Is Democracy a Universal Value?

Thursday, January 12, 2012 -- 4:00 PM
John Perry

The program broadcast this Sunday asks the question:  “Is Democracy a Universal Value?”  According to the dictionary:

“Democracy.”  A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

The dictionary definition leaves a lot of room for variation.  In a direct democracy, for example, the people collectively decide political matters.  In a representative democracy, the people elect representatives to make the political decisions.  And exactly who is an "eligible member"?  Only those over 18?  Or 21?  Only men?  Only property-owners?

Some say Athens was the world's first democracy.  But women and slaves -- that is, most of the population -- were completely excluded.  In the United States.  It took the Civil war, the 19th amendment, the Civil Rights Legislation of the 60’s, along with the 24th and 26th amendments, to give us universal adult suffrage.

So democracy can take many forms.  But is democracy itself – as opposed to this or that form of democracy – an inherently good thing?

Smart people have differed on this issues. The great philosopher and statesman, Winston Churchill, noted, "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."     Plato was a better philosopher, and he disagreed.  He thought democracy was the worst possible form of government.  He favored an aristocracy run by philosopher kings.   There are many more phlilosopher critics of democracy, including Thomas Hobbes, who had a very negative view of democracy.

Of course, democracy also has its philosophical defenders.  John Locke, for example, took the right to participate in government to be basic and self-evident.  Locke's philosophical ideas heavily influenced our own Founding Fathers -- at least their rhetoric, anyway.

I think there are plenty of empirical and instrumental reasons for preferring democracy.  Democracies are less likely to go to war, more likely to make decisions that citizens accept as legitimate, and more likely to command un-coerced loyalty and respect from their citizens.  Nevertheless, experience also vindicates some of the doubts that Plato and Hobbes and other anti-democrats has about political decision making.   It’s hard to deny, that at least as it has evolved in America, democracy puts a premium on the skills needed to win office, which may not correlate all that well with the skills needed to govern.

The skills needed to win office include being able to raise vast amounts of money, design clever campaign commercials, and give empty speeches that stir emotion but little thought. Is there any reason to think these skills correlate with the ability to govern wisely?

Still, whatever case anti-democratic philosophers make, there’s clearly a consensus in America and the West that Democracy is a good thing.  Plato’s vision of running things with Philosopher Kings isn’t likely to win out anytime soon.

But is Democracy a universal value?  Or does our love of democracy stem from values in our culture, that other cultures might not share?   Some say values inherent in certain Asian and Muslim cultures make democracy unsuitable, at least in the forms familiar to the West.And yet when given the opportunity, people in those cultures push for democracy, from Tiananmen Square to the Arab Spring.

So do human beings, when given a real choice, actually prefer democracy? Are there sound philosophical reasons why they should prefer democracy?

We put those questions and more to our guest, Larry Diamond from the Hoover Institution, and author of The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World. 

Comments (25)


Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, January 12, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I do not think democracy is a

I do not think democracy is a universal value. I would consider it a relative newcomer on the calendar of human existence. Why? Well, look at history, past and present. Government has seldom been of, by and for the people. More often, it has been of, by and for a powerful elite---and has been effected through intimidation and violence. Look at any civilization, prior to Plato; and many others afterwards and take their measure. I have always had a problem with church and state: they are inextricable, while many naively avow that they ought to be separate. This is a primary reason why Protestants split from Catholicism. They got tired of money ruling their sacred lives. Today, or course, money rules most everything, sacred and secular. Ain't that a bitch?
Democracy is not one-size-fits-all. Never was. Never will be. Freedom implies more than we are willing to allow.
Pretty much.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, January 13, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Democracy?

