That is democracy

Door: Peter Pappenheim

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The profusion of books, articles, websites and blogs on democracy show one thing: there is as yet no democracy, only many different views of democracy. Even today political philosophy does not produce a principle, a definition that is adequate and generally accepted, we find only contradictory views of prominent thinkers. These sites as well as political science deal mainly with procedures of democracy. Procedures are merely a means to achieve an objective, and they can be manipulated. Islamic law may be supported by a large majority, yet we do not consider a theocratic state a democracy irrespective of how their leaders are elected. Until there is agreement about the objective of its procedures, we cannot expect democracy to work. The logical way to achieve agreement is not – as usual – to deduce it from what philosophers had to say about it, but to look for what all people want when choosing for democracy.


The answer to that question takes tow steps:
1) Do we need a government at all, and if so, why?
2) If we do, what does democracy give us that other forms of government do not?

1) We owe our prominent, even dominant, place in our world mainly to cooperation. Through language, the power of reflection (thinking about thinking) and organization we have elevated cooperation to levels unique to the human species, in the process creating a new layer over the surface of earth: our culture, from agriculture, machines etc. to mathematics and art. To cooperate, one must exist, so we must also provide for coexistence.

Nature knows three ways for ensuring the coexistence and effective cooperation:
- Instincts, inborn social propensities and skills like imitation and empathy
- rules of social behavior learned through interaction with their progenitors and other members of their  group
- the rule of a leader who takes decisions and enforce social behavior to supplement them whenever these prove inadequate.
The leader achieves that status by his strength, cunning and aggressiveness. In nature, the role of the leader is marginal, and it works because instinct puts limits on the damage he can inflict; for instance it forces wolves and chimpanzees to stop their attack as soon as their opponent shows submission.

With our symbolic language, our reason, our imagination and the resulting explosion of action alternatives, a human society is – since historic times – fundamentally different from other primates in size, complexity, specialization and power to inflict damage. We still rely on instinct, learning and authority to ensure coexistence and cooperation, but the form these have taken is different. First, to ensure the general application of rules of behavior in a complex society we had to encode them in laws. Secondly, instinct and learned behavior lose their effectiveness with beings that are conscious of them and therefore of the possibility of overriding them. That increases the importance of the third means of coordination: authority. In a human society, leadership based on violence does not work well. A wolf that shows submission to the leader he challenged by offering him his throat, is spared. Aware that submission may only be temporary, human leaders showed no such restraint and killed those who challenge their authority. Coupled with our destructive capability, the quest for leadership and territory has generated an internecine slaughter unparalleled in the rest of nature. Given the costs and instability of authority based on secular power, appeal to a higher authority seemed a welcome alternative. The struggles for leadership and the resulting vagaries of laws led us to attempt to stabilize it by making leadership hereditary or by basing it and its laws on divine prescriptions (Bible, Koran). In vain. As evidenced by it history, appealing to a super human authority is not really a solution for achieving coexistence.

2) Reason and imagination may have impaired the effectiveness of the natural evolutionary means of coexistence and coordination. But it allowed us to develop another, virtual, means of cooperation: negotiating an agreement and formalizing it in a contract. Its basic property is that its acceptance must be voluntary (otherwise it is a dictate) and that making it work is a joint responsibility of all participants. Achieving agreement amongst individuals who have different interests and ideals implies that they value the coexistence and coordination provided by such an agreement above other objectives they might entertain; they must understand that it is the best deal they can expect in a world not created for their own gratification. Formalized in a contract, agreement has been at the core of most of our enterprises; coordination by agreement is the exclusive basis of democracy.


Democracy emerged first in the city-state of Athens five centuries’ B.C. as an alternative to tyrants, to personal leadership based on power.  The central political institution in Athens  was the Assembly, usually attended by 5 000 to 6 000 members and open to all adult male citizens. (Women, slaves, and foreigners were not considered citizens.) By simple majority vote, the Assembly could decide virtually any domestic issue without any legal restrictions. The leaders of the Assembly were not elected, but chosen for one year by drawing lots. There was no constitution, so it was prone to factionalism and manipulation by shrewd or eloquent orators, resulting in its demise within two centuries.

The oldest political entity arising from a voluntary agreement – a precondition for democracy – is Switzerland. It was born in the medieval, feudal Europe that was in a constant state of war between various counts and dukes bent on increasing their holdings and power, especially when the king was weak. In the spring of 1291, the strong king Rudolph died. Fearing to lose their freedom, the free men of three valleys (cantons) in the Alps, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, gathered on the first of August 1291 on a meadow on the Rutli and swore to stand together to defend their independence against whoever threatened it. The agreement was laid down in a document, the ‘Bundesbrief’, which thus became the first democratic contract, one page long. To insure peace amongst them and to prevent the dominance of one of the participants over others, all were accorded equal authority in decision-making and in that sense was democratic. The cantons were free in their own decision-making on all counts not laid down in the contract. Without any central authority, it was not a nation, just a confederation.  Each was bound to respect the laws of the other cantons and to help to enforce their laws by punishing those who broke them, even those who had sought shelter with them. Neighboring communities saw the value of such a pact and gradually joined the original three cantons until by 1515 it had reached its final number of 22, defining a territorial entity called Switzerland.

But it was not yet a democracy as we know it today. Equal authority did not apply to all inhabitants, but only to ‘free men’: landowners, heads of municipalities, fiefdoms and other privileged persons who jealously defended their authority and privileges and the right to mind their own business. The rest – a majority – was beholden to them and had no say in public affairs; they were ‘unfree’. Internally, its cantons maintained a feudal, essentially conservative order. And it often was in trouble. By trial and error the confederation learned that just the will to form a defensive community of cantons and to respect each other’s laws was not enough. For many centuries, the main export of Switzerland was mercenaries, hardened in the harsh life in the mountains. Foreign rulers were keen to hire Swiss to fight their battles, and to ensure their supply of mercenaries; they cultivated ties with specific cantons. One Swiss canton and its mercenaries could therefore find itself pitted against another. A near collapse of the confederation taught them a first lesson about a viable democratic community, the need of a common foreign policy which would never pitch any Swiss canton against another: strict neutrality. By that time another threat emerged: religion. About everywhere in Europe, political authority was tied to authority in spiritual affairs. The early middle ages were torn by strife and even wars between the pope and worldly authorities. Then came the reformation. Besides Luther’s, another reform movement was founded in the east of Switzerland by Zwingly. Now three faiths were struggling for spiritual dominance in the confederation. Religious differences are not negotiable, and the result was civil war. That taught the Swiss another lesson: they must be neutral also in spiritual affairs. They still had to learn the final lesson: you cannot be half democratic. The substantial number of often exploited, unfree men generated revolts that were squashed, sometimes violently.

