This entry was cross-posted from my blog.

Democracy is one of those words that everybody uses but about which there is not a great deal of clarity as to what it means. The first ideas I can remember having of democracy were that it means a government elected by the people, or a government representing the will of the people. The first idea led me to declare that democracy was not a good thing, the second to declare that we do not live in a democracy (for various reasons to do with the biases and influences in our political process, and the impossibility of designing a perfect voting system). I no longer believe these. Instead, I now say that we do live in a democracy, that this is a very good thing, but that it means a lot less than many people think it does, and that we can do better.

For the past few years I’ve been considering an alternative view of democracy, which although it seems fairly obvious, doesn’t appear to be widely considered (Wikipedia’s article on democracy doesn’t mention anything like it anyway).

Democracy as elections, and democracy as government by the will of the people both have problems which relate to each other. The main problem with the democracy as elections theory is that it doesn’t explain why this should be a good thing. The most obvious response is that this process ought to result in a government that is representative of the electorate. Likewise, if you try to define democracy as meaning a system with governments that are representative of the people, you then have to explain how the system ensures that. Both of these views of democracy rely on the other, and they each have meaning only if they can be satisfactorily connected. Democracy as government by the will of the people is the intent, democracy as elections is the process used to try to ensure that.

It’s usually considered that you also need to have free and fair elections, secret ballots and a free press. It’s intuitively obvious at first glance that these things are all good ideas, and that not having them creates problems. The question is: does having them guarantee a representative government as a result? I know of no convincing argument that it does. Indeed, it misses out what I consider to be a fairly major additional requirement: that there is a certain level of equality of wealth and power in the society concerned. Even adding this in as another basic requirement for democracy, it’s not clear that this would guarantee a representative government. Maybe you also need a certain universal level of education and political awareness? How do you specify and guarantee that? You could go on and on.

There’s also the problem of what these requirements themselves mean. What is a free press for example? Is it just a press free from censorship? Or is there a requirement for a certain level of diversity? Can a press in a ruthlessly competitive free market, relying on advertising for most of its income be considered enough to satisfy the requirements of a democracy? Other questions you might need answers to are: what level of equality is required? What level of education and political awareness? Which form of voting system should we use (FPTP, PR, etc.)? This last question is related to perhaps the most fundamental question of all: what exactly is the will of the people? What does that even mean? These are all enormously complex questions, and without answers to them it’s not clear that we can say we know what democracy means in the standard view.

My alternative view doesn’t explain away the problems mentioned above, but I believe it clarifies the problems, connects the theoretical issues with reality more firmly, and suggests more useful ways of moving forward.

The first view is that democracy shouldn’t be seen as a positive guarantee of good government, it should rather be seen as a negative guarantee: a guarantee that the extremes of bad government are excluded. It’s clear that all our voting procedures, our not-quite-free press, our unequal society and so forth do not necessarily guarantee a government that is good in any sense of the word. But, it’s also clear that in this system it would be very difficult to get a really awful government that acted manifestly against the interests of everyone in society. In England, this view is a historically accurate one. The Magna Carta came about not because the barons wanted a good government that worked in the interests of everyone in society, but because the King was abusing his powers too much and it was hurting them. Further extensions to democracy in England came about gradually, slowly increasing the number of people whom the government could not systematically abuse. Each increase was hard fought for and was a reaction to abuses by the government, rather than an attempt to create a positive system of government. We should not expect a historical process that advances in reaction to abuses to have produced a system that goes far beyond the prevention of abuses to guarantee positive good government that works in the interests of all.

