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Rule by the people

Updated Tuesday, 13th September 2005
In this article, Matt Matravers of York University explores some of the key issues relating to democracy, including its meaning, value, scope, problems and future.

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The meaning of democracy – from the Greek word – demokratia – is “rule by the people”. As a system of government, it is now almost universally commended. To describe a country, or a policy, as “undemocratic” is to criticise it and those countries that are undemocratic are continually urged towards reform.

Yet, democracy is a complex and contested notion. Moreover, until relatively recently, the idea of rule by the people was as much (if not more) feared as loved. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato, for example, related democracy to the rule of unbridled and untutored passions over cool and reflective reason. Invoking a now common image of the ship of state, Plato asks whether a real ship in stormy waters is sensibly governed by a trained captain who has knowledge of seamanship and navigation or by the crew who have no specialist training. This seems a good question, and although such views are no longer part of the currency of intellectual thought, democrats continue to worry about the role of civic education, for example, in moulding a population so that its members do not just rule, but rule by informed decision making.

The value of democracy

Plato’s challenge is a profound one. Running a modern, developed, country, after all, is a difficult business. Why is it not best left – as, in parts, the economy in many countries is left – to independent experts trained in statesmanship? There are two types of answer offered by democrats in response to this challenge: one pragmatic, the other dependent on a further ideal.

Pragmatic arguments appeal to the usefulness of democracy. One such argument is that people are generally the best judge of their own interests and, since the purpose of the state is to secure those interests, it follows that the state’s actions ought to be dictated by the people. Another related argument is that democratic decision making is the best way to ensure that political elites and decision makers do not abuse their power and divert the state’s actions to serve their narrow interests rather than those of the people.

These arguments are important, but they do not capture the full sense of democracy as an ideal; they do not adequately explain why we value democracy as much as, and in the way that, we do. To address that, we have to consider democracy as the political expression of the idea of citizens as free and equal. That is, we consider ourselves to be autonomous and possessed of equal rights and liberties. No-one, neither king nor priest, has a legitimate claim to authority over us. Rather, political authority rests with the people and political action is only legitimate when it is an expression of that authority. Thus, to be denied the vote, for example, is not simply to be denied the opportunity to advance one’s interests, but is to be categorised as less than fully human. The vote, then, has a symbolic importance as an expression of the ideal of persons as free and equal.

The scope of democracy

If democratic decision making is an expression of the fundamental value of people as free and equal, why should it not extend to all social and political decisions? Moreover, as the technology improves, why should such decisions not be taken by direct and immediate ballots (through mobile telephones, the internet, and interactive televisions)? These are hotly contested questions, and even within liberal democracies there is considerable variation in the extent of democratic decision making (in much of the USA, for example, judges are elected. In parts of Scandinavia, businesses are required to incorporate a degree of democracy in making corporate decisions).

Critics of democracy fear that the extension of democracy will bring with it the tyranny of the majority. Liberal democrats, in particular, think that there is a realm of individual rights that should take priority over popular rule. The American philosopher, John Rawls, identified these as the basic freedoms of thought, expression, association, and religion as well the freedoms to hold personal property, to vote and hold public office, and the freedoms guaranteed by the rule of law. Liberals believe that these rights and freedoms must be insulated from the popular will by, for example, a constitution and an independent judiciary. Defenders of democracy reply that democracy need not be feared if the people are properly educated and if civic institutions and virtues are strongly embedded in the society.

This debate continues in the discussion of direct versus representative democracy. Those who wish to see greater use of democracy advocate more referenda, citizen initiatives, and so on. Those who fear it, advocate devices to filter the popular will such as representative legislating bodies, electoral colleges, super majorities, and political parties. However, these devices have their dangers, too. In particular, some critics allege that the gap between those who exercise power and those on whose behalf that power is exercised has undermined democracy and that all that is left is an occasional competition between elites for the right to govern; a charge to which the increasing role of money in political campaigning has added. The answer, perhaps, lies in achieving a balance between the direct intervention of the people in the use of political power and the reserve that is needed for sensible, long term, and (most importantly) just policy making.

Problems for democracy

The philosopher Richard Wollheim famously argued that democracy embodies a paradox. Think of a citizen who believes X to be the right thing to do and so votes for X. However, the majority votes against X. Wollheim argued that this leaves the voter in a paradox: he (the voter) thinks that X is right (because that is what he believes) and X is not right (because that is the democratic outcome).

However, this is not really a paradox because the voter need not think of himself as left in that position after the vote. All he need think is that X is best, but that it is reasonable for X not to be policy given the outcome of the vote. This is not a paradox, it merely describes someone who thinks that the majority is wrong, but that it has the legitimate right to implement the wrong policy.

A more serious difficulty can be presented as another paradox. A voter in a large electorate has only a miniscule effect, if any, on the outcome of the election. Yet, voting is costly; at a minimum it involves travelling to the voting station, foregoing other activities whilst one does so. These costs outweigh the benefit of voting, so it is irrational to vote.

This argument has a certain technical appeal for rational choice theorists. It can, of course, be answered by alleging that voting brings benefits – for example, feelings of having done one’s duty – that can outweigh the costs involved. However, that does not really get to the heart of the matter. Many people, it seems, vote out of a sense of moral obligation. Moreover, if voting is an expression of the free and equal status of people then to think in terms of simple cost benefit analysis is inappropriate. The real danger – and one which is increasingly real in the UK and USA – is that the gap between the political elites and the people will lead more voters to take a cost benefit view and to think that voting is not worth the bother.

The future of democracy

Speculating on the future of great social phenomena like democracy is fraught with difficulty. On the one hand, voter turn outs in the UK and USA suggest that the danger that voters will be “turned off” politics and will come to regard the political elites with distrust and suspicion is all too real. On the other hand, interactive technologies seem to offer a future in which the people could, if they wish, make their views known about a given subject almost instantaneously. What seems clear is that democracy, of whatever kind, flourishes only where there is vigorous and informed public debate amongst a citizenry who understand themselves to be parts of a civic whole and not just self-interested individuals.



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