Thinking a Bit About Democracy
This remark is from this interview with Tony Judt, published not long ago in The Nation. It reminds me of conversations that I have on a depressingly regular basis with my friend and co-author Jack Knight. These conversations typically occur when, by more or less democratic processes, this or that group of people make a more or less wholly bone-headed decision. What Judt seems to overlook is that the sort of 're-education' via public argument on which he falls back too is a feature of democratic politics. In other words, democracy is not quite so minimal or 'empty' as he makes out. It does not in any way insure a just or fair outcome; but it sets the terms, and thereby structures, our public disagreements about how we choose to live.
"So democracy becomes a real problem, right? If people continue to choose inequality, what can you do?"
"Democracy has always been a problem. The truly attractive features of the Western tradition that we accidentally—and it really is accidentally—get the benefit of are the rule of law, liberalism and tolerance, all of which are virtues inherited from predemocratic societies, whether they were based in eighteenth-century Anglo-American aristocratic individualism or nineteenth-century European forms of a type of developed postfeudal legal state. Democracy comes last. Democracy is simply a system of selection of people to rule over you. And it's not accidental that everyone is now a democrat. The Chinese are for democracy. George Bush was for democracy. The Burmese believe in it; they just call it something slightly different. South African whites believed in democracy; they just thought it should be arranged differently for blacks. Democracy is a dangerously empty term, and to the extent that it has substance, and the substance consists of allowing people to select freely how they live, the chance that they will choose to live badly is very high. The question is, 'What do we do now, in a world where, in the absence of liberal aristocracies, in the absence of social democratic elites whose authority people accept, you have people who genuinely believe, in the majority, that their interest consists of maximizing self-interest at someone else's expense?' The answer is, 'Either you re-educate them in some form of public conversation or we will move toward what the ancient Greeks understood very well, which is that the closest system to democracy is popular authoritarianism.' And that's the risk we run. Not a risk of a sort of ultra-individualism in a disaggregated society but of a kind of de facto authoritarianism."
P.S.: Actually, having thought about it a bit more, I want to take issue with Judt on another point. He lauds the practices of liberalism, tolerance and rule of law but derides those whose idea of the good life consists in pursuing their own self interest. But someone fancying themselves a good 'classical liberal' could following, say Hayek, endorse all of those practices (and, indeed, think we need little else) while subscribing to precisely the view of the good life that Judt derides. Among the virtues of democratic decision-making is that, well beyond simply allowing us to choose rulers, it affords the sorts of institutionalized process for allowing us to assess when systematically, someone's pursuit of self-interest truly comes at the expense of others and, if so, what sorts of systematic remedies might be had.*
* There is an argument to be made there. But it is one that can be made. For an initial cut see Jack Knight & James Johnson. 2007. "The Priority of democracy," American Political Science Review. 101:47-61.