Elsewhere, starting with John Locke at the end of the seventeenth, the philosophers of Enlightenment laid the conceptual foundations of democracy on which the American independence and the French revolution build to open a new chapter in the political history of the world. The French shortly occupied the Swiss confederation and installed a central government and the modern legal code “Napoleon.” It sent Switzerland on a new adventure: to form a really democratic state with a central government, and to extend to all citizens the participation to the contract. As it required the consent of all twenty-two cantons, the transformation of the original confederation with its feudal internal organization into a modern democracy was tedious and slow. It has remained a coalition of communities jealous of their autonomy. Only issues that could not be settled at local level are referred to a higher one, usually after long negotiations. Controversial issues are submitted to a binding referendum. While in other countries, democracy was established in one go, often a revolution, in Switzerland it grew ‘naturally’. As last of all western democracies, Switzerland accorded women active and passive voting rights in 1959!

But the result has been worth it: not withstanding the diversity of its inhabitants (four different languages) it generates a strong civic sense. The citizens are deeply involved with politics, and the state and government still enjoy a perception of legitimacy which politics have lost in many other western democracies. The objective is to reach agreement, so all major political parties are represented in the government. As Micheline Almy-Rey – a recent president of Switzerland – said: “We are a willed nation (Willensnation). Not because we from one ethnic group or share the same language or culture. No, we are Swiss because we want to pursue our interests together.” It truly is a common and voluntary enterprise of all its citizens, and its history contains useful lessons for today’s democrats.

It illustrates that – as a common enterprise – a democratic society is a living entity that does not allow definition of an end-state. Its specifics, especially its procedures, must adapt to the circumstances of the society and to changes of those circumstances. It cannot be imposed, but must evolve and constantly prove its viability though its power to prevent internal breakdown and to resist attacks by other forms of social organization. Only by the success of its application can it encourage others to adopt it. It cannot be an export product (see 7).  Whatever the specifics, it must always preserve the essence, the principles, which distinguishes it from other forms of organization.


So what do the Swiss, what do all democrats want? They do not want a government, politicians or elections. These all are inconveniencies that they must endure to get what all human beings except hermits want and need: a viable and as far as possible prosperous society. To that end, they must ensure the necessary coexistence and cooperation. All democrats also share what they do not want, namely that any individual or group can tell them what to do and what to think, which means that participation in such a society must be voluntary, as expressed above by Micheline Almy-Rey. Voluntary agreement between individuals requires that all of them realize that they are better off with it than without it. They must have confidence that their interests will not be subjugated to that of any other individual, but only to the common venture to which they want to participate out of their own will: a democratic society. As the Swiss experienced and as the philosophers of the enlightenment deduced, the choice for democracy can be voluntary only if no individual, group or idea has any a priori authority over other individuals in social decision-making. Democrats want to remain master over their own decisions, want to live their own lives, want to preserve their autonomy in the sense of deciding what is good or bad; they deny any other person the right to subjugate their will to her’s. (That is not equal to selfsufficiency, to total independence.) They realize that this imposes on each member of the society the duty to respect the autonomy of all others. Yet, decisions engaging the members of society must be taken, which presumes an authority to take them. The only solution is to accord all members of society equal authority, to accept every citizen as a full member of society on the same terms as all others.

Respecting everybody’s right to decide what is good or bad does not mean the others must share his view; it does not imply relativism, that we must consider anybody’s view to be as good as anybody else’s. What the society considers to be good must emerge in democratic argumentation and procedures.

The respect of our autonomy can be translated into one single criterion for social decision-making, one norm that is both necessary and sufficient to ensure that the decisions qualify as democratic in the above sense and will enable us to pass judgment on the democratic pedigree of various types of decisions and institutions. That norm is the unconditional principle of respect in social decision-making of the subjective equality of all members of the society. It is an expression of the golden rule of justice: to consider in a verdict only what somebody has done (robbed a bank), not what he is (the nephew of the president). It entails that any time a community must take a decision, the vote of each member must carry the same weight; it does not say that individuals are in fact equal. It must allow all those who do not acknowledge that principle to opt out of the contract, for instance by emigrating or becoming a hermit. But by rejecting the principle of subjective equality, the remaining dissenters have forsaken the protection that this principle might have provided, thus allowing us to ignore their view. This principle therefore justifies its imposition on dissenters, and it is the only principle to do so. As said, all members with a stake in the way their society is organized already have made one choice: to live in a viable and hopefully prosperous society. Note that at this stage no standard of prosperity is as yet specified; that must emerge in the application of the principle when designing the contract. The general definition of democracy then is “a common venture op people respecting the subjective equality of all its members”. Applied to a political entity:

- THE RESPECT OF the ultimate authority of all individuals over themselves, their autonomy, and thus THEIR SUBJECTIVE EQUALITY.”

Only decisions taken by consensus meet the democratic principle. Yet – given the autonomy of individuals – total consensus is practically nonexistent. The democratic principle can work because there is one case where it can justify non-unanimous decisions, for the democratic principle presupposes the decision to live in a democracy.

Non-unanimous decisions are compatible with the democratic principle whenever they are vital to the survival of the society, provided they are taken in a procedure that respects the above subjective equality. It is the interplay between its two, often conflicting, elements (society and autonomy) that gives democracy both its dynamism and its problems.

A democratic society may confer on certain members some specific authority over others (government, police etc.). But that authority is never attached to their person. It derives exclusively from the function they are expected to perform and is conferred on them on basis of the objective qualities required by that function, which in the eyes of the members of society make them worthy of that power. And to be legitimate, such authority must have been obtained by a democratic decision, and can always be revoked by another one. Power is inevitable in any society. The exclusive property of democracy is that political power always is conditional on democratic legitimation and always revocable.

