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In many modern political debates democracy is often considered an unalloyed virtue: things are good because they are democratic. Things the people have voted for are good because they represent the "will of the people" and that has to be good. Politicians often try to crush arguments that something is bad by throwing in the idea that–even if they seem bad–they can't be challenged because they are "democratic" (in the UK even many opponents of Brexit argued we had to go through with it because the people had voted for it).

But it should be obvious that democracy is not, by itself, a virtue (if a small majority voted to reinstate slavery of some minority, that might be democratic but very few would defend such a decision as morally good.) There is also the problem that "what the people want" is not always in their own interests. Big long term social problems may be poorly understood by the people but better understood by experts. In such circumstances, just responding to the immediate concerns of the people may be very bad for the long term good of the people.

Some theorists have argued that democracy is not a good in itself but a bulwark against worse form of government. Karl Popper, for example, made the argument that the main point of democracy was to prevent tyranny; by, for example, providing a peaceful way to oust incompetent or evil governments and preventing the accumulation of too much power in any single group.

So what, in modern political thinking, is the purpose of democracy? Is it about giving the majority of people the things they want right now? Or is the far narrower goal of enabling the people to throw out bad governments? Or something else? Is democracy a virtue or is it a bulwark against evil?

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    Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to answer the question. – Philipp Jan 2 at 20:14
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    You should take a step back and ask when the state become morally legitimate? It is very difficult to motivate the existence of a state from a moral point of view. Basically it thrives on threating to kill the citizens. With the lack of moral legitimacy of the state in mind, the way this immoral organisation is governed is no longer a very interesting question. It's like asking about the member influence in the mafia. – d-b Jan 4 at 2:28
  • "Basically it thrives on threating to kill the citizens." This is nonsensical in any country that does not allow the death penalty (especially those where the definition of the state does so). What states do do, is threaten separation from themselves for not complying with the rules that state lays out. In other words, their house, their rules, and you're welcome to go find another. – Nij Jan 4 at 4:10
  • I don't think most people meant to claim democracy is "good". They most likely meant to describe it being morally right or less risky (less likely to results in moral crisis) which are very different from "good". The majority can do evil definitely (but that's from a consequential point of view i.e. only when we look back). Any phenomena/decision associated with large-scale system is too hard to know whether it is good or not a priori. – y chung Jan 4 at 16:53
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    It's function should hint at its purpose: giving the ability to everyone to participate (generally indirectly) in the decisions made as a country. I think the problem is that people say "democracy", but what they are usually talking about is "my countries brand/style/type of democracy" - usually as a way to put an end to any conversation about improving such systems. There is more choice than just "democracy" or "no democracy". I personally find that sortition would be a very interesting addition to many democracies (and they would still be democracies, and they would arguably be better). – JPR Jan 4 at 23:07

15 Answers 15

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What is the purpose of democracy?

It's more a philosophical question than a political question but let me try a brief answer:

  • First, it's a reasoning bias to imagine that things always exist for a specific "purpose". Things exist for various reasons (historical, cultural, ...) which are not always optimal or even logical, let alone "virtuous".
  • Whether something is good or bad is a very contextual question. Reasoning in absolute terms about good and evil is more likely to generate fights than to reach a higher level of mutual understanding. Of course political discourses are full of this kind of argument (not only in favor of democracy by the way), but that's not necessarily a sign of rational thinking (quite the opposite, one might say).

Based on the previous remarks we could re-frame the question a bit as: if democracy is "the best political system", what is it better than?

I think that phrasing the question this way points to the answer: in the current context, democracy (as we know it) is just the "least bad" known political system. Sure it's full of imperfections, but any other known system would be even worse, so in this sense its "purpose" is just to be comparatively better than any alternative.

It's also important to emphasize that democracy is an evolving concept. For instance the original US constitution is considered a democratic landmark, even though it allowed slavery and that would be unthinkable for a democracy nowadays. To some extent, democracy can be thought as a political system meant to deal with human imperfections, for example:

  • Separate the executive, legislative and judiciary powers in order to prevent concentration of power
  • Use regular elections to avoid rulers hanging onto power
  • Establish institutions which monitor whether power is applied in a fair and constitutional way, with an intricate system to avoid any imbalance of power.

Any known alternative to democracy relies on the assumption that a particular person (or group of persons) is somehow the "perfect ruler". In this perspective, democracy is arguably superior because it acknowledges that humans are imperfect and corruptible, and tries to structurally mitigate the issues.

