Democracy Symposium: A neat trick
Democracies have a number of things going against them. They tend to select for policies that are fiscally unsustainable. There are other ways in which it leads to bad policies,and it is not above violating people’s fundamental rights. Unlike JamesK, I don’t think that it is a point in favour of democracy that it aggregates preferences. Not only is it impossible that any non-dictatorial system can aggregate preferences in a rational manner, it is not necessarily desirable that a political system do so. I’m a moral realist and a moral cognitivist. That means that I don’t see morality as a matter of emotions. As Kant put it, morality is a matter of pure practical reason. Where people disagree about fundamental moral matters, at least one of them is wrong. Even if we cannot find out who, moral sentences are nevertheless the kind thing that can be true. As mentioned by many, much of the desirability of liberal democracy stems from the liberality rather than its democratic-ness. One of the more awesome features of liberal democracies is also one of its least democratic parts, namely the constitution. There was some pushback on this issue, and there does seem to have been some improvement in some respects, but certainly that improvement has been neither uniform nor sufficient and certainly not without other regressive tendencies that we should be jumping for joy. As far as justice is concerned, democracy kind of sucks. I’m not even going to go into the whole Churchillian stuff about it being the worst system except for all the rest. We haven’t tried all the rest, and there is certainly much that can be done at the margins. Often, justice is going to require going against majority opinion even in areas that have been traditionally relegated to democratic authority. Whatever we can do to remove such policy questions from democratic control would be an improvement. More than that, if we were all more rational and all had more epistemic humility, democracy wouldn’t even be able to get off the ground. But, and I can’t believe I am saying this, there is maybe just one thing that democracy seems to do well, and that is to resolve overt political violence. Let me try to explain:
Now, as a matter of fact, some people just are better at answering moral questions than others and those others really should just shut up and defer to those who know better. But of course, people don’t do this. Everyone thinks that their own judgement is supreme* and refuses to concede that others’ could be right. Even though most people, when faced with such disagreement should at the very least, become agnostic about the various policy questions, they don’t. From their own perspective, why should they? After all, it is those other guys who are wrong and acceding to them is compromising what one sees as the right thing to do. But, if we are to live in society, there must be some rules that govern interpersonal interactions. There must be some things which I cannot demand of you and conversely there are some things you owe me. What do we do when we cannot agree with what those rules are? One way this problem can be solved is if everyone agreed on a procedure to adjudicate the various claims and preferences even if they did not agree on. In the abstract, this solution seems to be a tall order. There seems to be no reason why people should find it any easier to agree on a procedure to adjudicate disagreements about what the social rules should be than to agree on what the social rules should be.
Yet, democracies have managed to do just that. Democracies have somehow managed to convince most people that it is better to fight their political battles in the voting booth than in the streets. For majorities, this is an obvious win. They manage to impose their will on the rest without much of a fight. For minorities, it is less obvious. Minorities stand to lose a lot by just acquiescing to a procedure in which they are bound to lose. More than that, somehow, even after they have lost, minorities recognise the authority of the majority’s representative as legitimate and do not rebel against said authority. Yet, there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason as to why they necessarily should.** We can see how legitimation would have worked in the old days of monarchy. The King was the rightful ruler in virtue of having been placed in such a position by divine right. Even the poor trampled peasant could grok that such was appropriate to the king’s station and his rule even if onerous, was legitimate because in part he it comported with his beliefs about social classes, the existence of God etc. It is less clear what the legitimising principle of democracy is and certainly not clear why minorities would accept it.
But, somehow, most people view their democratically elected leaders as having legitimate authority over them. Maybe it is manufactured consent, or maybe false consciousness. I don’t know. But it is still a neat trick. Mere coercion is rarely enough to keep the populace from tearing each other’s throats out. It requires something more. People must by and large see the ruler as legitimate in order for his rule to be stable. This is difficult in any society which is characterised by a rich pluralism of views on substantive policy questions.
Of course, mere democracy is not enough. Even though democracies have managed what seems to be a neat trick, the stability of illiberal democracies seems more precarious than that of liberal democracies. What is going on? One of the key differences between liberal and illiberal democracies is that liberal democracies (at least to a greater extent, even if not all the time) try to justify their policies by giving reasons that everyone can in principle access and accept. Illiberal democracies to a greater degree, justify their policies on grounds which are unintelligible to the minority who disagree with said policy. To be clear, there is no hard and fast distinction between liberal and illiberal democracies on such an account and the difference may only be a matter of degree. Public reason further legitimises the system. by giving public reasons, people can somewhat see themselves as possibly accepting the policy even though they actually don’t.
Now, none of this means that we should conclusively support democracy. Certainly, if we wish to proceed on a more sustainable fiscal path, we will have to find ways to de-democratise. Perhaps a gradualist approach can over time shift the basis of regime legitimacy from whatever it currently is, to something perhaps a bit or maybe a lot more rational:a recognised scientific and philosophical superiority and expertise in policy questions. But this is a big perhaps and we should give props where they are due. Liberal democracy is so far the best, by far, at solving the political legitimacy issue: How do we get people to just kind of get along without breaking out into violence every now and then?
*Even though it really is the case that it is the libertarians who’ve got things more or less right and that everyone else is being either mistaken or perverse.
**To be clear, people can submit to a ruler out of resignation and fear of the ruler’s coercive power, but they don’t therefore see the ruler as legitimate.