Democracy and Institutional Design II: A (Very) Basic Definition of Democracy

The second installment of a seemingly forgotten series.

Almost a year ago (time flies), I started what I intended to be an ongoing series of posts entitled “Democracy and Institutional Design” and I started with Part I that looked at a general discussion of government and a very basic sketch of regime design. My ultimate goal, apart from trying to increase general understanding of the topic, was to explain why I spend so much time arguing about the lack of democratic quality of US institutions and why I think this is a real problem, not just an abstract or theoretical one. The last year has increased my concerns about the weakening bonds between popular sentiment and our institutions.

I have been intending to return to this for some time, and a comment thread on a recent post re-ignited the notion in my head that I needed to outline some of the underlying basics of topics that I am constantly referring to, but often do not have time to define.

So, after quite a hiatus, let me continue…

II.  Simple Democracy.

There is, ultimately, nothing simple about democracy (or about government in general).  These kinds of conversations always take my mind to the following passage from Douglas Adams‘ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.

To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.

To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.

To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.

The middle part would require a digression into Adams’ solution (at least in the radio play and subsequent iterations of the story) that led to his version of Plato’s philosopher king (see the previous post and the discussion of rule by the one, and the virtues and problems therewith).  Still, the first sentence is on point:  how do we govern a bunch of people?  And, without a doubt, the last sentence is on point in any conversation of humanity, especially as it pertain to politics.

Another quote that comes to mind is Churchill:  “ it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Democracy is imperfect and it does not live up to its promises (e.g., being the “will of the people”).  Democracy is also inherently aspirational:  it constantly misses its own mark and has to engage in reform and growth to inch towards its own self-generated ideals.  A simple example is that one of the most classically liberal documents documents ever written, the Declaration of Independence, was written by a slave-owner as the founding document of a country that would allow chattel slavery and deny women the right to vote.  That document states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and it would take until 1965 until one could argue we had full legal voting rights for all citizens (and we stills struggle with access–the aspirations of  the words and philosophies do not meet reality). Any democracy has to engage in constant self-evaluation.

But, as per the Churchill quote, the reality is that all other government types that have been deployed by humanity have contributed less to human flourishing than democracy.  Indeed, to anticipate a later part of this series, once we have determined that democratic governance empirically promotes human well-being we have a moral obligation to try and better its application, even if that means reforming existing polities.

However, that is not the topic here.  What is a basic model of democracy?

In the previous edition of this series, I made reference to “popular sovereignty” i.e., an assumption about government that suggests that power ultimately derives from the people and some other source.  Sovereign power need not be seen as coming from the people.  If sovereign power come from God, for example, then a theocracy makes sense.  If sovereign power is vested in a special bloodline, then aristocracy makes sense. For that matter, if power simply belongs to the strongest party, then government established by trial by combat (or something similar) makes sense.

If, however, we assert that each human being has inherent and equal value, other forms of government become hard to justify.   If, the people (the “demos” in Greek) are to have the power (“kratos“), then democracy is the logical, and just, form of government that should be pursued.  All well and good, but what does that mean?

At a minimum it would mean that all citizens (broadly defined, usually all persons of a certain age) would have a say in government with no citizen having a claim to a larger share of power than another.  Hence, simple democracy would be direct democracy wherein the views of all would be taken into consideration.  The question, from there, however, is what will be the decision rule for assessing these views?  Unanimity could be time consuming to achieve, if not impossible.  But, majority rule could lead to unjust outcomes.  As various cautionary tales of democracy note:  one vote could lead to democracy itself being voted away.  Would that be democratic?  What if 51% voted to enslave the other 49%  Hey, we had a vote!  And so forth.  Beyond even those egregious examples, the reality is that citizens don’t always have perfect knowledge, make bad choices sometimes, and the majority can simply be wrong in their preferences.  Also, as populations grow in size the direct approach becomes utterly impractical.

Of course, ditching democracy altogether and going to oligarchy or monarchy does not necessarily solve any of those problems, and even creates their own likely abuses (as history clearly teaches).  So, democracy may, indeed, be the worst, except for the alternatives.

