There’s been some controversy recently over a study out of Princeton suggesting that we in the U.S. live, not in a democracy, but rather in a system of ‘Economic Elite Domination’ (a.k.a, ‘plutocracy,’ though media reports favor the broader term ‘oligarchy’). Some have responded to this with a, “yeah, no surprise there.” I am among those. But there’s a more troubling story here, one that threatens the core concepts underlying our national identity: Democracy doesn’t exist.
I’m not just saying that democracy is merely a socially constructed concept or collection of concepts (that’s obviously true). Nor am I saying it’s merely impossible in practice, due to corruption or scarcity or what have you. What I am saying is that the concepts we take to be the constitutive elements of democracy are so incoherent and vague, they don’t compose anything — they don’t come together in a way such that the word ‘democracy’ picks something out in the world. There are no bones, or at least no skeletally adjoined ones, upon which to hang the flesh of our democratic aspirations. And so on.
‘Democracy,’ put simply, is a word used in reference to a confused, jumbled mass of incoherent ideas.
To fix this, we need to straighten out and align our concepts. Here are some of the problems in our way. I’m not attempting to solve these here, nor am I arguing for or against democracy in practice or as an ideal. That would be a much larger work.1
Here’s some of the stuff I think about — that gnaws at me — when confronted with the word ‘democracy.’
Fourteen (Impossible?) Problems with Democracy
① How do we define ‘democracy’? The general idea is that ‘democracy’ means popular sovereignty, or government rule by the people for the people. These definitions don’t tell us much. Does true democracy require direct democracy, or is some form of representative democracy sufficient/ideal? And if the people are the government, then how can we say that the people, rather than the government, have the power to rule? And so on.
Also, given that democracy is a human-made concept, there is a problem of denotation. That is, whatever system happens to be in place, it’s always possible for people — e.g., those least benefiting from that system — to say, “I love democracy, but this is not democracy.”
Denotative flexibility also makes it possible for those in power to impose and inculcate usage of the word ‘democracy’ as a euphemism for some form of despotism, like say, plutocracy.
This suggests yet another, and perhaps the most profound, difficulty: How we define ‘democracy’ is a question that must be answered either democratically or not. It would be absurd to say that we will define ‘democracy’ through a democratic process that presumes no particular definition of ‘democracy.’
② How do we decide on whether to have a democracy? Whether or not to have a democracy — in the U.S. or in any other nation — is itself a question that must be decided. But it must be decided non-democratically, because to decide the question democratically presupposes democracy.
③ How do we decide on who gets to vote in the first place? Only white male landowners had that right in the early days.2 Currently, 17-year-olds aren’t allowed to vote, and they have no official say in the matter. This, again, is a question that must be decided, democratically or not, but those who can’t vote must make their case some other way than through voting.
④ Nobody ever won the right to vote by voting. A group generally wins the right to vote through the expression of military power or civil protest. These tactics happen outside of a democracy.
Still, it is often suggested that civil protest and disobedience are healthy parts of any democracy. This doesn’t track, however. It would be absurd to claim that someone has expressed their legally sanctioned democratic rights by going to jail for protesting against federal policies that ban protesting. For example, if one were to argue that Rosa Parks and others were participating in a true, fully functioning democracy when they were thrown in jail for their protests against racist policies.
While it is true that freedom of speech is required for democracy, we must not confuse freedom of speech with having a say in the actual decision-making process. Freedom of speech is perfectly compatible with undemocratic systems. As is, by the way, having the right to vote. Want to shut a group down? Give them the right to vote, and make that vote relatively worthless, while promoting voting as one’s most powerful weapon against injustice and corruption.
⑤ Democracy entails disagreement. The whole reason we need any sort of voting system at all is because different groups desire conflicting outcomes (if everyone constantly voted unanimously, there’d be no need for voting). One can imagine a scenario — perhaps involving a small and highly (doxastically) homogeneous group — in which disagreements are superficial, so that, even if everyone doesn’t get their preference in an election, they happily accept the outcome for the sake of maintaining a quasi-coherently defined democratic system. In cases of greater belief diversity, however, conflict runs deep. The deeper the conflict, the greater the need for democracy, but the less attainable a coherent conception of democracy becomes.
