Towards a new theory of Democracy – general framework

In the first entry I tried to show that many of us have some intuitive notion of Democracy that goes beyond the “majority rules” principle. In this and the following few entries I intend to dismantle that principle altogether.
In this post I’ll give the essentials – a short description of the claims which I intend to convince you of.

0. There is a strong urge to identify Democracy as “the rule of the majority”. There are certainly good reasons for that urge. Is it a very natural and common-sense identification. However..

1. The rule of majority (and the voting system by which majority seems to rule Democracies) is not the crux of Democracy. It is a means, and an important one as such. But it is not the essence of democracy. It just might be a necessity (I do not know for certain, but I suspect that it is). But is it not essential.

2. The widely held view that “democracy = rule of majority”, as tempting as it might be, is not only misguided, it is somewhat dangerous. In fact, all majoritarian decision processes (and there are many different ones) are inherently problematic. People who deem the rule of majority to be essential to democracy are at a danger of drifting toward authoritarian politics.

Yes, you read me right.

People who vehemently believe in “Majoritarian Democracy” and want to see it working, are likely to end up supporting totalitarian practices and anti-democratic parties. This might seem like a paradox. It is certainly surprising. But you can actually see this happening lots and lots of times throughout history. We will talk about this a lot.

And no, this is not a wild invocation of mine. There are more than a few books from which I learned this. Yaakov Talmon and Ze’ev Shternhal wrote quite a lot about it from the historian’s perspective. I myself have found Riker’s “Liberalism against Populism” a very enlightening book, and an easy read.

3. Democracy is also not essentially a regime that supports rights. Like voting and majority decision processes, rights are certainly an important aspect of democracy – perhaps it’s best feature. But – contrary to some philosophers (especially Robert Nozick) – rights too are an inessential mechanism of democracy. They might be an important mechanism. They might even be a necessary one. They are certainly a positive (long-term) outcome of Democracy. But they, too, are not the main issue here.

4. And rights too, if taken too seriously, can impair democracy.
There is a distinction by Yesha’aya Berlin between positive and negative right. In short (and we’ll elaborate later on), the right to have or do something is a positive right: the right to have work, to have housing, even the right to pursue a certain goal in life – these are positive rights. A negative right is a lack of interference. The right to property in the western world is a negative right: no one’s giving you property. But the government helps you protect what you accumulated from other people’s evil intentions.
Most of the rights given by democracies are negative. Socialist Marxist republics support only positive rights – thus, in the USSR, you were entitled (at least de jure) to have a government-funded home, but if you owned a mansion, it was quickly and forcibly taken away and divided into an apartment building.
So rights can go both ways – some are democratic per se, some seem to be leaning towards autocracy.

And no, I do not think that the right to have a work or to own a house is a bad idea. Only that it is not a necessary outcome of democracy that you’ll be given these.

5. So what is democracy?
In a nutshell, it is a method of ruling, with an inherent mechanism which forces the governing powers (the rulers) to take account of the people they control – of their needs, of the conditions they live in, and of the realities which govern their world. In a democratic regime, the prime minister might care for nothing. His bureaucratic staff might ignore problems for a very long time. But if the trouble is acute enough, the democratic mechanism will eventually force the government to take action.

Suppose a war is going on, and that the regime is losing. To win the war, reforms and new methods are needed. What do governments do in such cases? A totalitarian regime will usually choose the easy path: It’s much easier to murder journalists and ban reporters than to undertake political and military reforms. A regime that doesn’t have to change, usually won’t. A democratic regime can’t undertake large-scale mouth-shutting, so it will be forced to concede and reform itself.

In short – Democracy is a regime that changes when faced by the need.

5 thoughts on “Towards a new theory of Democracy – general framework

  1. oryamitay

    By your definition, Israel is not a democracy, since not only does the system of government *not* change to meet a crisis, it is actively working to promote it. (I don’t disagree, mind you, I don’t think Israel is very democratic, either; but that is true for the rest of the “Free World” as well).

    I would prefer a definition that judges democracy by the level of participation of citizens in governmnet, and by the universality of the opportunity to participate (e.g. Athens had very involved citizens, but only a small part of the population was defined as such).

    Another point, there is usually a strong stress on democracy and the right of free speech (viz. your previous post). I would like to add that even more important than the right to say what you want is the right not to listen. In that respect, the common citizen of the “Free World” is constantly bombarded by various media, one of whose goals is to obstruct free thinking. If this statement reads funny or strange, cut yourself off from commercial TV/Radio for a fortnight, and you’ll see the difference.

    Finally, as a theoritican of Democracy I would greatly appreciate reading your impressions of a Direct Democracy model which I help advertise here: (in Hebrew).
    A post analayzing the idea and attacking its weak points would be most welcome.

  2. mousomer Post author

    1. Israel is a Democracy by my definition.
    2. I am strongly against direct democracy, and strongly for representative democracy. But, as we all know, god is truly in the details, and not in the general statements.

    I plan my next installment to be on the ancient republican idea (the people’s state).
    I look forward to an interesting debate…


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