The following is Professor Philip Pettit’s response to Jason Brennan’s piece on the nature of democracy. This is the second installment in a four-part debate between the two professors on the legitimacy of democracy as a system of social order. You can read the first installment here.

“Is democracy overrated?”

My answer to the question, numbingly predictable as it may be, is that it all depends.

It depends, in particular, on what is meant by the term, “democracy”. If democracy is equivalent to electoral rule, considered independently of other institutions, then it is surely overrated. If it is equated with a richer package that includes elections as one amongst a set of complementary institutional elements, then it is not.

“Democracy” is more than just an electoral system.

My counterpart Jason Brennan describes democracy as “merely a useful decision-making procedure”. By this, he means that democracy is an electoral mode of selecting the principal agents of the polity or state, presumably with a constraint under which the other more or less independent agents and agencies—in the U.S., for example, the judiciary, the Bureau of the Census, the Federal Reserve, etc.—are appointed by those elected.

If democracy requires nothing more than an electoral system of this kind, then it is certainly overrated. Consider democracy in the form it has assumed in the Russian Federation or the Republic of Turkey, where the elected leadership in each case has prioritized the importance of their electoral mandate but sought to remove or disable complementary institutions. The institutions marginalized are mainly devices of the sort associated, as Jason writes, with the civic republicanism I support. These devices, in his words, include “various checks and balances, the separation of powers, rights of speech, assembly, and open contestation, courts of appeals, limits on campaign finance and lobbying, and the like.”

Institutions like these are “contestatory” in nature or function, meaning that they give citizens the opportunity to contest the decisions of their representatives, and Jason agrees that such institutions can help to “reduce the amount of domination to which citizens are subject” at the hands of government. They will do this by putting obstacles or costs or difficulties in the way of any authorities who try to abuse their power.

He may also agree with me that the reduction of such domination is at least one of the purposes for which we might seek to give the people power: that is, to give the demos (“people”) kratos (“power”), as suggested by the etymology of “democracy”. And I think he will agree with me, finally, that in democracies, as normally understood, we expect such contestatory devices to be in place, side by side with electoral institutions.

Universal, equal adult suffrage is indispensable.

Jason and I may even agree that there is a broad sense of the term in which “democracy” requires contestatory as well as electoral institutions—my preferred account—and not just elections alone. But even if he does, we will still divide on a crucial issue. He is committed to the claim, not just that a purely electoral democracy is overrated, but that this is so of any richer package that includes elections. Whatever the merits of the package, he is opposed to the idea that it “requires universal, equal adult suffrage”.

On this crucial issue, I disagree with him. And I disagree despite acknowledging that the observations he makes about voter ignorance and irrationality are broadly correct. But if I acknowledge those aspects of voter performance, how can I hold that universal, equal voting—conducted, as we may presume, under an open, regular and competitive system—is an important part of the democratic package?

The answer, in brief, is that universal suffrage is essential for promoting what, under the best account of things, is the purpose of democracy.

And the best account of the purpose of democracy, like the best account of a poem or law, is a matter of interpretation. It is a matter of making the best sense of why we should have the institution; it is a matter of identifying the interest or value that the broad democratic package is most charitably taken to promote.

If we look at the history of democracies over the last couple of centuries, the best candidate for the value they have promoted has a dual aspect.

  1. Democracies have enabled community standards, under the pressure of election and contestation, to emerge and stabilize as points of reference that all sides of politics endorse: for example, that no one is of less than equal status; that separate is not equal; and that equality is an ideal across genders, ethnicities and sexual orientation, not just among mainstream, propertied males.
  1. Democracies have forced those in government, whether elected or not, to respond broadly to such standards: to rule out any policies in breach of them and to decide between ties—policies that are equally consistent with the standards—on the basis of processes that the standards support.

Democracy on this understanding operates to good effect over the long haul, where that effect may not be obvious in the hurly burly of short-term, electoral politics.

What enables it to achieve this effect? First, the fact that everyone in the polity is treated as a potential recruit. Second, the fact that in the struggle between competing causes, each side seeks to persuade all members of that polity, limiting the considerations invoked to ones that everyone can regard as relevant. And third, the fact that the final decision between causes is made on a basis that privileges those manifestly common considerations: in effect, those community standards.

Why does the ideal of slow democracy, as I have described it elsewhere, require a universal, equal suffrage? Because a system in which everyone has an equal vote, whatever the deficiencies of voter performance, is one where the leaders of different causes can afford to ignore no one. They have to make a case that answers to considerations that all can countenance, even if they weigh them differently.

If voters were just an elite, or if some voters were more empowered than others, then the public debate that generates and enforces community standards would almost certainly falter. Why would the leaders of various causes bother with the sorts of efforts that give us a democratic culture, if it were more effective to tailor arguments to the interests and concerns of an especially enfranchised minority?

You can read Jason Brennan’s opening argument here.