Explaining democracy (crosspost)

Crooked Timber recently ran a book event on The Priority of Dem>ocracy by Knight and Johnson, which produced a lot of interesting discussion about various kinds of arguments in favor of democracy. I’d like to look at a couple of related questions: why does (representative) democracy exist, and why has it become the dominant form of government in the modern world? Here’s a two-part explanation, which doesn’t invoke any ideal theory or even much of a pragmatic case that democracy will produce good policies.

(A) Representative government, with elections and a party system is attractive to those competing for political power because it provides a peaceful way of displacing one set of rulers with another, and gives the losers the knowledge they will always have another chance. It’s stable because it provides a set of rules for succession that (nearly) always work

(ii) Representative systems tend naturally to universal suffrage, since both those who gain the suffrage and one faction of the existing electorate will always benefit from extension

An obvious question on (i) is why representative government took so long to emerge. I have some ideas but I’ll leave it to commenters to discuss if you want.

If the explanation I’ve given works to explain the existence and survival of representative democracy, it doesn’t say much about the character of that democracy. It’s obviously consistent with a duopoly made up of two more-or-less similar factions in an oligarchic ruling class, but it doesn’t preclude versions closer to the ideal where representatives actually represent their constituents.

I’m an econ-blogger, not a political theorist, so I won’t be surprised to learn that these thoughts are wholly unoriginal. But they seem to have some bearing on our recent discussion, and not to have been raised there, so I’m opening up to others.

77 thoughts on “Explaining democracy (crosspost)

  1. @Mel

    It is a conceit to think a more active citizenry would be good for progressives.

    Uttered like someone of conservative disposition … a ‘conceit’ … One has to laugh at the effrontery of it.

    The last major citizen rebellion against the establishment was Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

    No, that was part of the establishment’s agenda, as John Howard proved by co-opting it and even swindling the ALP into buying into it. Xenophobia has a very long history in this country.

    So far as it has a populist dimension to it, this kind of ‘citizen movement’ is really democracy supplanted. The establishment is unwilling to yield anything of value, and tosses the ignorant and tosses them a cance to vent their fears harmlessly (to the establishment) at an ‘other’ outside the nation. The government can then get back to shutting them out of matters germane to their interest.

    In any event citizen engagement will not be confined to ignorant fish shop proprietors and angry, ageing shock jock patrons. This would be an opportunity for whole communities to focus not on evil people but substantive policy. Hanson wouldn’t last ten minutes in a discussion on asylum seekers before being exposed for the blithering, mendacious and malign snake oild salesmouth that she was. Once people get it into their heads that power really does rest with them, they will start working on positive ideas whne they aren’t debunking spurious and misanthropic ones.

    That’s no ‘conceit’. Remove the apathy and ignorance and constructive collaboration is what will follow. Yes the really stupid will get their 15 minutes of fame, but when nobody with standing has any interest in pandering to their nonsense, we will all be able to move on quickly. Reason and human solidarity will prevail.

  2. apologies for the typos … should have proofed.

    The establishment is unwilling to yield anything of value, and tosses the ignorant and tosses them a chance to vent their fears harmlessly (to the establishment) at an ‘other’ outside the nation. {…} snake oil salesmouth

  3. @dylwah

    It may be that the story of democracy in Europe(world) is less the development and accrual of rights than the reclamation of rights.

    I added word “world” in parenthasis to make it more accurate on historic scale.
    We enjoyed more individual rights in the beggining when societies were small and tribal with considerable distances between groups that developed along fertile lands that natural trading routes connected and unified. As societies grew larger they started to compete for the resources in the vicinity. Currencies were introduced that kept volume on trading up and trading routes maintained. First large societies developed along Nile river and Eufrat and Tigris which served as trading routes also. Then Silk Road for trading on wast distances.

    Introduction of competition for resources as groups grew and reduced distances called for uniting resources around centralized decision making. Long and large scale wars called for government debt needed for logistics. That debt became money to trade within society and then money made trade easier and got volume of trade up.

    Then, as kings became treated as gods who can win wars and make money(wealth) out of nothing, they grew into their own hubris and took away individual rights.
    Now we are on the slow road to get back to initial level of individual rights, and slowly growing into it by trying to reduce competition for resources.

    And robotics could be the way to anihilate competition for resources, but only when we as a society develop enough to understand how pursue of money is perverting us in a possible future age when we don’t have to compete for free resources that robots can provide.