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    One could argue (and I've heard it said) that the purpose of democracy is to avoid a violent revolution by determining who has the larger force ahead of time, and letting them rule until someone else outnumbers them. In the modern age of military force multiplication, the principle of strength by raw numbers doesn't entirely hold, but the idea is still there. – anaximander Jan 3 at 11:22
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    @anaximander Another way to put it, is that democracy is for mediating competing interests without violence. And democratic politics is the art of doing so. – Lag Jan 3 at 12:43
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    "Any known alternative to democracy relies on the assumption that a particular person (or group of persons) is somehow the "perfect ruler"." That's certainly not the case. That's nearly a strawman – eques Jan 3 at 19:16
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    @eques When we view political opponents as normal(ish) people pursuing what they see as their own legitimate interests within the law, it's relatively easy to compromise with them. Unfortunately, in modern US politics, the right wing is pursuing evil instead. The voters do it out of ignorance (which seems forgivable until you understand that they have easy access to accurate information), but the leaders seem to have consciously chosen evil. You don't compromise with evil. You crush it. You fight a war against it. Thus, ethics leads us to a higher level of understanding, though not mutual. – Ed Plunkett Jan 3 at 20:55
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    @AbraCadaver Article I Section 2 implicitly allows it with the 3/5 compromise. There's no language banning it, and one doesn't need a law to allow something, only to ban it. – OldBunny2800 Jan 3 at 22:12
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What is the alternative?

The idea that a cadre party knows the volonte generale better than the stupid masses whom they claim to represent has been debunked. Same for the concept of enlightened absolutism and many other things in between.

A good democracy is not just a tyranny of the majority. It contains checks and balances to protect significant minority interests, but institutionalized checks and balances will only last if most political actors believe in them and act accordingly:

  • Accept individual human and citizens' rights and protect them.
  • Accept the legitimacy of the loyal opposition, including the fact that having them rule for some terms is entirely normal and not the end of the civilization.
  • Take care how majority vote districts are allocated, if one doesn't go to proportional representation.
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    The "general will" does not mean that this "general will" is the right thing to do. Prohibition in the US is the canonical example of this. A clear majority voted for it, but it is almost universally considered a failure in principle and in implementation, and an equally clear majority voted to end it a few years later. The US policy of local taxes is equally clearly broken, as shown by many cities such as Detroit going bankrupt, because government has to go directly against the "general will" to set a working level of taxation, and no-one wants to pay taxes. – Graham Jan 3 at 12:03
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    ... Your second paragraph about the "tyranny of the majority" shows this contradiction even more. Protecting minority interests requires direct opposition to the "general will", on the grounds of this being the right thing to do. – Graham Jan 3 at 12:05
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    Yes, "democracy" means or should mean more than simple majoritarianism, it means or should mean the institutionalised checks and balances such as an independent judiciary, human rights / civil liberties etc. – Lag Jan 3 at 12:43
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    @Graham - While it is true that "general will" does not mean "the right thing", the alternative to democracy is likely to be a dictatorship that rules through fear, and there's no reason to think one of those will do "the right thing" either. There's no difficulty in finding flaws in democracy; the problem is finding something better. – user3153372 Jan 3 at 14:09
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    @user253751 Yes they would, because the problem inherent is ALL forms of government is that not all people agree with one another (or even themselves over time) on what "the right thing" to do even is. Those who disagree with the benevolent dictator might dare to overthrow the government if not dissuaded from doing so by fear. They needn't be more than a small minority to cause a major problem for the leaders, even if their attempts fail. – Jaquez Jan 3 at 21:28
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Democracy can be lots of things, depending of what you are interesting in:

A way of legitimating the government.

One of the most basic problem of politics is why the people should obey their rulers. If it is by force alone, then any actor that amasses some military power may try to create a new government and cause a war in doing so. And at the same time those in power may try to preemptively limit anyone from getting too much power, further adding to instability.

So the question of what makes a ruler THE ruler has had to be answered, and multiple solutions have been found: because he was a close relative of the previous rulers (e.g. Kings), because it was elected by God (or its representatives on Earth), because of some mystical ceremonies (e.g. Dalai Lamas)...

But in the current day, with our science, knowledge and social mobility, many of those old ways have been discredited. We now know that Kings and nobility are not biologically special, that they do not cure illnesses by just touching people, etc.

Elections provide a formal criteria to decide when a government is legitimate or not, that is objective (no "I must be the ruler because God told me to") and caters to the more egalitarian values of the time ("one man, one vote").

A way of dismissing the government/holding it accountable.

In more autocratic forms of government, there is no direct gauge of how the public feels about the government. This means that a government can follow unpopular policies and believe that everything is ok because they just listen the opinion of the few who profit from those policies. And those who are unhappy know of no other recourse to their situation than to try to overthrow the government by violent means.

With democracy, those who are unhappy with the government can regularly express it and regularly get an effective way of replacing it without resorting to violence. And the government, even if it retains its power, can directly see if its public support increases or decreases.

A way of involving the citizens in the ruling of the country.

Closely related to the above, the concept of "popular sovereignty" implies that it is the people as a whole who decide how the country should be governed, but at the also time it creates some stronger ties between the citizens and their country, which replace those between a lord and vassal. It is not coincidence that the liberal revolutions of the 19th were coincidental with the rise of nationalism in Europe; with popular sovereignty the ties between citizen and country become stronger.

