The democratic paradox

February 23, 2007 at 2:08 pm (politics/law/economy)

       Liberal democracy is a fusion of two logics; the democratic, which values popular sovereignty and the liberal, which values individual rights and securities. There is no way to guarantee that decisions reached through democratic procedures will not put individuals rights and securities under threat. Hence it’s a necessary feature of liberal democracy that it’s held to be legitimate to establish limits to popular sovereignty in the name of protecting liberty.

The tension between liberal and democratic logics is ever-present but it’s irreconcilable. Some contingent articulations of liberal democratic values can deal with the tension in ways which are contingently more effective than others. The tension can be provisionally stabilised but it can never be overcome.

Leaving this antagonism unrecognised obscures the fundamentally conflictual nature of democratic politics. Focusing on the possibility of rationally grounded consensus—as is the aim of Rawls and other deliberative democrats—hides the fact that such a consensus is a temporary hegemony; an expression of liberal dominance. The democratic paradox is at the heart of liberal democracy and any political discourse which ignores it is deeply flawed.



  1. alphonsus meringer said,

    I think, as a society we need to acknowledge that democracy should really be seen a a stepping stone to a society where the individual governs itself. If you look at the cultural progressions that liberal democracy leads to, they tend to lean towards individualism, even in countries where individualism is not part of the common culture.
    By acknowledging this we can begin to subsume this into our common psyche and begin working towrds it. Of course i dont think this will become a reality for many hundreds of years but we should be moving towards something like this so that we dont fall into some kind of political entropy.

  2. postmodern beatnik said,

    While I agree to an extent with Alphonsus Meringer that our current government should be seen as no more than a stage in the evolution of governmental structures, is it not possible to resolve the tension between the liberal and democratic logics by viewing the rights and securities of the former as a limiting condition on the latter? And, for fairness sake, perhaps we could posit a limiting condition that moves in the opposite direction: no new rights or securities not approved by the processes of popular sovereignty. Therefore, popular sovereignty is limited, but it is limited by itself and on its own terms. So, too, rights and securities are absolute, yet subject to the will of the people for their creation. Sounds a lot like “checks and balances” to me.

  3. discoveryii said,

    Alphonsus Meringer wrote:
    ‘Of course i dont think this will become a reality for many hundreds of years but we should be moving towards something like this so that we dont fall into some kind of political entropy’.

    I don’t think it will ever be possible. The individual may have the capicity to govern itself to an extent–that is, there are several factors that limit the individual’s freedom, namely economics and the bureaucracy that entails the formulation and implementation of a political theory–but an individual needs other individuals to survive. Hence the trade, the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, the forming of states, political and economical models (one being, as nosos explained in the OP, the liberal democracy). As long as the individual needs others to survive, there will be politics, and as long as there are politics, an ideal individualistic state is impossible, even if we ground the individualistic ideas into our intuition.

  4. discoveryii said,

    Isn’t that, nonetheless, hoping for way too much? Like how anarchy fails as a political ideology altogether.

  5. postmodern beatnik said,

    Does it? Or has it just failed in practice? Also, there is a difference between anarchy as commonly understood and socio-anarchy. First of all, “anarchy” does not mean “no rules,” it only means “no rulers.” As such, there can be plenty of civilized social structures–just no government as such. When most people think of anarchy, they think of the Hobbesian state of nature. But socio-anarchists are talking about something more akin to the Lockean state of nature. We can have IBM, we can have Exxon-Mobil, we can even have security guards and private detectives. What we can’t have is a president, a a department of transportation, or a police force.

    Returning to the Hobbes/Locke way of looking at the issue, that is why we need to evolve (culturally, physically, and however else might be necessary) into it: the difference between the Hobbesian and Lockean states of nature is a difference of cultural sophistication. As we come to need fewer and fewer rules, we may eventually be able to do without certain government agencies–and eventually, the government itself. Maybe you’re right and it isn’t possible, but I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t try to consistently change/improve our government in that direction with the hope of getting there.

