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Democracy Gone Right

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Why is democracy a good system of government? Most of us don't think much about that question. And yet the answer is very important, because it drives the way we structure the government.

If pressed, most of us probably would agree with Kevin Drum, who recently wrote that democracy is good because it produces good outcomes. Sure, democracy isn't perfect, this argument goes, but it's not apt to lead to mass murder, as fascism and communism did. Democracy also tends to be good for prosperity. Democracies are less likely to begin aggressive wars. Drum (and many academic political theorists) say that at the very least, democracy is good because it achieves its "real purpose," which is "to rein in the rich and powerful."

When democracies do produce what we see as bad outcomes (say, torture or income inequality) we don't think the democratic process has brought about those results; we suspect that something has gone wrong with our democracy. 

I think that's wrong. Democracy is good because it allows everyone to participate in self-government, not because the decisions we'll make are necessarily any better than those produced by other systems of government. The reason to favor democracy is democracy.

That is, if democracy is essentially self-government, then we should favor democracy if we believe people should have the opportunity to collectively steer their own destinies. Even if we make foolish decisions. Classical republican theorists, from Machiavelli to the American founders, believed that participating in politics was inherently worthwhile for its own sake.  I don't think democracy can be justified unless you believe the practice of politics has value, and you are willing to accept the outcomes of that process.

Or, to put it another way: Justifying democracy because one likes the outcomes leaves democracy vulnerable to the next election results.

This isn't just theoretical vapor. If we think democracy is valuable because it produces results we like, then we're apt to constrain political action when it threatens to produce unpleasant outcomes. We might, as liberals propose right now, restrict some forms of political participation (such as contributions to candidates or lobbying) if we suspect they favor the "rich and powerful." We might be tempted, as some conservatives currently advocate, to restrict the franchise to only the "best" voters. Or -- and almost everyone supports this sometimes -- we might want policies (on issues such as climate or health care) to be turned over to experts if we think politicians will get them wrong.

However, if we support democracy because it will allow everyone to participate, we'll be more inclined to decide in favor of participation and popular control, even if it entails the risk of foolish or otherwise unfortunate policies.

Whether democracy actually does restrain the rich and powerful is an empirical question, for which we have limited information, especially if we're comparing democracy to something relatively new, such as the Chinese model combining markets with authoritarian government. Sometimes, terrible outcomes can be closely linked to a failure of democracy. One solid example is ethnic oppression in the U.S. that excluded blacks from full citizenship through Jim Crow laws (or, for that matter, slavery). But there are plenty of terrible decisions that have nothing to do with democratic deficiencies.

After all, individual people can do foolish or even evil things; there's no particular reason to believe that couldn't apply to large groups of people. 

  1. Don't get caught up in language here; democracy and republic are actually synonyms, not different kinds of government.

  2. A necessary clarification: This all leaves to the side what procedures count as democracy. In my view, that’s a complicated discussion of its own, and (for example) simple majoritarian direct democracy isn’t necessarily the most democratic option.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net