But, of course, despite the constant caricaturing of democracy as nothing more than gross majoritarianism, this isn’t the way it works.  We know, for example, that minority protections (see, e.g., the Bill of Rights or their equivalent in pretty much all democratic constitutions) make majority abuse of the minority more difficult (alas, not impossible, but people are a problem, after all). The next section will move the discussion to a a more complicated form of democracy, representation democracy as well as the principal/agent problem inherent to representation and why the rules matter.

Ultimately the problem is trying to create a system in which people can live together in the context of finite resources, respect the citizens as individuals with rights and privileges, but also create binding rules that prevent the degeneration of governance into power for the strongest.  It isn’t easy and trade-offs are inevitable.

(And before anyone tries to deploy, “we have a republic, not a democracy,” please go here first:  The “A Republic, not a Democracy” Library).

 

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Politics 101, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Gustopher says:

    Ultimately the problem is trying to create a system in which people can live together in the context of finite resources, respect the citizens as individuals with rights and privileges, but also create binding rules that prevent the degeneration of governance into power for the strongest.

    You’re just baiting us now, aren’t you?

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  2. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    I think that Democracy is more than a system of government. I think that there are levels of Democracy, and that it takes to proper develop good democratic institutions.

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  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    I have an alternate system: authority derives from random chance. Every decision would be decided by a roll of the dice or cutting for cards. This would eliminate the effect of human stupidity or evil.

    Ah, you say, no Michael, because who would frame the questions? No problem – anyone who wanted to take a crack at it could frame the issue, and add that framing to however many others had questions they’d like to put, they are all numbered, then out comes the Lotto machine.

    Pick the questions at random, find the answer at random. We just need to give it a catchy name: Randomocracy or Quantocracy. It would never be corrupted for the simple reason that we’d all be dead in a few years. The universe – which came into existence via a random event – would approve.

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  4. Barry says:

    Thank you for posting this, Stephen!

    Please keep going.

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  5. Eric Florack says:

    I’ve got an idea. How about we try a representative Republic?

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  6. @Eric Florack: There is a note and a link to answer that very question in the OP.

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  7. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Eric Florack:

    How about we try a representative Republic?

    So, you don’t like balls and you prefer spheres? You don’t like ice cream, but you’d rather have gelatto? You don’t like spaghetti and you prefer macaroni?

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  8. Ben Wolf says:

    At a minimum it would mean that all citizens (broadly defined, usually all persons of a certain age) would have a say in government with no citizen having a claim to a larger share of power than another.

    At a minimum it would mean that all citizens (broadly defined, usually all persons of a certain age) would have an equal say in the things that affect their lives.

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  9. MarkedMan says:

    I think there are precursors that must be in place before democracy can take root. One of the reasons our democratic nation building was so successful in Japan and Germany is that these precursors were well established. And the reason it has been dismal failures everywhere else is because they were absent.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Somebody would rig it. Somebody always does.

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  11. JohnMcC says:

    @Michael Reynolds: My old man had a ‘magic 8-ball’ that sat on his desk and it worked amazingly like the system you describe. I bet we could find one of ’em at a rummage sale in Pennsylvania somewhere.

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  12. @MarkedMan: This is an whole other conversation–i.e., what conditions are necessary for democracy v. what democracy is. I am focused fundamentally on definitions here.

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  13. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Fair enough.

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  14. Ben Wolf says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa: The immediate problems are that democracy is assumed to be a function of voting, and that voting as a part of our lives occupies a couple of hours every two or four or six years. The overwhelming majority of our lives are lived undemocratically.

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  15. grumpy realist says:

    @MarkedMan: Japan’s a weird beast. I often say that it’s the only truly communistic society in the world. You’ve got hierarchies, and then you’ve got a LOT of “group consensus” deciding. Plus you’ve got the multiple methods for making decisions and who actually controls the power. Quite often it turns out to be a little faceless bureaucrat within the whole hierarchy who certainly isn’t at the top and doesn’t have anything in his title indicating that he is in fact the “key man” but everybody knows that he’s the guy to talk to. Half of the time you need in negotiations as an “outsider” is finding out who the “key man” is.

