Democracy: So Much More Than ‘Majority Rule’

the democratic political process

Photo by Parker Johnson on Unsplash

We tend of think of ‘democracy’ as ‘majority rule’, but that is the least of it. Majority rule is the final element in the democratic political process.

First, every community of human beings necessarily has a political process. The political process can be defined as the process of effecting choices for the community as whole: choosing among perceived alternatives and taking action to bring that choice to fruition. Every community has no choice but to effect choices for itself (just as every individual human being has no choice but to effect choices). To become a formally organized community is to effect such a choice, and it only goes on from there.

In “Welfare Economics, Property, and Power” Warren J. Samuels all but defined “social power” as the ability to effect choices [in Perspectives of Property, Gene Wunderlich and W. L. Gibson, eds. (1973)]. I have applied Samuels’s insight to the political process.

“Democratic” is the only just form that the political process can take. Herein, all references to justice accord with believing in liberty and equality as the ‘twin pillars of justice’ for a just society.

[For myself, I have become convinced that Samuels’s insight leads to ‘mutual respect in effecting choices’ as the ethic of justice. A belief in equality also leads to an ethic of mutual respect, however, and any society governed by mutual respect would have the maximum liberty that a group of coexisting people can have. Philosophically, the only difference between recognizing equality and liberty as the foundation of a just society and recognizing mutual respect in effecting choices as the ethic of justice is that the latter follows from the observation that human beings have no choice but to effect choices, so it does not involve any belief of any kind. To reiterate: recognizing mutual respect as the essence of justice, whatever its source, does not in any way compromise making the maximization of liberty a community’s sine qua non. The thing is, the political process is the arena in which that will be achieved or not. One whole point of this essay is that a democratic political process is absolutely essential for maximizing liberty in a community.]

A democratic political process has freedom of political speech (speech related to effecting choices) for all members of the community. That is one ‘condition of justice’* for that process. In that way all members of the community can participate in the political process. Justice requires that for the simple reason that all members of the community can be affected by any choice effected for the community as a whole. In the same way, justice also requires for citizens to be allowed to decide for themselves whether a potential choice hails their participation in the political process, and to what extent.

The other condition of justice for the political process is a ‘democratic’ distribution of political rights. The existence of political rights is the recognition by the community of forms of power accruing to individuals that pertain to further participation in the political process. Those forms of power exist whether they are recognized as rights or not; justice requires that they be so recognized. They can, however, be justly restricted.

Those forms of participation in the political process include seeking public office, choosing who will be in public office (voting), petitioning the government (calling for this or that policy or program), and peaceably assembling (in public or in private, as a formally organized group — like a political party — or not). Justice requires for any restrictions on those forms of participation in the political process to be non-arbitrary. Such a distribution of them as recognized rights can be called a ‘democratic’ distribution.

The first test of “non-arbitrary” is universality: if a potential restriction on a right is not applicable to all members of the community it is thereby arbitrary. So restrictions based on creed (beliefs), property/wealth, national origin, gender, and ‘race’ (color of skin) have been rejected as humanity’s understanding of justice in the political process has evolved over time. The only indisputably non-arbitrary restriction on political rights is age (as a proxy for maturity, experience, knowledge, etc.). The status of felonious conduct and people’s ‘reality testing’ as restrictions on political rights is up for debate, but it is at least true that any human being could potentially engage in felonious conduct and any of us could lose our fingernail hold on reality.

The other test of arbitrariness is whether a potential restriction is necessary to preserve the integrity of the political process. That is the basis of restrictions based on felonious conduct and mental incompetence. Such restrictions are always debatable. None can ever be asserted to be absolutely true, valid, etc. Any restriction that would violate the democratic distribution of political rights based on a claim of ‘integrity’ for the process would of course be invalid.

The political process can be thought of as a series of encompassing spheres. The government, the sum of the community’s public offices, is the functional core of the process, the community’s mechanism for actually getting choices effected. It is part of the political system: the set of institutions via which choices are effected for the community as a whole. Other institutions that can be part of the political system include political parties and other political organizations as well as a written constitution or other foundational documents, if any, and (recognized) political rights. The part of the political process that extends beyond the political system is political speech: speech related to some choice for the community as a whole to effect.

So political speech transcends the political system. That tells us that political speech is more than a right. It transcends the very idea of ‘rights’. It is a form of power accruing to individuals that cannot be justly denied to any member of the community. (Please note the ‘period’ there.)

Philosophically, that allows political speech to resolve the ‘reflexivity problem’ for the democratic political process: that is how freedom of political speech can be legitimately said to exist before a political system that would include a right to freedom of political speech is established. Formulating a process for formally organizing a community, which can only be accomplished through speech alone, is a choice being effected for the (potential) community as a whole. (That also implies that the most important part of ‘building’ a just nation is to ensure an extended period of freedom of political speech prior to the formal institutionalization of the nation; the colonists who would form the U.S were afforded that opportunity.)

