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Rethinking democracy

This blog will essentially be a second part to the important discussions Allen and raventhorn started about democracy. I will present a philosophical discussion so that we may better think from a different and deeper perspective about this notion than everyday people may be used to by looking at its fundamental structure.

Philosophers have always spoken of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. Arguments for its strength go back to Aristotle or maybe even before. These include the the idea that

  1. Democracies rely on the knowledge base of the many to make decisions and because collective knowledge for a large population will always be larger than any individual in it, democracies can make more informed and accurate decisions.
  2. There is also the argument that a government’s primary role is to benefit its people and the people themselves are the best experts at knowing what are in their best interests.
  3. Some philosophical arguments suggests that only a democracy is a legitimate kind of government for it has the consent of the people thereby gaining right to rule over them.

I will talk more about benefits as well as potential hazards of democracy below but first a definitional point.

Many people in the west and probably in China as well take for granted what democracy is. They have a view and think it is unproblematic and go from there in arguing the benefits or ills of this kind of government. However, the very notion of democracy is itself problematic. I think once we think more carefully on what democracy means, we will have new appreciation of not only the nuanced philosophical depth of the idea but also have a better appreciation of how modern China is run. The upshot is that China is far more democratic than many people think and that the US and many self-proclaimed western nations are far less so.

I will call the basic, common conception of democracy the “naive view.” This view, as I take it, sees democracy simply as a form of government with formal institutions of voting. The system of voting is to either elect officials who make all the policies and rules thereby ruling the country or it is a system of “direct” governance where the votes are for the policies and rules themselves. The votes work by what is called “simple majoritarianism.” That is, when a majority (absolute or plural) percentage of votes are for some measure, the measure gets passed.

That is obviously not how the US government works (unless in a few select states with a few select “referendums”) nor is it for other major “democracies.” These democracies work like the former system of rule by elected officials.

But a system of voting is neither necessary nor sufficient for a democracy. That is because the fundamental idea of democracy has to do with collective decision making. Democracy on this philosophical foundational idea seeks to make more explicit just what it means for a collection (two or more) people to decide on something.

I know what it is like, from self-reflection, what it is for me to decide in favor of some action. By analogy, I know what it is like for someone else to decide in favor of some action. But the problem is, what does it even mean for a collection of people to decide?

Simple majoritarianism is one solution. The people vote and whatever is the majority choice is the decision for the group. So the majority’s choice simply is made the group’s decision.

However, there are severe difficulties with this conception because it sometimes do not capture well what we would consider the decisions of the group even when the majority chooses it.

Why simple majoritarianist voting is not sufficient for democracy

This is most consistently seen in society where effective propaganda or implicit or explicit threats  propagated by a small group of powerful individuals influences public behavior. Often small groups can coerce or influence the masses using threat of force or other threats. In that case, even though the majority votes in some way, it may not be their choice because it is really the choice of a select powerful few who had used coercive tactics to sway the vote. Often many, self-proclaimed “democracies” in very corrupt and poor countries resemble this scenario.

A small group may also wield disproportionate power by influencing the masses and manipulating their choices using less heavy-handed means. Consider effective propaganda. In this case, propaganda, that is, false information, misleading information and effective concealment of relevant alternative information is used in place of coercion to influence the vote. People think they are voting for their and their fellow citizen’s best interests but in reality, they are voting for the interests of a small minority of powerful individuals who control the media. They have been misled in doing so. In this case, the majority may think they are voting for some measure but is it really their decision if the rationale they use to make their decisions are based on lies fed to them by a small minority? I think you can make a good case that it is not really their decision at all but the decision of that small group (does this hypothetical “democracy” sound familiar?).

So it would seem that voting either directly or indirectly for a representative is not sufficient for a true democracy. But I now argue, it may not even be necessary.

Why simple majoritarianist voting is not even necessary for a democracy

Consider a society where the rulers are a small minority of the population. They are perhaps philosopher kings, or maybe gods or maybe even very advanced computers. They are benevolent dictators, let’s say. And imagine that this group of enlightened beings often surveys the population for their opinions and needs and makes a sincere effort at investigating their welfare.

