Republic or democracy: For the many, not the few

“Republic” means, more or less literally, “a government serving the public interest”. According to Thucydides, Pericles thought that this is also what democracy means:

It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is run with a view to the interest of the many, not of the few. Thucydides 2.37.1 (trans. S. Hornblower).

(In fact, it would probably be difficult to find a justification for a regime of any kind which does not at its root rely on the claim that it serves the public interest. Thus the common wisdom that the ascendancy of “democracy” is a modern phenomenon should be treated with caution.)

Using this definition, the difference between republic (or any other regime) and democracy can be summed up by asking “public interest, according to whom?”

The crucial point is that in a democracy it is the people themselves who are to say whether their interests are served, while in a republic (or any other regime) a select group gets to decide what the public interest is and how well it is served. Democratic ideology asserts that people are the best judges of their own interests. This leads to a straightforward and useful operationalization of the concept of democracy: a regime is democratic to the extent that the people who are governed by that regime believe it serves their interests, where their opinions are equally weighted. A survey, rather than expert opinion, is the best way to determine whether a particular regime is democratic.

It turns out, then, that “for the people by the people” is first of all an epistemic statement and that political equality and citizen participation is expressed in the first instance in the measurement of democracy rather than in its attainment. The rest is to be derived from that democratic starting point.

61 Responses

  1. Interesting take…

    I think things are more nuanced though, as there seem to be at least 3 axes at play here:
    1. The extent that specific people feel that their interests are represented (exactly as you suggest).
    2. The population or sub-population to which this is applicable. It is possible and quite realistic that different sub-populations out of the people being governed have a different feeling about how well their interests are represented.
    3. The expectations by various sub-populations of actually getting fair representation. I.e. there may be some people being governed that don’t actually feel entitled for representation.

    To take the US, that you allude to via the Gettysburg Address, as a concrete example:

    When the address was given, it was clear to everyone that only white male land-owners as included in the notion of “people” (if memory serves, these were the main qualifications). So, while this sub-population may have indeed felt well represented at that point, other sub-population… probably not so much.

    Fast forward to today’s US: Some of the issues above are resolved, but consider the many immigrants in the US, or even tourists. They are definitely being governed, but do they expect to get representation?

    All this makes the “democratic equation” a little more involved because it introduces more variables, which I think are pertinent. However, I think this thought framework can be very valuable for explaining how people indeed perceive “democracy” or alternatively, how they bend this perception according to their needs.

    To take another example: The Israeli regime famously describes itself as “the only democracy in the middle east” which is possibly quite true, but only if you take a very lenient view towards axis #2 above. If you count the people in the occupied territories – possibly the notion of “Israeli democracy” starts looking less glamorous.

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  2. “government of the people, by the people, for the people”

    There are three prepositions in this phrase from the Gettysburg Address, so why the exclusive focus on the third? The problem is that any system (including monarchy and dictatorship) could lead to government in the interests of the people.

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  3. @Keith: Could.

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  4. Hubertus: Should I take your “Could” to mean “theoretically possible, but unlikely”? Perhaps so, but a serious study of different systems of government needs to take on board other variables than the interests of the governed — “of” and “by” are just as important as “for” in this respect.

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  5. Anonymous,

    Yes – the question of who is to be considered part of “the people” is certainly of interest.

    One option for answering this question is to conceive of democracy as a predicate having two arguments – the political unit and the reference group of people. So that it may be said that “government X is democratic with respect to group Y but not with respect to group Z”.

    Another option is to answer this question, as I did in post, by defining the “people” as “all those who are governed by the regime”. By this definition the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza must certainly be considered part of the reference group when deciding whether Israel is a democratic society. For the US, there is a strong case to be made that large parts of the world population should be part of the reference group.

    A couple of asides:

    1. Neither Israel nor the US are democratic even when limiting the reference group to their official group of citizens alone,

    2. Even by normal Western standards (which equate “democratic” with “electoralist”), and even when limiting the reference group to the official group of citizens, I don’t know what makes Israel more democratic (i.e., more electoralist) than Lebanon. So this is a third way by which the claim about Israel being “the only democracy in the Middle East” is false.

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  6. @Yoram: “A survey, rather than expert opinion, is the best way to determine whether a particular regime is democratic.”

    I agree with the principle, but must strongly object to the implied generality of method. A traditional “survey”, i.e. a questionnaire to the general public, is subject to a large number of biases (e.g. social desirability bias), can be easily influenced by paid propaganda, is easily intentionally manipulated as well as easily unintentionally distorted by the exact question and answer options offered.

    Also, given the increasing specialisation of mankind and division of labour a survey will reveal but collective ignorance unless the whole population has prepared in a highly engaging, neutrally managed process.

    Just for one example, we had a particular referendum in Austria, many years ago, which yielded a 99,7% Yes to a regime change which certainly was not in the interest of the people.
    https://web.archive.org/web/20070404180146/http://www.doew.at/thema/thema_alt/wuv/maerz38_2/propaganda.html

    In all other cases, a stratified cititzen’s jury (held with the above principles in mind) is a far better method to find out “if the people who are governed by a regime believe it serves their interests”.

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  7. @Yoram: “A survey, rather than expert opinion, is the best way to determine whether a particular regime is democratic.”

    So perceived legitimacy is all that counts (as opposed to the three Gettysburg prepositions)? That would certainly put you at odds with 99.9% of democratic theorists, but then that’s only to be expected. It’s interesting to speculate how a survey of German citizens in the 1930s would have responded, given Hitler’s claim to embody the volk and to have its interests at heart.

    George Orwell cautioned us against using words in ways that are the exact opposite of their original meaning. “Democracy” is government of the people, by the people and for the people, and the definition cannot be operationalised by a public opinion survey.

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  8. Hubertus,

    Surveys can be carried out in various ways. The methodology which is commonly used today (snap, unconsidered answers) is one such methodology. A situation where those surveyed are empowered to put more thought and effort into their responses is a different methodology.

    In a well functioning democracy there would be a high level of satisfaction with government regardless of the survey methodology. A situation where there are very different levels of satisfaction depending on the survey methodology seems like a very problematic one, regardless of which way the difference goes.

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  9. Dear Yoram, “more though and effort” is of course correct, directionally.

    Still, I respectfully must disagree completely with: “In a well functioning democracy there would be a high level of satisfaction with government regardless of the survey methodology.” As a researcher and practitioner in the cognitive properties of questioning methodologies, this is just not the case, even if most people would never suspect the enormous difficulties.

    There are enough examples (further to the one mentioned above). Here a typical one: “Chinese trust government more than Americans do”. https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2017-10/27/content_33762163.htm “In the trust barometer survey released in January of this year by Edelman Global Public Relations, the Chinese showed the highest trust (76 percent) in their government among people of 28 countries and regions.”

    Again, your point in general is a valid one. But it is a false expectation, easily disillusioned, that a survey is the correct tool to ascertain democracy. The methodology needed for an unmanipulated, undistorted, unbiased result is a far more complex effort than meets the eye. It is completely doable, though.

    And if you want even greater detail, I am happy to share my own boring work on such methodology.

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  10. Hubertus,

    I am not sure what lesson you are trying to draw from the China-vs-US survey findings. IMO, those findings (assuming that the headline does reflect the findings of the surveys, that the sampling methodology is sound, that the citizens expressed their true opinions, etc.) is indeed good evidence that the Chinese government is more democratic than the US government. I have no a-priori bias against such a finding.

    Are you saying that the US is more democratic than China regardless of what the citizens of those countries think?

    > The methodology needed for an unmanipulated, undistorted, unbiased result is a far more complex effort than meets the eye. It is completely doable, though.

    I completely agree. Good surveying, like many other types of technical work, requires much more care and much more effort to do well than non-practitioners may suspect. I don’t see how this point is relevant to the point I made in the post.

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  11. 2.If you give this a read beyond the headline, it’s not China vs. US. It’s China vs. 28 countries.

    2. “Are you saying that the US is more democratic than China regardless of what the citizens of those countries think?” It may be more democratic or maybe not. That’s not my point. My point is that we will not find out what people really think by asking them, as proposed above, with a survey the question, proposed above, “whether they believe the regime serves their interests.”

    There is no shortcut to democracy, no “for the people” without “by the people”. The method is key. The result should be stochastically better, not aways but more often than with any other method. Hence, it is more fruitful to define democracy by the extent to which it is methodologically institutionalised.

    Long post, sorry.

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  12. Hubertus:> There is no shortcut to democracy, no “for the people” without “by the people”.

    Absolutely (except you’ve omitted the “of” variant). But to claim that China is “more democratic” than 28 formally democratic regimes because citizens believe their authoritarian leaders are acting in their interests just makes this forum look ridiculous. (It would also probably be true of Germany in the 1930s). The correct adjective for this claim would be “popular”, “disinterested”, or “responsive”, not “democratic”.

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  13. The “of” always seemed a bit pleonastic to me, just a rhetoric device of epistrophe but failing on laconic. As if Lincoln could have talked about the government of goats …

    Not sure while you imply that I said that China be “more democratic”? I said no such thing, just that this was irrelevant to the argument.

    PS: It’s illuminating almost hilarious to study some of the commentators who try to argue WHY exactly China be less democratic than the 28. I am not sure this forum would agree much with any of their points.

    PS: Which shows how abysmally bad we are defining democracy. Hence, I see Yoram’s effort as laudable but want to put forward an exclusively methodic definition.

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  14. Hubertus:> pleonastic

    What a wonderful word! It was Yoram who implied that China might well be more democratic than the other 28.

    >I want to put forward an exclusively methodic definition [of democracy].

    OK, but my point is that democracy is also substantive constitutional term (“by/of” the people) and cannot be judged purely in terms of outcomes (“for”). It would not be meaningful to say that China is a case of government by the people (it is government by Xi or the CCP) — unless you disagree with Pitkin’s claim that Hobbesian representation is a confidence trick. This is true irrespective of the degree to which Chinese people feel that it’s in their interests.

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  15. Sure, Keith. And with a methodic definition of democracy we could go on to measure how democratic the CCP is without just claiming that it is not.

    We are of course in agreement on rejecting easily manipulated perceived outcomes (“people themselves who are to say whether their interests are served”) and opinions surveys thereof as a measurement of how democratic a regime is. Not that we are the first to debate the principle. Austrian School economist Ludwig Mises was to my knowledge to first to reject the empiricism of historicism, in general, not just for democracy.

    It is the methodically institutionalised degree of “by the people” which determines whether a regime is “for the people”.

    Mathematically, what I have in mind is the sum of the confidence level of collective decisions divided by the number of decisions weighted by the number of those affected.

    @Yoram: Acceptable?

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  16. Hubertus,

    “By the people” means that the people govern, not whether they are confident about the outcomes. This would suggest either direct democracy or rotation (in small poleis). In large modern states democracy requires some form of representation — electoral, statistical or a combination of the two. This is why China is not a democracy and that’s true ex hypothesi, given that it’s rule by Xi or the CCP, not “the people”. The trouble with the debate on this thread is that its focus is purely on interests and/or epistemic factors, rather than who gets to decide.

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  17. You are getting this completely wrong: “Confidence level” has nothing to do whatsoever with “how confident people are”.

    It is a statistical terminus technicus, it says how confident we can be, derived from random sample size vs. the universe, that a decision by a sample (eg a citizen jury) is one which the whole of the people would have made.

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  18. Sorry for the misunderstanding. I was conflating Yoram’s “trust” with your “confidence”. Of course I agree with your definition — I’ve tried to operationalise this by arguing for parallel juries on specific issues — if they agreed then we would know it was a democratically representative decision as it would be the same (within an agreed margin of error) irrespective of which citizens participated.

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  19. Hubertus,

    > If you give this a read beyond the headline, it’s not China vs. US. It’s China vs. 28 countries.

    Again, I am not sure what lesson you are aiming to draw from this. Do you find this shocking or problematic? If so, why?

    > The method is key

    You mean the method by which decisions are made?

    > The result should be stochastically better

    The result of what? Some decision making system that you are proposing? Maybe. But even if it is true, how will we know it is? We need some way to identify actual democratic societies.

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  20. Hubertus,

    > PS: It’s illuminating almost hilarious to study some of the commentators who try to argue WHY exactly China be less democratic than the 28. I am not sure this forum would agree much with any of their points.

    Are you referring to some specific sources or to the general Western rhetoric of superiority? If the former, do you have references?

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  21. Yoram>> “You mean the method by which decisions are made?”
    Exactly. By virtue of focus on the method, democracy becomes exactly measurable, as described above: by the sum of the confidence level of collective decisions divided by the number of decisions weighted by the number of those affected.

    Yoram>> “The result of what?”
    The result of decision making processes are decisions. The quality of decisions is falsifiable by comparing their intended and unintended effects as predicted ex ante “by the people” to the actual future outcomes, with good decisions producing smaller errors.

    We must operationalise democracy to become measurable and falsifiable.

    Yoram>> “Are you referring to some specific sources or to the general Western rhetoric of superiority?”
    I have no specific reference to mention but the overall gust appears to be that Western commentators conflate “democracy” with a (dual or multi) “party system” and its “accountability by elections”. Whereas when measured by my formula above, then political parties clearly are not a necessary element of a democracy. To the contrary: they hurt the calculated index number, because the decisions are enforced by ruling parties which “represent” lesser numbers than those affected.

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  22. Hubertus:> good decisions producing smaller errors. We must operationalise democracy to become measurable and falsifiable.

    That only deals with the “for” preposition. The Athenian general assembly made some disastrous decisions (from an epistemic perspective) — are you saying that this indicates that fifth century Athens wasn’t a democracy? If so that puts you at odds with 99.9% of historians and democratic theorists. If though you’re saying that mass democracy is a bad thing that’s another matter, but we can’t just redefine words to suit our own political preferences.

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  23. @Keith:
    The first paragraph above already dealt with the “by the people”, it measures the degree of democracy.
    The second paragraph does not assume that every specific decision was correct, it introduces falsifiability for the decisions thus produced.

    The are two entirely different things, but both measuring and falsifiability are necessary to deal with democracy in a scientific manner instead of the metaphysical attitude sometimes encountered in this forum.

    (While we are at it: Including these frequent claims these famous “99.9% of historians” pulled out of a hat as it that had any scientific meaning.)

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  24. Hubertus,

    Words like “correct” and “falsifiable” don’t normally arise in discussions on decision making in democratic theory. Even epistemic theorists like David Estlund are loth to use that sort of language. And can you name me a historian or political theorist who claims that fifth century Athens was not a democracy because some of it’s decisions were incorrect?

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  25. @Keith: I said no such thing. Read again.

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  26. HJH: I said no such thing

    The quality of decisions is falsifiable by comparing their intended and unintended effects as predicted ex ante “by the people” to the actual future outcomes, with good decisions producing smaller errors.

    According to this criterion many of the decisions taken by the Athenian assembly would have been undemocratic.

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  27. You misunderstand. The sentence says correctly that this is how to measure “decision quality” to make it quantitatively falsifiable. It says nothing whatsoever about “democratic” or “undemocratic”.

    My measurement of democratic or undemocratic I stated above by: “The sum of the confidence level of collective decisions divided by the number of decisions weighted by the number of those affected.”

    Reminder for you: “Confidence level” is a terminus technicus. See https://www.statisticshowto.com/confidence-level/

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  28. HJH:> The sum of the confidence level of collective decisions divided by the number of decisions weighted by the number of those affected.

    But there is no mention of who takes the decisions, and this is generally viewed as the principal distinction between democracy and other systems of governance. The CCP certainly take decisions that affect a large number of people and they appear to be taken by some sort of collective procedure (including votes at the party congress), but does that make China a democracy?

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  29. “But there is no mention of who takes the decisions”

    Of course not, then the formula would not be as general as it is. It could be calculated for one dictator, for a citizen jury, for a plebiscite. Obviously the number for any single decision is highest for a plebiscite. And also obviously, only few decisions can be done by plebiscite. Even Switzerland only does 20 or so.

    Re China: “Some sort of procedure” is not enough information. It is the actual decision which counts, as it is the one point where all comes together: possible collective actions, their conditional forecasts, and the subjective opinions weighing them. So you need to check exactly who and how they decide in China.

    PS: Just because there is only one party, it does not make the regime undemocratic. For example, sortitionist parties (like G!LT or LOS!) organise each and every citizen to participate statistically equally in policy decisions. However, to my knowledge, this is not the case in China, the “some procedure” is merely consultative.

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  30. We both agree that the statistical equality of all citizens in determining the outcome of the decision making process is the gold standard of democracy and this (happily) is the focus of this forum. What muddies the water is claims that democracy is merely decision making in the interests of the people as this would include the CCP and (potentially) decision making by monarchical, autocratic, theocratic and aristocratic regimes.

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  31. Both yes. Hence, the ball is with Yoram.

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  32. Agree, but I’m not holding my breath.

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  33. Hubertus,

    > the ball is with Yoram.

    As far as I can tell, you have not refuted my argument above, so I feel my case stands.

    To summarize:

    1. All regimes claim to represent the interests of people.
    2. The difference between regimes is only in who gets to decide whether they indeed do so.
    3. Any regime whose claim to represent the people rests upon the authority of an elite is non-democratic. This is true even if that elite self-styles as “political scientists”.
    4. In a democracy it is the people themselves who determine that the regime represents their interests.

    Do you dispute any of these points?

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  34. 1. Agreed.
    2. Agreed. (One of several.)
    3. Agreed.
    4. Agreed, as long this representation of interest is ensured not by just a (manipulable and bias-ridden) survey to a question, but by the very people making the actual decisions, either directly or statistically equal.

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  35. I can’t say I understand the reservation you made on point #4.

    Let me ask you this: could there be a democracy where most citizens believe that that government systematically acts against their interests?

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  36. The question goes the other way round: Could there be an undemocratic country where most citizens believe that that government acts in their interests?
    The answer is a resounding yes.

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  37. In other words, according to you, in the situation you describe there would be an elite that would determine that the citizens are wrong. That elite is supposedly better able to determine the interests of the people than the people themselves.

    This notion contradicts the democratic axiom that people are the best judges of their own interests.

    (That said, I would still like to get a yes or no on the question I posed above. According to you, could the people be mistaken in the opposite direction as well? Could they believe that they are living in an undemocratic system while they are in fact living in a democratic one? And if not, why can the mistake only go in one way?)

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  38. The “other words” are wrong. I never said such a thing. Seems to be infectuous, I’ve seen this before.

    And, if you insist on my answer to your fallacious question:

    1. Could there be a democracy where most citizens believe that that government systematically acts against their interests?
    The question has a logical flaw, because the answer depends on how one defines a “democratic country”. You want to define it as countries where “the people who are governed by that regime believe it serves their interests”. Ergo, you are getting yourself in a circular argument when answering this question.

    Whereas the inverse question is falsifiable and thus not metaphysical:
    2. Could there be an undemocratic country where most citizens believe that that government acts in their interests?
    The answer is a resounding yes. (People demonstrably can believe that in monarchical, autocratic, theocratic and aristocratic regimes.)

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  39. Yoram,

    The final point by Hubertus is absolutely correct. The idea that Yoram proposes that there is a “democratic axiom that people are the best judges of their own interests” is a reasonable supposition most of the time, but not a fundamental axiom. People are OFTEN wrong about their own self-interest, whether in the short, medium, or long term. This is necessarily true simply because a policy may be good in one time frame and terrible in another.

    As Hubertus points out, an undemocratic authoritarian regime may (through control of media and intellectual resources) persuade the population that it is consistently serving the popular interest. Putin’s popularity in Russian public opinion polls comes to mind. However, IF it were a well-functioning democracy it might have discovered policies that were far better (and even MORE popular), but that would never have seen the light of day under the popular authoritarian system.

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  40. I agree with Terry and would argue that the very title of this thread is misleading. “Democracy” refers to who has power not whose interests the government serves, and political science has little time for axioms, fundamental or otherwise. Most parents believe that they act in the interests of their offspring but still retain power and this is also true of paternalistic systems of governance. Whether or not it is empirically likely for a polyarchic or totalitarian regime to act in the interests of the people is not the point, the issue is who has power. And epistemic issues are also secondary, given (as Terry points out) that policies may be good in the short term and terrible in the long term (as may well prove to be the case with Covid-19). The Athenian demos took some bad decisions but it was still a democracy, just as the US is a polyarchy and China an authoritarian dictatorship. The taxonomy remains true irrespective of whose interests are served as the determinant is whether or not the demos has kratos.

    Yoram should also acknowledge that the exclusive focus on interests is a fundamental axiom of Marxist, not democratic, theory. Ditto the dismissal of political scientists (with the exception of Gilens and Page) as sockpuppets for elite interests.

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  41. Hubertus,

    > You want to define it as …

    You seem to be deliberately avoiding my point. I specifically asked you whether *according to you* it is possible for people to believe that they are living in an undemocratic system while they are in fact living in a democratic one.

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  42. I have already shown that your question produces circular logic and thus fallacious. Obviously that circularity would apply just as much to my own definition of democracy. And from practice, I know “democratic” means 100 things to 100 people.

    That’s why I propose a purely mathematical democracy index.

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  43. Terry,

    Everybody can be wrong. That in no way contradicts the democratic axiom that people are considered the best judges of their own interests. In a way, that is exactly my point: in a democratic system the country is run according to the interests of the people *as the people perceive them*. The question of whether those people are “right” according to some other criteria is irrelevant.

    Your implication that you are a better judge of the interests of the Russians than the Russians themselves are is, to put it politely, very problematic. Elites have long made exactly this type of assertions. The only thing that is relatively new is that this elitist assertion of superiority is now also asserted to be “democratic”.

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  44. *** Thucydides was not democrat and the defense of democracy he puts in Pericles’s mouth is a dubious document for ancient democratic theory. Protagoras seems to have been a democrat theorist, but his works are lost, as most of Greek literature. We have only two pieces of global democratic theory: a very short one “by Otanes” in Herodotus III, 80, a longer one “by Theseus” in Euripides’ Suppliant Women v 399-462. These two pieces speak about freedom, equality, justice; and some bad effects of tyranny; not about best interests of the people. And both mention sortition, which Thucydides’s Pericles does not mention – which alone is disquieting.
    *** Keith Sutherland rightly says “Democracy refers to who has power not whose interests the government serves.” It was the definition of ancient democrats. As many modern ideologues give other definitions, I proposed to use “ortho-democracy” for dêmokratia, when there may be confusion. Keith Sutherland rightly reminds us that “Most parents believe that they act in the interests of their offspring but still retain power and this is also true of paternalistic systems of governance.” Paternalism may be often disingenuous, but, supposing itsincere, such a government must be named “demophilic”, not democratic.
    *** The Athenian tradition remembered the populist tyranny of Pisistratus as demophilic – not as democratic.
    *** A sovereign dêmos could theoretically give power to a dictator ? or to a theocratic system? Sure. It would be self-destruction of the system, it cannot be prevented. The same if the heir of a traditional absolute monarchy is democrat or trostkyite, the system is dead. The same if important elements of a polyarchic system are against polyarchy, see the Weimar Republic. But a dêmos who prefers in some circumstances dictatorship rather than polyarchy, and a dêmos who abdicates his own sovereignty, it is not the same thing.
    *** The Athenian enemies of democracy, as Pseudo-Xenophon (= Old Oligarch) and Aristotle, said that the system was in the egocentric interests of the low majority of the people (dêmos in the social sense), and that the elites were badly treated. I don’t think many historians believe such a strong charge. It was not so bad to belong to the Athenian elite. But it is clear that a democracy will not forget to care about the interests of the majority.
    *** A system may care more about some specific interests, or about public interest, and take wrong decisions. “Most parents believe that they act in the interests of their offspring”, reminds Keith, but alas some take wrong decisions.
    *** Any system may take wrong decisions. Legitimacy helps it to be resilient, whereas a system approved only for pragmatic reasons withstands not easily a string of wrong decisions.
    *** Hostility to a political system may be brought up by the idea that the system is linked to a wrong propensity, on the long time. The basic wrong propensity of the Athenian democracy was imperialism. The dêmos actually stuck to it until the middle of the fourth century. The idea of unifying the world into an Empire has no more sense. But some may fear that that a modern democracy could have other bad propensities: for instance have small sympathy for strong money inequality, therefore reducing the efficiency of capitalism with bad results on the overall wealth. Such an idea may lead to hostility against democracy as some Athenians – Euripides maybe – lost faith in democracy because of imperialism.

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  45. Andre:> “demophilic”, not democratic.

    Yes, that seems to be a good term to describe a regime that (claims to be) acting in the interests of the people (philia), as opposed to one in which the people has power (kratos). I appreciate that etymology isn’t the only show in town, but we do need to respect the original meaning of words, rather than reinventing them for our own purposes (aided and abetted by dubious axioms and logical syllogisms).

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  46. @André, cause and effect not be mixed up.

    While any system may take wrong decisions, neither a single wrong decision (nor a propensity to wrong decisions) is a sufficient reason for hostility to a democratic system.

    We apply Occam’s Razor: Athenian democracy was simply not sufficiently democratic anymore (as measured by “by”) with regard to policies affecting the entirety of the hundreds of Delian League city states, starting innocently enough with increasing the (ab)use of funds for predominantly Athenian purposes after 454 BC.

    An imperialistic democracy is a paradox, a political system is either imperialistic or democratic, never both.

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  47. Andre,

    Thank you for moving the discussion forward (as you often do).

    > Thucydides was not democrat and the defense of democracy he puts in Pericles’s mouth is a dubious document for ancient democratic theory.

    Sure. I do not attribute a radical democratic-mindedness either to Thucydides or to Pericles. To the contrary: I note that the Thucydides/Pericles description of democracy is in fact a description that is common to many (if not all) types of regimes.

    I am using this description as a stepping stone toward a “new” definition of democracy. A specific, operationalizable definition which distinguishes democracy from other systems which pretend to be democratic.

    > These two pieces [“by Otanes”, “by Theseus”] speak about freedom, equality, justice; and some bad effects of tyranny; not about best interests of the people

    Indeed. This is a deficiency of those theories. Just like the modern “classical” theory of democracy they deal in abstractions that make the notion of democracy infinitely malleable. (This was less of a problem for the Athenians whose system was at least partially democratic and their opponents where avowedly anti-democratic. It is more of a problem for us since our highly oligarchical system pretends to be democratic.)

    This is a real advantage of the Schumpeterian definition over the classical definition. It is a much more specific definition. Of course, what Schumpeter defines does not correspond in any real way to the intuitive meaning of democracy. But nothing prevented the advocates of this definition from claiming that it embodies or produces “freedom, equality, justice” and that it prevents “some bad effects of tyranny”.

    The definition that I am offering is specific (in fact, more specific than the Schumpeterian definition) and at the same time it matches very well with the intuitive meaning of democracy.

    It seems to me that even the commenters on this thread who are hostile to the definition I am offering are conceding (albeit grudgingly and implicitly) that it is a necessary condition for a democracy. (This is the reason they insist on imagining a situation where the people are deceived into thinking their interests are being pursued, but refuse to imagine a situation where people are deceived into thinking their interests are not being pursued.)

    > Paternalism may be often disingenuous, but, supposing it sincere, such a government must be named “demophilic”, not democratic.

    Again, that is my point. The standard term for the “paternalistic” government situation is “republic”. In a democracy, the people (in your analogy, “the children”) themselves determine whether their interests are being pursued.

    > A sovereign dêmos could theoretically give power to a dictator ? or to a theocratic system? Sure. It would be self-destruction of the system, it cannot be prevented.

    Right. Once the dictator or the religious leaders are is in power, it is they (being the “parents of the family”) who get to determine whether their objectives are met. They may (and often do) claim that those objectives are identical to those of the people. This is neither here nor there. There are few regimes (if any) that do not claim that this is so.

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  48. P.S., The Plato/Socrates argument against sortition is of course also an argument that is based on a pretense of promoting popular interests. It is in the interest of all, says Socrates, that a skilled pilot – rather than a random person – will navigate the ship of state.

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  49. Yoram: “It seems to me that even the commenters on this thread who are hostile [how about: “critical” instead?] to the definition I am offering are conceding (albeit grudgingly and implicitly) that it is a necessary condition for a democracy.”

    I do not concede this at all. To the contrary, I utterly refute this hypothesis (and offered plenty of falsification evidence already) on grounds that political satisfaction works the other way round: a truly democratic regime will cause political satisfaction, while a merely demophilic one (love the term) may satisfy the people to some degree and for some time but ultimately will do what the word implicitly suggests: f*ck the people.

    But I do admit defeat in making myself understood.

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  50. Hubertus,

    I see your latest comment as another attempt to free yourself from the dilemma you insist on getting yourself entangled in.

    Again, you are unwilling to admit that in a democracy people must believe that the government pursues their interests. But, again, you are unwilling to assert the opposite (that there could be a democracy where people believe their government does not pursue their interests).

    With

    > a truly democratic regime will cause political satisfaction

    it seems to me that you have conceded exactly what I claim you do (namely, that the public believing that the government is pursuing the public’s interests is a necessary condition for a system to be democratic), but at the same time you assert that you “utterly refute this hypothesis”.

    This is also why I see your responses as hostile rather than critical. A critique must be a coherent argument. Hostility is more of an attitude and does not require an argument.

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  51. Hubertus:> But I do admit defeat in making myself understood.

    Welcome to the club.

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  52. Perhaps this argument we are having is too arcane, but I’ll try again to make my criticism of Yorams definition (summarized as: “in order to be a democracy, people must believe that the government pursues their interests.” It has been pointed out that (for at least some period of time) this may be true of all kinds of benign authoritarian or other systems. Yoram says, that his point is that if the people do NOT believe there interests are being served, then it CAN’T be a democracy. So we may say this belief that the people are having their interests met is a necessary feature, but not proof that a democracy exists?

