Is Democracy a Process or a Result?

October 2, 2009

By the very nature of human association and co-existence there arises the requirement for a way of reaching decisions that would define the norms and rules of that co-existence. “To live together in an association, then, people need a process for arriving at governmental decisions: a political process.”[1] The nature of that process and its adoption, whether it will be a democratic one or of any other kind, depends on the ethical grounds for its justification, namely what kind of end result it will achieve.

However, whether one is in favour of democracy or not depends not only on the ethical outlook of what ends the democratic process will achieve, but also on one’s perception of human nature and the equality of human beings. Thus, the defence of democracy relies on the idea of the intrinsic equality of human beings. Without this starting position it would be almost impossible to defend the concept of democracy. According to Locke, all human beings are of equal worth and should therefore take part in the decisions of government. This belief does not only include the worth of the human being by virtue that he or she is a human being, but also the equality of the capabilities of human beings to govern themselves. In Lockean terms, “no man can believe or know for any other man.”[2]

Thus democracy must start with the belief that human beings are all capable of making equally valuable decisions in matters concerning government. Those who attack the idea of democracy find in its basic assumptions inherent flaws. The Platonic view, for instance, does not see all human beings as equally capable of discerning between good and bad. From such a perspective, human beings fall into distinct categories by their nature and only a few “souls of gold” should be trained and allowed to be leaders of society.[3] Mob rule is here seen as something corrupt and undesirable in itself.

The democratic process today does not include all human beings by virtue of their humanity, for there are sectors of society which are not consulted for matters of government. We do not consider children, for instance, to be capable of making rational decisions concerning complex issues such as government. In the United States, serious criminal offenders, even when released from prison, lose their right to vote.[4] These are seen as necessary restrictions in the democratic process in order to ensure that rational and ethical decisions are made by individuals who partake in it. Thus, although not bound by universality, the principal and starting justification for democracy is “the assumption that ordinary people are, in general, qualified to govern themselves.”[5] The adoption of this view is necessary if we are to proceed further with the defence of democracy.

There are number of grounds on which democracy can be defended. These are usually formulated in relation to general interests, individual liberty, self-government and the growth and development of the individual citizen.[6] The defence of democracy relies on the failure of all other political processes. Namely, the strength of arguing in favour of democracy lies in the adoption of the “maximum feasible amount of…” formulation. This line of arguing will also be used in this essay, since although the democratic process entails the tyranny of the majority over the minority, it is the only political process in which at least the majority has the say in government matters, rather than the minority or elite. Here I am not alluding to any form of democracy in particular – liberal, direct or socialist – but the idea of the democratic process in general.

Through participation in the democratic process, the citizens are ensured equal consideration of their interests. This necessarily implies that the interests of the majority will prevail over the interests of the minority. Even so, the interests of the majority may be said to thus constitute the general interest of the people, while “the rule of the few will produce government in the interests of the few.”[7] This Utilitarian defence of democracy stipulates that whatever the outcome of the democratic process, the result will be the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, this argument takes for granted that happiness is to be equated with realisation of interests. Nevertheless, happiness is not central to this argument, but rather that the realisation of general interest is itself a desirable end of the democratic process.

A similar line of arguing can be adopted to justify democracy by virtue of its allowing the maximum possible freedom of citizens. Inherent in the nature of the democratic process are rights, liberties and opportunities of individuals, such as freedom of expression and free elections. Therefore, “as long as that process exists then these rights, freedoms, and opportunities must necessarily also exist.”[8] By necessarily carrying with it these freedoms and rights, the democratic process offers to citizens the maximum possible amount of freedom, when compared to all other types of regimes.

As we have already stated, self-government is taken for granted by proponents of democracy as an indisputable good. The democratic process is based on the idea of government by the people and must therefore provide a degree of self-government. Although democracy as an ideal-type does not exist nor has ever existed, its various models have come the closest of all other regimes to ensuring that individuals participate in the decision making process. According to Rousseau, the state may serve as an “instrument of freedom only when all its subjects were at the same time sovereign.”[9] In order to live in an association, human beings need to conform to certain rules that are binding on all. Thus, democracy is the closest any political process has come to ensuring that those rules and norms are decided by a majority and, therefore, the closest any system has yet come to self-government.

However, the argument for the value of self-government that democracy ensures does not stop there. It goes further to claim that having a say in government matters is conducive to the development of the individual citizen as an ethical and social being. Furthermore, the citizen is able to realize his potential through active participation and ensure that his or her rights and freedoms are protected and further advanced.[10] This argument applies to the ideal-type situation where the democratic process ensures the active participation of the individual and facilitates his or her interest in the political matters of the community. However, the argument is not necessarily supported by empirical evidence. The trend in most Western liberal democracies suggests otherwise and hints at a growing political apathy of the citizens.[11] Therefore, the argument for the conduciveness of democracy to the growth of the individual must reside within the sphere of the ideal-type democratic process. It merely supports the idea of democracy itself and not its relation to technology, globalisation, capitalism and consumerism.

As a conclusion I would like to stress that whether we choose to defend democracy on the basis of the above-stated arguments ultimately depends on our notion of human nature, or its absence, and our understanding of the equality of human beings.  Moreover, the best defence for democracy comes from a realist perspective of its possibility and the possibility of anything else that is offered as its substitute. Applied democracy is vulnerable to much critique, but as a theoretical political process it stands more ground than any other alternative that humankind has produced.


[1] Robert A. Dahl. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, 83.
[2] John Dunn. John Locke: the politics of trust, in Brian Redhead (ed.) Plato to NATO. Studies in Political Thought. London: Penguin Books, 1995, 110.
[3] Christopher Rowe. Plato: the search for an ideal form of state, in Brian Redhead (ed.) Plato to NATO. Studies in Political Thought. London: Penguin Books, 1995, 23-24.
[4] http://www.sunsonline.org/trade/process/followup/1998/10220598.htm
[5] Dahl. Democracy and Its Critics, 97.
[6] Jack Lively. Democracy. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980, 111.
[7] Ibid., 112.
[8] Dahl. Democracy and Its Critics, 88-89.
[9] Robert Wokler. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: moral decadence and the pursuit of liberty, in Brian Redhead (ed.) Plato to NATO. Studies in Political Thought, London: Penguin Books, 1995, 128.
[10] Dahl. Democracy and Its Critics, 91.
[11] Dr Frank Furedi. Consuming Democracy: activism, elitism and political apathy. http://www.geser.net/furedi.html

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