Democracy?
Who would vote to be governed, ruled over, or controlled by anyone else but Oneself?
=

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, January 13, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Democracy (or the idea of

Democracy (or the idea of such) is very like Christianity. Or Islam. Or, perhaps, Buddhism. None of these ideologies is universal. But, in differing degrees, their adherents would smoke and mirror us into submission. MJA said it succinctly, if incompletely. I'll also be brief, and conscious readers can fill in the blanks for themselves.
If you can sell an Eskimo a refrigerator---go for it. Yes---that sums it pretty much.
After all these United States have sanctioned and participated in over the past thirty years, and more, and after the negative results that have accrued, more of us ought to be asking more questions about the selling of democracy around the world. As a people, we are hated for our zealotry. As a government, we are despised for our cavalier interventions---yet, we go blithely forward, secure in our own arrogance, with the faith that we are saving the world. Please. Someone needs to make this stop. If you do not like my sentiments, ask yourself why that is. Then ask yourself, if you dare: just what part of the world have we saved?

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, January 13, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

In ancient Athens, democracy

In ancient Athens, democracy died a work in progress. Ancient Rome, too, failed to make democracy work; nevertheless, Augustus Caesar preserved the by-then defunct democratic institutions in order to exercise autocratic power through them. The gladiator-rebel Spartacus failed to establish a communistic democracy. A host of odious 20th-century tyrannies dared to call themselves "Democratic Republics." Even in the modern Western democracies the rich are getting richer and the poor more desperate while the wealth of the middle-class is eroding away as our civilization degenerates.
Democracy could be admirable if it could be made to work but as yet there is no evidence that humanity has the wisdom to be able to do so.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Saturday, January 14, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

DEMOCRACY AND PHILOSOPHY

DEMOCRACY AND PHILOSOPHY
Wow! The comments by the esteemed regulars (and I am waiting to hear from the esteemed Carpenter, who I always find so wise) all agree: no contemporary philosopher can defend democracy, as it has turned out. Philosophers value the quality of thought: it is faulty to assume that when the majority decides some policy is good, it will in fact be good; the mere fact that the majority decided is not inherently good, the policy has to be good in fact, and there is no inherent connection between the decision-making process, and good.
The liberal impetus for democracy is respect for people?s needs. But democracy immediately becomes a vehicle for codifying people?s wants. And these wants are often not what the society actually needs to progress. I feel that along with much of the Constitution, capitalism and democracy will not get the US into the 21st century successfully.
Nothing about democracy is ?inherent? or ?universal,? as the hosts have used those terms. No more so than ?divine right to rule,? for instance; all that is being sought is just a name and some beliefmagic to appeal to the governed so that they will be pacified and placated into thinking that their wants are being taken into account, and so that those who rule can get away with their private agendas.
A true democracy would have the people directly (not indirectly through ?representatives?) deciding the really important stuff: do we go to war, where shall my taxes go, what shall be the minimum wage, who gets free health care, what shall interest rates be, and a whole bunch of moral questions. Never forget, minority civil rights are, in a true democracy, only those that the majority is willing to recognize, out of concern that someday they might be in the minority.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 14, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Well stated T, well stated.

Well stated T, well stated. Your last sentence, though not original, is well-reiterated. And the overall substance of your comment is congruent with the reality of what others have stated, seems to me. Democracy is but another ideal---an outgrowth of the indomitablilty of the human spirit. Or, do we call those paradigms now? Thanks for the kind words. JP and KT: please carry on---this blog could one day be legendary...

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 14, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I wrote a new declaration of

I wrote a new declaration of independence and preamble to the Constitution sometime ago and thought to share it here.
Thanks,
A Declaration of Unity Freedom & Equality
We the people of this planet Earth, in order to form a more perfect or equal union, establish equitable justice, insure domestic as well as universal tranquility, provide for a common defense against inequity, promote a general equitable welfare system, and secure the Blessings of Liberty, or more simply the true Freedoms of Equality, to ourselves, our posterity, to all things, must declare and practice a new constitution, based on the ultimate truth, the power of Nature?s true equality, the separate and equal station in which Nature?s God entitles all, the self-evident truth that not only all men, but equally all things are truly created equal, that all is truly One. Then and only then, will mankind as well as the entire universe, that he through the course of human events so unlawfully, so unnaturally, so destructively, and so inequitably divided, be truly united, and equally set free. The time has come to dissolve the bands of inequity that divide us, the time has come for a new declaration, an evolution based on truth, a new constitution powered by nature?s true equity, true unity, true Oneness, the time has come to unite all things and set the universe free.
And only the truth shall set us free!
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 14, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

If by universal value it is

If by universal value it is meant a value for which there is a force of reason to adopt, then Democracy is a Universal value. Acts of consent for a governing body are democratic acts; therefore individuals who are in favor of their government are, by definition, participating in a Democracy. Acts of disconsent and protest are attempts to interact democratically with a political entity. Only by nonparticipation does one disengage with democracy.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, January 15, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Equality is the true value of

Equality is the true value of the Universe.
Let freedom ring!
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, January 15, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Are the flaws of Democracy ?