The democratic principle is absolute. The principle of subjective equality is both necessary and sufficient to define a democracy. There can be no other principle, no other a priori ‘good’ or ‘bad’, on the same or higher level than this subjective equality. Doing so would introduce into the social system unsolvable contradictions, paradoxes. For suppose that another principle is added at the same or higher level of priority. As long as this additional principle has been accepted in a procedure respecting the democratic principle, there is no need to introduce it at the same or higher level of priority. But if had not been accepted on basis of a democratic procedure and even one member of the society would object to it, we are forced to choose between the democratic and the additional principle, even if the additional principle had been democratically accepted in the past.

The democratic principle requires the existence of procedures permitting the revision of all decisions except the choice for democracy. Otherwise, decisions would also bind future members, whose voice was not heard at the time the decision was taken; that would violate their democratic rights. The rights to consider are always the rights of the present citizens, for they are its only members. The sole guarantee for survival of  the democratic society is the importance that the present citizens attach to their progeny. Injustices committed or suffered by previous citizens generate no claims on present citizens unless confirmed by current democratic law and procedures. The relevance of that principle must today be evident.

Decision-making in a democracy must be both just and efficient. As explained in (*), justice is a man-made supplement to instinct and education to ensure coexistence and cooperation where the ‘natural’ means fail. Because the principles and laws of justice must be deduced from the democratic principle or established in a democratic procedure, and as both justice and efficiency derive from the same objective and principle, neither of them can by itself have any priority over the other. Efficiency here refers to its contribution to the viability and prosperity of the society and must include all aspects of the society and its members, for instance the coherence of society and non-monetary factors affecting the well being of individuals. Any law limits the freedom of action of individuals and can be justified only if it is effective in achieving the objective which led to its conception. The requirement of efficiency is often overlooked, resulting in counterproductive attempts to impose democracy on developing countries, a testimony of how little the nature of democracy is understood. (See sub 7). Any right always implies a duty, namely to ensure not only that it is respected; before establishing it, we must ensure that it can be respected.

The contract must be constantly be updated and reaffirmed. For most people are born into a society; they did not make any conscious choice for the democratic principle, did not vote for the constitution and thus did not freely relinquish their veto rights for vital decisions. Democracy as defined here does not rely on some historical decision, but is based on today’s and actual will to live in a society defined by the democratic principle. Commitment to it must be renewed by all of us every day. Besides this principle, nothing in our democracy is final, the specifics of the contract can be constantly revised. As with any contract, it must be enforceable if it is to be effective.

A contract also defines a group: those who subscribe to it. For a democratic nation, one of the fathers of democracy, John Locke, has given this group a name: a “body civil” whose members are citizens. Anybody, even those who have previously subscribed to the current contract, may later object to a specific provision and try to get it changed by democratic means. If unsuccessful, he still can remain a functioning member of society as long as he does de facto respect the choice of others. But all must subscribe to the democratic principle and the principles that have been directly deduced from it. Such a democratic society guarantees the maximum freedom that is compatible with living in a society where agreement has replaced power as a means of organization.

The problem of a democratic society then is to design a contract to which all can subscribe as being the best deal they can expect in a world not designed specifically for their own gratification, and which must on that same condition be acceptable to all other citizens. Refusal to sign it then is evidence rejecting of the principle of democracy, or of a manifest unwillingness of the individual concerned to pay the minimum price – in terms of loss of freedom – required to live in any ordered society. The contract must also establish the delegation and negotiation procedures which enable us to take at least all those decisions that are vital to society, and a sufficient number of decisions that are not, but make the society worthwhile enough to its members to support the basic contract and the decisions following from it, even if some decisions do not meet their approval.

This view of democracy does not need to be justified: it is literally a ‘take it or leave it’ proposition. It thus can do without the complex constructions of philosophers, like the original position, which are beyond the comprehension for most of us and are not really convincing even if understood.


We do best what comes naturally, without pondering about it, either because it is instinctive or because we have learned or been trained to behave that way. It directs almost all of our activities. Only cases where there is real doubt about what to do and where the decision is important enough is it effective to engage the time and effort which rational examination requires and which makes such examination inadequate for routine daily business, walking, pouring a glass of water, saying hello etc.. If we would have to think about and justify all of our behavior, social life would grind to a screeching halt.

In case we do think about it, society often comes out second best. Reason made us chose for democracy and its laws, but rational individuals will in their daily decisions-making tend to choose that alternative which promises the highest net benefits for them instead of what may be rational for the community as a whole. We all know the problem of the free rider: if it is possible to benefit from a public service without paying for its costs, or to engage in a profitable but illegal action without risk of punishment, it would seem rational to do so…. if one can get away with it. If many people get away with tax evasion, those who comply either face an increased tax rate or will be able to finance fewer social benefits. Worse, frequent breaches reduce the perception of legitimacy and of the risk of punishment. Both reduce the incentive for compliance. So we need sanctions to ensure that the cost of non-compliance exceeds the benefits from deviant behavior such as illegally evading taxes. Exposing and punishing offenders means sanctions, legislators, judges, police and prisons etc., all very costly to the community. If citizens base their choices solely on ‘rational’ calculations, the cost of ensuring compliance with even a single norm will be quite high; for all norms it will be totally prohibitive. It is also an unpleasant community for it is based on coercion and fear.

Experience shows that in all healthy societies people by and large do comply with norms that they accept as reasonable. A person acting exclusively on what is to its own advantage is a fictive person amputated of those innate or acquired motivations and rules of conduct which make it a social being and which govern social interaction: decency, morals and virtues. These must be integrated into our daily information processing, become a habit, a part of ourselves (mostly via social interaction), in short become ‘internalized’, thus reducing the need for sanctions. They are an essential part of the culture that makes organized social life viable and – important for democracy – attractive. The necessity of that integration and of its compatibility with other aspects of social organization, for instance economic, is a major and neglected element of our western capitalistic societies.

