Saturday, January 02, 2016

What is Democracy? [in 3 words or less]

I’m teaching a new undergraduate seminar this term on law and politics and I’m framing the course around the problem of collective decision-making. To build up to the narrative surrounding the course content I want to start the first lecture with the basic question: what is democracy?

The standard way to answer this question is to invoke something like Robert Dahl’s excellent characterisation of democracy as a decision-making process that has (1) effective participation, (2) equality in voting, (3) gaining enlightened understanding, (4) exercising final control over the agenda and (5) inclusion of adults.

But I think this characterisation of democracy, which I agree is great for political science students, is too specific for the purpose I have in mind in the intro lecture. I’m after something even more basic and general as it will help make more vivid the stakes involved in the topics covered in the course. To get at that more general, basic understanding of democracy I want you to consider the following thought experiment.

Imagine intelligent aliens from a distant planet arrived on earth and, after observing our political life, they asked why we hold regular elections, have constitutions, legislatures, courts, freedom of the press, etc. They note that it all seemed extremely costly, and did not appear to be a very effective way of getting things done.

To sensibly digest what a democracy is the Aliens require a basic description that is no more than 3 words in length [they have TWITTER-LIKE BRAINS!]. Only a very succinct characterization of democracy will resolve their puzzlement. So citing Dahl's characterisation doesn't help. When the aliens try to make sense of why our culture has the institutions and practices of medicine it is easy for them to understand what they are and why we have them-- to prevent, treat and manage disease, illness and disability. When they try to make sense of why our culture has the institutions (e.g. political economy) and practices of economics it is easy for them to understand what they are and why we have them-- to try to facilitate economic growth and avoid fiscal disaster. But they remain puzzled as to what democracy is and what it's function or telos is. They are hoping that a most precise characterization of democracy will help them overcome their puzzlement.

I think the most helpful way of answering the query of the Aliens is to invoke the American pragmatist John Dewey’s understanding of democracy. Dewey characterised democracy as an experiment, a social experiment. And I think that is the best, general characterization of what democracy is.

Democracy is a way of life that humans have been (seriously) fine-tuning for over a century (though the Ancient Greeks first dabbled with democracy in the 5th century BC) the goal of which is to promote our opportunities to flourish as both individuals and collectively as societies. This social experiment is an attempt to make collective decisions that promote morally laudable aims, whether that be promoting peace and security, economic prosperity or justice, freedom and equality.

Democracy is still (obviously) a work-in-progress. Despite its many imperfections and shortcomings, the empirical evidence amassed so far in terms of how democracy performs compared to non-democratic ways of life is very impressive. For the 21st century there doesn't appear to be any serious contenders vying to compete with democracy as the way of life for humans This is the first century ever that this has been the case. Much work still remains of course in terms of fine-tuning and refining the social experiment that is democracy.