Saturday, February 05, 2011

Democracy and scepticism

Chris Dillow argues that being sceptical about democracy in its present form does not mean one needs to be persuaded that it is superior to dictatorship:
"Those of us who are sceptical about democracy do not deny that democracy is superior to dictatorship
[...]
Instead, our concern is that there are trade-offs between democracy and other values such as liberty or justice. These trade-offs are not a big problem in benighted nations, as these are so far from the efficient frontier of values that they can (possibly) achieve more of every one. But they are more pressing in liberal democracies."
He argues further that 'empty sloganeering' about the value of democracy only serves to distract attention from this difficulty.

The idea that democracy can collide with other values is one I happen to agree with. It simply is not the same thing as liberty: in relation to the exercise of power, democracy is concerned with its source, liberty with its scope, as Isaiah Berlin pointed out.

But, as is often the case, Chris's post got me thinking: yes, democracy and liberty are both in theory and practice two different things - but historically they have been closely associated and it left me wondering if expressing the possibility of a collision of values in terms of a 'trade off' could lead people to infer, even though it's not implied, that the relationship between the two is a zero sum game?

If so, this wouldn't do justice to the more subtle and organic relationship here. These values collide but that they depend on each other, that the historical association is no mere correlation, on one level is not difficult to demonstrate. With a smattering of notable exceptions, when given the chance, the demos has consistently shown itself adverse to choosing governments that would oppress them. The confidence that this is likely to remain the case for most is what was missing from the remarks that the well-known enthusiast for democracy Tony Blair made about Mubarak. I don't know about anyone else but the case of the Egyptian insurrection for me reinforces the importance of not being too sceptical.

Yet examples of where institutions that are impeccably democratic produce illiberal results are also fairly easy to produce. They tend to occur when the majority of the demos are unconcerned about restrictions in liberty because they don't affect them.

Is there then some kind of Laffer curve for democratic participation? That something like this is what goes on is, I'm assuming, what is behind Chris's suggestion that the problem of our forms of representative democracy colliding with the values of liberty, justice and equality might be overcome by finding ways to make democracy more deliberative. While it may well be possible, I can't say I'm entirely convinced with most of the suggestions, which left me wondering whether this supposed scepticism about democracy isn't simultaneously too sceptical and yet not sceptical enough? Berlin's argument was, after all, not limited to observing that values collide; he denied that it was possible to fit them into a harmonious pattern at all.
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