What’s So Great about Democracy?

Among some philosophers of the left, a popular heuristic for both critiquing existing social and political frameworks as well as proposing new ones is the ability of “the people” to define and shape their lives and their shared conception of the good. This is contrasted with the market, which is seen as atomistic, selfish, and prone to manipulation by small classes of powerful and wealthy actors. If only we could have more of a say in way our lives are lived, they argue, we could get past such horribles as poverty, racism, sexism, and consumerism.

What’s needed is more democracy. Democracy is the very embodiment of the people’s will. If we want more of that will reflected in our institutions, democracy is how to achieve it. Democracy is America’s great civil religion. Our politicians love pointing out that their pet policies represent “the will of the American people” or “what the people want.” But is democracy always and everywhere a good thing? And is it an end in itself? Is democracy a primary good?

A great deal of political rhetoric says yes. Much crude communitarian thinking, for instance, seeks only to maximize how many decisions are made collectively. Participatory economics (“parecon” to its fans) would have us turn over all questions of production to hierarchies of citizen councils, each voting on what kinds of shoes to make and, presumably, whether to manufacture iPods or Zunes.

Lost in this rush to promote democracy-for-the-sake-of-democracy is the crucial question of what, exactly, democracy’s good for. This means answering not one question, but two. First, if we are want to make a given decision politically, what’s the best way to do that? The answer to this one’s easy for democracy fetishists: Democratically! But the second question, if we’re honest with ourselves, is a little more difficult: What sorts of decisions should be made politically?

I’ve lost track of the number of classroom discussions I had during my undergraduate and law school years that saw the students, at the prompting of the professor, advocating popular control over this or that. We need to take power away from the corporations, the wealthy, the elite, and give it back to the people. If only the people could decide, we’d forever ameliorate life’s slings and arrows. But what I don’t recall is much of any talk about whether all these decisions — family structure, organic food, shoes, iPods, or Zunes — ought to be made by the people. The people, after all, means a majority, which means “made by the people” really entails some forcing their will upon others. (If everyone agreed, there’d be no need to vote because people would already be doing what we hoped to vote for.)

In fact, on those occasions when I raised the second question — “Which decisions ought to be made politically?” — I’d often get a quite interesting response. It wasn’t “all of them” or even a qualified “some of them.” Rather, professors would dispute the very coherence of question itself. Why? Because there are no decisions that aren’t political. Everything is politics and so everything is a political decision. And if every decision is a political decision, then asking which decisions should be political is as downright strange as asking which decisions are decisions. Within this ontology, it’s easy to then get to democracy as an end in itself.

Except that nobody really believes the conclusion of that line of thinking. If all decisions are political decisions and all political decisions should be made democratically, then it follows that all decisions should be made democratically. Which, I feel comfortable repeating, no one believes.

If democratic decisions always produce the right results, then democratic decision-making is always best. But majority voting obviously won’t always produce the best results. Majorities can hate minorities and want to deprive them of property, liberty, and life. What the democracy-über-alles folks really mean, then, is that democracy — true democracy — will always produce the results the democracy-über-alles proponents support. If the majority votes for something abhorrent, then it isn’t that democracy has led to a bad result but that democracy was prevented — by some nefarious agent — from properly functioning. (In other words, the people didn’t actually want what the people voted for.) Thus we can only ever know if democracy is really, truly working the way it’s supposed to by looking at the results and matching them to our own, intuitive (and often unprincipled) sense of what’s right and wrong.

The person who answers that all decisions are political decisions and thus ought to be made democratically, then, is making a simple error. He’s equating “democracy” with “my own views.” He’s falling prey to an aspect of the politics of taste.

Democracy is not a primary good. It is not the means to answer all political and economic decisions. Democracy is a valuable method for often getting at the “right” answer to many — or even most — kinds of political questions. But we should always remember that democracy means forcing the will of some upon others and making collectively those decisions that might better be made individually. In this way, it often clashes with autonomy and treats (many) individuals as means, not ends.

For any given decision — about how to structure our lives, how to relate to one another, how and what to pay for or support — we shouldn’t rush to vote. Rather, we should ask whether some people should have any right to make this decision for others.

Democracy’s good for a lot — but there’s a lot democracy isn’t good for.