The Paradox of Democracy

During my days as a student activist studying philosophy in Alberta one wag described me as "a moderate socialist and a radical democrat."

That description is probably still apt 20 years later. The bulk of my work in online learning and media is dedicated toward the idea that people should be able to manage their own lives and their own futures.

But the phrase 'radical democrat' was and still is the source of some ambiguity. By 'democrat' I do not mean, of course, affiliation with the Democratic party in the United States. Rather, it means 'supporter of democracy', whatever that is.

Modern democracies consist of two parts:
  • a mechanism enabling the majority to plan and carry out a form of self-governance for a region or nation as a whole, and
  • a mechanism defining and ensuring the protection of basic rights and privileges accorded to all members of society.

Most people not surprisingly focus on the first part of democracy. Some even deride the second under the heading of 'judicial activism', as though democracy should only be defined by the former.

But I have never believed that a simple counting of votes is sufficient for the governance of a region or a nation, not the least because of the likelihood of what Mill calls the 'tyranny of the majority',  but also because the majority is simply unable to govern without these basic rights and privileges.

In modern democracies, one way we determine the will of the majority is by means of the vote (it may surprise people to know that this is not the only way to determine the will of the majority; a reading of Rousseau on 'the general will' for example reveals a more organic alternative process; others, by contrast, cite the 'invisible hand' of the marketplace).

The premise behind the exercise of the vote is that it reflects the opinions of an informed citizenry. What constitutes 'informed' has varied over the years. Voting was once limited to landowners, a privilege still enshrined in bodies such as the British House of Lords and the Canadian Senate. It was also at different times limited to free persons, to men, and today, to adults over a certain age. Robert Heinlein has suggested it be limited to those who serve in the military.

The need for this is found in a two-part argument formed by Thomas Jefferson:
  • "Compare again the ferocious depredations of their insurgents, with the order, the moderation and the almost self-extinguishment of ours. And say, finally, whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government, or information to the people."
  • "Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."
It is a reflection at once of both Hobbes and Locke, the idea that peace in the land is ensured by a government that serves the will of the people, and that it is through this desire for peace that people will participate in, and support the mechanisms of, that government.

But this, in turn, depends on the people actually desiring something worth desiring. Here is Heinlein again:

"What is supposed to happen in a democracy is that each sovereign citizen will always vote in the public interest for the safety and welfare of all. But what does happen is that he votes his own self-interest as he sees it… which for the majority translates as ‘Bread and Circuses.’"
Two dilemmas occur. The first is created when a person's self-interest is contrary to the interest of the interest of society as a whole. The classic instance of this is criminal behaviour, but in a democracy, many forms of self-interest are legal, even encouraged, even though they act against the interest of the whole.

The second is created when a person is mistaken about what lies in his own best interests. History is replete with examples of people acting, en masse, in a manner that harms their own well-being and security. And individual cases of self-harm or self-defeating behaviour exist in all societies. As Mill would argue, no person is best served by bread and circuses, but often, this is what they want.

In my own discussion of autonomy, I describe four major areas in which a person can enjoy more or less self-governance:
  • the capacity to know - this includes being in a position to have relevant experiences, the capacity to reflect on those experiences, and to do so independently of incentives or coercions
  • the capacity to act - this includes flexibility and mobility, the absence of legal constraints, barriers and locks, and the resources and entitlements necessary to make action possible 
  • the range of behaviour - this is described by media of expression, association and transmission of ideas, background noise, tolerance and quality of choices
  • the capacity to have an effect - described by the audience for an idea or its efficacy, as well as the nature and extent of improvements possible
In a simple democracy government by the votes of the majority, we can observe ways in which individuals, as well as the majority, are limited in their capacity to know, decide and act.

In a full and complete democracy, individuals would have the widest degree of autonomy possible, in a manner consistent with the autonomy of other members of society, in order to define and pursue their own best interests, and as necessary the best interests of society.

But it is clear that the protection and enhancement of this autonomy is not enabled by the simple process of voting alone (indeed, if even at all). For we find ourselves in a paradox: we need to vote to ensure the greatest degree of autonomy for ourselves, but we need the greatest autonomy for ourselves in order to show us how to vote.

We can see in any election (including the present American election taking place today) ways in which the autonomy of the voters is subverted, and hence, their ability to act in the best interests of either themselves or society:
  • the information they receive is controlled and manipulated, they are unable to reason effectively on that information, and they are subject to rewards of government spending and coercion through loss of employment
  • individual mobility is limited, both internationally, by means of immigration restrictions, and nationally, by means of limited access to social services and health care; a person's first interest, in most democracies today, is employment and personal welfare
  • the right to associate and demonstrate is increasingly limited by police powers, while one's individual voice is being managed via copyright and trade restrictions, and limited access to the press and popular media
  • the desires expressed by individual votes, and the mass of votes, are being subverted by influences placed on elected officials
In other words, it is not simply that people vote for bread and circuses, it is that, often, bread and circuses is the best they can get, because of the circumstances they find themselves in, and their inability to demand, and get, more.

This is why - and how - I am a radical democrat. My commitment to democracy extends well beyond support for the mechanisms of democratic decision-making, but additionally, to mechanisms and measures supporting the greatest degree of autonomy and self-governance possible.

In this (ironically and perhaps to some rather surprisingly) I am affiliated with the most conservative and libertarian voices in society today.

Where I differ is that I do not define 'intrusion' in our lives narrowly as 'government intrusion', first, and second, I do not define 'autonomy' simply in terms of my own individual autonomy, but in a manner that promotes the autonomy of all persons equally.

For if one of us is not free, none of us is free. 

In this, therefore, my support for democracy hinges on two elements that are very similar to Jefferson's two major points.

