Democracy, Liberty, Equality

Posted on December 5, 2006


Does democracy contain inherent connotations of equality and diversity? I say it does not while Steven Gormley thinks that it isn’t so simple as that. Steve thinks it remains hard to make sense of democracy without these two concepts, and appeals to Plato’s Republic to establish a case. I think that there are good reasons to consider democracy and liberalism quite distinct as concepts.

Steve’s argument:

I accept your point regarding democracy being procedural that therefore liberty and equality are not the necessary outcome of the democratic process. Of course, there have been are all sorts of democracies – or regimes that at least present themselves as democracies – monarchic, plutocratic and tyrannical democracies of antiquity, for example, and democracies may be liberal, military or authoritarian, social, theocratic, etc. Indeed, the last century saw the democratic rise of a number of totalitarian regimes that had no commitment to liberty or equality (with Nazism being an obvious example).

However I think this is only half of the story.

You suggested that we could democratically elect a dictatorship every 4 years (which brings to mind Rousseau’s remark [I think] that the English people experience democracy once every four years after which the people is enslaved) and this would be a democratic process. I take the point that democracy is about the way in which a government is elected but is not also about the way in which arrangements are set up during the time of that regime’s rule? After we elect a dictatorship, are then next four years of that regime therefore four years of a functioning democracy? I would want to say no, as they may have rose to power by democratic means but they are not democratic. My justification for this would involve pointing to their denial of liberty and/or equality.

These concepts seem to be essential to an understanding of democracy. I mentioned Locke’s idea of separation of church and state, the public/private as a way of ensuring negative liberty – freedom from state intervention so people can choose to pursue their own particular conception of the good life regardless of its intrinsic value; and in Rosseau’s concept of the general Will – which “tends to equality” and is therefore that what should direct the state towards the object it is instituted for the common good – we get the idea the of equality. Now of course these may just be “modern day” interpretations of democracy and actually may not be essentially tied to the concept of democracy. But even if we go back to the Plato who in speaking of democracy notes: “Would you agree, first, that the people will be free? There is liberty and freedom of speech in plenty and every individual is free to do as he likes?” The answer: “That’s what they say” (557c). This answer is quite interesting – it’s as if he is reporting the accepted understanding of democracy – it’s what they say, its how they understand it. So even in this small exchange the idea of liberty at least seems to be an essential part of how they understood democracy. Plato goes on to talk about “everyone arranging his life as he pleases” and therefore there is in democracy “the greatest variety of individual character” Indeed he even goes on to say that democracy is a form of society “with plenty of variety, which treats all me as equal, whether they are equal or not” (558c). I won’t labour the point but there does seem to be a strong identification here of democracy and liberty (if not equality too). On the latter point we see this also in Aristotle’s description of how democracy is understood and he makes a similar identification, but more explicitly:

“Now a fundamental principle of the democratic form of constitution is freedom – that is what is usually asserted, implying that only under this constitution do men participate in freedom, for they assert this as the aim of every democracy” (Politics 6.1.1317a-b).

In the same passage he goes on to note:

“But one factor of freedom is to govern and be governed in turn; for the popular principle of justice is to have equality according to number not worth… This then is one mark of freedom which all democrats set down as a principle of the constitution. And one is for a man to live as he likes… and from this has come the claim not be governed, preferably not by anyone, or failing that, to govern and be governed in turns; and this is the way in which the second principle contributes to freedom founded upon equality” (1317b)

So it would seem that liberty and equality are principles of democracy that have been there from its birth and are not simply modern day understanding. Of course there way those principles have been interpreted has varies considerably – Plato and Aristotle understood equality based on worth not number – hence the exclusion of the those not of equal dignity. But according to Plato and Aristotle themselves this is not what was “commonly asserted” (its not “what they say” Plato and its not what “democrats set down as a principle).

My response:

Given that democracy can seem to be used to provide a mandate for other types of political systems, the question I would ask is ‘what is it about these kinds of of political systems that cause them to be referred to as democratic?’  The answer, it seems, it that in all of these cases the mandate has to be endorsed at some level by popular vote.  Let us take the familiar idea of a leader who has absolute power for a four year term once they have been voted in.  You suggest that during the intermittent period between voting sessions, the populace do not live under a democracy.  I don’t think this is the case as any power wielded by the government in this justified by the fact that they are the elected epresentatives.  The ‘true’ power as it were is still in the demos.