  6. the boss said,

    The paradox resides within the individual. Everyone wants to control their surroundings. They want to derive the benefits of their control, but don’t want to suffer the negative consequences. They want to maximize their personal “profit” from the situation.

    In a society, democracy, in democratic political systems, is an illusion — it gives psychological rewards with no real-world gains. You feel like you are in control because you are “part” of the process. Unfortunately, your contribution is negated as soon as a majority, (or its equivalent), outnumbers you. Democracy is built on the assumption that the majority will choose the most rational, most productive and mutually beneficial solution for the entire society — but since democracy consists of a summation of individual self-interests, this doesn’t necessarily follow. In fact, in game theory, it is in the majority’s self-interest to manipulate the minority into a weaker position. But that is assuming it worked as proposed. Democracy is inherantly unnatural for about 80% of the population. If you look at the Jungian personality classifications and their percentages, only 20% want to lead, the rest want to socialize, rationalize and discuss and are much happier and more comfortable with other people leading and taking the heat for mistakes. When a ruling class is eliminated, or failed to form, (as in Australia and America), the majority of the population tend to raise up representatives, the wealthy, famous or infamous to the level of a monarchy. There is a tendecy to seek out a dictator even in the most democratic idealism. The few who actually wanted to lead, or take advantage of their celebrated status tend to exploit those who are followers, using their popularity to manipulate their share of the democratic process.

    Your security side, (“liberalism”?), is another illusion. Despite the individuals being given the illusion that they are in control of their society, they implicitly understand that it is only out of consensus and that their individual self-interest could be overriden as soon as the majority shifts or those who follow iconic personalities rise up against the majority by joining forces. You set up “rights” our of thin air, which claim to protect the people by limiting their power to take advantage over the other. The illusion is that these rights are protected — but by whom? By the powers and authorities installed by the democratic process. Those rights can easily be discarded due to “emergency situations” or out of special policies, or in the service of protection of those rights. (“You must be silenced to protect the right of free speech of the other guy”). The problem is that humans are hard-wired to cheat, whenever possible, to gain profit in their own self-interest. It happens at such a subconcious level that it often defines our personalities. A person may think of themselves as a selfless crusader for rights, but, without knowing it, is actually pursuing a self-interested gain for themselves.

    At the lowest level, our brains are still hard-wired to be primates. We automatically assign alpha-male status on individuals and live in cooperative societies where the alpha-male takes control and bears the responsibility for the masses, but who share in the benefit of the power in numbers. We can’t accept democracy or anarchy unless we are willing to drastically reprogram these instincts. Even societies founded on democratic principles will invariable start to show symptoms of problems from a hierarchical control system and not evolve into a Utopia. Why do we have these instincts? Because they worked in the living structure that was set up. An uncontrolled group, forever deliberating over their own self-interest, would fail in the wild, in battles over territory or struggles over resources because a controlled, guided mass of people would be focused and undivided.

    I believe that we will muddle along as we do. Imperfect, conflicted, with more problems than benefits. The best society for what we consider “human” can only arise when a rational intelligence, with self-interest replaced with communal interest, would take lead and responsibility. Most likely, this intelligence won’t seem “human”, so we need to abandon the bias against non-human intelligence.

  7. zolk seth said,

    I finished a book yesterday within which the writer claimed that the purpose of classical political philosophy is to reconcile moral autonomy with legitimate authority. He argues that classical political philosophy fails. It’s simply not possible to reconcile man’s moral freedom with a posited obligation to obey authority. I find this quite persuasive. Any thoughts?

  8. postmodern beatnik said,

    While I don’t believe in “legitimate authority” in the sense required by the paradox, I still don’t think it is inconsistent with moral autonomy. After all, moral autonomy is different from free will (or “personal autonomy”). “Moral autonomy” is the ability to take a moral law (usually believed to be an objective one) upon oneself. If contractualism is correct, the process of creating an authority creates duties (by way of establishing promises, which it would be immoral to break). It is then up to us whether or not to accept those duties and follow them–but they are supposed to be duties regardless. It’s all very Kantian, in the end: the moral truth is x, but we can do y. Morality consists in doing x as a result of our moral autonomy rather than external imposition.

