Home


Democracy and Freedom

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

#
I vote and encourage you to vote, but voting has little to do with democracy. Nor does “democracy” have much to do with voting.

Moreover, little that is said about “democracy” has much of anything to do with democracy.

Moreover, little that is said about government and politics makes any sense — as evidenced by your own reactions at this very moment, since you are feeling some urge to turn away from what you think might be a discussion of government and politics, and you wearied of that nonsense long ago.

But if you can stay with me for a few moments, you will begin to see why traditional such discussions are nonsensical, and see the beginnings of a way to look at these aspects which order and control and direct and shape our lives — to look at these and find some sense, some meaning, possibly even some considerable significance. It's certainly different from what you’ve been all too used to — and a way of looking which pertains whether ye be democrat, republican, reform, greenback or whatever.

And once we’ve seen this clearer way, then we can say some important things about democracy and on behalf of democracy which do make some sense. And which hold important keys to our lives and the lives of our children.

O

Defining:

To begin with, please consider these two definitions of “democracy.” One of these definitions is useful and one is not.

  • One is useful in that you can look at a given situation and, by that definition, assess pretty well how much democracy is actually present in the situation.

  • The other definition, the standard dictionary definition of democracy, is not useful in that you cannot use that to look at a given situation and assess just how much democracy is actually there.
The standard dictionary definition, based on the Greek demos, the public, and archos, rule, is “rule by the people.” Nice goal, but what is the reality? Most national governments proclaim that they are expressing and carrying out the will of the people. Hitler pursued a mystical notion of the will of the German peoples, though I think few of us would consider his Third Reich much of a democracy.

At first blush we in America mostly think that what we have is, indeed, a rule by the people, and that can often be true at local levels; but even where that is the case (and in many or most instances and at non-local levels it is not), can you look at specific situations and use that definition to say just how much democracy in fact is present? Can you use that definition to even say, this situation has more democracy in it than that situation does? We may have an intuitive feeling that one situation is more democratic, but there is nothing in the dictionary situation we can use to make such a comparison.

O

The definition of democracy I use here:

There is a definition of democracy that you CAN use to compare situations or even to assess within given situations just how much “democracy” is actually present. This is that definition:

  • People having some meaningful say in the decisions which affect them.

  • People being consulted in the matters which affect their lives.

  • People having a meaningful chance to affect the outcome of a decision which bears on their lives and livelihood.
How much of THAT is happening in a given situation? How much of that is happening in today’s America, where our national representatives no longer even pretend to read their mail, only the polls? (And only the ultra-wealthy and powerful get to look in and say ‘hi.’) Polls where even a slight change in wording of the questions radically alters the expressed preference outcomes? So that polls themselves are routinely shrugged off or dismissed with contempt.

And because people confuse polling with democracy, it becomes only a matter of time before people begin dismissing democracy...

Yet, if we look at that consultative nature of democracy, as we shall do below, we see a fairly powerful case can be made on behalf of democracy, and on behalf of the societies which have at least some democracy in them.

O

Don’t confuse “democracy” with “egalitarianism”

Another definition of democracy which gives rise to some confusion is egalitarianism — the idea and ideal of all people being equal. (Or, historically, all of OUR kind of people being equal, however you define “our kind of people.”)

Actually, there IS some relationship between democracy and egalitarianism, but clearly these are very different things.

You CAN have some democracy in a situation without egalitarianism (like an estate owner consulting his servants before he makes decisions concerning the estate, or a general consulting his staff before making his command decision).

You also CAN have egalitarianism without democracy, much as we have now in much of America. What could be described as a “litigenocracy” is but one example of such an egalitarianism without democracy. EVERYone, big and small and powerful, can be ruined and impoverished by an offended party who has the right lawyer.

Further confusing some people is that “egalitarianism” exists in two opposite and mutually exclusive forms. People routinely confuse the two forms and refer to the two opposite meanings interchangeably. No wonder our political thinking and dialog are such a mess! Those two opposite meanings of egalitarianism are, of course — given the rich and wonderful variability of the human race—

  1. Egalitarianism as the doctrine that everyone should be equal as regards opportunities, basic responsibilities, and rights before the law.