    Japan runs the same way with political power–one reason why I say that the country is actually run by the civil service, with the politicians just providing entertainment. You end up getting power in Japan not by being at the top of things, but by being the nexus/coordinator that everyone comes to. Which I learned. I probably in my years of working in Japan had more effect on government activity than a lot of their politicians.

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  16. @Ben Wolf: I understand where you are coming from, but I am really talking here about running the government. I know that that is not satisfactory to your point of view, but it is the parameter under which I am operating.

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  17. Ben Wolf says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: You are, as a matter of fact, free to do so. I have no interest in persuasion.

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  18. @Ben Wolf: Fair enough–I was just responding to your interjections into the conversation. I will grant that they are statements and attempts at persuasion.

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  19. Kathy says:

    If we’re quoting Douglas Adams, we have to consider this scene between Arthur and Ford:

    “It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…”
    “You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
    “No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
    “Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
    “I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
    “So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t people get rid of the lizards?”
    “It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
    “You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
    “Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
    “But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
    “Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?”
    “What?”
    “I said,” said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, “have you got any gin?”
    “I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.”
    Ford shrugged again.
    “Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happened to them,” he said. “They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.”
    “But that’s terrible,” said Arthur.
    “Listen, bud,” said Ford, “if I had one Altairian dollar for every time I heard one bit of the Universe look at another bit of the Universe and say ‘That’s terrible’ I wouldn’t be sitting here like a lemon looking for a gin.”

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  20. Ben Wolf says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I don’t try to persuade people, at least not consciously. Maybe I do. If so, its a mistake. The right way to do things is not to try to persuade people you’re right but to challenge them to think it through for themselves. There’s nothing in human affairs of which we can speak with very great confidence, even in the hard natural sciences that’s largely true. In complicated areas, like human affairs, we don’t have an extremely high level of confidence, and often a very low level. In the case of human affairs, international affairs, family relations, whatever it may be, you can compile evidence and you can put things together and look at them from a certain way. The right approach, putting aside what one or another person does, is simply to encourage people to do that. The way you do it is by trying to do it yourself, and in particular trying to show, although its not all that difficult, the chasm that separates standard versions of what goes on in the world from what the evidence of the senses and peoples inquiries will show them as soon as they start to look at it. A common response that I get, even on things like chat networks, is, I cant believe anything you’re saying. Its totally in conflict with what I’ve learned and always believed, and I dont have time to look up all those footnotes. How do I know what you’re saying is true? That’s a plausible reaction. I tell people its the right reaction. You shouldn’t believe what I say is true. The footnotes are there, so you can find out if you feel like it, but if you don’t want to bother, nothing can be done. Nobody is going to pour truth into your brain. Its something you have to find out for yourself.

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  21. @Ben Wolf: Meh. I would suggest that the very act of interjecting in a conversation is an act of attempted persuasion.

    YMMV, of course.

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  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa: I would have made the comparison spaghetti to linguini, but WELL DONE!

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  23. Kylopod says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Oscar will toss your plate of linguini on the wall for that.

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  24. Mister Bluster says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:..you don’t like balls and you prefer spheres

    With Florek it’s he doesn’t like black citizens voting, he prefers that voters be white…

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  25. Ben Wolf says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    #1 There was no conversation.

    #2 You have a habit of declaring a thing is out of bounds ex post, because you did not take the time to define parameters to begin with. If you had stated that your opinions and your preferred definitions alone would be admissible within comments, things would be different.

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  26. @Ben Wolf:

    #1 You can call it what you like, but dropping into the comments section and saying things is interjecting your views into the discussion. To pretend like making a public statement in response to a 1000+ word post in the context of others commenting on that post is not some attempt at persuasion is hard to accept.

