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Democratic Culture 12 June 2006

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Democratic Theory, Inequality & Stratification.

[In a comment to my last post, Mark asked some great questions and posed some interesting problems, and again, my response was long and I think merits its own post.]

First, “democracy”. You're right in its Greek meaning of “rule of the people.” However, in the implementation of democratic society in the modern era and in democratic theory since the Enlightenment, “democracy” has meant a lot more than that. We have about 300 years of thinking and working out how democracy can work, why it should exist, and what it should look like. But the old Greek notions are just that: old greek notions. To be more clear here, it is of utmost importance that we not confuse modern democracy with “rule of the majority.” Every modern democracy was actually founded as an effort to prevent the tyranny of the majority over the rights of the minority.

“Democracy as form of government”: As democratic theory developed, it was never seen as merely a form of government. Jefferson's writings on democracy reveal it to be a social structure and a value system; J.S. Mill saw it as a social system the maximized the search for truth and the freedom of the individual; and John Dewey saw it as a culture, with foundational values that precede the government. In other words, democracy is far more complex and much deeper than a form of government. The structural forms of democracy can be practiced in the most undemocratic of societies (e.g., voting in the old soviet union, or capitalism in present-day singapore).

There are actually a set of values that a civil society must have in place LONG BEFORE an effective democratic government (the actual institutions) can function. The evidence for this is in Iraq. They put the democratic structures in place without having a democratic civil society first. Without going into details, those basic values are Tolerance (for people who are different from you), Freedom (that you and all members of the society should be as free as possible) and Equality (that all members of the society are of equal value in the civil society).

The Harm Principle, as J.S. Mills called it, is the way that we should judge the rules of the civil society (or, the laws of the government). In other words, the harm principle is the means of evaluation of current or future laws. When a current law no longer meets the standards of the harm principle, it should be jetissoned; or if a future law will respect the harm principle and maximize freedom, equality, and tolerance, it should be adopted.

I did not mean to imply that the harm principle was the ONLY basis for a democratic society.

I do not think that a monarch could actually fully enact the harm principle (no matter how ethical he/she was), because he would ultimately have veto power on everything. democratic society and democratic harm principle does require that all members of the society are of equal value; I think a monarchy precludes that possibility.

Finally, the collective interest, or as democratic theorists usually put it, “the Common Good.” Yes, the common good must be weighed in the harm principle. I only focused on individual rights because that seemed more appropriate for the argument about homosexuality. An effective democracy balances the common good against individual rights. I've said elsewhere that I think America has too often erred in the direction of individual rights, to the detriment of our democracy. The purpose of a democracy is to maximize the possibility for all its members to self-actualize and to spend their lives exploring and expressing (jefferson called this “the pursuit of happiness”). If the common good is not balanced with individual rights, you end up with a society where some individual's rights are valued above whole swatches of society, who are left, for example, in poverty or working 80 hour weeks to feed their kids. That's not freedom and it sure as hell isn't the pursuit of happiness.

Finally, the harm principle does not preclude learning from experience or by trying things. Your point, by the way, is very Deweyan, which warms my heart. In fact, democracy opens up the possibility that we can constantly evaluate our society and system and institutions and change them as we need to. The harm principle is one of the values we (should) use to evaluate our democracy on an ongoing basis. Because things change, something that was perfectly fine in 1950 may be an egregious breach of harm in 2006; or vice versa. And you are right that our best calculation of harm will always be incomplete and inadequate. Democracy, again, is the best way to deal with this because, in an effective democracy, the social relationships are set up for constant evaluation and tweaking as we learn and change. Of the democracies of the world today, the United States is by far the least supple and least capable of such ongoing change. Our strong executive (the main anti-federalist argument in the 1780s) coupled with the lock-grip of a two-party system and a constitution nearly impossible to change means that we have easily the most unresponsive and static democracies on the planet. That it works at all is due mainly to tradition and culture, rather than effective structures.

In short, the harm principle does not require ominscience. In fact, the opposite: it requires that we face our uncertainty as a democratic civil society and that we be open to constant change, new knowledge and experience to move the civil society forward, by tweaking or changing the government as we need to to maintain our freedoms and maximize our “pursuit of happiness” at any given moment in the course of our history.

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