They then institute what that population most desire and what satisfies their welfare. Policies and rules are designed by those individuals in power not so as to benefit themselves specifically but to benefit the society as a whole. Their decisions are made with the welfare of everyone in mind. Sounds far-fetched? Well, in most dictatorships, this is not how things go so people have some right to incredulity. Most dictators are not benevolent, of course, but some may be.

Now the question is, how democratic is the society I just described that did involve elite decision makers who are benevolent? Remember that the basic intuitive notion of democracy is collective decision making. So if the minority of elite rulers make their decisions based on the needs, wishes and welfare of the masses and the masses agree with the major decisions of the elites, why are not those decisions as much a decision by the masses as it is by the elites? In this case, there is no formal vote but the decisions reflect the needs, wishes and welfare of the masses (does this sound familiar?).

Some people may object and say that despite the fact that the decisions reflect the views or choices of the public and responds to their welfare in this scenario, because it is the ultimate decision of the elite few and not the public, it is not the collective that is making the decision and ergo not a democracy.

But one only needs to reflect that in a representative democracy, the kind we have in almost all known democratic governments in the world today, it is the elite few that makes the decisions and not the public as well. So whatever kind of objection that is, it also must be applied to representative democracies as well but few are willing to bite the bullet and say that representative democracies are not really democracies based on the same reasoning.

I, however, think that so long as the people informatively endorse or consent to the decisions of the elites without being swayed by propaganda and the decisions from the elites are an extension of the people’s own interests and out their demands, it doesn’t matter to the democracy whether those elites are elected or gain power through some other means (meritocratic selection processes, etc).

I’ve given arguments that seems to show that voting and simple majoritarianism is not necessary nor sufficient for a democracy. But what is then a democracy?

Throughout the last 50 years and especially the last 30, many political philosophers have focused on a conception of democracy that seems to model itself on the scientific process. Science, as we are all taught from a young age, is a community-based method to gain knowledge. It works by hypothesis formation, empirical theory testing, and most relevantly, building off the knowledge of previous science and discussing findings in a public scientific forum. That way, evidence becomes objective. There is no such thing as private evidence. What is evidence for me ought to be replicable for you. Scientists do their jobs essentially by giving each other reasons. Controversies are resolved this way. Hence also why there is so much consensus on core issues in science.

In other words, the scientific community comes to have consensus through rational discourse. Hence, science is often called a discursive discipline.

Philosophers have seen this as a model for how democratic society ought ideally to work as well. Granted most people will never be scientists or mathematicians or philosophers. They simply do not have the ability or desire but it is an ideal to which to build the conceptual foundations of democracy because many philosophers realized that it is through this method that society as a whole can best avoid being coerced by propaganda from a few powerful interests groups, for example, or not doing what is in society’s best interests because of biases and misinformation. It is also through this method that we have our best chances at arriving at consensus for what to do as a society.

A society that best institutes practices most conducive to rational discourse and collective decision making is a more democratic society. Thus this makes democracy a multifaceted affair, a property of the whole society rather than some one (formal) element such as voting. It is dependent on many things such as the quality and availability of good education, how well the society protects freedom of expression and information availability, how well the actual decision-makers respond to the discourse in favor of the choices of the public, etc.

There may be many ways to institute such a conception of democracy. There is no one “right way” because this kind of democracy is so multifaceted; there are many ways to skin a discursive democratic cat. The responsibility to institute such a society is up to all the people in it applying the heuristics of critical thinking, creative problem solving, mediation and so forth.

But now we may also see some problems with this conception of a discursive democracy. First objection may be: This conception of democracy aligns itself with a method that is common among scientists. But the problems scientists deal with are often much simpler and more conducive to being resolved wholly or mostly and thus consensus better easily achieved. Society’s problems are often much more complex and difficult to resolve conclusively. Thus consensus is often very difficult if not impossible to achieve.

This much is true. But political philosophers see discursive democracy as an ideal, a point at the limit. They may argue that this conception which focuses on rational discourse is the best method we have at resolving the difficult issues that face us. Human rationality, in all its finiteness and frailty, is still better than none at all. We should also be aware that often issues in society seem intractable not because the issues are intractable but because the people discussing them are intractable. That is, they are simply not reasonable, not conducive to rational debate and evidence.