  9. unrealist42 said,

    The entire history of politics and society is the struggle of the right of the individual vs the right of the state.

    Just as authority has evolved from the tyranny of the tyrant towards a more consensual rule, the individual has evolved to become more self-governing and self-responsible to the same consensus.

    These trends will eventually enable a society where a separate authority becomes unecessary. It is inevitable. Far in the future perhaps but inevitable all the same.

  10. alphonsus meringer said,

    A society of self governors is definitely possible although it may never come to pass. One of the important things we do as a society is to set idealogical goals for ourselves and aim for them even if we know hey are unrealistic. I would be surprised if any f the countries signed up to the geneva convention have actually abided by it 100% but that does not mean it is worthless.
    I agree with Swestephe that much of Democracy is an illusion and many of the rewards are psychological(although they could be seen as valuable as real rewards). Much of the value of democracy comes from the perception of individual resposibility in a safe social environment. That is, we can see it as playing at individual governance but with the safety net of traditional government.

  11. postmodern beatnik said,

    Posted Jan 7, 2007 – 09:02 AM:
    Alphonsus Meringer wrote:
    One of the important things we do as a society is to set idealogical goals for ourselves and aim for them even if we know they are unrealistic.
    This seems very much correct. And it seems to me that by constantly making small improvements (relative to those goals) as humans learn to not need certain governmental structures, we will continually get closer to having the smallest possible government–which may turn out to be no government at all.
    Alphonsus Meringer wrote:
    I agree with Swestephe that much of Democracy is an illusion and many of the rewards are psychological (although they could be seen as valuable as real rewards).
    I am unclear about how democracy is an illusion. Is it not the case that we hold elections and (by and large) hold to the results of those elections? Is it not the case that those people who decide to participate in the process have a degree of power over it? Or are you implying that people think that democracy is something other than what it really is? Perhaps that perception is an illusion, but it would also be a mistake. (I may also be completely missing the point here.)

    As for rewards, what rewards are not psychological? If money satisfies you, it is a means to a psychological reward. If power satisfies you, it is a means to a psychological reward. What would be a “real” reward–and more specifically, how is that reward real without appealing to a psychological benefit?

  12. danielle said,

    You ever see the opening to the TV cartoon series the Simpsons? It features the popular toy steering wheel attached to child car seats. The kid can feel like he is driving, and thus powerful and in control — as long as he stears the car in the same direction that the parent is steerings. I think democracy has a similar psychological effect. You feel like you are in control of the country, even though you know you are just selecting some representatives which make all the important decisions for everyone. Sure, you might get some resolutions to decide on, but most resolutions are pretty marginally effective decisions. It is just an illusion to keep the people happy while the elite rule everything from the background.

  13. postmodern beatnik said,

    I’m not going to deny that it is a relatively small number of people that run the country, but you may remember that the US is not a democracy, it’s a democratic republic. The “republic” part covers the fact that we are represented by that small number. Despite allegations to the contrary, I do not find the US to be an oligarchy. Yes, the wealthy have an inordinate amount of control over Congress, but then again, they have an inordinate amount of control over the general populace. If they can convince the people not to vote against them (and the representatives who support them), well that’s all part of the public sphere. I don’t like it, therefore I vote against it and encourage others to as well. I also vote for people and resolutions that may change the inordinate amount of control the wealthy have. That’s my contribution to the public debate.

    As for those resolutions that we get to vote on, go ask some homosexual couples what they thought about the gay marriage resolutions on the ballot last November. Or ask some inner city school kids about the funding resolutions that land on New York and Massachusetts ballots all the time. Sure, a lot of the resolutions that make it to the ballot seem boring, but a lot of them mean something to someone. Just not the average voter fortunate enough to drive to his voting place on the way to or from his job and still manage to eat three meals.

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