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What can we expect of democracy?

By Steven E. Levingston
Guest Blogger

What better time to assess the limits of democracy than right now as we are about to head into ballot box? Elections, after all, are the very cornerstone of our dream of effective self-rule. In “Democracy and the Limits of Self-Government,” recently released by Cambridge University Press, Adam Przeworski explores how democratic ideals match up with reality. Here, Przeworski, a professor of politics at New York University, takes us on a tour of what we can expect from democracy.

By Adam Przeworski

Today’s representative institutions evolved from a revolutionary idea that shook the world in the second part of the 18th century, namely, that a people should govern itself. Yet if we judge contemporary democracies by the ideals of self-government -- equality and liberty -- we find that democracy is not what it was dreamt to be.

Could it have been?

And if it could have been, can we today implement these ideals better? Democracy, with all its changing meanings, recurrently confronts four challenges that feed widespread and intense dissatisfaction. These are an incapacity to

  1. generate equality in the socioeconomic realm
  2. make people feel that their political participation is effective
  3. assure that governments do what they are supposed to do
  4. balance order and non-interference.
The big question is which of these incapacities are contingent -- specific to particular conditions and institutional arrangements, and thus remediable -- and which are structural, inherent in any system of representative government.


My ultimate concern is with the limits: How much economic and social equality can democracy generate? How effective can it make participation of various kinds? How effectively can it equip citizens to control governments? How well can it protect everyone simultaneously from each other and from the government? What should we expect of democracy? Which dreams are realistic and which futile?

There are purely economic, perhaps inexorable, limits to economic equality. These limits may not be very tight, which means incomes can be equalized in many democracies. But we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that economic equality has limits in a market economy. In turn, economic and social inequality incessantly undermine political equality. Influence of money over politics is the scourge of most existing democracies.

The recurrent complaints that voters are offered little, if any, choice in elections are misguided. Parties offer platforms they expect to make them victorious in elections and, even if they all offer the same platform, what they propose depends on the current distribution of preferences in the electorate.

Even if individual voters are not offered a choice at the moment of the election, the collectivity is deciding among alternatives. In turn, the attempts to extend the scope of political participation – participatory democracy – undermine political equality. Participation cannot be equal and effective: it is effective only if some groups, typically those with greater resources, exert disproportionate political influence.

In the end, even if electoral participation is not quite equal, elections are the most egalitarian political mechanism we have and can have. Too often the calls for increased participation privilege those who have more resources to participate.

We now expect that governments do more than just protect people from one another. While we continue to be wary that governments may abuse their powers, today we see the state as an institution that can promote prosperity and ensure economic welfare of all citizens.

Fundamental rights should be guarded by special provisions and perhaps specialized bodies, but everything else, ordinary interests, should be subject to procedures that do not privilege the status quo, majoritarian procedures. Governments can be made simultaneously more effective and more accountable: We can increase their authority and the transparency of their actions.

Liberty is an ambivalent concept. It includes the freedom awarded by living under laws but also the freedom from interference by the government, freedom through law and freedom from law. These two freedoms are not easily compatible and their proper balance has never been obvious.

The Founders vacillated between their desire for security guaranteed by a legitimate application of laws and their resistance to interference in private lives. This issue has been warped by an ideological formulation that juxtaposes the rule of the majority to the rule of law, as if the law could be something independent of the will of the majority structured within the institutional framework.

As a result, our understanding of liberty is reduced to protection of enumerated rights. The antinomy of security and liberty continues to mark a deep political fault line in many contemporary democracies.

Democracy encounters generic limits to economic and political equality, to effective participation, to control of governments by citizens, as well as a perpetually unstable balance between political security and non-interference. We should be aware of these limits because otherwise we fall prey to demagogical appeals, which often mask a quest for political power by promises that cannot be filled by anyone anywhere.

But recognition of limits is not a call for complacency. Some reforms are urgent and many are feasible.

By Steven E. Levingston  | November 1, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  limits of self-government; limits of democracy;  
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