Consent of the governed

A few months ago I offered the following operational definition 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.

This definition is (quite close to being) an objective operationalization of the notion of democracy, I claimed. (It is not a full operationalization since the method by which people’s opinions about the regime are collected still needs to be fully specified. That, however, is an open-ended research program, so it cannot be fit into the space of a blog post.) It is certainly much more specific than the “essentially contested” literal “people power”. It is also more specific and less open for subjective interpretation than procedural definitions such as Schumpeter’s or Dahl’s, as well as having the advantage of not making quite absurd a-priori assumptions about the value of elections (or any other institutional procedure).

The proposal garnered some mixed reactions. Along with some support, there was a lot of criticism. Several commenters were concerned that this metric would indicate that China, Russia or other rivals of the West are more democratic than the West itself, a notion which they found patently absurd, it seems. Another objection was that an outcomes-based criterion for democracy cannot be satisfactory because any outcome can be produced by a dictatorship. It was also argued that according to this definition those who expose corruption in government and thus reduce trust in government could be blamed for destroying democracy. Occasionally the tone was that such a definition was a revisionist innovation and that whatever the definition of democracy is (no real alternative was offered, I believe), this obviously does not come close.

This seemed to lead the discussion to a dead-end. Yes, Prof. Wang Shaoguang has a pretty similar definition for what he calls “substantive democracy” and a survey he cites shows that this idea has wide support in China and its surrounding. But Prof. Wang and the Chinese are Chinese, so clearly they have nothing to teach Westerners about democracy (or maybe these are not even their true opinions and they are merely saying whatever they are saying in order to please whoever is eavesdropping). Moreover, even Prof. Wang still leaves room for “formal democracy” that would be defined differently.

It is only with great and inexplicable delay that I have recently realized how solid and respected is the pedigree of the proposed definition. Continue reading