To be effective, the democratic principle must be translated from an abstract creed into an ethic, it must grow into a public moral defining norms and virtues for the social behavior in a way that all can understand and it must provide for the learning process required to have citizens experience them as natural and self-evident. In our Western democracies we have over a long period developed such social norms, be it under very favorable conditions of ample land and resources and plenty of time to do so by trial and error. But being implicit, without the foundation of a generally accepted principle, they lack firmness and can be perverted by interest, ideology and false prophets. New democracies do not have the time we had and certainly not our favorable conditions. ‘Trial and error’ for them means the law of the jungle, rogue demagogues, civil war and tyrants (see sub 7). The strength of a democracy depends on the congruence of its culture with the democratic principle, which must permeate every aspect of social life of individuals and shield them against all undemocratic tendencies.

Freedom, equality and brotherhood: the rallying cry and moral principles of the French revolution. They are widely seen as basic to democracy and even more widely abused in their application because they lack a generally acknowledged and unequivocal definition. Such a definition can be deduced from the democratic principle and has the advantage that it also is in accordance with the common sense of the terms.  Freedom is the right to our own ideas and objectives, to the perception that these are not subjugated to any other individual or group, in short to our autonomy. It is not negotiable, it cannot be diluted by other rights like ‘freedom from want’. Equality refers to the subjective equality of the democratic principle. It also is not negotiable, it is the condition for a social organization to function while respecting equal authority of its members and cannot be stretched to include other dimensions of equality, such as wellbeing. Brotherhood is what it takes to ensure voluntary cooperation, to make a democratic society work smoothly. Freedom and subjective equality can be laid down in formalized laws that can be enforced. Brotherhood is mainly a social attitude that – to the extent that it is not inborn – must be cultivated. Without any claim to completeness, here follows a set of virtues for a society based on voluntary coexistence and cooperation, for a democracy.

1) The will to live in a society implies the virtues of:
- Communal sense, love of your neighbor, ‘brotherhood’
- Rejection of violence to solve disagreements
- The will to achieve agreement through fair argumentation and negotiation
- Acknowledging the duty that comes with every right.
- Empathy
- Trustworthiness, an essential condition for all voluntary and effective cooperation

2) From the respect of our autonomy we deduce the virtues of:
– Respect of subjective equality in social-decision making and consequent rejection of any a priori authority, for instance religious, in social decision-making, and acceptance that any acquired authority remains a mandate that can be revoked
- Reciprocity, and therefore universality within the community, of all principles by which we justify our actions
- Accepting responsibility for the consequences of our choices; emancipation implies accountability
- Respect of the rules for democratic argumentation, fight demaguogery
- Tolerance as respect of everybody’s right to his own opinions values and norms and the pursuit of his own interests, to the extent that this is reciprocal
- Intolerance for corruption of these virtues.

For us democrats this ethic expresses our own will and therefore does not imply any self-denial. It must be part of the needs which our economic system must take into account. We perceive, or should perceive, democratic virtues as desirable, as worth striving for. To survive as an individual we must cater to our other personal needs. These can be in harmony or in conflict with the same pursuit by others. Democratic ethics and morals strive for the harmony of self-interest with the common interest. That harmony must be constantly created, for conflict between the interest of the community and that of specific individuals is the rule, not the exception. The democrat will not strive for victory of one over the other, but search for a ‘reasonable’ balance between the social and the individual on the basis of criteria deduced from the democratic principle and through the democratic procedures established for that purpose. Note that some of these virtues, such as communal sense, empathy and reciprocity,  apply to any kind of society, for instance that of chimpanzees.


As said, western democracies were able to develop and flourish because of the exceptionally favorable circumstances in which they came about: plenty of land and natural resources and a technical development generating new wealth at a rate which was fast enough to outstrip the growth of population, yet slow enough to enable society to adapt. For western democracies those days are gone; for the rest of the world they never did exist. The chaos resulting from the lack of a common and realistic view on democracy is documented every day in our newspapers. Its victory over totalitarian attacks robbed democracy of the centripetal force of external enemies and exposed its full weakness, for instance our inability to prevent or deal promptly and effectively with environmental problems or with political and humanitarian crises. The most dramatic illustration is our impotence to help former communist countries and other dictatorships in their transition to democracy.

Can democracy survive? Some of the brightest thinkers now seriously doubt it  (Guéhenno’s “La Fin de la Democracy” and John Gray’s “Black Mass”). Certainly the current state of our world does not give any indication that they are wrong. The main culprit is the view that “Democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people”; another is that this view implies our western type multi-party democratic procedures. But in fact government never is by “the people”; “the people” do not want to be governed at all, except by agreement.  We think that by exercising our voting rights and obeying the laws thus established we have fulfilled our obligation to democracy, or that we can meet its problems by changing electoral procedures. A preposterous idea, considering the complexity of a modern society and all paradoxes which democracy involves. It cannot be ‘constructed’, it must ‘grow’ in an organic way like all living systems. The Swiss took more than half a millennium. And it is never completed. So the answer to the question “can democracy survive?” is: not in its present state. The fault is not with the democratic principle.

The democratic principle (chapter 2) is not only necessary, but also sufficient for taking all social decisions worthwhile taking. For we can take:
- All vital decisions. Because we have agreed on a viable society, decisions implying the viability of society do not require consensus provided they are taken by a procedure respecting the subjective equality of all members.
- We can take all non-vital decisions that are worth being taken (see next paragraph)
- We can deduce principles of justice and morals (see above) as well as the tasks that the state must fulfill, including the elements of a democratic income policy (see 6) etc.

Most decisions do not engage the survival of the society and are therefore non-vital.  Jealousy is not a legitimate objection in a democracy, because it is evidence of a non-cooperative attitude detrimental to the society. Non-vital decisions can then be taken as long as they leave no one less well off. That is possible only if the net result of the decision is sufficiently positive for the society as a whole to  enable us to compensate any loss of those who object; they thus loose the justification for their objection. Decisions that do not satisfy this condition are per definition not worth taking. Justifications that appeal to some higher authority or principle are per definition in contradiction with democracy, irrespective of the number of its supporters. Religion can be a valid argument only in a theocracy. The democratic principle therefore is necessary and sufficient to define democracy: communities respecting this principle can be viable and prosperous, but they can never be totalitarian, and totalitarian societies can never claim to meet the criteria for democracy.