Are the flaws of Democracy ? as many in this blog so aptly described, an inherent characteristics of it, or does it have to do more with our failure to set up and impose it properly? I am not an American, but follow the GOP show with great interest. It is horrifying to see if a candidate dare to use his/her brain to reason, he/she becomes suspect liberal and not conservative enough. Or if he/she is open to grow as a person and politician, they stamp the ?flip-flopper? label on him. It appears logical to assume that ?mass consciousness? elects the most dysfunctional politician, following the democratic process.
Let us be positive about this for a moment, and assume the electorate successfully selected the candidate with the best qualification. In a true democracy, the majority should have the means to adjust, change its collective mind on any issue to the extent it is practical, resulting in course corrections the Government should heed. In our current system, we address these issues by limiting the duration of time a politician can hold onto office.
I argue the state of our democracy points to the degree of maturity of the electorate more than whether democracy is inherently a workable societal form of governance. The question is how can we make it work more effectively?
The question of values, whether there are universal values is a critical consideration. Organized religions take it for granted that they are the only one who know what they are. Like it or not, we have a strong religious dimension to our subject matter if the electorate subscribed to follow various religious doctrines. Is there a chance to identify some common values that do not have their roots in religious believes? If values do not sprout from metaphysical layers, how can we go about identifying them? Is there a non-religious god of some sort that would grant the universality to our moral codes? I?d like to suggest there is such a ?god?. It is our ?humanness?, our emerging, developing and expanding human nature.
Universal values are wired, hard-coded into the fabric of our makeup. We do not have to figure out what they are through some convoluted phylosophical reasoning. We can simply know them by reflecting what we are and what it is we all value. Mother Teresa and the Afgan suicide bombers all value life, for example. The suicide bomber wants to secure a luxurious aternal life in paradise by killing fellow humans. These misguided people are still searching for values ? albeit in a highly undesireable way.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, January 15, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Hmmmm...a universal shout of

Hmmmm...a universal shout of "democracy sucks, and especially ours." Easy to say, sitting all nice and comfy enjoying all the rights our democracy has provided us (including open blogs like this one). Try taking a look at all the countries around the world that don't have democracy - would any of you (or anyone in their right mind) want to live there instead of here?
The whole question really turns on another, deeper one - do all people in fact have "inalienable" rights? If yes, then if follows that the form of government that best protects those rights is the best form - and therefore universally the best, since those "inalienable" rights apply to all people.
I will take those "inalienable" rights as a given, and I will further posit that no government system known to man protects and promotes those rights better than democracy (Plato's fantasies notwithstanding) - and I think history bears me out. Unless someone can show me another that does (or did) better?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 16, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Are inalienable rights a

Are inalienable rights a cornerstone of democracy, as we think we know it, or were they there before democracy was conceived? Hoepner got me to thinking. And we all know what happens when a carpenter begins to think. He becomes a dangerous man---open to influence, and God forbid, revolution. Most of us do not get to choose where we get to live, not initially anyway and, of course, that is an inherent attraction for countries like the USA. Give us your tired, your poor; your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore (although that third stanza has raised some ire of late...); bring these, the homeless tempest tossed to me...etc., etc.
I left the United States in 1969. Because of the freedoms that allowed government to make foolish decisions about what kinds of foreign incursions (ergo, Viet Nam) it could compel its citizens (mostly young) to participate in. There were other peripheral issues: race discrimination; social inequity; nationalistic and patriotic fervor, both founded upon an arrogance borne from winning some wars and having apres-war booming economies.
Coming back, under humanitarian parole, I had some illusions. Seven years might have elicited change (I thought)---in any case, my mother was gravely ill in 1976, and I did not wish to leave my father without support.
He and she had supported me, above and beyond the call of parenthood. Now, all of these years later, my loving parents are long gone, she in 1985, he in 1994. I am too old to care much about what happens from here on out. Nothing much has changed since 1969. Or since 1976. Americans ought to be better than they are. But, when you believe you are the best, where can you go but...down. Romans did it and who knows how many before them? There is good, better and best in most realms. Sure. I'll leave readers to deduce their own solutions---unless, of course, they see no need to do so.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Many times, my opinions---and