    #2 I didn’t say it was out of bounds, I was attempting to a) acknowledge your point, and b) note that that was not was I was talking about. If I write a post about the offensive side of the ball in football and a commenter notes that I did not adequately discuss the defense, it strikes me as fair to note that I am not talking about defense in the post.

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  27. @Ben Wolf: Really, I was initially trying to acknowledge your comment, to include acknowledgement that you were raising a whole other issue that could be discussed. I am not sure I understand the overall defensiveness.

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  28. @Kathy: Adams was a treasure.

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  29. DrDaveT says:

    If, however, we assert that each human being has inherent and equal value, other forms of government become hard to justify.

    Actually, I would expect this sentence to occur in an argument in favor of communism.

    This has always been the primary criticism of democracy — namely, that having each human being treated as inherently equal in value is not a stable equilibrium under democracy. As we have so recently seen, voters are neither altruistic nor rational en masse. Equal opportunity for all, equal treatment of all, equal effective power for all, are not natural outcomes of democracy.

    Now, it is certainly possible to argue persuasively that democracy has other desirable features. Producing equality is not one of them. If equality is what you are aiming for, you need to either add a whole lot of other constraints and mechanisms on top of democracy, or pick a different system in the first place.

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  30. DrDaveT says:

    BTW, thanks for picking up this series again. I very much appreciate the effort, and look forward to the discussions. (And I love a good THHGTTG quote, especially from the original radio series.)

    There is, ultimately, nothing simple about democracy (or about government in general).

    One of the many complexities is the problem of scale. Systems of government that work really well for a community of a few hundreds fail miserably in a town of tens of thousands, and what works well for a city may be disastrous for a nation.

    Democracy has a rap as something that doesn’t scale well — once you shift from direct democracy to representative democracy, the failure modes proliferate rapidly. The larger the scale, and thus the more layers of indirection, the worse this gets. I haven’t yet read installment 3 in this series, but I’m hoping this claim is something you will address.

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  31. @DrDaveT:

    If, however, we assert that each human being has inherent and equal value, other forms of government become hard to justify

    Actually, I would expect this sentence to occur in an argument in favor of communism.

    Well, it all depends on the kind of equality one is talking about. Equal economic outcomes is communism.

    Democracy has a rap as something that doesn’t scale well — once you shift from direct democracy to representative democracy, the failure modes proliferate rapidly. The larger the scale, and thus the more layers of indirection, the worse this gets.

    I am not sure this is true, to be honest.

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  32. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Well, it all depends on the kind of equality one is talking about. Equal economic outcomes is communism.

    My economist friends would look at you blankly and ask “what other kind of outcomes are there?”. (Keep in mind that, these days, “marriage satisfaction” is an economic outcome…)

    The larger point is that ‘equality’ isn’t a thing — you have to specify equality of what. Opportunity? Protection? Status? Economic situation? Access to public goods? Compensation for value added? Freedom from constraint?

    Some of those conflict directly; we can’t have them all. Which ones a society chooses to prioritize might almost define that society.

    I am not sure [that democracy doesn’t scale well] is true, to be honest.

    I wasn’t asserting it as an axiom; I was noting it as a frequent claim. I was hoping you would comment one way or the other.

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  33. @DrDaveT:

    My economist friends would look at you blankly and ask “what other kind of outcomes are there?”.

    Yes, well, economists can be that way. 😉

    At a bare minimum we are talking here about each vote being equal. And at least the abstract principle that everyone is born with fundamental rights.

    I wasn’t asserting it as an axiom; I was noting it as a frequent claim. I was hoping you would comment one way or the other.

    My misunderstanding. Let just note this for the moment: warts and all democracy as I am using the term has governed substantial parts of the globe since at least the end of the second world war. It scales just fine.

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  34. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    At a bare minimum we are talking here about each vote being equal. And at least the abstract principle that everyone is born with fundamental rights.

    Why talk about votes at all? Why not talk about those fundamental rights, and how best to ensure and preserve them? If votes come up in the course of that conversation, all well and good — but you seem to be starting from a premise that “one person, one vote” has some intrinsic value, independent of any actual outcomes. Of all the flavors of equality to worry about, why worry about equality of votes more than (say) equality of treatment under the law?