The will of the people is often seen as the basis of democracy. By itself, it is a romantic myth: only the wills of the individual members of society exist. With one exception: by its very definition as a voluntary association, all democrats share one will: to live in a democratic society. Yet democracy as the expression of the will of the people has an almost universal appeal, and rightly so. Kant has provided the solution to this apparent paradox by distinguishing will from wish. We have a lot of wishes; a wish becomes a will if we are prepared to do what it takes to realize it. In a democracy as defined here, for a wish to become a will we must ensure that it can be realized without harming others. If interests on that subject diverge, a common will must be constructed in fair negotiations that are the backbone of democracy,  resulting is a decision to which nobody can have a legitimate objection. If successful, that decision expresses the “will of the people”. The job of our constitution and the procedures deduced from the democratic principle is precisely to provide a framework for such fair negotiations.


Once we have accepted the democratic principle, as well as those principles of justice, morals and tasks of the state that can be directly deduced from it, we must establish the   means, the procedures, for reaching agreement on all decisions we need to take, while ensuring that the democratic principle is respected; the most common is voting, but in some cases other means may be more appropriate, for instance a lottery. To meet the criterion of subjective equality, the procedures must be independent from any special interests and therefore be firmly ensconced in a basic document: the constitution. A constitution should not contain any other element besides the democratic principle plus the decision-making procedures and some basic rights directly deduced from it. No reference to a Jewish/Christian, Islamic or other identity, no animal rights etcetera. Foregoing such additional elements is the first sacrifice we have to make to allow the minimal agreement required by the democracy as a voluntary association. Given the havoc that the introduction of such elements can generate, a democrat will consider it a blessing rather than a sacrifice. Procedures can be and are misused. To prevent abuse or at least to keep it within reasonable limits, their objective must be sufficiently clear to serve as a standard of evaluation, their application must be adequately organized and monitored and both must be compatible with the democratic principle.

The misconception that democracy is defined by its procedures generates the well known paradox of democracy: if we would accept as democratic all decisions taken in accordance with these procedures, we would have no basis for opposing discriminatory laws based on race, religion etc. if these are supported by the legal majority. Western democracies tend to use their own procedures as a litmus test for a democratic society and a basis for universal rights, thereby imposing on developing countries systems for which they were not ready. It serves as an excuse to avoid our responsibility to effectively help those who want to try (see sub 7). And it is a pretext for declaring a free capitalistic market economy a prerequisite for democracy, thus giving it a privileged but unmerited priority over all other rights and considerations deriving from the democratic principle.


The state has to fulfill all tasks that are imposed on it by its citizens as long as they meet the conditions mentioned in chapter 4, and to do so it must be efficient. Some of them are the direct consequence of the choice for democracy and must be performed if it is to work. They take precedence over all others.

- A subsistence income for all, for without it we cannot expect voluntary acceptance

- Ensuring coexistence, the protection of its members and their society is the classic task of a state. It must have priority over all others, for without coexistence there can be no effective cooperation. The state must create and maintain the necessary political, judicial, police and military institutions. The protection of its members covers not only their person, but also all their resources to the extent that these owe their existence entirely to the individual concerned; both must be protected against impingement by any other individual. But these, as well as all other legitimately acquired resources, can be subject to the taxation required to finance state functions.

- The basis of taxation is an equal net sacrifice of utility for all, meaning a progressive tax starting at subsistence income and compensating for the fact that one euro less is far greater a sacrifice for somebody with minimum wage than for a millionaire.

- It must ensure that all share equally in, and have access to, the resources of the society which are not the property of any individual, today mainly culture in its widest sense. It means for instance public libraries and redistributing profits from the use of common goods, of public culture such as mathematics and most of science, but above all free education up to high scool, and financing higher levels at least  partially by a loan to be repaid by a  procentual increase of income tax.

- It must ensure that all citizens can and do participate in the common venture by contributing to the best of their ability and thus must have and and be able to exercise the right to work; that mainly is the responsibility of those who control the means of production. To ensure that they will contribute out of their own will, they must receive a fair compensation for their effort: a minimum wage and a well functioning market.  The state should limit monopoly profits to the inevitable minimum and redistribute those that cannot be avoided. Participation in social decision-making requires that all have access to the information about facts required by the decision and that this information is correct.

Other tasks may be assigned to the state by its citizens if no other organization is better suited to perform them, for instance offering insurance against unemployment or disability.  It can never be the task of the state to promote or ensure any other ideal or principle than the democratic principle and those principles that can be deduced from it. Specifically, the principle of equality cannot be extended beyond equal right to common property and the subjective equality in social decision-making.

The democratic principle and the tasks of the state deduced from it determine the elements and conditions of a democratic incomes policy and distribution. Income distribution has by itself two opposite properties. Equalization of income promotes social coherence and increases the total utility of a given total income of the society because the utility for a person of one additional dollar decreases with the level of income of that person. However, except for a few of the above-mentioned common resources, society by itself never generates any income; only its members do. Total income of a society then depends on the willingness and ability of individuals to generate income. That willingness depends in large part on the income that an individual can expect from it. Ability and the willingness to run risks vary greatly between individuals. Total income of the society will be highest where the income received by individuals is in step with the contribution they make to society. A discussion of what is ‘appropriate’ exceeds the scope of this paper, but it will lead to an unequal income distribution. Any impingement, any tax, on the income that an individual has acquired by legal means must be justified. A clear justification is his obligation to contribute to the financing of the tasks of the state on a basis of an equal sacrifice for all. Other justifications may be monopoly profits and free use of common resources, mainly culture. Those interested in the subject are referred to (*). The conclusion is that the progressive taxation currently practiced in western democracies is a reasonable approximation of such a distribution. Punitive taxation for the sake of income equality, as practiced in the Netherlands after the war, is not. Neither is the rabid capitalist’s qualification of taxes as theft.

