Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Requirements for a Stable Democracy

In the introduction to his Political Liberalism, John Rawls summarizes what he considers to be five fundamental features that are required in order for a democracy to be stable, just, and viable. In many ways Rawls is a fairly traditional left-liberal political thinker, but his work is uncommonly concerned with the role that the basis and structure of society has on the social outcomes that we deem just or unjust. Rawls is part of the Kantian tradition in moral and political philosophy, and thus occupied with trying to balance the twin goals of building a just and equal society society (which might be construed as an expression of Kant's dictum that one should do only what one might consent to as a universal principle of action) and the maintenance of the freedom and dignity of all persons in that society (Kant's dictum that persons should never be treated merely as means to an end). 

These twin goals are reflected in Rawls in the pursuit of social justice without compromising the principle that the consent and concerns of those affected by policies that lead to social justice are relevant to the discussion. One way to give a quick and dirty summary of Rawls' project is to say he wants to improve the lot of the worst off without undervaluing the freedoms of the well off. Rawls manages to simultaneously annoy Marxists and Libertarians, which, to me, is an indicator that he's on to something.

Rawls is normally a very abstract thinker who avoids direct arguments for particular political proposals, instead allowing them to fall out naturally from the general principles he has defended, but on occasion he will summarize the practical outcome of his arguments. Attempting to reconstruct the full rationale for even one of the political principles below would be too much for a blog post, but I thought I'd provide you with the list and then some thoughts on why it's at least plausible that each of the five are necessary for a fully functional democracy.

Here's the full list:
a.      Public financing of elections and ways of assuring the availability of public information on matters of policy. The statement of these arrangements (and of those below) merely hints at what is needed for representatives and other officials to be sufficiently independent of particular social and economic interests and to provide the knowledge and information upon which policies can be formed and intelligently assessed by citizens using public reason.
b.      A certain fair equality of opportunity, especially in education and training. Without these opportunities, all parts of society cannot take part in the debates of public reason or contribute to social and economic policies.
c.       A decent distribution of income and wealth meeting the third condition of liberalism: all citizens must be assured of the all-purpose means necessary for them to take intelligent and effective advantage of their basic freedoms. In the absence of this condition, those with wealth and income tend to dominate those with less and increasingly to control political power in their own favor.
d.      Society as an employer of last resort through general or local government, or other social and economic policies. Lacking a sense of long-term security and the opportunity for meaningful work and occupation is not only destructive of citizens’ self-respect but of their sense that they are members of society and not simply caught in it. This leads to self-hatred, bitterness, and resentment.
e.      Basic health care assured all citizens.
At first glance the list appears to merely be a grab-bag of left-liberal political positions, but Rawls thinks that they are necessary even for a stable democracy that might choose to pursue more conservative social goals as well. One important thing to note is that what Rawls is after in defending these principles is a political rationale, rather than a moral one. There are probably good moral reasons for doing some or all of the things on this list but moral views are not the sorts of things that one could possible expect to generate consensus, even among well meaning people. Honest disagreements will exist and it is not in the interest of democracy to attempt to eradicate those differences in most cases. So he aims instead at arguments that should be convincing for anyone who is genuinely interested in preserving a fair and functional democratic structure. A democracy that is not grounded on consent will be unstable, so the use of principles that garner widespread support is important.

On the face of it, public financing of elections isn't something that might jump out as a basic requirement for a democracy, but it seems straightforwardly clear that if access to polls--either for voters or candidates--is restricted by private interests then the chances that we'd elect a true representative of the populace are slim. Similarly with readily available information with regard to public policy. A well functioning democracy depends on a well informed population, which again cannot be achieved if our only access to information is through private news corporations that may have a vested interest in certain information being more or less widely available. I'm not one goes in for conspiratorial theories about corporate media nefariously propagandizing, but it is reasonable to think that a democratic society should not expect all its informational needs to be met by groups whose primary concern is profit rather than transparency.

Equal access to education is less controversial perhaps. There are a number of moral or other social reasons to advocate for equality of access to education, but the political reason Rawls highlights is important. Even if education for all was a neutral proposition according to other rationales, it would be vitally important for a properly functioning democracy. A population that doesn't understand the basic structure of our government, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, or the importance of participating in our common political life is more prone to be apathetic, disinterested, uninvolved. There's really no substitute for education in getting people interested in political affairs and making them willing and able to take part in the public debate.

Rawls' last three requirements are extremely contentious. His third point is the one that raises the hackles of Marxists and Libertarians alike. Rawls did not think that income inequality in and of itself was a bad thing, or a thing to be avoided at all cost. However, he did not think that any distribution of wealth whatsoever is acceptable simply on the grounds that the distribution was the product of the free market. A given unequal distribution of wealth is acceptable only if the inequality is responsible for the worst off being better off than they would have been otherwise. In other words, if a system that allows for some level of wealth disparity makes its poorest citizens better off than a strictly egalitarian society, then the former is preferable to the latter. The reason that we cannot simply allow markets to be the final say in who gets what is that a purely free market will not provide all citizens with sufficient means, as Rawls says, "to take intelligent and effective advantage of their basic freedoms." In a fully functional democracy, we can't simply rely on a negative conception of freedom as lack of hindrance as libertarians might. Some modicum of positive freedom--the actual possession of sufficient financial means for freedom to be meaningful--must exist for citizens as well. Without it, those with the means to participate in political activities and influence public decisions will be able to manipulate the system to their own advantage. If the poor have no way to leverage financial resources (either individually or collectively) toward achieving their political objectives, then those with means are essentially afforded a political opportunity those without are not.

Rawls' fourth requirement is controversial as well, but might serve to temper the criticisms some on the right might have of the third. Rawls here is advocating the idea that unemployment is more than an economic problem. Unemployment is a political problem, and persistent unemployment is a problem not just because the unemployed cost society money, but because it actually robs the unemployed of their right to be a full participant in the society in which they live. Both in the minds of others in society and in their own minds, Rawls contends, there is a tendency to see those who rely on public assistance and do not work as less than full members of society. Serious implementation of an idea like this would cause us to re-evaluate some of our current social programs that may have the unintended consequence of discouraging people who receive public assistance from seeking employment and perhaps replace that with publicly funded employment opportunities for those who need help and are able to work. I'm personally more ambivalent to this requirement than the other four, but I do think there is something to the idea that everyone has something to contribute to society, and it is fair for society to ask them to contribute what they can.

Basic health care is required for reasons similar to the considerations that support the idea of decent income distribution. It is not enough to say that medical care is available for those who can pay for it. It's simply an unreasonable expectation to think that a person can participate in society at the level a functional democracy requires of its citizens if she is overburdened by medical bills and health concerns related to herself or a family member.

A fully functional democracy is not one that provides its citizens with the legal right to participate in the life of the body politic and stops there. If we genuinely value the contributions of all citizens in the political sphere then the means to their participation has to be ensured as well. Not all rights generate obligations on the part of society--our right to bear arms doesn't mean the government is obligated to buy me a gun--but those basic rights and freedoms we have as equal citizens do in fact entail the idea that society has the obligation to ensure that those rights are more than empty words.

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