What is the value of “democracy”?

What is involved in the value of democracy? Why is this an important social value? And why should we think that democracy is a good thing for poor people?

Consider first the fundamentals. Why is there a role for democracy in any circumstances? Democracy is a type of political institution — a form of group decision-making. Political institutions are needed in circumstances in which decisions are needed that affect all members of a group. Each member of a group has his or her own set of preferences about choices that affect the group; so there needs to be a process for arriving at a set of social preferences — a social choice function. Democracy requires designing a set of arrangements through which each person’s preferences will have equal weight in determining the ultimate decision. Otherwise we would have a system in which one person decides (dictatorship) or a minority decides (oligarchy). So democracy represents a set of decision-making institutions that embody respect for the equal worth of all citizens. And the fact that otherwise powerless people can express their preferences through democratic means is a substantial form of potential influence for non-privileged groups.

In addition to the aggregation of individual preferences, democratic values consider as well the circumstances under which the members of a group form their beliefs and preferences. Narrow democratic theory takes individual preferences as exogenous. But broader versions of democratic theory attempt to bring democratic values into the social processes through which beliefs and preferences are formed. The theory of deliberative democracy emphasizes in particular the features of civility, mutual respect, and open-mindedness through which debate and critical examination of issues leads to a fuller understanding of issues and a more reflective set of preferences. This aspect of democracy is valuable because it corresponds to a society in which open and uncensored debate leads to the formation of individual and collective preferences and embodies the ideas of democratic equality among citizens. And less-privileged groups can exercise their voices in these forums to attempt to influence other citizens to support more just policies and choices.

(See Ian Shapiro, The State of Democratic Theory and Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy?.)

There is a final reason for cheering democracy: it is possible that democracy is more likely to protect the rights of the relatively powerless in society; democratic institutions can function as a bulwark against the arbitrary power of elites of all kinds. If the powerless have political voice, they then have an ability to advocate for, and democratically support, the policies that favor their perspectives and interests. (This political power is offset, of course, by the political power and influence wielded by elite minorities in most societies.)

(See Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America.)

The most fundamental reasons, then, to value democracy are its correspondence to the value of the moral equality of all persons and the capacity it creates for non-elite groups’ struggles for justice. Democratic institutions honor the equality of all persons in the fact that each person has an equal voice in deliberating upon and deciding collective policies. A democracy is morally preferable because it best embodies the more basic moral value of fundamental human equality and dignity and it provides a feasible mechanism for pursuing social justice.

4 thoughts on “What is the value of “democracy”?

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