Democracy: An Attempt At Definition

Winston, among other things, provided some good quotes on democracy, like “it’s a bad system, but the best we’ve discovered so far”

Again, our resident translator is responsible for some (self)reflection on my part. Yesterday, I promised to post

Pengovsky’s First (And Only) Law on Democracy:

In a democracy, noone is requrired to believe anything or anybody

Naturally, there is also an Addendum to Pengovsky’s Law:

The said goes for the above law as well

Obviously this statement is entirely unscientific, especially since the statement invokes itself for confirmaton (sort of a continous loop), which is exactly something you would expect from a political scientist like myself. 😀

Freedom (liberty, if you will) seems to be at the centre of modern liberal democracies (liberal democracy being a sub-system with a set of values prevalent in Euro-American types of democracy, not necesarily a country with liberal democratic government). There are two main types of freedom: freedom from (say, being harmed) and freedom to (say, speak freely)

On another level, freedoms are excercised against two players: The State (government) and other private individuals. Both are tricky. Due to the ancient right of limiting one’s freedom with another man’s freedom, an instutition must be empowered to judge where individuals’ freedoms collide and whose freedoms take precedence, and even enforce its rulling if necesary. Thus the modern State came about. And since even the state’s powers must be curbed, the division of power between judicial, legislative and legislative branch was eventually developed (but more on that some other time).

Freedoms in different planes

But at the core of every system, even a democratic one, is a set of beliefs. In this case, a belief that rights and freedoms can be excercised, regardless of everything. But what I like about a concept of a democracy is the fact that you don’t have to believe. You can choose to. Thus you are free from compulsory believing and are at the same time free to believe.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

6 thoughts on “Democracy: An Attempt At Definition”

  1. “Freedom to” speak freely is in mostly considered as “freedom from” being harmed if you speak freely; and in America they commonly use liberty to describe “freedom from (coercion)”.

    Why is free speech not freedom to? Because
    a) when you’re mute no power in the world can provide you with “freedom to” speak freely,
    b) no sense in speaking freely when you have nothing smart to say.

    Since “freedom to” (or benefit – slovene translation: “privilegij” or “ugodnost”) is usually related to state intervention it should be limited. No state can intervene to provide you with free speech. It must come from you. It can only intervene to protect you from being harmed after you spoke freely.

    Here’s another try at defining these terms in Slovene.

    Here I call more liberal democracies those democracies that have less coercion. For example if you have flat tax then this is liberal because everyone pays same tax on every earned unit of wealth within the system. But if you have progressive tax then society is liberal if this policy has widespread support by those who pay more tax and is totalitarian when this policy is only supported by those who pay low taxes and those who benefit from taxes (so they in fact redistribute money from unwilling victims of such policy without the victims seeing the benefit)

  2. Firstly, I would dissagre with the notion that “freedom to” is a privilege or a benefit. It is not.

    “Freedom to” (perhaps “a liberty to” is a better expression) is a freedom inherent to any human being, whether he/she chooses to excercise it or not. The fact that the power to protect freedoms has been temporarily transfered from private individuals to the State in no way diminishes the fact that these “freedoms to” are inherent to any human being. Indeed, it is “a privilege” bestowed upon the State to protect and balance these freedoms.

    As you say, “free speech comes from oneself”, thus you imply it is inherent to us all – therefore I contend that we are “free to speak freely”.

    And when you say that is “makes no sense to speak freely when you have nothing smart to say”, I’d say that this statement contradicts the notion that people are inherently free. It actually implies that people are free by the will of other people who are “more free”, and should be prevented from saying stupid things. And while it is tempting to construct an argument for “being free from stupidity”, I’m sure we all know where this leads to.

    And another thing: You seem to consider freedoms only in context of “individual vs. the State”, wheras I firmly believe that Hobbesian “homo homini lupus” more than applies, which percipetates the creation of the State primarily to
    a) protect individuals from other individuals
    b) ensure that individuals are free to excercise their rights to the fullest extent possible, and finally
    c) to protect all individuals from the State, reserving the right to replace the government, should it abuse its power or fail to do the job properly.