One might object at this point by noting that during their tenure we expect our representatives to fulfill the mandate.  However, this isn’t what we vote for them on the basis of.  By delegating our power to them we also delegate decision making.  Members of government may also be party to particular or expert information that we are not (e.g. economic and intelligence reports) which decisions may be made on the basis of.  If this information is particularly sensitive there may be reasons for it not to find its way into the public domain.  This isn’t in itself undemocratic either:  in fact, there may be good reasons to defer political decision-making to experts rather than popular vote.  Popular views are often poorly thought-out or reactionary (which isn’t to say that politicians present decent alternatives!).  We need not include transparency or publicity among the requirements of this kind of democratic system and therefore have introduced a level of inequality between the demos and the government which in itself is not undemocratic.  What this system does require is a reasonable set of candidates from which to choose and, in my view, proportional representation.

Let’s compare this idea of ‘totalitarian representative democracy’ with  a fully participatory democracy and a discursive democracy.  A fully participatory democracy- by which I mean one where everyone votes n every issue that affects them – seems to be the most egalitarian of all, since everyone’s vote truly is equal.  From the perspective of widening the ‘democratic defecit’ as it were, this one is the winner and some would no doubt say closest to our own normative conception of democracy.  While this remains an equal and fair way of making decisions, however, it raises a whole new set of problems at the governmental level.  It simply isn’t practical to run a system of any size by consulting the demos on every decision that has to be made.  Imagine the kind of chaos that would ensue from trying to run even a small modern country according to this principle.  So, we either end up delegating political power to elected representatives (becasue they are able decision makers) or by voting on the policies (which inevitably leads to the generation of political parties).  We might also once more raise Plato’s misgivings about the ability of the average person to make political decisions.

One way of remedying this problem might be to hold referrenda on important issues. While progress in communications technology can facilitate this, deciding which issues we hold referrenda on seems to be something which is itself delegated to representatives. It might erroneously be thought that this approach is ‘more democratic’ since it involves greater participation from the electorate. In fact, they are equally democratic but this form emphasises direct over representative participation.

Another alternative is presented by the model of deliberative or discursive democracy (like Habermas’s). Under this view, legitimate political decisions are those given a mandate by consensus arising from public debate. Debate is supposed to encourage rationality and impartiality while developing those who participate in debates (whether as demos or representative) into more effective deliberators and decision-makers. The advantage of this model is that it place a value on political engagement itself, and is based around the idea of an achievable consensus. This kind of democracy only works in conjunction with either direct or representative democracy, but hopes to enrich it.

This raises the question of whether democratic mandate is a matter of majority or consensus. Even under conditions of direct democracy, is it liberal or egalitarian to expect the minority to abide by the view of the majority? I would think not, though the situation seems fairer under discursive democracy. This is a classical objection to democracy, but does highlight a problem with the relationship between democracy and equality. Depending on the size of different groups within a democracy and the relative power held by different groups (e.g. media, religious, ethnic) some people are less equal than others and/or have a quieter voice.

It seems to me that you want to say that a democracy which is accompanied by liberalism, equality, and freedom is more democratic or allows democracy to work more ‘effectively’ but there seem to be good reasons to think that any kind of endless debate is a hinderance to effective governance. Where, then, can we set the limits of debate? Can this be done without compromising the committment to equality? Furthermore, how do we aggregate the different (potentially irreconcilable) positions in the debate into some sort of Rousseauian volunté générale while at the same time being ‘liberal’? 

While I don’t deny that we tend to associate democracy with freedom and, I suppose, a sense of political justice, I think the association between a nominally democratic state (which observes democratic processes) and values like freedom, liberty and justice (which are normative) is potentially pernicious. To recognise democracy for what it is involves extricating from its association with the liberal form of democracy which articulates these values more explicitly. If we don’t, we risk accepting a normative model of liberal democracy without fully understanding its conceptual structure; and without understanding how it can be changed. This includes separating the idea of liberalism from democracy and realising that any link between egalitarianism and democracy is tenuous and short-lived at best.

After all, the inclusive democratic ideals of Athens did not allow Socrates the freedom to break the law.