  2. Egalitarianism as the doctrine — only partly out of favor now since the fall of Communism — that people should share equally in the good life; that people are entitled to equal results, equal wealth, equally good living conditions.
Obviously, given the bewildering and wondrous variety among human beings, you can’t have both equal opportunities (unless it’s a total dearth of opportunities!) and equal results at the same time.

What you CAN have, that smacks of both, is equal opportunity and some sort of quick recycle back into productive opportunity for those who fail. But you do have to have the opportunity to fail and thus some incidence of failure in the situation. Without the opportunity to fail, there is no opportunity to succeed.

O

Relationship between democracy and egalitarianism

If more people get to have a meaningful say in the decisions which affect them, then — other things equal — there is more democracy in that situation.

When you have a broader distribution of opportunity in a society, more of the people there can discover or develop their talents to contribute within the community, so that society begins to become richer and more productive, as compared to traditional hierarchical authoritarian societies where people could only operate within a rigid, predetermined, narrowly defined role.

Ancient Athens, even though confused about the two opposite forms of egalitarianism, drew on the talents of more and more of its people and led classical Greece into an extraordinary flowering which laid much of the basis for several civilizations, including our own.

In recent centuries, America has led the way among societies drawing upon a wider range of its citizens and their talents. Many of the resultant advantages are still with us.

(Some elements of) democracy compounded the advantages for both Athens then and America recently. To understand how and why, take a look at Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism, which laid the philosophical basis for all modern “democracies.”

Bentham, you may recall, originated the goal and value of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” As we look to increase that good —

People generally have a better idea of what will benefit them than does some far-off ruler (unless something goes terribly wrong with society’s education system, the way it has with ours). Therefore, knowing better, if they have a real chance to inform the decisions which are being made on matters which concern them, people have a much better chance of having those decisions be in their own best interests (and therefore, by Utilitarian principle at least, in the best interests of society).

O

A further power in democracy

Historically, democratic procedure has been an awfully sloppy way to get things done. But when the need gets clear enough, when people can, in fact, get pretty agreed on something and have been well-invested in the process of getting there, that people is virtually unstoppable.

Perhaps history’s most dramatic examples of this were Athens just prior to and during the second Persian invasion of Greece, and America’s recovery in the early days of World War II, after losing half its fleet at Pearl Harbor. In the Athenian example, faced with the prospect of a second and greater Persian onslaught, nearly everyone in Athens set to with a will to make the necessary preparations. Athens was thus able to build, from scratch, a fleet which defeated the world’s mightiest naval force at Salamis.

When a democracy gets it together, it really gets it together.

The weak point in the basic case is, alas, the assumption that most people know better what’s in their own interest than does some far-off ruler. Were that assumption true, decisions would, in fact, be informed, and democracies would get it together on many points, many issues.

The unfortunate fact we see in America today is that the majority of Americans neither know nor care to know. Our schools have seen to that. But even if our great American public today falls well short of Jeremy Bentham’s ideal, it seems unlikely that the far-off ruler is doing any better in the decisions now being taken without a meaningful democratic consultation.

On the whole, some of us are better informed about our own affairs than some far-off ruler would be. If there were a way, for such few of us as are and who care, once again to have some opportunity to meaningfully inform the decisions which govern us, we’d get better decisions and a society at least somewhat better off. We do still have, despite impoverishment by our schools, a strong though improvable egalitarian opportunity for a wide range of our people to discover and/or develop their varied talents.

The third strength cited, however — that of a democracy really getting it together — seems currently beyond our reach.

If I still have two readers left at this point, on topics which few Americans today know about or care about, perhaps there is hope of somehow down the line rekindling interest with discussions which are not muddled, confused and nonsensical because of confused definitions.

The definitions we specifically offered here may be of help to such clarification — the “opposite twin” definitions of egalitarianism and the idea of democracy as a consultancy.

O

Freedom

And if I still do have two readers left at this point on these topics, I’d better offer the opportunity to clarify one more related topic — that of “Freedom.”