    As for the flat-tax debate, I won’t go into that, because it has nothing to do with the concept of democracy, as any tax-policy is applicable in any system, be it democratic or totalitarian.

  3. This really depends on definitions of these terms. I understand the concept of freedom from and freedom to as analogies to “negative” and “positive” freedom.

    For example free press is a right to publish your own newspaper. This is “freedom from coercion”. No one is allowed to prevent you from publishing it. But can you afford your own newspaper? Can you pay for it? If you can’t then you need “freedom to” publish your own newspaper. Because while no one will prevent you from publishing it you will not be able to publish it because you lack the money.

    And to grant you this freedom someone else has to provide the money and take risk for making or creating this money. So “freedom to” is in this case definitely a benefit; and such benefits reduce liberty of those who pay for them.

    Perhaps it is just a matter of us having different definitions?

    In my article I describe liberal and totalitarian democracies.

    Democracy itself (again this might be terminological difference) is but a system of making decisions within a society.

    For example, the Greeks voted to execute Socrates. They had democracy.

    But they did not have a constitution in place to protect basic human rights, such as a right to life. So theirs is what I call a totalitarian democracy. There are a lot of examples of totalitarian democracies in modern history and even today. Serbia under Milosevic. Germany under Hitler. Chile under Allende. Modern Venezuela and Iran. They have introduced majority rule but they are not liberal.

    The more liberal democracy is the more equal people are in front of the law and more liberty (freedom from) exists. Benefits reduce libery of those who have to pay for them. That includes the tax system. Flat tax is a wonderful example of objective tax system based on your benefits from the society. Progressive tax system is political by its nature and makes arbitrary decisions about how much someone “can pay” – it does not really matter how much one gained from society.

    These decisions are often done by those who vote lower taxes for themselves and higher for minority groups. That’s social discrimination that increases coercion and reduces liberty within a society.

    In fact tax system is one of the best indicators of how liberal a democracy is for modern societies. How much of what you produce you can keep for yourself is a very vital part of your liberty. Your right to build your own hapiness and take responsibility for your own decisions.

    If you don’t produce anything then of course you won’t need freedom from – because you’ll need someone to pay for your benefits.

    A superstructure called welfare state has nothing to do with democracy and freedom. It is economic in its nature and related to stability of the environment.

    There is no freedom in ones man priviledge of taking money from another mans wallet.

    And of course freedom from coercion includes vertical and horizontal coercion (from state and from other people). That is coercion by the state and by other people. A very nice example in Slovenia would be union protesters closing our streets for traffic or Roma population disrespecting the law based on their ethnic origin.

    So I don’t really limit my definitions to individual vs. the state in any way. I observe individual in relation to other individuals and the state as groups of individuals.

  4. For starters, you can hardly compare ancient Greek democracy with modern-day democracy, which is based of personal rights and freedoms. The fact that both are called democracies is misleading at best.

    Free press has nothing to do with being able to publish a news paper. Free press is an outdated term for “free information”, which encompasses (including, but not limited to) free speech, free print and free publishing.

    I must admit that I do not follow your line of thought completely on this free press issue.

    The point I’m trying to make throughout my post and comments is that both “freedoms to” and “freedoms from” are inherent to any human being which chooses (or not) to excercise them. Or believe in them, for that matter.

  5. “There is no freedom in ones man priviledge of taking money from another mans wallet.”

    perhaps then the poorest of nations with no tax systems, no hospitals, government services or funded infrastructure such as roads, schools, hospitals etc, are in fact the freest countries in the world?

    perhaps there are not too many benefits to having quite *that* much freedom… not that either of you have implied positive or negative connotations to any flavor of “freedom” :>

    i’m going to pack my bags for somalia…

  6. I intentionally skipped the positive and negative connotations of freedom(s) – that would require a whole series of posts 😀

    I of course agree that the role of the state is to enforce and balance these liberties.

    But my post dealt solely with my understanding of the concept of democracy. Once we move from academic plane to real life, things get much more complicated, even to the point of Realpolitik.

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