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.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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