The Philosophy of Democracy

It has struck me while following the constitutional crisis that erupted in Honduras June 25 last year, that many of those who are actors in the drama do not seem to have an understanding of democracy on a philosophical level. Without a normative foundation, they end up being blind to the long-term implication of their choices, and are guided only by the immediate benefit they see.

To overcome this problem I believe it is essential to strengthen the knowledge and understanding of democracy, not just in Honduras but in all of the Americas. Yes, including the U.S. of A., the Senate of which appears quite unable to function in a democratic way. In fact, I would propose that this task should be based on the most fundamental of levels, i.e., on the philosophical level.

There is an academic subject called Political Philosophy, which overlaps with what I propose. However, not all democracy is politics, and not all politics is democracy. Democracy is a method of decision-making also outside the political arena, i.e., in societies with voluntary membership and an idealistic purpose, and in corporations (although there the principle is one share = one vote, not one person = one vote).

Democracy and politics overlap, but a large part of democracy exists outside of the political realm.
Democracy and politics overlap, but a large part of democracy exists outside of the political realm.

Democracy in non-political contexts is fundamental in Sweden. Since my early teens I was exposed to the workings of democratic organizations, holding constituting meetings, yearly assemblies, board meetings, and so on. It was a way of cooperation that we took for granted. The formalities were key; although the actual work was quite informal, the formalities were rock solid and always solved any potential conflict before it could grow out of hand. In that sense, the democratic method of holding meetings and taking decisions was a tool for preemptive peace and conflict resolution.

Perhaps it is because the challenges of managing a club with 15 members, and a country of millions, are so different, that we don’t think of them as being related, both being aspects of democracy. Often, especially in the U.S., democracy is thought of as almost a synonym for politics. That in turn is thought of as the intrigues and manipulations of the specifically anglo-saxon form of governance (that has also been exported to Greece), of type “the winner takes it all”. This means that democracy and politics is largely focused on winning elections. In fact, in the U.S. this has gone so far that the very word politics has come to mean only that aspect, and not the art of making decisions.

As I wrote in Democracy for Dummies, the core purpose of democracy is of course to make decisions, not to get elected. It is to make decisions that have legitimacy, that are universally respected, and that can bring the issue forward while avoiding conflicts. The core process in democracy is therefore the meeting (in which the decision is taken), not the election of representatives (which is, incidentally, a means to a means to an end: we elect them to take part in meetings to take decisions on our behalf).

The two main types of democracies

In my opinion, for the purpose of classification and analysis, the most important distinction to make visa-vi democratic organizations is in those with voluntary membership, and those with involuntary membership.

Organizations with voluntary membership are democratic clubs and societies. This also includes typical political parties (note that U.S. political parties are atypical). In the typical case membership is open to everyone who wishes, but subject to some condition, such as paying a fee. In other cases it may be an invitation-only club, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be democratic.

Organizations with involuntary membership are those where membership is implicitly or explicitly required for persons in certain circumstances. The most obvious example is a country, in which the members are the citizens. Another example is a condominium association, in that you have to become a member (and be accepted as a member) to buy the apartment.

Obviously, organizations with involuntary membership in some ways infringe on the individual’s freedom. The very term “involuntary” conveys that. Of course one can leave it, but only if you give up something (e.g., the right to run for election, the possibility to live in a certain apartment). It is therefore only to be expected that most focus is put on this class of democracies.

It is also worth considering that certain rights can be delegated to an organization with involuntary membership, for instance the right to defend ones rights with force. That is the basis for the common defense, and for a police and judicial system. Note that it is not a requirement to have a police force, for instance. In pre-historic Scandinavia there were no policemen, no prosecutors, no justices, no jails. Instead, someone who had broken the law was dealt with in the same way and at the same meeting as all other business, with all the people voting. The worst punishment was to be declared an outlaw, to no longer to be protected by the law, as it was not a crime to kill an outlaw.

It seems to me that the traditional studies of political democracy are done from a biased position, i.e., from the implicit assumption that the state comes before democracy. But it does not have to be that way. What I propose is to study democracy as a subject in its own right, and see what that leads to in terms of the requirements on the state.

It also seems to me that this has some urgency to it, since there is a rather strong political movement towards re-inventing democracy, namely “The Bolivarian Revolution” a.k.a. “Socialism in the XXI Century”. This is of course the project of Hugo Chavez with the moral support of Fidel Castro. However, there seems to be no scholarly foundation under this building. It therefore risks wreaking havoc and creating utter chaos in the countries where it is implemented, such as Venezuela.

Honduras recently stopped this change in its tracks. It gives them breathing room for analysis and thought. I would propose that they use this opportunity to seriously analyze the philosophy of democracy, and come up with a workable solution to obtain the objectives without getting into trouble with human rights, loss of economic activity, and other predictable risks.