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  • Democracy can, indeed, be many things. But to judge whether a specific version functions well we need to know what the goal is. The idea that the purpose is to enable the peaceful overthrow of bad governments is close the Popper's limited idea. – matt_black Jan 5 at 13:22
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    "Elections provide a formal criteria to decide when a government is legitimate or not, that is objective" <- Only if you buy into the unobjective claims underlying electoral democracy. If you don't, it's still a way of legitimating the (illegitimate) government - in the public-relations sense. – einpoklum Jan 5 at 23:03
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It depends what one means by democracy. The past couple of decades have seen the rise of illiberal democracy, in which the majoritarian mechanisms are more or less preserved, but there is a degradation of minority rights, separation of powers and so forth. To quote one of the opening paragraphs of the 1997 article by Frank Zakaria, which popularised this [latter] term:

It has been difficult to recognize this problem because for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy--a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms--what might be termed constitutional liberalism--is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy.

That democracy contains the mechanism of its own destruction, i.e. voting laws to effectively terminate it, as well as voting in people who would are willing to use such laws to such an effect, goes without saying... It's only a small corollary of that the "tyranny of the majority" can be exercised (and more often is) against minorities than in a collective act of surrendering power entirely.

As for what democracy means... despite the coloration of liberalism, it still primarily means what it always meant... (quoting Zakaria again):

From the time of Herodotus democracy has meant, first and foremost, the rule of the people. This view of democracy as a process of selecting governments, articulated by scholars ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to Joseph Schumpeter to Robert Dahl, is now widely used by social scientists. In The Third Wave, Samuel P. Huntington explains why:

Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non. Governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interests, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. These qualities make such governments undesirable but they do not make them undemocratic. Democracy is one public virtue, not the only one, and the relation of democracy to other public virtues and vices can only be understood if democracy is clearly distinguished from the other characteristics of political systems.

This definition also accords with the commonsense view of the term. If a country holds competitive, multiparty elections, we call it democratic. When public participation in politics is increased, for example through the enfranchisement of women, it is seen as more democratic. [...]

Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about the procedures for selecting government, but rather government's goals. It refers to the tradition, deep in Western history, that seeks to protect an individual's autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source--state, church, or society. The term marries two closely connected ideas. It is liberal because it draws on the philosophical strain, beginning with the Greeks, that emphasizes individual liberty. It is constitutional because it rests on the tradition, beginning with the Romans, of the rule of law. Constitutional liberalism developed in Western Europe and the United States as a defense of the individual's right to life and property, and freedom of religion and speech. To secure these rights, it emphasized checks on the power of each branch of government, equality under the law, impartial courts and tribunals, and separation of church and state. [...]

Only in the late 1940s did most Western countries become full-fledged democracies, with universal adult suffrage. But one hundred years earlier, by the late 1840s, most of them had adopted important aspects of constitutional liberalism--the rule of law, private property rights, and increasingly, separated powers and free speech and assembly. For much of modern history, what characterized governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional liberalism. The "Western model" is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge.

Now, we'd be getting a bit philosophical on whether democracy (narrowly defined as above) "has a purpose" as you ask, or is it simply a naturally emerging phenomenon.

There has been a lot of empirical research on the determinants (i.e. conditions leading to) democracy. The "determinants" paper I've mentioned/linked is also instructive from a (political science) theory perspective on how democracy is quantified...

Numerous measures of democracy exist, including several new ones that draw on different conceptual schemes and methodological approaches such as IRT-modelling or machine learning (Pemstein et al. 2010; Gründler and Krieger 2016). We employ four widely adopted democracy measures. First, Democracy and Dictatorship (DD/ACLP Cheibub et al. 2010) has long been the most prominent minimalist democracy measure, categorizing regimes as democratic only if they have multi-party elections and incumbents have demonstrated willingness to concede electoral defeat and transfer power constitutionally to the opposition. We use updated data from Bjørnskov and Rode (2019). Second, the Boix-Miller-Rosato (BMR) measure (Boix et al. 2012) differs from DD/ACLP by evaluating factors other than governmental change to decide whether a regime is competitive or not, and by also requiring the granting of voting rights to the majority of male citizens so as to code a regime as democratic.

DD/ACLP and BMR are dichotomous by construction. In contrast, our third measure, Polity2 from Marshall et al. (2018) ranges from − 10 to + 10. Polity measures a more expansive concept of democracy than DD/ACLP/BMR do by incorporating executive-branch constraints, which, according to liberal understandings of democracy, is critical for avoiding abuses of power. We use the most common threshold and construct a dummy scored 1 if Polity2≥6 . Although the cutoff point admittedly is arbitrary (Cheibub et al. 2010), and other thresholds have been adopted (Bogaards 2012), our specification classifies the more ambiguous, and often controversial, cases as non-democracies. Finally, we use a categorical measure based on V-Dem data (Coppedge et al. 2019), namely the “Regimes of the World” measure in Lührmann et al. (2018), which we dichotomize (electoral democracies and liberal democracies are counted as democracies). To count as an electoral democracy, a country must pass three thresholds on indicators of multiparty elections ( v2elmulpar_osp>2 ), free and fair elections ( v2elfrefair_osp>2 ), and an Electoral Democracy index ( v2x_polyarchy>0.5 ). The resulting measure overlaps strongly (about 90% agreeement) with the three other democracy measures, but typically leads to fewer countries being classified as democracies (Lührmann et al. 2018, 68).

