What Is Democracy?

Mike Koetting December 3, 2019

Today’s post is largely a rip-off of a 1992 essay that Alain Touraine wrote for UNESCO. In theory, I could simply refer you to the article. But, while ostensibly written in English, Touraine is French, which affects habits of mind as much as language. It took me multiple readings to translate his English into mine. Moreover, the essay is written in particular response to the collapse of the Communist state, and parts of it seem less relevant now. So I am offering today’s post as an easier way to think about some powerful issues.

Touraine starts out by reminding us that democracy is defined by both “freedom from” and “freedom to”. The essential “freedom from” is to be free from tyranny—the situation where most individuals in the population are left without voice. Restoration of power to individuals, while it may seem axiomatic today, was a remarkable advance over government based on divine right or tribal tradition—which defined social structures for most of the human era. Thus, the first law of democracy is that the will of the majority should rule.

Simple mathematical plurality does not define democracy, however. True democracy does not countenance a system fair or just if it permitted 51 percent of the population to oppress the remaining 49 percent in the name of the majority. In a democratic society, majority rule must be coupled with guarantees of individual human rights that, in turn, serve to protect the rights of minorities–whether ethnic, religious, or political, or simply the losers in the debate over a piece of controversial legislation. Western tradition has enshrined this in a concept of “liberal democracy”, a conception of democracy in which the populace, each acting in her or his own self-interests, come to a form of government reflecting the generalized will of the people but protecting the rights of individuals. The role of self-interest is a particularly important part of the liberal concept of democracy, a political version of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”: If everyone acts in self-interest, and governing is spread over the entire population, the resulting democracy maximizes social good.

But, as we all know, it isn’t that simple:

  • It is empirically verifiable that if everyone acts in self-interest, over time some interests come to exert an oversized influence on the in the affairs of government and, hence, veer from the principles of underlying democracy.
  • Of necessity, the protection of minorities can be at odds with the desires of the majority, or other minorities There is a constant tension regarding the hierarchy of individual rights.

Hence, a purely liberal concept of democracy, while a necessary condition, is not sufficient for a just society. In addition to the idea of individual self-interest, there must be a corresponding emphasis on communal welfare. More specifically, Touraine argues, even in nominally democratic societies, the ability of some portions of the populace to garner huge shares of the society’s resources potentially undercuts the ability to make communal welfare an explicit output of government (or relegates it to a secondary consideration). It then follows that conflict between self-interest and communal welfare is an inherent part of democracy.

Democracy can neither be solely liberal nor completely popular.there can be no democracy unless the greatest number subscribes to the central principles of a society and culture but also no democracy without fundamental social conflicts.

He acknowledges that the traditional idea of “class warfare” has become less relevant in a post-modern world where the lines of demarcation are based less on “owner-worker” differentiation and more determined by maximization of trade and the circulation of money, power and information. He does, however, feel that the interests of large portions of the society have been sacrificed to some degree by the predominance of individual self-interests over communal welfare, something he undoubtedly feels more acutely now, 25 years later.

He maintains that unless government is oriented to actively “arbitrating” between the two impulses of individual self-interest through freedom and communal welfare, it does not deserve to be seen as democratic. Democracy, he argues, is not a status defined by measuring against static attributes, but is an ongoing process that needs to be struggled with every day.

This conception of democracy as a process of arbitration between conflicting components of social life involves something more than the idea of majority government. It implies above all recognition of one component by another, and of each component by all the others, and hence an awareness both of the similarities and the differences between them.

Touraine sees the conflict inherent in democracy playing out in slightly different forms between First and Third World countries. Globalism has allowed the liberal democracies to accrue a disproportionate amount of the benefits of modernization, even in the absence of outright colonial rule. This is not simply an economic issue since non-developed countries may wish to maintain a cultural identify distinct from the modernizing forces that have created such striking similarities among developed countries. The entire world may not aspire to the same things as the historically liberal democracies.

He seems to maintain that these differences require the same type of “arbitration” of differences that are required within democratic counties.

In Third World countries today arbitration must first and foremost find a way between exposure to world markets (essential because it determines competitiveness) and the protection of a personal and collective identity from being devalued….