There are two forms that political speech can take. We can call them “primary” and “secondary.”

Primary political speech is limited to relating a choice for society to effect. The only legitimate constraint on primary political speech would be a ban on any proposal to violate either of the conditions of justice for the political process. Otherwise, in a democratic political process primary political speech must have absolute liberty: any choice whatsoever can be proposed for society to effect. Literally: ‘society should kill all of the [members of this or that group]’ is legitimate primary political speech. (We’ll see below why that is the case.)

Secondary political speech is speech for or against a proposed choice for a community to effect. In a democratic political process there must be ex ante freedom of secondary political speech — no prior restraint on what can be said — but it can be constrained ex post, by legal actions taken against the perpetrator of provably ‘bad’ speech: speech undertaken in bad faith, i.e., claims of fact made made by the locutor that the locutor did not know for a fact to be true, valid, correct, etc. (Note that the onus is on the locutor to be able to defend any such statement.) ‘We should kill all [the members of this or that group] because they are all bad people’ or ‘We should allow [the members of this or that group] to be enslaved because they are inferior beings’ would be prima facie examples of such speech: neither can possibly be proven to be true.

We must note that as long as such utterances are put in the form of a personal belief — but only that — their validity for the locutor cannot be challenged. At the same time, though, the locutor of any belief must acknowledge that any belief is only valid for the person uttering it: no one else can be expected in any way to accept it or any implications following from it. That is simply the nature of beliefs. (Personally, I would recommend at least a year in prison for anyone making any such claim about any group of people as a matter of fact for every time it could be proven that it was made; for sure, any member of a group that has been libeled or slandered as a group should be able to sue the locutor for damages.)

That has implications for issues like global warming. I cannot claim that I know global warming to be a fact. I can say my personal experience suggests that to be the case. I can also say that I accept the findings of people who study climate who say that their studies have taught them that the lithosphere of Earth is warming, and that the warming is being caused overwhelmingly by the activities of human beings, primarily the burning of fossil fuels. Regardless of the truth or not of global warming, however, I most certainly can legitimately advocate for the community as a whole to take measures that would reduce the burning of fossil fuels as an end in itself: in a democratic political process global warming does not have to be factually true for me to advocate legitimately for society to effect the choice of transitioning to other sources of energy. I don’t have to have a good reason for wanting it — or any reason at all for wanting it — just as others don’t have to have a good reason or any reason for advocating against transitioning to other sources of energy.

We can also see how that applies to the issue of abortion. Facts have nothing to do with abortion one way or another (other than determining some maximum stage of fetal development at which it might be allowed). Everyone is free to advocate for or against making abortions illegal as an end in itself. No one has to have a reason for advocating for or against that proposition, much less one any other person could be expected to accept. (Personally, I believe it is a sin, but do not think it should be a crime.)

It does all come down to ‘majority rule’: the question for the political process is not which side is ‘right’; all that matters is which side gets more votes. A democratic political process is a form of procedural justice: any outcome is just because it is the product of a just process — again, so long as an outcome does not violate the conditions of justice for the political process itself.

In addition to the process being just, however, for its outcomes to be valid individuals must act justly (enough) within it. In relations among human beings, abiding by the ethic of justice begins with people respecting one another’s capacity to choose for themselves. The ‘minimum condition of justice’ pertaining to individuals boils down to this: no killing, coercing, harming, stealing, or manipulating (which includes lying, cheating, withholding pertinent information, etc.) in effecting any choice. We are required to abide by the minimum condition of justice at all times, in all contexts — to include all actions undertaken on behalf of any desired outcome in the political process. One form of lying is to assert something to be factually true without knowing for oneself that it is factually true. [Again, a belief in equality also leads to an ethic of mutual respect, from which those absolute prohibitions follow regardless of the source of that ethic.]

To summarize: for outcomes of a political process to be just the process must realize the two conditions of justice for the political process, those outcomes cannot abrogate the conditions of justice for that process, and the outcomes cannot be the result of (significant) violations of the minimum condition of the ethic of justice by individuals in that process.

As John Locke saw [in Two Treatises of Government (1689)], justice in human relations is the absence of arbitrariness. He famously defined injustice as a person being “subject to the arbitrary will” of another. He went straight from there to making liberty the predicate of justice. To respect others in the sense justice requires is to refrain from subjecting any other person to one’s own arbitrary will. So the absence of arbitrariness is also in that way the presence of liberty. However it might be sliced or diced, less arbitrariness in human relations means more liberty, more justice.