    Several wrinkles make this not particularly useful as a definition. Most societies are heterogeneous, and there is not a unified “the people.” Some members of society may believe the people’s (and their own interests, or exclusive of their unique interests) are being served, while others disagree. Wat if 90% think “the people” are having “their interests” served, but 10% disagree? what about 60 %, 40%? Can we imagine that 100% agree? Also, some may conclude that people are stupid and foolish, and are constantly misunderstanding their interests, and making bad decisions, so even if catered to (by a democratic government) they think that evil is being done because all citizens have a right to competent government (this is one of Brennan’s arguments in attacking democracy).

    This all leads me to take an organizational definition of democracy (the people as a whole hold the power) – through repeated random sampling. As for their “interests,” The key is that the randomly selected people will not have a consistent motivation to work COUNTER to the people’s interests. If they make a mistake and bad decision, the next jury will want to reverse course once the error is evident. So democracy is the only system that isn’t systematically ignoring elements of the people’s interests and can be constantly self-correcting. Crucially, no permanent subset is established as rulers, and the democracy is constantly renewed with replacement draws. This needs to be combined with longer-term groups who develop more expertise, but who make no final decisions, and only advise the current manifestation of the sovereign people, in the form of a jury.

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  53. Terry:> the people as a whole hold the power . . . through repeated random sampling

    I can’t imagine that anyone could take issue with the etymological part of your definition of democracy but most would balk at its operationalisation as this would mean that 5th century Athens was not a democracy (and that’s just plain silly). The Athenians sought to preserve the sovereignty of the general assembly and our task is to seek a modern analogue for this principle. That’s where the disagreement comes in — you claim that sortition alone is sufficient, whereas most democrats would advocate a judicious mix of sortition, election and appointment.

    I do think we should focus on what unites us — what the word democracy means (if Yoram wants to take a solitary outlier position that’s up to him). But the rest of us would agree with the overwhelming consensus of political scientists and historians that democracy means that the people rule or have power. If so then the chances are they will act in their own interests, but to focus on the latter is simply wrong, as a wide variety of political systems could claim to be pursuing the interests of the people.

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  54. I have a new hypothesis for Yoram: “In a democracy, the sky will be blue.”

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  55. Terry,

    As I already pointed out, both claims – 1. people may be deluded into thinking the government serves them when it does not (Putin! Trump!), 2. people may be stupid enough to believe that a government that serves them does not (Obama? Clinton?) – are classical oligarchical/republican claims. The innovation of calling these claims “democratic” is one of the major deceits of the modern era.

    “The organizational definition of democracy” that you offer can be (and has been) debated ad infinitum without getting anywhere. Would it be more democratic than electoralism or less? How about referenda? Etc., etc., etc. Until we have an operationalizable standard to decide whether a system is democratic, offering particular institutional arrangements is not fruitful.

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  56. Yoram : „ Until we have an operationalizable standard to decide whether a system is democratic, offering particular institutional arrangements is not fruitful.“

    I gave a methodic (organisational / institutional standard above. With that formula we can calculate exactly an index number from 0 to 100 just how democratic a system is. no bogus surveys needed.

    So what’s wrong with that?

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  57. Yoram:> Until we have an operationalizable standard to decide whether a system is democratic

    Your definition being:

    a regime is democratic to the extent that the people who are governed by that regime believe it serves their interests

    Unfortunately nobody else accepts that definition as it would potentially include aristocratic, monarchical and authoritarian regimes and has no connection with the original meaning of the word “democracy”, according to which the people have power.

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  58. Hubertus,

    > I gave a methodic (organisational / institutional standard above. With that formula we can calculate exactly an index number from 0 to 100 just how democratic a system is.

    Are you referring to:

    > the sum of the confidence level of collective decisions divided by the number of decisions weighted by the number of those affected.

    If so, I do not understand your formula. If you want to explicate, I’d be happy to respond.

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  59. Agreed Yoram. I will post a more detailed writeup on the site in a week or two to clarify.

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  60. Hi John,

    Welcome to Equality by Lot!

    If we define “democracy” as a society whose members believe that it serves them, then the West has been becoming less and less democratic for decades. There is evidence that in the US the feeling that government is serving the people has been in decline since the 1950’s.

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