Ensuring the priority of the democratic principle over all other principles is often neglected. A classic enemy of democracy is the appeal of churches to a higher authority. Currently democracy is threatened by a new ideology: the sanctification of the unfettered capitalistic market economy and its conflation with democracy. Its logical consequence is a reservoir of people at the absolutely minimum existence level that have no incentive to voluntarily subscribe to the current contract. It limits the scope of ‘legitimate’ human requirements to the short-term marketable goods and ignores the ‘external’ effects such as our environment and the impact of its emphasis on competition and consumption on the morals and mentality of its citizens and the coherence of society.


Certainly not in the western form, and not at short term. The justification of that statement can be found at various places in the preceding chapters: The democratization of countries, which do not have any democratic tradition and where the conditions for democracy are not yet met (a democratic culture and morals, a subsistence income for all and the possibility for all to participate in the political and economic life and get a fair share in it), must be an evolutionary process which takes time. Identifying democracy with our procedures and capitalistic market economy and imposing these on such societies is a recipe for disaster, especially if – like Russia – it is not accompanied by a clear understanding of the nature and moral/judicial conditions of democracy. The spectacle of today’s disarray, ineffectiveness and loss of legitimacy of our political institutions also is not conductive to promoting imitation.

In practice exporting democracy takes the form of appeal to human rights. The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” was the product of the political predominance of western countries in the UN after the war, and can be summed up as “Everybody has the right to western democracy”.  See the evaluation of : The Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Political parties are the Achilles’ heel of democracy. We want a prosperous society, but ‘prosperous’ is a subjective concept, so it must be some form of aggregation of individual choices. The prosperity of a society  is often defined as the national income, but that excludes many of its components. It is the job of politics to balance by negotiations the variety of individual preferences against each other in a way that is compatible with democracy and promotes it as a common venture. Direct negotiations, direct democracy, is impossible in today’s complex and dynamic societies. Hence the insertion of institutions, political parties, between the government and the people. That generates a problem that we have yet to solve: the social instincts of individuals are first directed at the immediate group of which they are part, at the expense of the larger whole. The insertion between the citizen and the government of any institution with its own interests is an infallible recipe for bureaucratization, of giving priority to the interests of the party at the expense of the whole. .

While a government is supposed to govern in the name of the whole society, the political parties that control it represent mainly their own members and hopefully its voters. The, often nasty, competition by the parties for votes is itself incompatible with achieving agreement on the best policy. As only elected politicians participate in the negotiations, they must first compete with other candidates, they must make promises. Inevitably, these promises function as a first bid in later negotiations; if he is to get the maximum out of the negotiations, they can never be the lowest bid that the politician will accept: he always must promise more than he can expect to deliver. To limit the subsequent damage of the unavoidable concessions they have to make to achieve an agreement with other politicians, they exploit to the maximum the leeway provided by doctoring the facts. The opportunity to do so is amply provided by scientists who with impunity will supply ’scientific’ facts to support any proposition of a client. Furthermore, any real decision leaves some better off than others. Usually, people have a biased view of gain or loss. Those who gain consider it their natural dues instead of a hard earned achievement of politicians, while those who lose blame it on the politicians, however just the decision may have been. Consequence: pseudo-solutions that are shoving the requirements of the general interest under the rug, or deferring real solutions to the next government, the next generation or to other countries or organizations. The same leeway about facts allows politicians to hide possible incompetence or corruption. And in the competition for votes, all shortcomings of competitors, some real and some not, are amply broadcasted. All this promotes competition, not cooperation, it is return to the to the government by power of our ancestors, it gives politics its bad name and is not conductive to the feeling of participating in a common venture, it cannot convince citizens that – while the decisions taken by politics may not meet all their wishes – they at least are not unjust, that they are the best they can expect in a world that is not created for their personal gratification.

The basic flaw of the present political systems based on parties is that they reintroduce power as a means of coordination. If a simple majority is sufficient to govern and the political spectrum is split into two camps, government and opposition, winning becomes more important than efficiency, fairness and consent. Unless a decision is derived from the democratic principle or is at least compatible with it, we cannot expect that a dissenting minority will voluntarily accept the resulting contract. If the minority regains power, it will often attempt to reverse the decision. Systems theory tells us that government by alternating majorities practically guarantees unworkable short-term pseudo-solutions, often filling a hole by digging a larger one to be filled by the next government. As long as winning is the first priority, demagoguery by any not patently illegal means such as slander and outright lies (see the Tea party in US) dominates; mass media have immensely increased its scope and power.  Advocates of direct democracy show a total lack of realism and historical knowledge. Until a proven alternative has been developed, we should face the shortcomings of our present systems and develop means to counteract their most damaging shortcomings. A pragmatic center party established purely for that objective might be successful. Unfortunately the fate of the only one I know, D66 in the Netherlands, is not encouraging, for they ignored a proposed in depth investigation of democracy in favor of some procedural fixes and then immediately plunged into the fray, thus becoming part of the problem. California has devised a new system for electing their congressmen in november 2012. Democrats will be allowed to vote in the republican primaries, and vice versa, thus forcing them to put forward their most reasonable candidates. They hope to prevent the current pressure towards extremism which has rendered the US practically ungovernable. The Swiss have minimized the damage by having all major parties forming a government together.  A system where the government includes all parties that subscribe to the principle of governing by agreement is possible within the framework of most constitutions but creates new complications. Letting all parties contribute ministers in proportion to their votes might undermine the role of parliament as controller of the government; we also must prevent negotiating behavior that is incompatible with striving for agreement. However tricky that may prove, anything is better than continuation of the present mess in western democracies. Politicians cannot pull themselves from that swamp by their own hair. That task must be fulfilled by political scientists and philosophers; to succeed, they must be willing to submit to the rigors of democratic argumentation.

Western democracies were able to develop and flourish in spite of political parties because of the exceptionally favorable circumstances in which they came about. Today’s democracy may be – as Churchill said – the least bad of all systems, but it simply is not good enough to face today’s challenges. The fact that its problems occur in all forms of democratic decision-making, whether districts, proportional representation or mixed, illustrates that the weakness of multiparty politics is not incidental, but inherent to political parties. Conscious of the inherent limitations of parties, the Swiss elect a ‘dictator’ in case war threatens; his powers are rescinded after the threat has vanished.