At this point we can say that majority rule within a democratic political process is the minimum level of arbitrariness that can be achieved for a society’s political process. Any other form of effecting choices for the community as a whole will be more arbitrary — less just — than that is.

In nations with a constitution as a founding document, outcomes of the political process are judged to be consistent with it or not. A ‘founding document’ could also be a holy book — though a just political process would still require, no matter what was written in that book, a democratic distribution of political rights and the proper recognition of political speech. Even so, if ‘the people’ chose to make a holy book the founding document of a nation it could be used in the same way that any written constitution is used to determine the ultimate validity of outcomes of the political process. (Iran has a version of such a system, though it does not have a democratic political process.)

After all, all existing constitutions are the articulation of beliefs. In almost all cases those beliefs are secular/ideological, not sacral/theological, but whether a belief is of one kind or the other makes no difference: all beliefs are arbitrary from the point of view of anyone who does not share any particular belief, so beliefs necessarily bring arbitrariness into the process.

For that reason, a nation in which governance would be governed by mutual respect in effecting choices would mean that a constitution would be no more than a document committing the nation to the ethic of justice in its governance, including a democratic political process, and detailing the structure and sanctioned functioning of the government. No “Bill of Rights” would be necessary. Again, any outcome of that process that did not violate the conditions of justice for a just political process would be valid on the face of it (again, as long as unjust actions on the part of individuals had not determined the outcome). One further restriction on the political process would also exist, however, that does not exist for a political process based on believing in liberty and equality as the twin pillars of justice for a just society.

It is the nature of beliefs that we humans have no capacity to judge them: we cannot say definitively that this or that belief is absolutely true or false. We can only say that we accept this belief or that we reject that one. Even a majority of people — even a consensus among all people — cannot establish the absolute truth or falsity of any belief. That means that we can not discriminate among beliefs without being arbitrary. That is why, in the above example, a claim that all members of this or that group of people are ‘bad’ or ‘inferior’ must be allowed in the democratic political process — as long as it is made explicitly in the form of a belief. That does mean, though, that a group of people could conceivably be legitimately killed by the community acting as a whole or be allowed to be enslaved if enough people shared the underlying beliefs. Either that, or some way of excluding those beliefs from the political process while allowing contrary beliefs to be admitted into the process would have to be devised. Arbitrariness beckons.

‘Mutual respect in effecting choices’ does not involve any beliefs. With that ethic governing the governance of the society, the community as a whole would be required to abide by the absolute prohibitions on conduct with regard to its interactions with individuals as surely as individuals are. That would be the final constraint on outcomes of the political process.

Mutual respect following from a belief in equality could also be used to constrain the political process in the same way, but that would mean using one belief to constrain other beliefs: more arbitrariness. That is what the presence of beliefs in the governance of the governance of society gets us.

Someone might object that requiring people to abide by the laws of a community is coercion. I reject that assertion.

Abiding by laws can be a constraint on behavior, but such constraints are a form of coercion only to the extent that they are unjustly instituted. Recall Locke’s words: injustice is being subject to the arbitrary will of any other person(s). In a democratic political process no outcome has any arbitrary bias for or against it within the context of the structure and (sanctioned) functioning of the process. For the process itself, all potential laws have an equal chance of being passed. That is why complete liberty of primary political speech is necessary for a just political process. Any individual can feel coerced by any given law, but where a law is a valid outcome of a just political process the arbitrariness that is the essence of coercion as an injustice is not present. One last time: taking beliefs out of the governance of the political process altogether would totally absolve its outcomes of arbitrariness.

More pragmatically, a properly functioning democratic political process is a vehicle for nonviolent societal change. Moreover, the material problems faced by any society are optimality problems: seeking the best possible actionable solution. That means as many solutions as possible must be considered.

So the political process must first of all be a process of seeking out new ideas, especially ostensible solutions for societal problems. What is needed most of all is some mechanism for promoting the exposition of new ideas as potential choices for society to effect, however ‘wild’ or contrary to this or that belief they might be (yet again, as long as they do not seek to violate the conditions of justice for individuals or the political process itself). In that way the democratic political process is not only the most just form that the political process can take, but it also has (potentially, at least) the ultimate practical advantage over any other form that process might take.

Beyond even that lies the need for society to evolve in a more general way as our understanding of the human condition and the material context in which we exist develops — which presupposes encouraging the furtherance of that understanding. In every way, a properly functioning democratic political process is the best that human beings can do for effecting choices for society as a whole, which any society simply must do.

For anyone who has read to the blessed end, I do appreciate your time and consideration.

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*A “condition of justice” is something (form or structure or practice, etc.) that is integral to justice: it must be present for justice to be present.

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice