causes in which they have an interest. The government could do that by pledging to match the investment of citizens. If you give £10 to a charity of your interest, the government contributes £10. If you put in five hours of voluntary work, the government matches that with five hours pay. You are given the power to decide where investments go, and the value of your own investment is doubled in the bargain (and, as a bonus, at a very low real cost to the government). You are a participant with say both in decision-making and implementation, and also, importantly, in a participation which involves both power and responsibility.

That, in a sketch, is the idea. I will elaborate in a future post.