Of three very different kinds of “Freedom” — which one are we talking about? Again, people have mostly talked about one thing and meant another, and left discussions in a hopelessly meaningless muddle. When people talk about “freedom,” they mostly mean one of three very different things:

  1. The medieval Christian definition of “Freedom:” Making yourself content with what you have, so that you FEEL free.

  2. Absence of negative constraints — like children bursting out into the playground after being cooped up too long in the classroom. The opposite of the condition cited as the complaint about authoritarian bureuacracy: “Anything that isn’t required is forbidden.”

  3. Availability of positive, desired choices — like shoppers stampeding into a most attractive mall with pockets bulging with money and credit. Wide range and number of desirable choices open to you.

What people mostly mean when they speak of “Freedom” is the second of our three definitions, the absence of or freedom from constraints. That has largely disappeared, and its remnants continue to disappear. Within the foreseeable future, there is only one way to head off further loss of this freedom, only one way to possibly retrieve some portion of this lost freedom. Later in the forthcoming book we will demonstrate this way. While this present monograph is only an article and not yet part of our future book on Freedom, please see the free online book, Incentives As A Preferred Instrument of Corporate and Public Policy, on this website. Also relevant to this topic are two further articles, at Five-Fold Path towards a Robust Economy and Mixed Economy. Also relevant to matters of freedom is the article at Winsights No.60, "One Destiny, or Many?". These further articles should give you some sense of our forthcoming book on Freedom.

Today ours is “a free country” in terms of #3. We have lots and lots of #3. We have very little if any of #1. I get the sense that when most people say “we’re a free country,” they’re not thinking about #3 but about #2. But #2 is a very different matter. We’ve lost much or most of Freedom #2 and are rapidly losing the rest of it.

Historically, the emergence of democracy has been accompanied by an upsurge in both the second and third types of freedom. More and more of the people in the society have gotten free of the negative constraints which had held them in place, their varied talents unexpressed — that’s Freedom #2. More and more options opened up through which their varied talents could be discovered, expressed and developed — Freedom #3. And this third type of freedom gets compounded by the growth of the society, and its general wealth, in which these things are happening.

How do these things get lost, as, historically, they always have been, sooner or later? That will have to be the subject of another paper. Or perhaps YOU can write that paper, just from what you can observe by looking around you today.

Here is a historical take on an explanation. When the thirteen colonies were still a part of England, Professor Alexander Tyler wrote about the fall of the Athenian republic over two thousand years previous to that time:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasure. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most money from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the world's great civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through the following sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependency, from dependency back to bondage.

One more consideration:   Even town hall meeting democracy is flawed, as are our legislative bodies, when conducted by the usual parliamentary procedure or Robert’s Rules of Order. Small town meetings come close to democracy in reality, but when the larger ones engage Robert’s Rules, they are a way to shut communications down so that business can get done. How well does that procedure fit with what democracy is supposed to be about? How can we actually better make democracy democratic?

Please examine the Dynamic Format procedure [in the CPS Techniques section], to see how everyone even in large groups can experience in full, and provide one another in full, a richly Socratic experience — an experience where, instead of competing one-liner put-downs, everyone can be drawn out on his subtler, richer thoughts and perceptions, at length and in depth, on whatever matter is set to hand. Where parliamentary procedure is a way to shut communications down so that business can get done, Dynamic Format is one of several easily used methods to open up communications within a group so that genius-level business can be transacted.

If the ideas of Socratic Method and Dynamic Format ever catch on, we might see the beginnings of a healthy return to democracy.

O

Endnote

Contrast the joke about a hippopotamus being an animal put together by committee (which presumably follows Roberts’ or some form of parliamentary procedure) with the incredible record of Socratic Method, throughout the past 2300 years of history, for drawing out people’s subtlest and deepest awarenesses on whatever topics and for generating astonishingly large numbers of world-class geniuses during the process. To study this matter further, besides the article at Dynamic Format, you might want to study these other articles in this website:

O

What Readers Say — selected comments
Kate Jones

Join the debate! Email your own responses to
Win Wenger or the webmaster.


This brief may be freely copied—in whole, but not in part, including its
copyright notice—for use with people whom you want to inform.
Home | SocioTectonics index | Democracy and Freedom |
Contact:   Project Renaissance
PO Box 332, Gaithersburg, MD 20884-0332
301-948-1122 phone

©2007-2011 Project Renaissance