To be frank, I lose him somewhere in this argument. I readily admit that this is a major concern from multiple perspectives. Unless these divergent needs are somehow reconciled, there is no reason for other parts of the world to not insist on all the perquisites of modernism, which is to say, consumption of resources. The environment can not sustain that demand, certainly not in the short run. On the other hand, that puts a monumental burden on the governments of non-first world countries to “arbitrate” with forces that are largely beyond their control. Sympathetic, democratic government—as defined by Touraine–could make that easier by exerting some brakes on global modernization, but that is difficult for any single government. So, we’re stuck with the very thorny question of what is the appropriate lens for “communal welfare” in a global context? Specifically, how does a democracy arbitrate between the communal interests of its own people and the communal interests of other countries? The Trumpian answer of “America first” doesn’t offer a satisfying answer, particularly given that America (or any First World country) is already a major winner, to some degree at the expense of the Third World. But swatting away “America first” doesn’t suggest what the right answer might be.

Puzzles aside, while there is nothing new in the idea that there is tension between self-interest and communal welfare, I find the presentation of that as the day-to-day, fundamental definition of democracy clarifying.

Prickly City   Scott Stantis

Consider the candidacies of Sanders and Warren. It is commonplace to dismiss them as “too far left”. That may in fact be an accurate political judgment. But, at the same time, we need to tip our hats to them for actually taking sides in the struggle between “individual self-interest” and “communal welfare”. I think there is a powerful argument that for a variety of reasons—the destruction of a vibrant trade union movement in particular—our society has become much less democratic because it has let the “communal welfare” arm of that struggle atrophy. This is about more than the nasty, partisan differences roiling the country. This is about the fundamental nature of the democracy in balancing individual interests versus communal welfare. Sanders and Warren may not be the answer, or they may not be the answer yet. But before dismissing them as “too far left” we should ask ourselves whether America since Ronald Reagan has drifted “too far right”.

We may need more conflict and less accommodation to the forces of self-interest and modernization if we want to maintain our democracy.

The Problem of Statelessness

Mike Koetting     November 14, 2019

Stateless Words

If one takes a step back from day to day life, it’s easy to see this point of view. The very idea of “country” is an abstract notion that we impose on geography.

Of course, it is a critically important notion in the way we organize our lives. For reasons both conceptual and practical, there are few people living in the developed world who don’t have a well-defined notion of county. It is a set of legal relationships that impact virtually every aspect of our lives, from how our birth is recorded, to how much money we get to live on in our old age, and everything In between, including education, military service, and how our economic relationships are developed.

There is one aspect of country that has particularly come to the fore recently. Country defines where you can go, where you can’t go, and even if you can go at all. Article 13 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 recognized mobility as an essential human right and asserts that citizens have the right to travel within a state and the right to leave and return to their country. However, there’s a lot that does not address.

What happens when a person is in a country where he or she is not a citizen? In that case, the legal right to mobility is unclear—as indeed is any ability to participate in the surrounding society. This is a huge problem for a large number of people who are marooned in countries where they do not have the legal status of citizen. They are stateless and, as such, they have no rights granted by citizenship. Their existence there, and all the elements of their lives, are at the pleasure of the host state, perhaps roughly constrained by some notions of human rights—but in that case only to the extent the international community is willing to take steps to enforce those rights.

What got me thinking about this was an article in the Washington Post describing the situation of the Rohingya. Like most Americans, I had not thought about them recently. Two years ago, 750,000 fled northern Myanmar in the face of what is widely-acknowledged as a campaign of ethnic-cleansing. Now they are stuck in truly awful camps in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is unwilling to grant them citizenship—it is awash in its own problems—so they are confined to the camps with no real prospects.


Myanmar, with a Cheshire cat grin, says it would be happy to have the Rohingya back, but they don’t seem to want to come. Myanmar has never admitted their role in the cleansing, has leveled most the villages from which the Rohingya fled, and has made it clear it does not consider them citizens of Myanmar and therefore offers no guarantee of rights. As one of the Rohingya leaders in a camp said: “I miss my home a lot. But I don’t want to go back to a place where my family could be killed.”

The Rohingya are not the only ones with a problem of statelessness. The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates the number of people who are stateless at more than 10 million, but also suggests that is an undercount, since the last count did not fully take into account the unraveling of civil government in Syria or Venezuela. It is also not clear how they counted the 28 millions Kurds in various countries where their status is contested or the 1.4 million Palestinian refugees who are functionally stateless. Nor is it clear how they are thinking about undocumented in the U.S., who might well be considered stateless.

Moreover, recent developments in India are particularly ominous where 1.9 million people in the northeastern state of Assam have been left off a register of citizens, stoking concerns that many could become stateless. There also many problems in Africa –where the states themselves were largely constructs imposed by outsiders with limited regard for internal cohesion.

It’s not clear what to do about this problem. UNHCR has set a goal for abolishing statelessness by 2024. Like many UN goals, the worthiness of the aim is not well matched to the means to achieve it. Some places have taken concrete steps. Thailand, for instance, is close to granting citizenship to 500,000 migrating hill people along its borders. Uganda has made real strides in finding ways to support refugees and Jordan has been figuring out what to do with 60 successive years of refugees from all over the region. Tanzania, Niger, Kenya, and Lebanon are all places that have been figuring out ways to make progress, sometimes with little support from the international community. Success in this hard work requires support for the local community not just the refugees. Social support, mental health services, and finding ways for people to have productive opportunities to work or volunteer are important. The latter will typically require sorting out some options on temporary work permits for refugees; working on ways to improve job markets across a whole area; and lots of advocacy with both host and “home” governments.

But some cases are going to be particular resistant to progress. Most of these situations have evolved out of a long standing, ethnic strife, often combined with resource shortages or other significant stresses in the area—violence or environmental disasters being the most frequent.

The case of the Rohingya is illustrative. Returning them to Myanmar is not likely to work as long as Myanmar does not consider them legitimate citizens of the country. Even granting the Rohingya citizenship in Myanmar might not solve the problem absent a real commitment to integrate these people into the social fabric of the country, something for which there is no good prospect.

Maybe there is some way to get Bangladesh to absorb the Rohingya—but Bangladesh doesn’t have the resources now, and, I am not sure there is any amount of aid that would make this work. There is also the unsettling reality that rising sea levels are making Bangladesh “ground zero” for the adverse effects of climate change.

So what happens? I assume what is happening how. The Rohingya are mired in these camps. Some will seep out in the larger world, some will die, and some will just be there indefinitely—like some of the Palestinian refugee camps. It is not a pretty picture.


All this illustrates how deeply problematic the issue of statelessness is. There is the temptation to shrug and say that 10 or even 20 million people in the scheme of a world-population of 7.7 billion is not a big deal arithmetically. So we could just write off the stateless. But, even setting aside the moral issues, as we keep finding in the Middle East, when we do that, it can come back to bite us.

Actually resolving the problems of the stateless will require engagement of the developed countries. They will have to provide a mixture of carrots and sticks that are neither cheap nor easy. I am not optimistic. Certainly in the current political context, America can be counted on to avoid any leadership commitment. Perhaps China will step into the void, but that’s a thin reed.

I think for most of the stateless, the best they can hope for is to keep surviving from day-to-day until the rest of the world decides it cares about these people at the margin. It will probably happen here and there—and I believe we have some obligation to help in those places–but for most of these people it will be a very long wait.



My last post, “Unfortunately, It Isn’t Just Trump”, included a link to the wrong article. The correct link to the referenced article by David Leonhardt is https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/04/09/magazine/climate-change-politics-economics.html?em_pos=small&emc=edit_ty_20190422&nl=opinion-today&nl_art=1&nlid=73002710emc%3Dedit_ty_20190422&ref=headline&te=1. It’s not an encouraging article, but is very much worth a look. Sorry for my error.

Unfortunately, It Isn’t Just Trump

By Mike Koetting October 31, 2019

After two and three-quarter years of Donald Trump, I have finally found an issue on which we agree: California should not be allowed to set its own emission standards. The idea of each state setting its on emission standards is, frankly, nuts. Car manufacturers could not sensibly conform to a whole menu of requirements.

Of course, my agreement with Trump is limited in scope. The solution is not to forbid California from making its own standards, but to adopt the California standards for the nation. Instantly. These have already been negotiated with several large auto manufacturers.

Trump has no interest in this. He’s invested in wanton relaxation of standards. On this issue, for instance, he has already dumped Obama-era standards on emissions—even though the Department of Transportation (DOT) concedes that this could add about 8 billion tons of carbon dioxide this century.

This post, however, is not about how appallingly wrong-headed this. It is and there are plenty of people already pointing that out. Rather this post will take a look at the various reasons he gives because, as is often the case with Trump, his arguments hold up a mirror to the country’s worst angels.