As you can see, the tension with [including or not] some feature of liberalism (in the sense of Zakaria) in the definition of democracy persists/exists at this operational level too...


In some models, democracy can be a little bit of both: a phenomenon that satisfies the interests of enough groups in some way, better than the alternatives, i.e. as a result of bargaining game of some kind, e.g. in Acemoglu and Robinson's (which is not necessarily the most empirically validated model):

A rise in inequality under autocracy increases the threat of revolution by the poor. Elites weigh their gains from continuing to set tax rates in an autocracy while continuing to pay the costs of repression relative to their gains from granting democracy and allowing the poor (median) voters to set tax rates. For the poor, democracy represents a credible commitment by the elite to accept limited redistribution of income.

If you want more philosophical reasons for democracy (again defined narrowly)... SEP has a nice page on this, e.g.

Strategically, democracy has an advantage because it forces decision-makers to take into account the interests, rights and opinions of most people in society. Since democracy gives some political power to each, more people are taken into account than under aristocracy or monarchy. The most forceful contemporary statement of this instrumental argument is provided by Amartya Sen, who argues, for example, that “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press” (Sen 1999, 152). The basis of this argument is that politicians in a multiparty democracy with free elections and a free press have incentives to respond to the expressions of needs of the poor. [...]

Many have endorsed democracy on the basis of the proposition that democracy has beneficial effects on character. Many have noted with Mill and Rousseau that democracy tends to make people stand up for themselves more than other forms of rule do because it makes collective decisions depend on them more than monarchy or aristocracy do. Hence, in democratic societies individuals are encouraged to be more autonomous. In addition, democracy tends to get people to think carefully and rationally more than other forms of rule because it makes a difference whether they do or not. Finally, some have argued that democracy tends to enhance the moral qualities of citizens. When they participate in making decisions, they have to listen to others, they are called upon to justify themselves to others and they are forced to think in part in terms of the interests of others. Some have argued that when people find themselves in this kind of circumstance, they come genuinely to think in terms of the common good and justice. Hence, some have argued that democratic processes tend to enhance the autonomy, rationality and morality of participants. Since these beneficial effects are thought to be worthwhile in themselves, they count in favor of democracy and against other forms of rule (Mill 1861, p. 74, Elster 2002, p. 152).

I'm not sure as to the extent that these more elaborate theories can be or have been tested... The same page also notes some limitations (beside the well known critics like Plato or Hobbes) e.g.

Social choice theory questions the idea that there can be a fair decision making function that transforms a set of individual preferences into a rational collective preference. No general rule satisfying reasonable constraints can be devised that can transform any set of individual preferences into a rational social preference. And this is taken to show that democratic procedures cannot be intrinsically fair (Riker 1980, p. 116).

I'm not sure I buy the SEP classification of democracy's benefits in "instrumental" and "non-instrumental", but from the latter category they list:

Some argue that the basic principles of democracy are founded in the idea that each individual has a right to liberty. Democracy, it is said, extends the idea that each ought to be master of his or her life to the domain of collective decision making. First, each person's life is deeply affected by the larger social, legal and cultural environment in which he or she lives. Second, only when each person has an equal voice and vote in the process of collective decision-making will each have control over this larger environment. Thinkers such as Carol Gould (1988, pp.45-85) conclude that only when some kind of democracy is implemented, will individuals have a chance at self-government. Since individuals have a right of self-government, they have a right to democratic participation.

And indeed the page notes the obvious issue with the "from liberty" argument...

The trouble is that there is rarely agreement on major issues in politics. Indeed, it appears that one of the main reasons for having political decision making procedures is that they can settle matters despite disagreement. And so it is hard to see how any political decision making method can respect everyone's liberty.

A bit more elaborate, but also problematic is the argument "from equality"...

Many democratic theorists have argued that democracy is a way of treating persons as equals when there is good reason to impose some kind of organization on their shared lives but they disagree about how best to do it. On one version, defended by Peter Singer (1973, pp. 30-41), when people insist on different ways of arranging matters properly, each person in a sense claims a right to be dictator over their shared lives. But these claims to dictatorship cannot all hold up, the argument goes. Democracy embodies a kind of peaceful and fair compromise among these conflicting claims to rule. Each compromises equally on what he claims as long as the others do, resulting in each having an equal say over decision making. In effect, democratic decision making respects each person's point of view on matters of common concern by giving each an equal say about what to do in cases of disagreement (Singer 1973, Waldron 1999, chap. 5).

One difficulty is that this view relies on agreement much as the liberty views described above. What if people disagree on the democratic method or on the particular form democracy is to take? [...]

And in contrast to these it notes Schumpeter's elite theory of democracy (which is basically a game of competing elites, with the public sitting as judges)

Against the liberty and equality arguments, the elite theory simply rejects the possibility that citizens can participate as equals. The society must be ruled by elites and the role of citizens is merely to ensure smooth and peaceful circulation of elites.