There are general ways that may make a discursive democracy more functionally efficient. One is mediation. When consensus cannot be reached, a society may engage in collective brain storming to find a middle point in which there is some degree of consensus, a modus vivendi, until a more agreeable solution is found. A unanimous agreement will never be reached in any large society but it is through the process of coming ever more closer to complete consensus in larger and larger representative group that a discursive democracy is to be understood. In that way also, it mimics the scientific ideal.

Furthermore, in a discursive democracy, we may only wish to focus on an “overlapping consensus.” That is, some have argued that in our society, we focus too much on where everyone disagrees. This causes tensions. But we do not notice all the views we have in common. Society may best be ruled if we focus on the aspects we can agree on (the overlap). Differences are “put off until a wiser generation” to resolve in the words of Deng Xiaoping when he spoke of how territorial disputes between China and its neighbors are to be resolved.

These differences are put off but then applied the same discursive methods again at some later time to be collectively discussed and reasoned. Repeat cycle if necessary. Some of the most pressing issues, of course, will require quick and decisive action and thus the cycle of discourse must be ended with a vote or some other decision procedure.

This is also a conception of democracy that is optimistic about human potential. It also sees that with education and a nurturing society, human beings are capable of achieving much more.

The second major problem I see with the discursive model is the fact that it may, in the words of the philosopher Francois Lyotard, “privilege the articulate” (as opposed to the truly wise). I take this problem to be the most serious and I do not have fast and easy answers to how it, if at all, it may be resolved or at least made less problematic other than perhaps instituting better education systems that makes better communicators and people better at critical thinking (so that they may distinguish the wise discourse from the merely persuasive and articulate).

A discursive democracy also requires a certain kind of society. One that has a highly developed education system that inculcates especially critical thinking skills and reasonableness across its population. Additionally, the culture of that society would need to be highly conducive to debate, mediation and dialogue, a culture that is tractable and reasonable and is sensible to taking responsibility for the actions and aims of themselves and their society. But such as society is rare and may only come after significant economic and cultural development.

Other deficiencies of democracies widely known also apply to this model. Democracies can often be slower than other forms of government in coming to decisive action. Again, there are ways to make this less problematic but it still remains a serious problem.

What this means for China’s future

China’s development politically and culturally seems to suggest that it is a candidate for this kind of democracy or some version of it. In fact, China may already be on its way as some of the most exciting democratic experiments in the world employing discursive procedures are now employed at both ends of society: namely at the local village, township, county levels through town-hall style meetings and elections as well as the CCP’s politburo.

I will relay a story I have heard by a western journalist telling of a Chinese village’s democratic experiment that illustrates almost perfectly how discursive democracy may work.

He told of a village that gave citizens cameras and video recorders. Whenever there was an election, if the roads the local politicians promised to fix were not fixed, if the lights in town were still broken, if there were any evidence of corruption documented, the citizens would show the tape to the town hall where the election was conducted and where the candidate is selling his or her qualifications to win their votes. The officials would be humiliated in front of his family and friends if such evidence were exposed in front of everyone.

Even his supporters may lose face as well if they had publicly supported such a candidate or is the candidates kin or friend. In such a way, in this town, there are almost always good roads, competent financial management, low corruption and solid infrastructure development. That is because politicians will go out of their way not to lose face because they know they will eventually be held accountable by the citizens.

Citizens know they will be required to take active responsibility for discussing, showing evidence and reasoning about how worthy a candidate is for election or reelection. Citizens also know they will be held responsible for their own votes so they had better make informed decisions. In this way, everyone is holding everyone else responsible. These kinds of villages will likely pop up more frequently across China’s rural and maybe even metropolitan areas in the near future.

At the other end of society is the powerful politburo. This is the body that determines how China is to be run in its major economic, social and political policies. It has 24 members. There is surprising equality in the politburo with the president (Hu) and premier (Wen) having roughly equal standing among the rest. They are all elected by other communist officials based on merit.

Any top government official is expected to go to the country’s top college designed specifically to train future leaders. The classes are described as training them for the open, rational discussion and creative problem solving they will encounter when they are elected to power.

Decisions are made not based on simple majoritarian vote but through building of consensus (see here for an interesting first-hand account of how this discursive process works in the politburo). Stubborn issues that are divisive are put off until a better solution that all can agree on is found. Only those issues that are within the overlapping consensus are agreed to be finalized as decisions for the country unless there is a pressing need to institute some decision quickly. In that case a decision is made by vote but the issue is considered “open” and may be revised later when there is more room for discussion. The Central Committee (300-400 members) is also run by this essentially democratic/discursive/consensus-building method.