“Whose Problem Is This?” – Climate-Strike Die-In, Bangkok

Regulations add costs/cost jobs

Trump regularly returns to this, as do many of his Republican enablers. Guess what? While it is not as linear as detractors suggest, regulations are more likely than not to add costs. Afterall, if it were cheaper to do whatever is being regulated against, the regulations wouldn’t be necessary. The issue of jobs is more complicated. Some regulations cost jobs, some regulations create jobs, some jobs disappear for other reasons but it gets hung on regulations, and so forth.

But the central issue under both of these is the same. Fixing the environment is going to cost money. Probably a whole lot of it. It is very hard to imagine that we can do what needs to be done without making real sacrifices. For all the bold talk, the evidence of people being willing to step up to these costs is scant. Several polls show support for environmental action declines precipitously when the discussion mentions price increases or “sacrifice”.

A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that while more than 75% of all Americans think environmental issues are a major problem or a crisis, fewer than 4 in 10 think it will require major sacrifices to address. Moreover, their idea of sacrifice tends to focus on taxing rich people, not themselves. While taxing rich people is a fine idea, this is not going to be sufficient. As the New Republic puts it:

Whether the money to address environmental issues comes from higher federal taxes on Americans, or taxes on private companies that pass down the costs to consumers, it doesn’t really matter. We will feel it, and it will hurt. There is no avoiding this pain—and we’re not just going to feel it in our pocketbooks, but in our personal lives. Along with transitioning to a renewable-energy economy, any truly meaningful climate plan is also going to drastically reduce industrial meat production, expand public transportation, end our reliance on cars, and change the way cities are planned and built….It will be much more than just an annoying inconvenience.

I don’t believe Americans are even close to understanding this. -Reviewing the evidence, David Leonhardt wonders if there is any policy big enough to matter that will gain sufficient public acceptance to be enacted.

An Indonesian child holds a placard that says "there is no planet b."

“Our House Is on Fire” – Climate Strike Indonesia

Even those of us who are worried get a little queasy if we make ourselves think about the carbon footprint of flying (one flight is greater than the entire annual carbon-footprint of people in many countries) or the internet (the carbon footprint of which will soon outstrip the entire aviation industry) or our love affair with meat (which has an astoundingly awful footprint). These vary in impact but they are not trivial parts of a very big problem. Presumably it can be solved, but I’m not sure how without greater willingness to make personal sacrifices.

We’re not stopping people

This argument is the libertarian one: forbidding California from making lower emissions requirements doesn’t keep people from choosing to abide by them. If auto-makers want to achieve them, these regulations won’t stop them. True, but even if everyone did follow a voluntary guideline (not that you can find much support in economic history for that happening), there are two problems.

First, we aremoving toward a crisis point. One of the jobs of government, embodied to some extent in the president, is to rally the nation to face up to national crises. Imagine how the Second World War turns out if Roosevelt says: “Well, we are facing some enemies, but I think the enemies’ strength has probably been exaggerated. So we are going to maintain business as usual, but maybe, if you’re worried, you can chip in and try to help the effort.”

Second, there is no substitute for national institutional commitment. People try to take solace in the number of individual localities or businesses that have announced they are going to try to hit various targets. These are good things. But they simply cannot substitute for the absence of the most powerful country in the world on the leadership stage, let alone make up for the loss of focused talent and resources that a properly aimed government could bring.

That said, there is no evidence the people of the U.S. have yet made this a major issue. There was virtually no mention in the 2016 presidential election, 2018 was about healthcare, and Jay Inslee’s campaign—which was specifically tied to the need for environmental commitment—didn’t last much longer than a snowball subject to global warming.

Other countries are worse offenders

Pretty much true. But if this is unpacked, the underlying message is—“Who the hell do you think you are wanting the same standard of living as we have?” We live in a world that has many people in it who want to live like the developed countries. Their options for getting there are environmentally problematic, but it is hard to argue they shouldn’t be allowed. However, for better or worse, there is only one planet. Trump’s assertion that the future is not global is not that much different from arguing the earth is flat. Migrants, hurricanes, droughts, animals and ocean species and wildfires remind us with increasing frequency that we are all inter-connected.

Our options are to dramatically lower our carbon footprint—either by reducing our standard of living or accelerating appropriate technology— so that less developed countries have carbon room to grow; or to provide massive aid to developing countries. I don’t see much political support for either of these.

It doesn’t make any difference

This is the most insidious argument. At its worse, you get the DOT report justifying the roll-back of Obama standards, where they admitted their model predicted catastrophic changes, but noted that the particular change would make such a small addition to that amount as to not be worth worrying about.

The less egregious version of this is the willingness of each and everyone of us to excuse some environmental excess as “so little that it doesn’t make any difference.” Or our annoyance at anyone who seems to be too much of a “purist”. Sure. Given the magnitude of the problems, this attitude is understandable. But the question is: where do we draw the lines? If all but the most outrageous can be justified because the problems are so big, are we already doomed?

In short…

While many of us are furious atTrump’s handling of environmental issues, the nation is a long way from making a Jay Inslee level of commitment.  Greta Thunburg is asking the right question.

For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here and say you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight?

Maybe the problem isn’t all Trump.

Watergate, Impeachment and the Bigger Issue

By Mike Koetting October 17, 2019

In the fall of 1973, I lived in a house with five other young people. One of our few house rituals was Saturday night TV—Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart. On October 20, our television shows were interrupted by the announcement that Richard Nixon wanted to fire the Special Prosecutor and that Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, had resigned rather than carry out the order, which Robert Bork eventually did.

We were overcome with a mixture of white rage and frustrated helplessness to the point that we started to talk about where we could get guns. On the one hand, we knew the conversation was absurd. On the other hand, that was the only way we could give voice to the outrage we felt over the violence being done to our notion of how America should work.

I think it unlikely that people younger than us can understand how wrenching that experience was. It was such a significant violation of the rules of the game that we assumed for our country that we were at a loss for a more reasonable response. This sort of stuff happened in Russia, in third world banana republics, but not America. Since then, I believe, Americans have really lost the sense of the exceptionalism that our generation was raised on. Cynicism about the means and methods of government is today more easily accepted in America, probably assumed by a material part of the population.

Nevertheless, all the feeling of anger and frustration came flooding back—absent the gun-foolishness—when I saw this headline in the Chicago Tribune.

Continue reading “Watergate, Impeachment and the Bigger Issue”

Politics, Expediency and Values

By Mike Koetting October 3, 2019

A month ago, Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist, had an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune outlining several gun reform measures Republicans should support. The gist of the argument was that public support for these measures was high, particularly among suburban voters Republicans need. Opposing them would be seen among voters as an unwillingness to address a clear and present problem. On the other hand, Jennings noted, supporting these measures, in addition to improving the commonweal, would provide comfort to voters who were disposed to vote Republican but were being put-off by Trump’s antics. They would be reassured there was some leadership around a broader set of values.

The argument was very compelling. So compelling that I found myself hoping that Trump would fail to support these obvious and modest measures. That, in turn, made me uncomfortable. How does it come to pass that I find myself rooting against measures I am actively supporting in other venues because their passage would also strengthen Republican electability. If we can’t come to terms on specific issues, how do we make democracy work? Yes, there are the extenuating circumstances of the Trump presidency. But I just didn’t feel good about hoping Republicans fail to endorse measures I know to be good things.

Continue reading “Politics, Expediency and Values”

The Tectonic Computer Shift

By Mike Koetting September 19, 2019

The idea for this post started with what I thought was a clever title about the way the way computers intrude on our lives. But, as sometimes happens with apparent cleverness, the more I thought about it, the less the title had to do with what I really think is important—that computers are accelerating changes in our lives even more profoundly than we readily recognize.

Immediate impacts are obvious. From the infestation of robo-calls to many privacy threats to the habit-forming, zombie inducing effects of many computer past-times, there is no shortage of people commenting on these issues. I actually think these are serious—well, maybe not robo-calls, although they sure are annoying. But I am not sure I have anything to add the discussion of the specific issues beyond singing “Amen!”

But what I do find interesting is the accumulated impact, which may lead to a qualitative change in the way humans live.

Continue reading “The Tectonic Computer Shift”

History Wars & the Future

Mike Koetting September 5, 2019

During purges by various Russian Communist leaders, there was an aphorism to the effect that while the glorious future of Communism was clear, the past was much harder to discern.

From the Civil War on, America was generally marked by clarity about both its past and its future. Both were great!

In the last several decades, however, both have become less certain and more contested. Many pundits have suggested the struggles are related and our squabbles over the interpretation of history are in fact arguments about what we hope—or fear—for the future.

While I am not generally given to naïve optimism, maybe it would be easier to come to some common understandings about the future if we could come to some common understandings about the past. The past, after all, consists of facts that are known and, at some level, not debatable. Yes, some people prefer to dwell on certain facts, while others choose to emphasize different facts. But since they are all real, maybe it is possible to create a framework that accommodates all.

Continue reading “History Wars & the Future”