Does anyone really respect democracy?
You probably don't, at least not in a strong sense
A lot of people think that they believe in democracy in a fundamental way, and regard democratic decisions as inherently sacred.
I’ll be arguing that not many people really do believe this, although they believe that they believe it.
Let me start by clarifying terms. I’m using believe in in a special sense here. You believe in democracy if and only if you respect democratically made decisions, even when you disagree with them. That is to say, you place normative weight on the democratic decisions of the polity you live in, even the ones you don’t like.
I will also stipulate that this respect must not just be for instrumental reasons i.e. respecting democratic decisions to avoid chaos or something like that doesn’t count. You have to think the decisions have weight in and of themselves.
Also, as I am defining it, your respect must be substantial in order to count. It can’t just be a tie-breaker or a middling pro-tanto reason, it has to bind you even in relatively difficult cases. I will admit that you could respect democracy and be willing to break with it in extreme cases- war, genocide, apartheid, initiating a nuclear arms race- but if you would break with democracy over the kind of decisions that are made every day, you don’t really respect it.
Imagine you’re superman or a level 20 wizard or something like that. You live in a polity. No one else in the polity except you has superpowers. The polity is a superb democracy, better than any democracy that has ever actually existed. Everyone affected by any decision is given an opportunity to speak. People listen to each other charitably and carefully. An intricate and beautiful system of voting and sortition is used. People talk about politics in their spare time jointly seeking the civic good. However you think a democracy would best be ordered, the polity is ordered in that way.
Though it may be procedurally perfect, it doesn’t always support your substantive views.
Adultery is illegal in this polity. Margaret was caught having an affair. Through a procedurally unimpeachable process, the polity tried her, she was convicted and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Since the effect on her partner had been severe (he subsequently was hospitalized with depression), the case was seen as relatively grave. A pretty large majority of the population support the verdict, the sentence, and the statute the decision was made on.
There is no disagreement about the facts of the case. You understand why the polity made the decision it did- you can get the logic behind it-, but you passionately disagree with it. I’ve tried to pick a hypothetical in which the decision of the city is at least understandable, but almost all my readers will hate it. If this case doesn’t do that for you, pick another.
You’re confident that, as a level 20 wizard, you could break Margaret out. You can even disguise your involvement if you want to. No catastrophe or civil strife will come from breaking her out either. Do you do it?
I would suggest that, if you would break Margaret out of prison, you don’t really believe in democracy in the sense outlined at the start of this article.
In case you’re thinking that this is something peculiar to criminal law, let’s consider another case. The city is considering the allocation of resources either directly, as in a command economy, or indirectly, through taxes, transfers, and markets. It has decided on an allocation of resources designed to reward those citizens seen as most worthy. This allocation will result in a number of excess deaths from hunger, including many deaths of vulnerable people such as the disabled.
Once again the decision has been made carefully and diligently. A strong supermajority of the population supports it.
If this sounds like a Dickensian hypothetical that would never happen in real life, remember that 351 people died, at least in part, due to hunger in the UK in 2016, and that many of these deaths were linked to tightened criteria around welfare benefits.
As a level 20 wizard you’re confident you can, I dunno, turn into an ancient silver dragon and tell them that they need to cut it out and feed the hungry, or something like that.
Do you do it?
I want to emphasize that although these choices might seem stark, it’s not at all unusual for polities to make decisions of this magnitude. Real governments make choices at least this serious all the time. Respect for democracy that is worth a damn will have to include these cases because respect for democracy that only extended to which arts projects should get grants wouldn’t mean much.
I also want to dissuade people who try to get around this by saying that no true democracy would ever make decisions like this. I think if we’re honest, such arguments aren’t plausible. No amount of procedure can guarantee a particular substantive result will or won’t obtain.
I will also concede that, in the everyday world, democracy makes a lot of practical sense, thus there’s arguably a more important sense of belief in which we should believe in democracy. I certainly believe in democracy in this sense, in fact, I’m an evangelist for it.