While incidentally a work emerges which acknowledges the problem and attempts to   provide a way out, there is as yet no trace of any serious and concerted effort by political scientists or philosophers to develop an alternative system. China now has a de facto non-ideological one party system where the party essentially is an institution for organizing social decision-making in a way that respects the requirement of efficiency. It is neither a totalitarian state nor a personal dictatorship. It bears most resemblance to a business enterprise and may evolve to meet the principles of justice  mandated by the democratic principle without the problems of today’s western political parties. That would be an interesting experiment.

Whatever the system, we can and therefore must increase its efficiency by eliminating the most ubiquitous and effective means to subjugate the common interest to party politics and to thwart the achievement of real agreement: presenting conflicts of interests as disagreement about facts.


It requires that establishing facts and balancing interests be separate processes. Any decision involves a purpose, an objective, as well as the means to achieve it and thus engages both (personal) interests and facts. In a democracy, agreement on these subjects must be reached by argumentation that must satisfy the democratic principle. Balancing individual or group interests against each other is done on basis of negotiations, in case of public matters by politics. To be democratic, fair, all citizens must be able to correctly evaluate the arguments about means in terms of their own values and interests. They can do so only if the statements of facts in the argumentation are as ‘true’ as possible, that they not distorted by the interests and values of other individuals, that they should in that sense be as objective as possible. Anyway, objectivity in the establishment of facts in decision-making is a general prerequisite for maximizing the likelihood of achieving its purpose, its effectiveness. In practice striving for objectivity in statements about facts means the elimination to the extend possible of all subjective elements in these statements, including appeals to sentiments. Remaining subjective elements must be stated explicitly. To meet that condition, relations between facts used in deduction must conform to the rules of the formal languages of logic and mathematics. The requirement of maximal objectivity can only be fulfilled if establishing facts is separated from balancing interests, from politics, a condition that has not been acknowledged, let alone performed, in today’s practice.
Who then should be responsible for providing facts that are not readily available to everyone?


Every citizen who encounters a lie or unintentional misstatement of facts must expose and attempt to redress it. Most of the facts required for social decision-making a modern society are not available for direct observation. We must engage scientific and philosophical theories and statements of facts. As said, at present a politician can almost always find a accredited and often prominent scientist to provide him with facts supporting the policy which he has chosen.

In physics and chemistry, most scientific laws and theories are generally accepted because they have successfully withstood the confrontation with facts. Even then, their application is specific situations leaves room to bias a conclusion. The climate discussion is a prime example. In social science there are few if any theories and factual statements which are uncontested, and even fewer which can be conclusively decided on basis of confrontation with facts. But analysis of their axioms and deductions can expose many of them as invalid. That same analysis – combined with available facts – usually allows us to rank survivors according to their likelihood at least in terms of “unlikely, likely or undecidable”. Responsibility for the function of selection is not even acknowledged by science, let alone performed. To fulfill that job, the scientists and philosophers must be conversant with methodology, know and understand today’s knowledge and be trained in its evaluation and its translation into statements that can be understood by a reasonably educated public. To remain objective and be acknowledged as such, they must form independent groups and produce conclusions containing a specification of their reliability that is underwritten by all members.

Unrealistic? Remember that democracy does not aim at perfection; it is the art of the possible and relies on the hope that this is adequate. That hope relies on two assumptions:

1)    That a working number of scientists are willing and able to do the job because they care for their democracy. If not, democracy as expression of the will of its members is doomed, an eventuality which only optimists with blinkers on can exclude.

2)    That they are able to reach agreement. All evidence shows that – outside physics – there is hardly one subject on which all scientists agree. Lack of agreement can have only two causes: the object on which agreement is sought is by its very nature not decidable even only as more or less likely than rivals, given our present knowledge about it. We can then agree that it is “undecidable”. The other is lack of the will of a participant to reach agreement. Evidence of a lack of will justifies excluding that person from the group. There always will be decisions that have to be taken without any adequate knowledge about the expected consequences of all available policies. Agreement that the subject is undecidable also is knowledge, for the decision will then have to take that into account and turn to available theories, rules and practices for dealing with such a situation, for instance a referendum. Even throwing dice is preferable to any argument that promises a fake security and reduces the probability of choosing an alternative which would have produced a better result.

The main reason why this proposal is not unrealistic is that it does not require agreement about facts on all decisions, but only on those where there is no agreement about facts or where the agreement on the facts is evidently ‘political’. Even then, the very existence of an effective control of the correctness of the statements about facts increases the cost of manipulating facts, especially if a record is kept of the perpetrators. Evident neglect of realism often can be exposed with little effort, for instance the expectation that a single business-cycle-independent percentage maximum deficit, enforced by the threat of a fine on what is a factually broke economy will guarantee stability of the Euro. Another is mentioned in paragraph 13, economics. And it is not unrealistic, because it does not aim at perfection, does not entail any optimalization, does not promise truth but the elimination of flawed theories and statements of facts. Its main aim is to  avoid disasters generated by misrepresentation of facts. It is conceived as an evolutionary process: as explained above, success in one case will increase the probability of success in others. Under these conditions, there are plenty of opportunities for achieving agreement at relatively little effort. Performing that function therefore is possible. But it will be realistic only if there are a sufficient number of capable persons who are willing to devote some of their time to such a project without any prospect of money or fame and without prejudices, purely for the sake of a healthy, preferably democratic, society.


Democracy has a price. It will flourish only if a sufficient number of people, especially scientists and philosophers, not only wish for democracy, but really want it and are prepared to pay its price, to make the necessary efforts, to fulfill the duties that – in a democracy – come with any right. The very first price is the subject of this site: agree on a workable and effective definition of our objective, democracy, including all those consequences that can be directly deduced from that definition. Democracy today is threatened by two ideologies, political Islam and the conflation of democracy with the unfettered capitalistic market- economy, and by other forms of dogmatism.


Immigration and the political Islam. The political Islam is openly imperialistic and therefore incompatible with democracy; conflict  is inevitable. Those who are conversant with the history of Christianity from the crusades up to the renaissance cannot but notice the similarity. A conflict with a totalitarian opponent can at best be neutralized temporarily by negotiations. If democracy is indeed the natural, logical future for all developed societies, and because military power of the non-Islamite states is far superior, political Islam is not a serious external threat to today’s democracies. What about an internal danger?