⑥ Democracy favors homogeneity, but is most needed among the heterogeneous. I allude to this elsewhere but want to emphasize it. In a diverse society such as ours, we are confronted with the challenge of simultaneously ensuring, on the one hand, fair group representation within voter pools, and, on the other hand, that every individual’s vote carries the same weight. In other words, it’s tough to reconcile the fact that both fairness and majority rule are considered to be essential features of democracy. Indeed, one of the reasons I claim that democracy doesn’t exist is that ideas such as these don’t cohere.
One could fill a book with the issues arising from this tension. I will explore it very briefly, restricting myself to representative democracy.
In the U.S., a recent hotly debated question has been to what extent men should be voting on women’s healthcare issues. It’s been suggested that the male-to-female voting ratio should be roughly 50/50, to correspond to the population ratio. But wait. Don’t we need to make sure that every other social group should also be proportionally represented?
This clearly leads to problems, not the least of which is how we define what it means to be a recognized social group (do those who share an opinion count as a group?), as well as what it means to meet the criteria for membership to those groups (surely merely declaring myself a woman on voting days wouldn’t grant me membership to that social group; on the other hand, many today argue that the declaration of one’s gender is an act whose motivation cannot be restricted or questioned). And if a group represents only 10% of the population, well, then what? And, as always, who gets to decide how all this plays out?
Others take a different approach, and argue that men shouldn’t be voting at all on women’s health care concerns. This, too, poses several problems. A major one is the difficulty of working out exactly what principle is at play here. Is the idea that only the members of the groups most directly affected by a vote should be allowed participation in that vote? If so, we are going to be faced with some major philosophical (and thus practical) troubles.
For one thing, one gets the vague sense that the idea here is to limit voters to those most likely to vote in a certain way. In this case, in favor of women’s right to comprehensive health care (which, for the record, is a right I fully support). This approach, which amounts to attempting to fix the vote ahead of time, is blatantly undemocratic. Of course, it’s well within the rights of a democratic group to vote ‘no’ on democracy, as well as to restrict it. Suppose, then, that we decide to restrict democratic purview to the level of recognized groups.
We are again faced with the question of how to define what it is to be a recognized group. And how would ‘most directly affected’ be measured so that we can ensure that the appropriate groups are voting on the appropriate issues? We would need some sort of meta-group to decide these things, because they would need to be decided before actual group representation and voting can happen. Which means we’d also need a kind of meta-meta-group to decide which meta-group gets to decide which groups get to vote on what issues. And then we’d need a meta-meta-meta-group… and so on. Impossible.
Another concern is that, if we decide that heterogeneity should be somehow factored for (e.g., giving more weight to the votes of those most directly affected by those votes), then this will, via reductio ad absurdum, lead us to each person — and that person alone — voting only on his or her own concerns. Absurd indeed.
⑦ Many people these days argue in favor of democracy on the basis that aggregate judgment — i.e., the accumulated, averaged out judgments of the individuals who comprise a group — is the best way to solve political problems. These folks appeal to notions such as crowdsourcing, collective wisdom, and wisdom of the crowd. And they cite things like Condorcet’s jury theorem. I’ll touch on some issues with this line of thinking later down the list. But for now I ask: If aggregate judgment is ideal and becomes only more reliable as the number of judgments increases, why not let the entire world population vote on U.S. policy?
One might argue that non-U.S. citizens would vote in favor of their own best interests, which may conflict with U.S. interests. This seems true, as it seems that people tend to vote for the good of themselves (and the smallest social group of which they are a member), rather than for the good of the larger, aggregate whole.
But, when you claim that the aggregate mind knows what’s best for that aggregate whole, how do you determine which individuals get to make up that whole? Why doesn’t it include the actual whole (i.e., the world population), rather than just a sub-segment (the U.S.)? For one thing, U.S. policy affects the entire world. But, more to the point, principles of aggregate wisdom say that, the bigger the group, the more likely they’ll get the right answer. Perhaps the right answer in questions about U.S. policy are those that benefit the most people, not just U.S.-Americans. (Consider the question: “Should the U.S. open its borders to anyone in the world who wishes to enter?”)