I see the CCP as continuing to enlarge this political philosophy or something like it for other aspects of the Chinese political structure in the near future.


I hope to have shown that there are both good and bad properties of democracies and more specifically, a certain conception of democracy. Ultimately what determines how well it functions is the more nuanced aspects of the society. Its education, culture, economic development as well as its formal legal and political institutions make it a democracy. The weighing of the potential for good vs bad is up to the citizens to decide if they are worth it in the end (I happen to think that this form of democracy is). But in so deciding, they are engaging in a kind of public democratic discourse.

There is no fast and easy conception of democracy. Democracy is not a simple byproduct of voting booths but a complex property of the society as a whole. There are many criteria that determines how democratic a society is on a spectrum. Dichotomous thinking pitting a naïve conception vs the political Other is not only harmful for the development of democracy elsewhere but for our own development along democratic lines. China is instituting many measures that may well be democratic on a very fundamental level. That sort of democratic expansion from two opposite ends of society is in the direction towards the middle, bridging the gap.

No society is ever totally democratic. But there is legitimate movement towards that direction in China.

The future is bright for a truly vibrant and responsible society where more and more Chinese citizens have more power, say and accountability in their lives. Through better education and due to its particular culture that emphasis tolerance for plurality and Confucian rational dialogue without dogmatism I believe that China can institute a truly democratic society based on sound philosophical principles (democracy with Chinese characteristics) and not mere superficial democratic packaging. It will develop according to its own pace and according to its own route. China does not need to be lectured about democracy by a country that is ruled not by “The People” but by soulless entities: multigazillion dollar corporations and bought politicians who are looking out only for the top .1%.

Addendum: Allen asked at the end of his blog if it could be fruitful to employ “scientific” methods in democratic theory or practice such as game theory. Such methods have already been applied by political philosophers to illuminate formal collective decision problems such as Condorcet problems and Arrow’s impossibility theorem. See the work of Christian List and Philip Pettit (both advocates of the discursive democratic model) for example.

  1. February 8th, 2012 at 16:55 | #1

    Great read.

    >I see the CCP as enlarging this political philosophy or something like it for other aspects of the Chinese political structure in the near future.

    In 2007, the CPC officially ratified into its constitution The Scientific Development Concept to take the discursive nature of scientific discipline into governance.

    I some time feel “democracy” has become such a bastardized idea and there is no point in salvaging this term.

  2. Wahaha
    February 8th, 2012 at 19:00 | #2

    if it could be fruitful to employ “scientific” methods in democratic theory or practice such as game theory.


    Democracy means majority rule.

    Science is always in the hand of very few people.

    They contradict to each other, there is no way to bypass that, the best you can do is balancing.

  3. Wahaha
    February 8th, 2012 at 19:10 | #3

    There are general ways that may make a discursive democracy more functionally efficient.


    Everyone knows the following quote :
    “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”

    What do people want ? a fish.

    What does a good government want ? teach fishing.

    Discursive democracy is built on wealth, that is, when people have little to worry about financial situation and government has a deep pocket, otherwise it is impossible. Education can help, but good education also needs wealth.

    People, as a group, are very stupid :

    One stupid person out of 100 people can make 98 of the other 99 people stupid.

    99 clever people can not make the last one smart.

  4. February 9th, 2012 at 00:58 | #4

    An enlightening piece from Melektaus on the way forward for China … Not trying to rebut except I don’t think what you have in mind is a “complete” idea … something crucial is amiss, I think. Maybe I read you wrong, please do enlighten further: –

    I take it as the whole idea is let there be root level ‘democracy’, ultimately the nation is driven by decision of a selected few … Sorta Totalitarianism + Authoritarianism ‘driven’ by Vox Populi who can scream and shout till the cow come home and yet they actually don’t have any say, ultimately the “elites” can and will still do whatever they like simply because they can never be fired, barely any competition and accountability, so to speak.

    This is fine and dandy if you can have only good guys sitting at the top. This is also why some monarchies and authoritarian states are actually some of the best nations ever. However, the ugly truth is chances for you to have “good guy” sitting at the top is as good as Nil. Zero, zilch, Nada.