In another bargaining-oriented view, but which doesn't single out any elites... Dahl's vision:

“In a rough sense, the essence of all competitive politics is bribery of the electorate by politicians… The farmer… supports a candidate committed to high price supports, the businessman…supports an advocate of low corporation taxes… the consumer…votes for candidates opposed to a sale tax” (Dahl 1959, p. 69). In this conception of the democratic process, each citizen is a member of an interest group with narrowly defined interests that are closely connected to their everyday lives. On these subjects citizens are supposed to be quite well informed and interested in having an influence. Or at least, elites from each of the interest groups that are relatively close in perspective to the ordinary members are the principal agents in the process. On this account, democracy is not rule by the majority but rather rule by coalitions of minorities. Policy and law in a democratic society are decided by means of bargaining among the different groups.

This approach is conceivably compatible with the more egalitarian approach to democracy. This is because it attempts to reconcile equality with collective decision making by limiting the tasks of citizens to ones which they are able to perform reasonably well. And it attempts to do this in a way that gives citizens a key role in decision making. The account ensures that individuals can participate roughly as equals to the extent that it narrowly confines the issues each individual is concerned with. It is not particularly compatible with the deliberative public justification approach because it eschews deliberation about the common good or about justice.

Although the SEP page does not elaborate much on this, it does note that underlying these theories is a theory of human nature... and that in reality there could be mixture of psychology at play...

Empirical evidence suggests that individuals are motivated by moral considerations in politics in addition to their interests. Accordingly, many propose that democratic institutions be designed to support the inclination to engage in moral and open-minded discussion with others.

Interestingly enough, a recent (and controversial) paper on the (inevitable?!) degradation of democracy has also attempted to argue from this behavioral/psychological perspective.

So, if you want theoretical justifications for democracy... opinions vary what the grounds for it should be. And yeah, entire books have been written on the topic. One that [encyclopedically] covers more or less the same material as the SEP page, but more extensively, is W. Nelson's On Justifying Democracy.

Mostly undiscussed in many of the theoretical works is the geographical scope of democracy... but this turns out to be related to its purpose, if we believe the more recent works in this regard, such as Marchetti's Global Democracy: For and Against. Quoting from a review:

Marchetti maintains that a vast majority of the world’s population is currently in a similar situation as the minorities are [...]: a state-based system remains ‘an unsatisfactory framework for the self-determination of transborder interests such as those embodied by non-national or transnational political agents including as [sic] migrants, people of transborder religions, minorities and workers’). Marchetti concludes that ‘[i]f the phenomenon of transnational exclusion is to be eluded, current institutional arrangements need to be profoundly reformed’. The only system able to avoid transnational exclusions of the kind discussed is global democracy.

In fact SEP now has (newer) separate page on the latter topic...

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  • "When they participate in making decisions, they have to listen to others, they are called upon to justify themselves to others and they are forced to think in part in terms of the interests of others." - Internet filter bubbles may have changed that somewhat. – user253751 Jan 3 at 18:33
  • Dude. Five pages of text is way too much to scroll through. Next time, when you've got 3 screen/pages' worth of excerpts, just link 'em. – Kevin Jan 3 at 19:43
  • I've never heard 'Fareed Zakaria' referred to as 'Frank'. Is that an error/typo? – JimmyJames Jan 3 at 22:21
  • @user253751, add to “internet filter bubbles” the way the internet has made the spreading of falsehoods so much easier, and social media making things easier to believe (by declaring they oppose fake news while not doing so). – WGroleau Jan 4 at 16:58
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The basic idea of democracy is that those who are governed have a say in how they are being governed. This sets it apart from aristocracy, monarchy, tyranny and other forms of governance in which a small group of leaders decides and may or may not care about the wishes of the people, but in any case does so without the people having a direct influence on politics.

So the purpose (in the widest sense of the word, to avoid philosophical speculation) is to involve the governed into the decision making process. Note that there isn't just one form of democracy, but many. The main system today is representative democracy, but direct democracy exists (eg. Switzerland in parts) and liquid democracy is an idea in testing (e.g. the Pirate Party in Europe) and more immediate forms of democracy exist in smaller settings where it is practical for the whole of the people to meet, discuss and form subgroups for individual topics.

I believe that Popper is wrong, and reality seems to side with me as democracy has enabled rather than prevented tyranny in several cases. I also believe that attributing any kind of political goal to the system is already bringing your own politics and beliefs into it. A democracy can well decide to abandon itself, and this does not always have to be negatively connotated. For example, the ancient Rome republic would in time of crisis elect a dictator, who would rule Rome with absolute power until the crisis is managed. This was an intentional, temporary abandonment of democracy.

I also believe that "what people want" is already going too far. People may vote for what they want, or for what they believe to be the greater good, or for what they think is necessary - and these three can be mutually exclusive. The main factor in a democracy is that it is the people themselves who make this decision, not someone else for them.