    I’m reminded of conversations with people who think that the Designated Hitter rule has some kind of intrinsic moral polarity, independent of whether it makes baseball a better or more entertaining sport…

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  35. @DrDaveT:

    Why talk about votes at all?

    Because it is a central way, if not the central way that citizens exercise power in such a setting.

    Why not talk about those fundamental rights, and how best to ensure and preserve them?

    I believe that I have been.

    you seem to be starting from a premise that “one person, one vote” has some intrinsic value

    I think that it does. I am not sure how it wouldn’t. It is a fundamental exercise of sovereign power. It is not the designated hitter rule.

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  36. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It is a fundamental exercise of sovereign power.

    Except when it isn’t — such as when it has no power at all for an oppressed minority. I’m reasonably certain that women and blacks in early 20th C America would rather have had equality of treatment than equality of votes.

    If you wish to advance an argument that equality of votes is a prerequisite for equality of treatment, I’m all ears — but you seem to be taking it as an axiom, and I’m not at all sure that it’s true.

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  37. @DrDaveT: No doubt the medium we are using to communicate and the asynchronous nature of the interchange (not to mention the bifurcation into two threads) is making this more difficult than necessary, but I am not sure I understand where you are coming from as it feels like when I address X, you shift to Y, and to then Z.

    A few answers:

    1. Voting is an essential part of representative democracy. It is a constituent element, in fact, and hence my focus. But voting alone is insufficient. They had voting in the USSR. Voting is a necessary, but not sufficient, element of representative democracy.

    2. The need for some level of basic human rights is necessary, but not sufficient, for representative democracy to function.

    And sure, if you have to have, fundamental human rights trumps voting–but then we are talking about another regime type.

    The bottom is, sure, one can theorize about regime that respects liberal values and doesn’t need a popular check on the government (i.e., the vote). However, history had demonstrated that the cases in which human rights are the most widely respected are in those cases in which popular will has some significant direct influence over the government.

    But going back to Aristotle: sure the truly wise, truly virtuous king is better than messy democracy. But try finding that dude.

    BTW, I am dead serious and not being cute when I cite the notion that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried. I think that this empirically and normatively true.

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  38. On that last point: I raise that because I understand that we are talking about a flawed system with multiple problems (also why I am being cute, but also serious, with the Adams’ quote about people being a problem).

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  39. @DrDaveT:

    It is a fundamental exercise of sovereign power.

    Except when it isn’t — such as when it has no power at all for an oppressed minority. I’m reasonably certain that women and blacks in early 20th C America would rather have had equality of treatment than equality of votes.

    To which I would answer: this is why I stress what I stress in Part III.

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  40. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Understood about the problems of asynchronous and disjointed conversation. Thanks for engaging here; I’m not trying to be obscure or difficult.

    1. Agreed about voting. I must have misspoken if you think I’m obsessed about voting here; I’m working with your definition of democracy, which is “the will of the people”. The problem is when the will of the people is illiberal, or even evil. This may be better addressed in the Part 3 comments.

    2. I’m not sure why you would care whether representative democracy can function, if you can have liberal government. As you say, maybe then I’m talking about another form of government — but isn’t that the point? We want the government that gives us the society we want; if that’s not democracy, then what’s the problem?

    The bottom is, sure, one can theorize about regime that respects liberal values and doesn’t need a popular check on the government (i.e., the vote).

    Why do you think that “the vote” — and, more precisely, one vote per enfranchised person — is the only possible popular check on government?

    I’ll go check the Part 3 thread to see if perhaps you have already addressed some of this. Thanks again for engaging.

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  41. @DrDaveT: I suppose the question becomes: what is this form of government you are suggesting is possible (or better, has existed) that does what you describe?

    And I did mean to suggest that the definition is “the will of the people” but rather to contrast with other regime types that do not take this into account. Indeed, this issue is something I want to discuss in the not-yet-written Part IV.

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