    Generally I do agree that too much freedom can lead to indecision and even chaos. But that is still better than leaving the whole show to a selected few who can never be fired as long as they have the support of their fellow elitist clique. Tell me, what incentive or threat do they have so much so that they must be “nice” to the masses under such circumstances ? If not, why should they even bother with the view and or desire of the masses ?

    I am yet to come across any politician that is truly altruistic or benevolent, some monarchs maybe. This is not hard to understand since politics is essentially a dirty business. So how can a good guy possibly come out as winner in a dog-eat-dog world of filth ? That can only happen with the support of the masses (meaning the Chief must be elected directly by the populace, I think), not just couple dozens of elites as in the case of China’s Standing Committee or Politburo. I admit I don’t even know what exactly is the structure of these almighty Sino entities because I just don’t think it’s necessary. All I know is they can never be fired and as such, it’s only fair to expect “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely” under such circumstances.

    Does that mean China must adopt Congressional Democracy (US style) or Parliamentary Democracy (UK style) so that people can have a say and to have some check and balance, so to speak ? No, it may be somewhat necessary but not a must.

    I do agree with most of what you have mentioned except I think your model will only lead to “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely” (as it is now). Basically, politicians must be held accountable for wrong and misdeed and there must be a mechanism to fire the “offender” either individually and or severally.

    How ? I do have some ideas but I haven’t really got the time to give them any serious though yet. I’d appreciate if you advise how can the masses get rid of “bad guy” in your model of governance ?

  5. February 9th, 2012 at 06:03 | #5

    Freedom or democracy is a funny term. It can be defined whatever you want. Ask any Iraqi, you will get an honest answer that seems our effort of fighting and all the fallen heroes in the wars for their freedom is totally unjustified.

    When my classmate was a child in Hong Kong, he wondered why you westerners fighting to improve his job conditions while it meant it was his only meal for the day.

    In many cases, people prefer to live under dictatorship and/or being exploited. Your yardstick is good for your society, and not mine.

    Most democratic cities in Asia except Japan and S.Korea are/were corrupt. It could due to the education level of their citizens. You cannot weigh the same vote for an educated urbaner and an uneducated farmer.

  6. February 9th, 2012 at 14:22 | #6


    “Democracy means majority rule.”

    It’s more complicated than that. Democracy means a diffusion of power to as many people in the population as possible so that decisions that impact the group are made “collectively.”

    “Science is always in the hand of very few people.”

    Not really. Anyone can do science. That’s doesn’t mean everyone will. But science is open to all. Evidence is objective and open to all. So everyone has access to scientific findings and methodology.

  7. February 9th, 2012 at 14:23 | #7


    “Freedom or democracy is a funny term. It can be defined whatever you want. ”

    Something has gone wrong if you choose to “define” it as a potato.

  8. LOLZ
    February 9th, 2012 at 15:08 | #8

    At the end of the day Democracy is just a system to elect leaders. The key still lies with quality of the leaders. Popularity wins people elections, but unfortunately popularity doesn’t necessarily make effective leaders. The problem with democracy is that it doesn’t necessarily solve problems. On paper democracy should strengthen accountability and efficiency, but looking at US and India it’s clear that democracy instead has produced political gridlocks and polarization. China being a one party system oddly puts its own government on the hook because if there is no one else to blame but the Chinese government.

    I think democracy may do China good in some areas (reduce corruption, more open media), but there are also a lot of risks. Ultimately I think it should be up to individual citizens to decide which is their preferred system without outside influence.

  9. pug_ster
    February 9th, 2012 at 20:48 | #9

    I do find it funny that in the recent years, you don’t see alot of world leaders poke at China about its ‘lack of democracy’ and the ‘need’ to reform to a democracy.

  10. zack
    February 9th, 2012 at 22:54 | #10

    because they need China more than China needs them, and once this crisis is over, i’ll bet most westerners will get right back to bitching about China; best to use this opportunity to extract as much out of europe and america in their weakened states

  11. February 10th, 2012 at 14:02 | #11


    On your notion of minority capture of a passive minority, here are some links that may be of interest (links shared among the editors some time ago, which may be useful to link in your piece above.