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  • Why should the governed be involved in the decision making process? – user253751 Jan 3 at 18:34
  • @user253751 that's the philosophical discussion part. – Tom Jan 3 at 20:50
  • I don't think that avoiding the "philosophical" issue helps. The only way to judge whether a particular form of government works is to know the goal. Popper, BTW, dealt with the problem of what mechanisms a democracy needs to avoid the sort of problems seen in between-the-wars Europe. – matt_black Jan 5 at 13:29
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Accountability

Consider the US Declaration of Independence (emphasis mine)

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.-- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,--That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

The document then proceeds to list the issues they had with England and her King, ending with

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Tyranny is best described as "rule by emotions". The Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland is one such tyrant

The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. 'Off with his head!' she said, without even looking around.

When power is concentrated in the hands of a few, it tends to lead to situations where the government is not accountable to anyone, and if you don't like it, we have all sorts of tortures and executions you might find unpleasant.

With Democracy, the masses of voters have a say, which means a government does not feel free to act unilaterally all the time, let they be removed from office. Whenever political opponents are in power, they like to investigate their opponents in an attempt to convince the electorate that they should be in charge. And if that fails, there is always the potential for violence, since the government works for the people, and not the rulers directly. In theory.

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  • A tyrant might as easily be a rationalist or a technocrat as a Red Queen. – agc Jan 6 at 6:06
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Well, we all know what Churchill had to say about it. But aside from all sorts of other considerations, democracy is better than most forms of government at handling succession and power transitions.

The benevolent despot is not a new idea, at all. But, assuming you even find that mythical beast, what happens when they die? Monarchies have had many clever kings, that were better at their job than some of the disasters that sometimes get elected. But that is no insurance that their heirs are competent. The Romans tried to work around that by designated successors but that mainly resulted lowering the barrier to legitimacy enough for anyone to be able to call themselves Emperor, on the basis of the Rhine legions' support.

A ruler may also start out strong but decline in their performance. In that case, replacement might be a good thing. How is that arranged? Democracies have built-in timers. In dictatorships, the change risks being bloody.

Ultimately, democracy rests on the idea that no person should have to be ruled by someone they had no say about. It brings many benefit, I expect that HDI and wealth indicators are strongly correlated to democracy indicators, except in the case of some resource-driven economies. So it also works in practice, not just in theory, from what we see of empirical nation state data - alternative forms of government have a bad record, regardless of supposed theoretical advantages.

But democracy gives, as you say, no guarantee its decisions are always ethical - before being ordered by a court (in 1990!), voters had rejected women suffrage by 2000 to 100 in the last Swiss canton to grant them the vote.

Coupled with a robust Supreme Court and a formalized Human Rights legal document, however, democracy mostly gets rid of your objections. And even without it, it has proved much better on average than other governmental forms, when long periods of time are considered.

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The primary purpose of Democracy is to avoid a physical fight and instead settle differences with votes on how society will be governed. It is the most natural form of government on settling disputes on how society should be governed.

Pre-Democratic societies where power resided in one person or an elite group provide evidence that Democracy will inevitably rear it's head in revolution where the people are unhappy with their ruler(s). When dictators or oligarchs decide for the people there is a risk they may do something that makes the people unhappy. This can lead to chaos and disorder and violent impeachments. This is evidence that people turn to an informal Democracy as a natural result of any government in contradiction with it.

Even when a dictator is oppressing the people who choose not to revolt it is by default an informal acceptance and is fundamentally a form of Democracy in that the people refuse to revolt. This may be unfortunate for situations where people are uneducated or ignorant on how to effectively revolt but nonetheless they are in acceptance through compliance with oppression. Sometimes the answer has been for an outside force they are offending to wake them up with a war that pushes them out of this unfortunate situation.

The most clever dictators and oligarchs most likely used Democracy to rule without implementing it technically. They did not isolate themselves and kept the people close. They knew what was on the people's mind and made sure people were informed if popular misconceptions were recognized. When disagreements rose among groups the leader would estimate which group represented the majority and choose based upon that estimate. This effort would keep decisions in alignment with the people.

The biggest threat to Democracy is misinformation and ignorance that guides a vote. But these are the same threats that exist for non-Democracies. A non-Democracy is a much bigger threat because non-Democracies exert more power and therefore the same misinformation and ignorance behind that power has more potential threat.

A Democracy will function best when it's people are informed with facts vs. opinions. Facts are statements that cohere qualitatively and quantitatively with physical evidence but opinions are just statements with no physical evidence or incomplete evidence to support them as facts. A fact informed populace will align it with natural laws and provides the most promising political theory. It is not Democracy that fails if it opens the door to a tyrant, it's the misinformation. It's like the term in computer science "Garbage in, Garbage out." Don't blame the computer, it's the garbage input that creates the computers garbage output.

There is also a Democratic peace theory that supports some of my argument:

Democratic peace theory is a theory which posits that democracies are hesitant to engage in armed conflict with other identified democracies.