In Europe, we often see the immigration of Muslims with their superior fecundity as an internal threat. And rightly so, as long as we see democracy only as a set of laws, and not primarily as a set of principles, culture and morals that exclude a theocracy. To defuse the immigration time bomb, we must explain these to would-be immigrants, require explicit confirmation of their acceptance as a condition for immigration and see to it that the conditions for successful integration are met. An important condition is to acknowledge the stress which immigration may put on some local citizens and to help them deal with it.

Immigration itself always generates problems, for – as mentioned earlier – the smooth day-to-day functioning of a society depends on the ‘natural’, internalized commonality of values and behavior acquired in childhood by (mostly unconscious) imitation and by education. Some genetically determined predispositions common in various degrees to all human beings, for instance imitation and empathy, promote such integration of newcomers but may be thwarted by their background. Another general predisposition is pernicious: the primary reaction of fear and rejection to anything strange to the group, requiring a thorough educational effort on both immigrants and indigenes. The costs of the necessary integration, or of the failure to achieve it, will have to be borne by both native and immigrant to the best of their ability. Immigration will be successful only if in the end the advantage to the whole society justifies these costs. Even if the result is positive, the costs – as with all enterprises – precede the benefits, a consideration which often works against immigration in today’s staccato societies.

Economics as a science must be rescued from its ideological swamp by giving it a solid empirical foundation. It is just one aspect of the human being, and must be fitted into the whole, by testing all its axioms against the available empirical knowledge about the other aspects. Two axioms in particular need to be investigated:
-       the needs and resources, including their constraints, which economics is supposed to balance
-       the assumptions about the rational individual.

One such constraint is the laws of thermodynamics: nothing is gained or lost by itself, and no process can continue without consuming some energy from its surroundings, summed up as “there are no miracles”, at least not at our command. As evident as that seems, these laws apparently have not reached everybody, an oversight which enables finance and politics to devise miraculous win-win solutions for what actually are zero-sum games where the gain of one is achieved at the expense of a corresponding loss for another (an example is the financial wizardry which caused or at least exacerbated our present recession which was predictable, and predicted by the few realistic economists). Economists are familiar with the notion of unintended and often overlooked consequences of a certain economic policy, the ‘external effects’, but little is done about it. Some external effects, for instance on our environment, have by now claimed such a substantial space in our newspapers and TV that it has become impossible to ignore them. Other external effects have not even been acknowledged. Its effects on democracy for instance are prominently absent in economic theory. The above-mentioned tasks of the state are not part of any, or at least most, economic models, mainly because political philosophy and practice failed to achieve consensus about hem, and the effects of competition on the legitimacy and coherence of the society are totally ignored by economics. Globalization also has a profound influence on the ability of citizens to shape the destiny of their society. Like the law that bad money drives out good money, it could probably be shown that bad policy of some countries drives out good policy in others, unless the global market is regulated to prevent it. The deficiencies of the classical concept of a rational man deprived of his social dimension but endowed with a miraculous clear-sightedness and knowledge generated some discussions, but have not yet led to a revision of economic theory.

Both to fit economics into the whole picture and to develop adequate methods and models for ensuring the viability and prosperity of a democratic society, we need a model of a human society as a living system, which – as for all living systems – must include ensuring the maintenance of the source of that prosperity, our environment. The (mathematical) structure of that system mandates that its description be a common effort of all disciplines involved, which implies a coordination function which as yet is not even generally acknowledged, let alone fulfilled.

Pragmatism versus opportunism. The rejection of all dogmas other than the democratic principle inevitably leads to pragmatism; every objective and the means to achieve it are allowed as long as they do not conflict with it. That is good. It also opens the door to opportunism, which is not. The democratic pragmatist gives priority to achieving a democratic society above all his other objectives and principles because democracy expresses his view of what it means to be a social creature. The opportunist subjugates all other considerations, including democracy, to the objectives to his own individual self; it expresses the self-assertive side of an individual. Every individual must be to some extend be an opportunist if it is to survive. Because democracy is the form of social organization that leaves the maximal room for individual deployment, also opportunists have a vested interest in protecting democracy, and would do so if there was no way to dodge with impunity the sacrifices that democracy requires; dodging makes them a parasite, what economists call a ‘free rider’. Such opportunism is shortsighted but human, especially in out staccato society. At the pinnacle of reprehensible opportunism are the false prophets of ‘freedom above all’, ‘greed is good, the state is bad’, ‘shareholder-value above all’. Through demagoguery they abuse the freedom of speech and their financial clout to emasculate the political process so that they can with impunity grab political power and/or fleece citizens with their schemes. The same goup that monitors the facts used in democratic argumentation could  take on the task of exposing these practices.


The notion of democracy as a voluntary venture is in accordance with Rawls contract theory, p. 15, and his practical conclusions are fairly similar. But he starts with an original contract, and for the justification of its provisions he has to resort to a fictive original position and rational decision-makers with a specific decision-making rule: minmax. His arguments are far to sophistical to be understood, and certainly to be accepted, by a large majority of citizens. He provides no argument for justifying coercion to ensure compliance with the laws deduced from it. Applying the above democratic principle starts the way all real contracts do, with the specification of its objective (a viable and prosperous society) and continues with the determination of the authority in decision-making about the contract (equal authority) required to ensure compliance with its clauses which would are a dead letter without it. As with all contracts, objective and authority are the only immutable provisions of the contract. It contains its own justification of enforcing compliance, the Achilles heel of Rawls, and can be justified and explained without any artifacts. Some provisions can be directly deduced from it. Others are subject of negotiations between citizens, an evolutionary process that – as with all living systems – is open-ended. The principle of subjective equality entails both respect of everybody’s autonomy and equal authority, and thus covers the generally accepted but individualistic principle “of everybody’s equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with the similar liberty for others”. The social aspect of human beings (and Rawls’ second principle) is represented by the objective of the contract and the voluntary cooperation it entails; this social aspect is not done justice by the protagonists of the minimal state and by free-market fanatics.