This view has several consequences. First of all, we should realise that the democracy that we have has been very hard fought for, and we need to preserve those aspects of it which prevent these extreme abuses. A danger of thinking of democracy in purely positive terms (how can we make government work better for everyone rather than how can we prevent the government abusing its power), is that by underestimating the importance of the negative aspect it potentially opens the door to precisely those abuses which democracy evolved to exclude. If you believe that the democratic process guarantees a government that is good in some positive sense, then it doesn’t make any sense to put restrictions on what that government can do – why hamper their good efforts? The present Labour government in the UK has introduced or attempted to introduce several pieces of legislation which reduce the limitations on its own power, supposedly to allow it to serve us better (to protect us from terrorism). The now infamous Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill attempted to give ministers the power to overturn legislation without consulting parliament. It’s important to realise that our democratic process doesn’t guarantee positive good government, and that’s why it’s absolutely essential to maintain those aspects which stop the government from abusing its power, even if that also makes it more difficult or stops them from doing some things which might be considered positive. Our democracy is not yet secure enough that we can forget about this fundamental negative aspect of it. In fact, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. It wasn’t until 1928 in the UK when women were given equal voting rights to men that the majority of the population participated. Even now, the 21% of the population under the age of 18 cannot vote (see this fun age pyramid).

A second consequence of this view is that democracy develops by narrowing the window of opportunity for abuse. Advances in democracy are moments when an old form of systematic abuse ends. This can be a progressive notion. For example, at the moment I would argue that there are various structural aspects of our democracy and capitalist economy that mean that a series of governments which systematically favour the interests of the wealthy is possible. Changes in our society that made governments that were systematically biased in favour of the wealthy impossible or unlikely would be an advance in democracy. I would go further and say that the democratic case for socialism is strong, but that’s another story.

The obvious criticism of this view is that it misses out the positive aspect of democracy. Sometimes elected governments do things which are positively in the public interest, and the reason for that is that they were elected to do so. The creation of the NHS or the welfare state might be a good example of this. There are a few responses to this. First of all, there is a question of whether or not the creation of the NHS and welfare state were positive acts, but rather acts taken to avert further dissent (i.e. defensive manoeuvres). Secondly, the alternative view doesn’t say that positive acts are impossible, just that there is no guarantee that they will happen. To argue for the positive view of democracy you would have to argue how democracy makes these outcomes more likely. It’s not obvious to me that this is possible even if we had a good idea of what socially good outcomes might mean. Indeed, there is some good evidence that democratic structures don’t encourage such outcomes. For example, the median voter theorem is a mathematical idealisation of two party democracy which suggests that governments will tend to suggest policies which favour the median voter. This is clearly not encouraging policies which are representative of the electorate, but it is encouraging policies which exclude the worst extremes (although actually, the median voter theorem is a sort of perturbation analysis so it doesn’t say anything about extremes). A good example of this was Brown’s last budget which increased the tax burden on the rich and the poor, but decreased it for those in the middle. The third response to the criticism is that where abuse of a system is possible, it seems that it tends to happen. This makes understanding the extent to which democratic structures exclude possibilities for abuse much more important than understanding how they enable positive acts.

The idea of this way of looking at democracy is to better understand what it actually is and how things really happen, a realist view rather than an idealist one. But I am an idealist, so I also want to understand how to make things better and believe it can be done. This way of looking at things helps in various ways. First of all, it’s always good to be realistic about what is actually going on to better understand how to make things better. Much thinking about democracy appears to be of the self-delusional form. Secondly, it already suggests a whole series of ways of improving democracy by reducing the window of opportunity for abuse. Lastly though, it provides a better framework for proposing positive improvements to our democracy. By dropping the fiction that democracy is about good government and representing the people, it concentrates our attention on systematic analyses of what different democratic structures can do. It also strongly emphasises that positive functions of democracy have to be backwards compatible with the important negative function.

One day, we will perhaps reach a stage where we have a society of rough equality, where no part of it is systematically abused by any other part of it. At that stage, our thinking about democracy and government can begin to focus on ways to achieve more directly positive outcomes, but we haven’t reached that stage yet (and if we do reach that stage, we’ll likely be thinking about everything very differently anyway). At the moment, our problem is the opposite. We have many governments of democratic nations around the world systematically attacking fundamental aspects of democracy, we have the press becoming less and less free as it reduces spending to compete for ever diminishing profits and becomes more and more reliant on government and corporate propaganda. We also have the prospect of potential crises such as climate change, which mean that the negative function of democracy will become even more important than ever if we want to avoid the worst happening to our society in the aftermath of the crisis (for example, the BNP has an electoral strategy that is designed around gaining power in exactly this sort of crisis situation).

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