Among proponents of the democratic peace theory, several factors are held as motivating peace between democratic states:

  • Democratic leaders are forced to accept culpability for war losses to a voting public;
  • Publicly accountable statespeople are inclined to establish diplomatic institutions for resolving international tensions;
  • Democracies are not inclined to view countries with adjacent policy and governing doctrine as hostile;
  • Democracies tend to possess greater public wealth than other states, and therefore eschew war to preserve infrastructure and resources.

Those who dispute this theory often do so on grounds that it conflates correlation with causation, and that the academic definitions of 'democracy' and 'war' can be manipulated so as to manufacture an artificial trend (Pugh 2005).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_peace_theory

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  • While this is part of Popper's definition, it is only part of it. there is a germ of a good answer here but it needs to be expanded to count as a satisfactory one. – matt_black Jan 5 at 13:48
  • @matt_black I expanded things a bit. – Keenan Jan 5 at 17:10
  • a much better answer, than you (though I don't agree with all of it!) – matt_black Jan 5 at 20:56
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Winston Churchill:

it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

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    Though I'll add that obviously the best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship ... with me as dictator! – Hot Licks Jan 4 at 1:52
  • Again, though, while this might be true, it begs the question of why other forms of government are bad. And that can't be answered unless you clearly define the purpose of government. – matt_black Jan 5 at 13:49
  • @matt_black - Obviously, the purpose of government is to make me happy! – Hot Licks Jan 5 at 14:13
  • @HotLicks Some people would even recommend that your main goal shouldn't be to make you happy. So, no, not very obvious. – kubanczyk Jan 5 at 16:29
  • @kubanczyk - Well, if the goal is to make me sad, there are many governments that would fill the bill. – Hot Licks Jan 5 at 19:10
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Well, if you don't know what is the purpose of democracy, then let a dictator and his advisors take absolute power in your country. Get dragged by them into a suicide war, enjoy getting nuked by a couple of atomic bombs, and then you will probably realize what is the purpose of democracy. Sorry for the tone, but I am from Japan and could not help typing this out.

So what, in modern political thinking, is the purpose of democracy? Is it about giving the majority of people the things they want right now? Or is the far narrower goal of enabling the people to throw out bad governments? Or something else? Is democracy a virtue or is it a bulwark against evil?

Let me rephrase it. So what, in modern thinking, is the purpose of not being slaves? Is it about getting what we want right now? Or is it a far narrower goal of having the power to resist bad guys? Or something else? Is freedom a virtue or is it a bulwark against evil?

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I would claim as an axiom that the purpose of any system is to improve the lot of the stakeholders in that system.

There are a lot of details to work out, of course.

  • Who are the stakeholders? In a democracy, the stakeholders are generally some large number of adults.

  • By whom is improvement judged? In a democracy, improvement is judged by the stakeholders themselves.

  • How is improvement judged? By comparison against other non-democratic options, which are generally violent in some fashion.

So the purpose of democracy is to improve the lives of the voting populace, as judged by those voters. It does this by giving them an option to improve their lives that they prefer to violent action.

Modern democracies tend to make the voting populace as large as reasonably possible, because by increasing the number of stakeholders, the system also decreases the number of people whose only options for betterment are violent.

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Not so much an answer as a set of musings. It is probably hard to answer with other than opinion, I'm afraid.

Democracy is a political tool, and as all tools it doesn't have a purpose in itself; the purpose is whatever the tool user decides it is. One might say that the purpose of a hammer is to hammer nails, but if I use it to weed my garden, then that is the purpose, in my view (I've actually used a hammer and a chisel for weeding once - after a period with very dry weather when the soil was rock-hard).

It often seems that the purpose of democracy is not so much to empower people as to serve as way for poor governments to silence criticism: 'You elected us, so shut it!' - the problem with democracy, at least as it is implemented in many countries, is that it is very easy to manipulate what counts as public opinion, so it is often hard to feel certain that the outcome truly represents 'the will of the people'.

In my personal opinion, the main feature of a well functioning democracy is that it slows down government; in a parliamentary democracy there should be a largish number of small parties, representing the width of public opinion, so that no one party has a majority. This will force any government to seek cooperation and compromises, which takes longer, of course, but also results in legislation that has been thought better through.