    Celtic Britons had no roads or currencies but very succesfull civilisation with strong individual rights developed on an island, just as American Indians. Inka had some roads and some form of currency but no resistance to european viruses.

  4. Labour mobility and the need for migrants help explain the spread of the franchise in the far away European offshoots

    Likewise, these offshoots gave women the vote as a way to attract women migrants.

    The tendency of women in that time to form temperance unions and otherwise vote conservatively made them a constituency ripe for cooption.

  5. @Jordan

    And robotics could be the way to anihilate competition for resources…

    That’s doubtful. Competition for resources is driven by two classes of needs: the requirements for life like hunger and shelter can (in principle) be satisfied by an adequate supply of resources. The other driver for resources is sexual selection, which is more complex. The attraction is to have more, bigger, better and brighter whatever thatn anyone else to attract bigger, brighter and better mates. This doesn’t merely apply to physical resources but also personal “charisma” qualities like intelligence, strength, good looks. The programmed biological objective is not merely to have a sufficient level but to have more than everyone else.

    I don’t expect this competition to go away in the foreseeable future at all. The best hope is for a cultural shift away from expensive adornments, gadgets, McMansions and economic empires to competition in more socially and environmentally benign qualities, for example musical ability, sport, education, or, making large charitable donations. However, I can’t see that $100 million in the bank will ever loose its sexual allure for a lot of people. Also, you might have noticed there’s a massive effort going on out there to promote this acquisitive urge by making product ownership sexually attractive. This won’t suddenly stop.

  6. Barlow: “Remove the apathy and ignorance and constructive collaboration is what will follow.”

    Yet more conceit. We don’t know what would happen. For all we know blo0d would flow in the streets, a possibility you now shamelessly ignore in spite of your Maoist, Spartacist and Marxist-Leninist past incantations.

    Meanwhile in Queensland, where the state government has granted greater power to local councils, said councils at the behest of active and concerned locals are busy ignoring the science and taking fluoride out of the water supply.

    Yip blo0dy hee!

  7. @Mel

    Yet more conceit. We don’t know what would happen.

    Actually, what you offer here is yet more handwaving misanthropy. For you, inclusion and accountability leads to bl00dletting. That’s some hatred and angst you’ve got there,but it’s typical of reactionaries.

    Meanwhile in Queensland, where the state government has granted greater power to local councils, said councils at the behest of active and concerned locals are busy ignoring the science and taking fluoride out of the water supply.

    Which rather makes my point. Under current arrangements, what occurs is not informed civic engagement, but the rule of scoundrels and demagogues. Plainly, your appeal is disingenuous.

    Yip blo0dy hee!

    Ah, I see you do like this after all, and are concerned that this might end if inclusive governance sees the light of day.

  8. Barlow,

    if you are an orthodox Marxist you believe that at some stage the working class- black, white and blue; Christian, Musl!m and Jew, will achieve enlightened unity and then proceed to slaughter the ruling classes and those reactionary elements of the peasant and middle classes that align with them.

    Your very own belief system can be summed up as: information + involvement = violent. That you are now backtracking, sidestepping and dissembling whilst hiding your red light under a green bushel is not in the least bit convincing.

  9. representation of constituent wishes.(yup,even stupid constituents)
    repealed or re-affirmed by regular peaceful turnover or re-election.

    (by peaceful i don’t neccessarily mean quiet or dignified.
    just no rolling heads or taken out the back and shot.)
    (i don’t really understand the tut-tutting of what happens in parliament.after all that’s what it’s for.rather there than blood in the streets)

  10. @Jim Birch
    I am with you on competition for luxuries. But, competition for subsistence needs can be eliminated by robotics. Class animozities can be reduced in the future. There is a need to separate those two, because competition for luxuries create lack of subsistance provision for others less succesful, or less advantaged.
    The best way to separate them is to have two currencies, primary currency dedicated to subsistance fill and another parallel currency for competition on luxuries.
    Or opposite, in digital age subsistance needs can be met universaly by using any form of accounting for distribution.

  11. @Mel

    if you are an orthodox Marxist you believe that at some stage the working class- black, white and blue; Christian, Musl!m and Jew, will achieve enlightened unity and then proceed to slaughter the ruling classes …

    Nobody with an ounce of self-respect who understands ‘orthodox Marxism’ would make such a claim. Marxism does not and never has advocated ‘slaughter’ of anyone.