Many times, my opinions---and/or the manner in which I state them---annoy or alarm people. To me, it is all good fun, because I have lived more than six decades now and have seen language; witnessed behaviors much more egregious than my own...everyday and from individuals in every age group. That much said about me, I'll say this about the issue of democracy: People either understand and want it. Or they don't. In either case, it is not incumbent upon one country to actively assist another. Such global paternalism breeds global animosity. I do not give a flip about arguments concerning national security; regional destabilization or other such political double speak. They are, most usually, smoke screens, designed to cover economic fears and insecurities. Or, at best, excuses for furtherence of war-making, which allieviates some economic fears and insecurities. We can argue whether matter is solid or fluid. The fact remains (so far) that we cannot walk through solid rock and that two equally massive objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. If you have something proving the contrary, please let me know. But understand this: It won't change a damned thing, politically or philosophically.
Science might blink once; then shriek with undisguised glee. Of course. It would change things, uh, astronomically(?) But, it probably would not convert the world to universal democracy...although one just does not know, does one?
My appreciation to all contributors to this blog post and to Messrs. Taylor and Perry. Impeccable, guys---as always, Thanks for allowing me to be a part of it all.
PDV.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Democracy is not the best way

Democracy is not the best way to arrange the society, but there is nothing better discovered!

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Inalienable rights of course

Inalienable rights of course pre-exist all forms of government, they are by definition inherent in human beings. Recognition of them, however, began with democracy. While no system of government is perfect, or perfectly executed (we are humans after all), I will still maintain that democracy protects and promotes inalienable rights better than any other system known to man.
I will wager that even when you left in 1969, you did not flee to a non-democracy? My uncle went to Vietnam, even though he disagreed with the war, hated the Army, and even though I think he sometimes wishes he had gone to Canada instead. Was he wrong to go? Were we as a nation necessarily wrong to go to war in Vietnam? That is a whole 'nother argument. I served twenty-four years in the Army - I think my uncle finds me a bit of a curiosity.
Around the world, non-democracies have to build walls and use force to keep their people in. Democracies find themselves putting up fences to keep people out. I think that says it all.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, January 19, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Carpenter's comments remind

Carpenter's comments remind me that at one time US soldiers had a Constitutional right to refuse to fight on foreign soil; that is, the US government was prohibited from sending any citizen to a foreign country against his will. The right played havoc with US attempts to invade Canada in the War of 1812-14, for example. The right was abrogated in a "housekeeping" Amendment; but, if the government wished to signal confidence in the democratic process restoring that right would go a long way.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, January 19, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Democracy is not a boolean

Democracy is not a boolean variable, but a continuum, and in most cases, a work in progress. Absolute autocracy and absolute democracies are both unlikely in practice. For example, if a municipality, let alone a country, requires citizens to vote on every budget line item, they would not have time for their day jobs.
Professor Diamond fails to examine an equally important side of the question: how effectively have democracies been governed? Singaporeans enjoy a limited democracy, yet its per capita GDP has pulled far ahead of Ghana, its economic equal at independence. Poor and Illiterate adults in India have the right to vote, yet the Congress party governs under the control of someone without electoral responsibility. After 60 years, the poorest 2/3 of India saw little improvements in wealth or literacy, while the totalitarian Chinese government has acted far more diligently on big matters of poverty, illiteracy, public health and population explosion.
I do not imply that totalitarian governments are better, or more responsive, just some counter-examples to show Professor Diamond's fallacy to describe democracy in abstract and absolute terms.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 21, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I would like to add a couple