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  • It often seems that the purpose of democracy is [...] to serve as way for poor governments to silence criticism:'You elected us, so shut it!' What you explain is not "silencing criticism". You should check how dictatorships do to silence criticism; that criticism is not accepted does not mean that it is "silenced". – SJuan76 Jan 3 at 12:05
  • is that it is very easy to manipulate what counts as public opinion, so it is often hard to feel certain that the outcome truly represents 'the will of the people'. No, it is easy. Whoever has enough votes represents 'the will of the people'. Of course, sometimes "the will of the people" can be a bad option, but lots of people do take bad decissions every day so that is not different. – SJuan76 Jan 3 at 12:07
  • there should be a largish number of small parties, representing the width of public opinion, so that no one party has a majority. This will force any government to seek cooperation and compromises, which [...] results in legislation that has been thought better through. Or perhaps it would result in legislation that is riddled with enough pork to feed an Oktoberfest, or that has been watered down as to be meaningless but still allowing the government that it is tackling the issue. – SJuan76 Jan 3 at 12:11
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    @SJuan76 I'm not going to abuse this space to get into an argument over opinions. Except for one thing: When you say 'Whoever has enough votes represents the will of the people', you are clearly wrong. 51% would count as 'enough' for a majority, but that would discount the wishes of the 49% that formed the minority. Good government is for the benefit of the whole of the people, not just for those in the majority. – j4nd3r53n Jan 3 at 13:43
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    Tools do have purposes even though they can sometimes be used for other things. Hammers are bad at screwing but good at hammering, screwdrivers are good at screwing but useless at hammering. Both have a clear purpose. That we don't think of the purpose of democracy just makes judging the specific forms harder. – matt_black Jan 5 at 13:38
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Government by consent of the governed

All governments use coercion, backed up by force, to oblige compliance with their rules. But governments that can claim to have obtained their power by a process that implies consent of the governed have more legitimacy and stability that other governments. Even if you think the speed limit on a certain stretch should be 55 rather than 45, you may obey the posted limit anyway. To some extent you are just trying to avoid getting tagged and fined. But to some extent you act out of respect for the law. If you believe the laws are made by people who have no accountability to you, then your respect for the law may go downhill.

Democracy wasn't always a popular word

The first person to run for US president as a Democrat was Andrew Jackson. Forty years earlier, democracy was considered an unstable and unfair way to run a country. Those people may have been thinking about ancient Athens, which was profoundly different from today's democratic government. But democracy failed in Athens, and the framers knew how and why Athenian democracy failed.

The checks and balances built into the US constitution were there mainly to prevent a tyranny of the majority as well as any other kind of tyranny. The constitution is far from perfect, but it has served us awfully well.

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  • The Federalist Paper argument was that the US needed to be a republic not a democracy (specifically arguing against athenian style democracy where all the voters participated in the debate about policy). But the argument was based on the unrealism of gathering all the people together when the country was large and it was physically impossible for them all to meet in one place a participate in decisions. – matt_black Jan 5 at 13:41
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Human societies evolve through both competition and cooperation between each other, similar to how organisms evolve in the wild - this is the theory behind Memetics, as it was coined by Richard Dawkins. As such any form of government or society that you see now is simply the result of natural selection. Societies which had kings either perished or transformed themselves into new forms of government, for the most part. Some are doing well with an authoritarian form of government (China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia). Some are failing to maintain a stable form of government and might eventually collapse into multiple states (like Yugoslavia did) or become a part of a different country (see what happened to Ukraine recently).

The strongest win, the weakest perish and are soon forgotten. Democracy just happens to be a form of government that maintains stable societies in some parts of the world. It has no purpose for existence on its own.

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    Maybe this is true, but it doesn't address the question. "Democracy just is" isn't a very satisfactory answer to anything and prevents analysis of whether a particular form of democracy is effective or not or whether it can be improved. – matt_black Jan 5 at 13:44
  • @matt_black it actually answers your question at the deepest level. Just like "evolution" is the answer to the question "why does the male peacock have such a large tail". – JonathanReez Jan 5 at 16:42
  • How things came to be questions are different to what is their purpose, especially when systems are–at least to some extent–designed. The US constitution was designed by groups of people (and has been amended 33 times); France has had 5 different constitutions since the revolution. Biological evolution may not have a purpose, but things built by people do, even if they are not made explicit very often. – matt_black Jan 5 at 20:53
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    @matt_black a lot of systems were consciously designed in various times, including monarchy. They survived because they've made their societies resilient and stronger, which allowed them to grab more land or resist attacks to grab theirs. Nobody would remember the US Constitution if the British system was stronger back in the day. – JonathanReez Jan 5 at 20:57
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The purpose of democracy is to pass bad laws. According to Mancur Olson, democracies will always pass laws that benefit the few due to concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, wiki.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgJ644LPL6g&list=PL3nwqCE5fVLdu9ogVRGnyQZLa3MRbMVn7

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Logic_of_Collective_Action

Its central argument is that concentrated minor interests will be overrepresented and diffuse majority interests trumped, due to a free-rider problem that is stronger when a group becomes larger.

The book noted that large groups will face relatively high costs when attempting to organize for collective action while small groups will face relatively low costs, and individuals in large groups will gain less per capita of successful collective action. Hence, in the absence of selective incentives, the incentive for group action diminishes as group size increases, so that large groups are less able to act in their common interest than small ones.

The book concludes that, not only is collective action by large groups difficult to achieve even when they have interests in common, but situations could occur where the minority (bound together by concentrated selective incentives) can dominate the majority.

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  • Olson's argument isn't about the purpose of democracy\: it is about particular flaws in specific types of democracy. Yes, democracies can pass bad laws, but that is not their purpose, just a specific pathology (and one that could be minimised). – matt_black Jan 5 at 13:46

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