The eleventh advantage of democracy: management of disagreement. Democracy is, among other things, a way of living with disagreement without repression and of forging cooperation out of conflict.

In autocratic systems, the social good is defined from above and a duty of obedience is imposed downwards. 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 (more or less) goals and procedures on many matters, some of which are controversial. 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 costs to someone. In a democracy, ideally, everyone is entitled to state their views and fight for their interests. 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 process leading up to joint decisions, or the opportunity thereto, there is a good chance that everyone should be able to, even if grudgingly, accept the outcome, even when it is not their preferred outcome.

Some thinkers have taken the impossibility of agreement to be an argument against democracy – how can public policies reflect the will of citizens if citizens cannot agree? But that is logic turned upside down. It is because of the impossibility of agreement that we need democratic ways to find acceptable policies. If we could just add what each of us prefer into a single best choice, we could leave public policy to computer programmers. But, as the political theorist Albert Weale has shown, there is no such thing as “the will of the people.” We will different things and the quest for the true will is futile. The political tug-of-war is not to find out what the people want, but to find a reasonable balance of opinion in the many things people want. In democracies we do not agree, we muddle through with the help of acceptable compromises.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

On democracy and obedience, see Nation of Devils.