And nothing we have said rules out respecting democracy non-instrumentally but only weakly, much as I might make fun of this as a democracy of the arts grants council.
Does moral realism or anti-realism make a difference to the question? It’s hard to say.
On the one hand, moral realism might seem like it makes the cases I’ve given even harder for the defender of democracy. We can add a stipulation that the polity is objectively wrong on this matter, which makes it even more difficult to tolerate their decision.
On the other hand, moral realism allows saying “well I could be the one who is wrong about the adultery or starvation cases- there’s more of them so who is to say that I’m right”, and that could be a way of rationalizing respect for democracy despite the seemingly repugnant consequence.
I’ll leave considering the plausibility of this argument as an exercise for the reader.
Note also that the argument we have given here, which is about the law in a democratic society, could just as easily be repurposed to any sort of law. Thus it is also an argument against the idea that people “respect the law” in any intrinsic sense.
The nature of a relatively short post like this is that you can’t address everything, but you try to address the most important possible counterarguments. In this case, I failed, because I did not address one counterargument that has been very popular among commentators. The argument goes like this:
It is possible to draw a natural line around when we do and don’t have to respect democracy- a natural line that doesn’t just come down to how strongly we feel about the issue. That natural line is rights. Democracy can do whatever it likes, and so long as it is properly constituted we are obligated to obey it, except where it violates one of our human rights.
I have several problems with this reply, but most fundamentally, I think that, in the absence of an enumerated list of well-defined rights, in practice, this objection will amount to little more than saying “I have to obey democracy except when I really don’t feel like it”.
It’s not clear what rights we have, and it’s not clear how these are to be interpreted. Consider the adultery case. What right bars the government from punishing adultery? Well, you could say that there’s a right to sexual freedom.
But, the defender of our democratic polity might reply, a right to freedom in a particular domain won’t protect from punishment in that domain in relation to agreements you have freely entered into. For example, people have a right not to be made slaves, but if you’re a doctor and you’ve freely agreed to work on a particular night, and then you walk out in the middle of an operation, you might be charged with manslaughter. Similarly, the adulterous spouse has freely agreed to a limitation on their sexual freedom- so a right to sexual freedom won’t protect them.
Now you can disagree with the polity on their reading of the right to sexual freedom, but it seems to me that, at this point, you’re just insisting that your moral views on the interpretation of rights are better than theirs. The idea that there is some pre-political sphere of “rights” that you are appealing to, which can adjudicate such matters between you and the state, is sophistical. There’s too much room for interpretation of rights, and interpretation is just going to come down to you insisting on the moral views that are very important to you. And this isn’t even to mention disputes over what really is and isn’t a right.
So either you accept that the polity has the power to interpret rights in case like this, in which case “rights” aren’t going to provide you with an exception to respect for democracy, or you don’t accept that, and you hold that your theory of rights is better than theirs, and in this case, we’re back to square one. “Democracy is binding except when I really don’t want it to be, and when I really don’t want it to be binding, I invoke the magic words “human rights”.
Better to just accept that there are many things you feel so strongly about, that if you can get away with breaking the rules, you will do so. No matter how procedurally just the method that generated those rules.
Another response to criticism this article has received. Some people have responded that they don’t understand why anyone would believe in democracy in the sense outlined- i.e. they argue that this result is trivial. Let me to motivate this respect for democratic decisions and explain why some people at least think that they respect democracy, even if (if we are right) they probably wouldn’t if they could get away with it.
In our hypothetical you live in a democratic society. You participate in it. You have a role in making its decisions. To turn around and nullify what has been decided, simply because you are powerful enough to get away with it, might seem terribly presumptuous, even treacherous or tyrannical. I think that is what most people would do in the cases I’ve outlined, but that’s by no means a trivial result.
Many people claim to believe that following the law in and of itself is a good. How much more so when that law is democratic!
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