Consider it also this way. The world population makes up a greater ‘whole’ than does the population of any given ‘nation.’ If we accept the principle that that the majority knows best, we undermine that principle when we confine majority dynamics to some arbitrarily chosen group of people drawn from a larger population. The nation state, which is a socially constructed concept, is in effect an arbitrarily chosen group of people drawn from a larger population.
⑧ How do we decide which sorts of questions will be voted on? With certain kinds of problems, such as guessing the weight of an ox, randomly assembled groups apparently do often fare better than their individual members.
With other types of questions, such as how to best remove a tricky brain tumor, or what that ox would weigh after being transported to Phobos (one of Mars’ moons), clearly we should look to experts. Crowdsourcing, when at its best, falls under this category as well. For example, it was a cognitively diverse group of experts and highly dedicated ‘amateurs’ who, through open source collaboration, advanced photographic technology in the nineteenth century; not a random assemblage of people grabbed from the street.
Yet other kinds of questions, such as those related to value and ethical concerns (e.g, When is killing justified?), are so subjective, elusive, and dependent on complex conditions, consequences, and context, that they don’t lend themselves to binary, ‘yes or no’ responses, particularly if those responses are really just guesses, no matter how carefully considered. What I mean here by ‘elusive’ is that, when you look at an ox, you have a tangible object in front of you to work from, which you don’t have when posed an ethical question. So, we don’t have people guessing that the ox weighs -4,000 pounds, nor that it weighs 10 trillion tons; tension between moral opinions do run this severe, however.
Other questions involve a mixture of the moral and technically complex: Should there be a minimum wage, and, if so, how much should it be?
Yet other questions should perhaps not even be up for a vote, such as which groups get which rights. (More on this later, in an article I’m working on about Social Group Ontology.)
Which questions get voted on is, yet again, a question that must be answered either democratically or not.
⑨ Just because because randomly assembled groups are good at guessing the weight of an ox, it doesn’t mean they’re good at working out more complex problems. The idea is that the randomly assembled crowd’s skill at guessing how much an ox weighs generalizes to other cases. We can’t test for this however. We only know that the crowd’s done well at guessing the ox’s weight, because we can weigh the ox afterwards. In other words, we can only test success rates in situations where the outcome is already understood and known, and for which we therefore didn’t need any guesses in the first place. This is closely related to 8 above, but I mention it in order to emphasize the difficulty in figuring out which sorts of questions non-expert crowds should be addressing.
⑩ If you believe that aggregate judgment (i.e., in the form of a collective vote) provides the best answers, you shouldn’t vote until you know what the aggregate judgment is. This paradox arises from observations by Robert Wollheim in his paper, “A Paradox in the Theory of Democracy.” (Here’s a paper by Ted Honderich that gives the gist of Wollheim’s idea, with critical response: “A Difficulty with Democracy.”)
⑪ There are voting paradoxes more compelling than Whollheim’s. One of the most cited is Arrow’s impossibility theorum, but my favorite is the discursive dilemma, in which a group can believe p is true, and that q is true, but that p&q is false. Here’s a brief example:
Let p = Alex had a contract;
Let q = Alex broke that contract.
A conviction results if Alex is found to have had and broken the contract. In other words, both p and q must be true.
Judges A, B, and C vote:
Judge-A votes that both p and q are true;
Judge-B votes that p is true, but that q is false;
Judge-C votes that p false and q is true.
Result: The group votes two-against-one that p is true; and two-against-one that q is true; and two-against-one that p&q is false. So, two out of three judges believe that Alex had and broke the contract. Yet the vote is for no conviction.
This contradiction gives us good reason to be wary of aggregate judgement, and to regulate what sorts of questions groups may vote on, and how those votes are parsed out.3 Of course, how such things are administered is itself a question that must be decided either democratically or not.
⑫ If we elevate democracy as a principle above all other principles, we might have to accept ugly results. In other words, if democracy per se is the goal, then outcomes must be accepted so long as they are arrived at through a democratic process (however we define such a thing). This can be hard to swallow when one views an outcome as unjust, particularly if the vote is close. Rightly so. Just because 51% of voters want something, it doesn’t make that thing just. This is one reason why libertarians sometimes use the pejorative ‘ochlocracy’ to refer to democracy, though, to be fair, plenty of socialists aren’t on board with the idea either.