    About the idea of democracy by the masses and democracy by an elite, I usually like to ask the question this way: the notion of a government of the people, by the people, for the people is very popular – but does a democracy require all three – and must all three work together?

    The notion of government for the people may be the easiest to support – we all want a gov’t that looks to the long term, that does things that is best for society as a whole. We don’t want a government to be captured by a minority or short-term interest.

    What about the notion of a government of the people? I think that’s important also: a government not of the people can be captured too easily by special interest. That’s why I think it’s dangerous for people to consider NGOs (even though I support some) as some sort of supra government organization. NGOs are special interest groups – nothing less and nothing more. That’s why colonial governments also don’t work. They are institutions of other peoples and / or sovereigns. That’s why I am also wary of UN reaching too much into internal affairs of sovereign nations. If a government is sponsored by foreign people or gov’ts or international organizations or special interests – then it is not “of the people.” It cannot be considered democratic, however well-meaning it is. Only a gov’t that is supported by – fed by – the people – i.e. supported by tax revenue from the people themselves – is a government “of the people.”

    The most relevant notion to your piece is the notion of “by the people.” How important is that?

    You correctly identified two problems of democracy. First is the issue of what is a collective decision. There have been strong criticisms from scholars who study social choice (collection decision) – who claim our notion of democracy does not jive with reality. The collective decision of people has little to do with the will of the people.

    A simple example –

    say there are 3 people, with the following preferences:

    A: x>y>z
    B: y>z>x
    C: z>x>y

    What is the preference of the group?

    If one goes with majority rule, one might say, well since 2 people like x>y (A, C), 2 like y>z (A, B); and 2 like y>x; 2 like z>x, the group preference (if they vote) is circular: x>y>z, but where z>x – an inconsistent solution – an impossibility!

    Another way to see this:

    I might want to take a boat to the left island to get supplies: you might want to go to the right. We bicker. But as we fight each other at the wheel, we go nowhere (go straight) and miss both islands. We don’t get to resupply at all. The collective decision reflects neither of our desires.

    Here is a related point, more about the dynamics than logic of group decision making, through a joke:

    1. What happens when 1 monk tills the water? The monk tills the water faithfully and regularly everyday.

    2. What happens when 2 monks till the water? The two monks find a pole and jointly tilling the water everyday.

    3. What happens when 3 monks till the water? No water gets tilled. They argue with each other constantly over whose turn it is to till the water.

    Has the monks “spoken” when they don’t till water?

    Is it there something corrupt about group decision making that make good people make bad decisions?

    A typical response to the above conundrums about group decision is that people must rise among themselves and see the group as a whole. People must be deliberative in their collective decision making.

    People should anticipate that if they fight, they will get nothing. Rather than negotiate for individual interests, people should become citizens that hold out for the long-term interests of society as a whole.

    So while A, B, C can each have their preference become corrupt if they merely vote, they need to have substantive dialogue and rearrange each of their preferences for the group and in the process come up with a consensus for the group.

    You and I at the helm need to understand that if we fight, we go nowhere, and agree on which island to go for resupply that is palatable to both.

    The monks have only themselves to blame when no water is tilled. They need to be proactive and deliberative in their group decision making.

    In the end, democracy can work the work we think they work only if people rise above individuals to become “citizens” who are proactive about democratic governance. Anything less results in capture – where the results is more reflective of gaming dynamics of politics than a reflection of any will of a people – where the notion of “the people” means nothing.

    In the end, I think it’s more important to focus on government for the people and of the people. A government “by the people” is at best an experiment. A government “of the people” is important for independence – which is the foundation for empowerment and liberation. A government “for the people” is the goal everyone should strive for.

  12. February 10th, 2012 at 14:39 | #12


    The decision problem you identified is a version of the Arrow’s impossibility theorem, is it not?

    Here‘s an interesting talk on the Arrow impossibility theorem. Look at the comments section. It has one comment by the author of the podcast in which he describes a real life problem he encountered with the decision problem!

    There are also other rational collective decision problems that illustrate the paradoxes of collective decision. My favorite is actually a version of the Condorcet problem (a very close cousin of the Arrow’s impossibility problem).

    Consider a collection of three people (you, me, and YinYang, e.g.). Consider simple majoritarianism for this population.