I would like to add a couple comments about the government of California. One problem is that California is attempting to mix two forms of democratic government at one time: Representative Democracy and Direct Democracy, which is leading to chaos. How many democracies in the world do this? I think, none, but please tell me if you can think of one. Californians need to choose Representative Democracy or Direct Democracy. Why do you pay representatives to govern if you are just going to do it yourselves anyway? Not only that, but you are paying full time representatives to do a job that the citizenry are constantly trying to usurp. If you are not willing to give up direct democracy, then at least make your legislature part time. Even if you are willing to give up direct democracy, make your legislature part time. That way the legislators would have a greater bond to the communities they represent, and you could pay them less, and maybe you would have fewer laws being passed that lead to the desire of citizens to take the reins into their hands.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 23, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Arvoasitis: I've read the

Arvoasitis: I've read the Constitution and all amendments, I'm not familiar with this "right" whereof you speak.
It was asked "what have we saved?" with all this defense and promotion of democracy. I would say, in chronological order: western Europe (twice), the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, eastern Europe, Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo...so far. I've been to most of those places. If you talk to people from the generation involved, they are pretty uniformly thankful for it, because they know what the alternative was. We don't, so tend to devalue it.
Democracy is not really a universal value, since it is not a value, it is a system of government. I would maintain it is a universal aspiration - thus even very undemocratic regimes feel compelled to pretend to it. Think about it - when all those people fled Vietnam after the communist takeover, where did they run to? And you know, some of those running to the US were Viet Cong.
We've lived in democracy for so many generations that we find it way to easy to take it for granted.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I am always fascinated by

I am always fascinated by comments that avow (or imply) our "wiring", and its elemental intractibility (my characterization, of course). Human consciousness is either a gift, or a curse. Which we are still exploring.
Isn't democracy just an analog of freedom? (no, I did not say: anagram...) My house is, uh, wired. My car has wiring. I believe that my human consciousness---that of all sentient beings---is something more than the electrical impulses which drive life. Ah, but now I have crossed the line between physics and biology---and, perhaps, started a new thought experiment?? It is said, in some situations, that we cannot have it both ways.
I once felt that way about science and philosophy. I was wrong. Why? One, without the other, would atrophy and perish. Did I just say something profound? No? I did not think so.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Inspired by Abelard's comment

Inspired by Abelard's comment, I ask; Isn't the percentage of a population engaged in civil deliberation a more accurate measure of democracy than equality in political representation?

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, March 15, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Democracy: Two sheep and a

Democracy: Two sheep and a wolf debating on what's for dinner.
Under a collectivist view, if you care about subjective humanity then democracy is not for you.
Since THE WORLD is based upon SUBJECTIVE HUMANITY under objective fact-intuitive principals THEN DEMOCRACY IS NOT FOR THE WORLD.
WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE.

Jim Labbe's picture

Jim Labbe

Thursday, May 29, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I think democracy is a

I think democracy is a universal value that exists in all people and cultures to some degree and is manifest over time. Humanity can not realize democracy as a universal value without the experience of democracy, without trial and error, and inevitable mistakes and learning. It is therefore not realized merely by the presence of plebiscites, free association, or inclusive institutions of deliberative self-governance but their application and experience in more and more aspects of life and culture over time. The inherent value of democracy must therefore be learned by and adapted to a local culture that is a product of a particular historical experience. Consequently democracy can be supported and encouraged but not instituted by force or violence. And, no matter how experienced in a particular nation or people may be in the practice of democracy, no country or people is or can be the sole- or perhaps even the primary- purveyor of democracy. I believe, the experience of democracy inevitably leads over time to the realization that- inter generationally- democracy is inextricably linked to liberty and equality- which will be secured over time when all individuals share to the upmost in the collective decisions that affect their lives.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, June 1, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Democracy can work only in

Democracy can work only in fairly homogeneous societies. Societies that are, say, half Shia and half Sunni, half evangelical Christian and half secular, or half libertarian and half socialist that try to govern themselves democratically soon find they are damned to hell.

Guest's picture

Guest

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