    It seems very clear that you are at the very least either mendacious or reckless in making claims outside your area of knowledge, misanthropic and angst-ridden. It seems you’ve decided that despite the social-democratic inclination of the host, this is a suitable place to vent your disgust at human possibility and declare your preference for elite rule.

    So be it then. You can vent your cant without further assistance from me.

  12. @Fran Barlow

    “I disagree. That’s an attribute that any genuinely inclusive jurisdiction would achieve. It’s clearly not something that could be contrived tomorrow or next nonth or even next year — but over a generation, it should be possible.”

    Rather optimistic, nevertheless I agree on a historic level. Compare to Middle Age Europe, people have moved away from Scholasticism to pseudoscience to modern science (religious fundamentalists being exceptions). I hope this trend will continue and at a much faster pace than history (at least I hope the climate change will be addressed ASAP worldwide). If the historic trend does not have a limit on a specific point; then perhaps democracy will truly become effective.

  13. I would be interested in what John’s suggested answers to his questions.

    After some divergent, and usually convoluted speculation I have reached the conclusion that there has been a pattern of resistance to significant development of the franchise. It is not a natural or pragmatic process, although in retrospect by ignoring social struggle and political revolutions associated in the historical record, that case might be made.

    Looking as the record in the US for example, despite innovation, there has been a pattern of resistance to more inclusive voting systems and recognition of effective opinion in representation, law making and public policy decision making.

    Democracy is a desirable but not natural and inevitable development. Stable democracies require nonviolent norms to work, but that does not preclude external pressures, including military interventions and other forms of interference. On the question of nonviolent development the comparison is often made outcomes achieved in India and Algeria, a comparison that ignores Pakistan.

    On the question of scholasticism, perhaps compared to Cartesian philosophy, one imagines that the democratic process would be a dialectic, and that does not in general appear to be so, which at least suggest that it is often, if not always, inauthentic, and its forms are masks for the operation and co-option of power. The Mining Tax might be good example.

  14. Barlow: “Marxism does not and never has advocated ‘slaughter’ of anyone.”

    What about Lenin’s Hanging Order? Mao’s manufactured famine? Ho Chi Minh’s post-war death camps?

    Marx himself never thought revolution would be a peaceful affair: “No great movement has ever been inaugurated Without Bloodshed.”

    Those who have acted under the Marxist banner have indeed advocated and participated in slaughter on a grand scale and the suggestion that this makes them not true Marxists, one that people like you routinely make, is the No True Scotsman fallacy.

  15. @Mel

    You will find exactly similar quotes in hundred year old doctrines of British and American imperialism.

    What about bomber Harris, Hiroshima Nagasaki, the military spreading of smallpox.

    Imperialist, colonialist slaughters were to impose invaders onto fresh territory.

    There is no element of Marxism that leads to slaughter except the violence introduced by old regimes and their foreign backers.

    How many Victorian Cross did Australians win fighting against Lenin? What were they doing there?

    Marxism does not and has never advocated slaughter of anyone, but will deal with situations in the same terms as presented by old regimes.

    If you want to spew forth – remember you are standing on a rostum built out of the skeletons of million of indigenous peoples and the ashes of trainloads of Jews fed into the gullet of a particular right-wing machinery in its efforts to boost economic growth for capitalism.

  16. @Chris Warren
    Spanish Civil War would be an excellent example of what was presented by old regime.
    Another is Pinochet example. Portugal’s Saraza example.
    Forced austerity against Greek’s, Italian’s, Spanish’s majorities.

    what do you suggest is the way that population should deal with those that work against their majority’s will? And then, how to deal with rulling elite after they refuse your proposal? ANd then, when they refuse your second proposal, and third, and fourth…..?

    Mel, What should people be allowed to do to preserve democracy?

  17. @Fran Barlow You say that under current arrangements, what occurs is not informed civic engagement, but the rule of scoundrels and demagogues.

    • Democracy is not faculty workshop. The deliberation you demand requires a high level of knowledge and analytical sophistication and a severe curtailment of self-interest.

    • Theorists of deliberative democracy are tempted to give up on the people and embrace rule by the experts they deem capable of deliberation-experts who are coincidently much like themselves. An example is Sortition.