    Now we have a vote on a proposal. We’ll call that “A.” Let’s say that this is how we vote on A:

    melektaus: Yay

    Allen: Yay

    YinYang: Nay

    According to simple majoritarianism, A gets passed 2:1 with only YinYang voting against.

    Now we decide to vote on “B” a separate measure or policy. Let’s say this is how the voting goes:

    melektaus: Nay

    Allen: Yay

    YinYang: Yay

    Again, B gets passed because of majority vote (you and YinYang) with me as the only nay vote.

    Now consider what would happen if instead of passing A and B separately, we pass them conjointly (A & B).

    I would vote nay because I don’t agree with B. YinYang would not agree because he is against A. Since only one person (you) are for both A and B, you are the only one voting Yay on A & B so it gets rejected! But that seems irrational of the group. The group, if it is to be rational, ought to obey normal rules of deduction, that is if A is true and B is true, then A & B is true. We have a problem.

    These kinds of problems (there are a plethora of these kinds and worst of all, sometimes they can be exploited to favor one candidate or policy over another by the powerful few by gerimandering the choices etc) plague all societies except for strict dictatorships or monarchies (rule of one single person). Dictatorships and monarchies have their own problems, of course.

    The philosophers who have supported the discursive model (such as List, Pettit, Josh Cohen and John Rawles) have made very interesting arguments that in a discursive democracy, these kinds of problems are not as problematic as they are in other forms of government including other democracies (such as the liberal/procedural one we live in). You cannot ever completely get rid of their possibility but you can reduce their problematic nature by consensus-building which is a central focus of discursive democracies.

  13. February 10th, 2012 at 21:43 | #13


    Yes … we are talking the same things.

    Deliberative democracy – or discursive democracy – is the key to understanding democracy – not representative democracy or direct democracy.

    Deliberative democracy can only happen among people who want to actively participate – who are qualified to participate – in democratic decision making.

    All this should not be controversial.

    Now comes the million dollar question: so who is qualified to participate?

    It’s certainly possible that one says that only a practiced elite, only a special mandarin class who have the requisite training (skill) and teachings (ethics) should. The problem is then how do you make sure this class really will look after the interest of the people – of society – and not themselves? Some in the West would posit this problem as: how do you deal with a “bad emperor”?

    It’s also certainly possible that one says that everyone one should have a right. The question is then how do you make sure the average voters have the requisite knowledge, skills and will to vote with the interest of the people in mind not just themselves? As discussed in your post and my comment above, mere electoral aggregation of many voices does not result in a people’s voice per se. How do you make sure you have a true democracy – not a mass opiate that justifies an unconscious democracy – which is not a democracy at all.

    In other words, as I pointed out in a prior post:

    One thing I’m always amazed at is the extent to which people uncritically advocate the norm of relying on the decisions of the masses to make the most important policy decisions. It’s a most dangerous game of “monday night quarterbacking” carried to the extreme. For a electoral democracy to work, it is not sufficient to have elections … or a Constitution (see this post); “many other stars have to align: the media has to be fair and objective to generate good public debates; the people have to be educated enough, well fed enough, and to care enough about the political process to participate in meaningful speech; the public needs to also have a healthy sense of social awareness and public duty to exercise speech toward the good of society – not just for themselves.” (see this post)

    Whatever your position, one should accept the idea that democracy in general is an experiment. One should not be too ideological about it. There might be one dominant narrative on what is a democracy. But facts are stranger than fiction. Let’s learn from each other’s experiences and not be so quick to put down others’ experiences!

  14. melektaus
    February 11th, 2012 at 13:20 | #14


    Agree. Democracies of whatever stripe should be experimental. They should always be put in context and scrutinized for their legitimacy. The problem is that people think simplistic terms about what they are not realizing that there isn’t just one kind and that countries may democratize in other ways, sometimes closer to a more robust conception, like China is doing. Governments in general should never be ideology sought but actively practiced. Americans believe they are in a democracy not realizing that that may not be the case and they criticize China for not being a democracy not realizing that that is also inaccurate.

    You also made a good point about consent of the public in another blog. I agree there. I did not read it until you hypertexted it above but it seems to be making the same point as me that consent to be ruled can often take place without voting and conversely voting is sometimes not robust informed consent (in the case of coercion by force or propaganda). You can make a good case that China’s rulers have more consent to be rulers from their people than Americans rulers from theirs.

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