At any rate, I’d be willing to bet that, in the great majority of cases, when a democratic process yields desired results, people don’t question the system; perhaps they even defend its democratic integrity. But when the process yields undesired outcomes, they are likely to: declare the system broken, corrupt, or otherwise not truly democratic. Or perhaps they’ll declare that education has failed us.
Or, and this is really what the others boil down to, they will redefine democracy in a way that’s conducive to the results they’d like to see. They may even frame that redefinition as an attempt to improve democracy. However it’s framed, this amounts to question-begging, in which it’s presumed that true democracy is, by definition, whatever process yields what they consider to be the most ‘just’ results.
The reality, though, is that any form of democracy that adheres to a principle of majority rule will have some unjust or unfair results, particularly in a diverse society. See item 6 above for more on that.
At any rate, the response to ugly outcomes is rarely, “democracy is bad; let’s get rid of the idea.” At least in public. In private, plenty of people on the left and right have expressed that very idea to me. For more on that, see item 14, below.
⑬ It’s often noted that a democratic society requires an educated populace in order to flourish. I agree, but there are at least two major problems with this.
First, the level of education we’re talking about here is well beyond rudimentary. It would need to prepare citizens to defend themselves against rhetorical tricks, the exploitation of cognitive biases, and other tactics employed by those in the public eye who dedicate their existence to perfecting the art of thought-manipulation. Such an education is not easily acquired.
Indeed, part of their job is to make you think you already have that sort of education, or, even worse, don’t need it at all. Reflect on this the next time you encounter a newspaper article about what the ‘best’ college majors are.
Consider too that it’s pretty well understood that people who are informed about socially and ecologically irresponsible corporations often take that knowledge to be itself a kind of activism for which, in exchange, they are now morally licensed to consume those corporations’ destructive products. We tend to feel that ‘awareness’ gets us off the hook. Companies know that. So do politicians. You get the idea. ‘Education’ in the sense of having gathered information isn’t enough, you have to know how to use that information. You have to know how to think.
I don’t have space here to get into the specifics of (i.e., speculate about) what educational content should look like, so will instead simply opine emphatically that we in the U.S. need the polar opposite of anti-intellectualism, and we need it now, and we need it young.
Second, educational content is itself something that must be decided, democratically or not. The implementation of the above sort of education (i.e., one that arms minds against rhetorical assault) doesn’t seem likely to happen, at least in our public schools, because it would first require a large population with just that sort of education. It also doesn’t seem likely to be handed down by those in power, because it’s not really in their best interest to arm the populace with weapons designed to challenge that power. This would especially be of concern in a direct democracy, in which those at the top would have even greater interest in being able to manipulate the general populace.
Here’s a thought. If we ever get to a point where everyone is walking around with such well-armed brains that there’s no public left to dupe, perhaps we would no longer even need a democracy, or any other form of systematized government.
⑭ Finally, there is this odd result: Most of us in the U.S. — left to right — don’t want a democracy, namely because we don’t want strangers voting on how we live our lives. So, most of us support anti-democratic policies and practices. As a result, we don’t have a democracy. Hence, the majority of people are getting what they want as a result of their political activity. Thus, we have a democracy. Paradox.
Enjoy or find this post useful? Please consider pitching in a dollar or three to help me do a better job of populating this website with worthwhile words and music. Let me know what you'd like to see more of while you're at it. Transaction handled by PayPal.
Or click the banner to shop at Amazon (at no extra cost: it just gives me some of what would have gone to Amazon).
- Some of these issues have of course been tackled within a large body of literature that I don’t really have space to explore here. For a pro-democratic perspective, I recommend Hélène Landemore’s book, Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many. It’s an intelligent, thoughtful, and thorough argument in favor of democracy on the epistemic grounds that aggregate judgment is superior to individual judgement. Her arguments, I fear, ultimately don’t withstand some of the tougher challenges I list in this article, and her most reasonable solutions may not count as uncontroversially ‘democratic,’ but it’s nonetheless a great read and an instructive survey of the current debate.
- It seems that the U.S. founders for the most part didn’t want a democracy, but I’m not going to get into that complex historical question here. If you’d like to, this wikiquote page is a good place to start because quotes are cited, and misattributions are noted.
- For more on this, see the book Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents by Philip Pettit and Christian List.