    Perhaps you are getting in touch with your inner-Hayekian: Hayek argued that there were only a limited number of topics that a democracy could handle.

    • Your argument about the rule of scoundrels and demagogues can be dealt with by strong upper houses, federalism and a limited government.
    • The will of the people is constantly tested and re-measured in a federal system: elections at one level or another every year contested on local and national issues.

    That you could not accept. Such is the constitutional political economy of Left: Too many on the Left assume they are the face of the future and should be only tempered by an occasional general election, rather than just another political party that will hold power as often as not.

    The rotation of power is common in democracies, and the worst rise to the top, so it is wise to design constitutional safeguards to minimise the damage done when those crazies to the right or left of you get their chance in office, as they will. Insurgent new parties are common.

  18. Vladimir Lenin’s famous Hanging Order:

    Send to Penza to Comrades Kuraev, Bosh, Minkin and other Penza communists

    Comrades! The revolt of the five kulak volost’s must be repressed without mercy. The interest of the entire revolution demands this, because we have now before us our final decisive battle “with the kulaks.” We need to set an example.

    1. You need to hang (hang without fail, so that the public sees) at least 100 notorious kulaks, the rich, and the bloodsuckers.
    2. Publish their names.
    3. Take away all of their grain.
    4. Execute the hostages – in accordance with yesterday’s telegram.

    This needs to be accomplished in such a way, that people for hundreds of miles around will see, tremble, know and scream out: let’s choke and strangle those blood-sucking kulaks.

    Telegram us acknowledging receipt and execution of this.

    Yours, Lenin

    P.S Use your toughest people for this.

    Lying roaches on the Marxist side of the barricades would have us believe Marxist-Leninism is a benevolent ideology. The torn flesh, blood and broken bones and official soviet documents demonstrate otherwise.

  19. Krazy capitalists slaughtering millions from the rivers of China to the swamps of USA, all through Africa, and right across Europe, even into the tiny state of Tasmania. Murdering millions more in the trenches from Ypres to Gallipoli, and from Dunkirk to far flung islands of the Pacific. pity the poor citizens fire bombed by Harris, flooded by dambusters, or blown to smithereens just trying to go to school early one morning in Hiroshima, or to till their fields in Vietnam.

    And still these capitialists massacre civilians into the 21st century over a hundred thousand – all for oil [http://www.iraqbodycount.org/.]

    And just remember the falling leaves as the Chilean helicopters threw out thousands of activists to fall thousands of feet to their deaths miles out to sea.

    So Mel spread your spittle somewhere else.

  20. @Jim Rose

    and a limited government.

    Jim Rose. Small governmnet implys that someone else will fill the power gap that would be left by reducing government size.
    You asume that individual people will grab that role and hold it.

    How many examples from history do you require in order to accept that that gap is always taken by large corporations or individuals that own those corporations, not by people at large as you would and i and everyone else would like to?

  21. @Mel The Hanging Order and other abuses came about by the abuses of previous governments in the absence of democracy. They could be better described as atrocities committed during a civil war.

  22. @Jordan is pension fund socialism an example of your fears. people funding their own retirements and buying the majority of the share market in the process.

  23. @Jim Rose
    Trying to sidetrack this important question is not working Jim.
    Are you really so scared of it to use such low ball trick?

    How many examples from history do you require in order to accept the fact that by making government smaller, the power gap is taken over by large corporations and owners of them, not by public at large?

  24. Rog, there is plenty of evidence that Lenin was a cold blooded mass murderer although he obviously wasn’t as bad as Stalin. Let google be your friend.

    Personal attack deleted. Please keep this feud out of my comments threads. Last warning on this – JQ

    Our democratic state is highly flawed and favours the rich, but at least the blood-soaked red grubs are well away from the levers of power.

    On the other hand, the withering away of the red threat since the collapse of the Soviet Union has undoubtedly emboldened the right and in particular the loopier movements like libertarianism. This isn’t good for the working class but I’m not sure what can be done about it.

  25. I’m calling an end to this thread.

    I’m tired of providing a venue for feuds between Mel, Chris and Fran. From now on, I don’t want any debates among these commenters in my main threads. That is, Mel should not respond to anything written by Fran or Chris, and conversely. If any of you have a point to make do so without reference to these other commenters.

    If you want to argue among yourselves about topics like Leninism, take it to the sandpits. Even there, personal attacks will be deleted and those who make them suspended or banned.

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