  • The need to meet the basic conditions of autonomy for all of us, including a robust definition of rights that includes both the means and capacity to act and make decisions freely, and
  • The need to enable for each person the capacity to become critically literate, that is, to be able to reason cogently and arrive reliably at those measures and conclusions most reflective of his or her self interest.

The former requires a charter of rights and freedoms that goes well beyond the 'bills of rights' that would be granted to people already in possession of the means to act upon them. 'Freedom of the press' is meaningless if one cannot own a press; 'freedom of speech' matters not at all if there is no means to be heard.

In practice, I support something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And in particular, I aver that no person can be free if he or she lacks sustenance and nourishment, housing, clothing, education, a sense of belonging, and a sense of meaning or purpose. If a person, or people, live in poverty, none of us is free. As Foucault might say, the rich are as bound by the trepiditions of the poor as are the poor. Or as Chandler might say, when people are poor, you always have to watch your back.

We cannot be free if we are in want; we cannot form the conditions for self-government from the condition of poverty.

With regard to the second, I have discussed elsewhere the needs of critical awareness and reflection under the headings of various types of literacy. And I have described, in much more general terms, what people need to learn. In both cases, the objective is to develop a capacity to perceive accurately, to reason with clarity, and to act with foresight.

Ultimately, my understanding of democracy is one in which the emphasis on decisions taken by majority vote decreases and finally wanes to almost nothingness.

The need for a vote, after all, represents and reflects an incapacity on the part of the electorate.

In the first instance, the vote reflects an incapacity to govern at all. The vote is, in the first instance, not an opting between ideas, but rather, a selection of representatives who will do our governing for us. It reflects a time and an era in which the process of governance required more travel and more time than any of us could afford.

This is a time that has arguably already passed. Modern communications technology makes most travel unnecessary. And today's legislators have had to spend so much time learning how to campaign, raise money, and earn our vote, that they are barely more capable of representing our own interests, even in complex matters, than we are ourselves.

And in the second instance, it reflects an incapacity to resolve through more gentle means the tensions and conflicts that flare in modern society. The vote represents a form of conflict, one in which the ballot has replaced the bullet, to be sure, but one in which existing market or legal mechanisms do not enable people to govern themselves directly.

And, in a final paradox, the tensions and conflicts being addressed in the ballot box today revolve around the question of whether there should be democracy at all. They revolve around the persistence of poverty and resistance to the efforts to alleviate it. They revolve around the persistence of ignorance and resistance to the efforts to educate. We are not now debating the question of what kind of society we would like to have, we are debating the question of whether we want to have a society at all.

Democracy, predictably, is unable to resolve the paradox of its own existence. In an existential incompleteness theorem, it is unable to determine whether democracy is, after all, the best form of government. And perhaps most damaging, it is unable to ensure its own existence. Democracy tolerates, at best, and encourages, at worst, the prevalence of poverty and the subversion of reason that give society a reason to exist.

For my own part, the resolution of the paradox lies in the explicit rejection of the proposition that some people are more important, or more valuable, than others. Or, more positively, an explicit endorsement of Kant's maxim that very rational being has intrinsic and not merely instrumental value, that to treat a person as a means to some end is to deny their essential humanity.

Some people arrive at this maxim from religious reasons. "Not even one sparrow dies and falls on the ground without God noticing it." For me, the import of Kant's maxim lies in the nature of society itself. A society that subjects its members to arbitrary and discriminatory treatment cannot sustain. Such a society exists in a state of perpetual war with itself, a draining of wealth and resources that ultimately leaves nothing but death and stagnation.

So today people vote, and exercise what limited social autonomy they have in their grasp. But in their vote, they should see the need for a wider democracy, one in which the vote is no longer necessary, but rather one based on a mechanism of exchanges of mutual support and benefit, a society defined not by cartels and cabals and conflict, but where sustenance and prosperity are ensured through cooperation, through exchanges between equals to their mutual benefit.

In other words, the reason we have a democracy at all is that at some level we believe every human being has the same basic worth. We understand that this sense of a basic equality is necessary for us to have a society at all, and that having a society is our best and only hope of having and sort of existence worth having.

That's why I'm a moderate socialist and a radical democrat. I believe this last is not negotiable. I believe that the basic equality of individuals in our society is all that protects us from the abyss, that the chains that bind us will, unless unshackled, be the weight that drags us down into oblivion.


  1. I think you're right here, but incomplete: "the information they receive is controlled and manipulated..."

    I think people have access to whatever information THEY WANT TO HEAR as well. Just as we have people 2nd guessing their doctors by googling their symptoms, we have people using their confirmation bias to select their news sources - with approximately similar results.

    Marge: "Homer, you only hear what you want to hear!"
    Homer: "Thanks, I'd love a sandwich."

    The problem is different because this isn't an external source of manipulation, but something each of us does to ourselves. How do you get everyone to change themselves - when they're already subject to confirmation bias?

    Well, everyone except me of course.

  2. I've heard the confirmation bias argument a lot, but I don't agree that people hear only the message they want to hear, but rather, they only hear the same message that they hear. That's not as much of a tautology as it sounds. It means, for example, that a person watching Fox News hears no dissenting views from the Fox message. Similarly, an MSNBC viewer will hear only the MSNBC message. And so on for CNN, ABC and the rest (we have it to in Canada, with a CTV view of the world, a CBC view, and so on).

    The problem, in other words, is not that the *viewers* are selecting only the message that they want to hear, but rather, the information channels they access, whatever they happen to be, offer a monoculture. Interestingly, the message about confirmation bias is a part of that message - it suggests to viewers that if they were to make their own selections they would only 'hear what they want to hear', so they should stay right where they are and, um, hear the same message over and over.

    People who actually do manage their own media (like, say, me) actually obtain their information from a wide spectrum of media (and sources outside media).


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