National Research University - Higher School of Economics (Moscow)
Undergraduate (4th year of bachelor’s studies)
Is it important to live in a democracy?
There is some ambiguity between the meanings of words “democracy” and “republic” in their everyday usage. Usually, the term “republic” refers to the form of government and is opposed to a monarchy, while the democracy is more about the real nature of a country’s political regime, and, in this matter, it is opposed to autocracy. In fact, in my view, these terms are rather close in their everyday meaning, only the republic referring to a formal legal status and the democracy referring to a sociological and institutional condition of a country.
I think that it can be useful for my purposes to propose another way to distinguish between these terms. It may seem more or less similar to the traditional one but is more precise. For me, the republic will mean a social and legal state, in which the sovereignty belongs to people, so they all are considered free and equal to resolve public issues. In contrast, democracy will mean in my framework a process of realization of people’s will via voting procedures and other forms of citizen activity. Thus, in my case, a republic can be undemocratic, for example, if people there agree to give all the power to a dictator that is able to neglect their opinion completely. True democracy requires not an inherent legal right to manage public issues publicly, but the actual readiness to do so. Nevertheless, the republic and democracy are very close to each other. In a commonwealth of free and equal people, a natural form of resolving problems should involve all of the people into the process. At the same time, people that are ready and able to resolve the problems in a democratic way can easily acquire the legal status of a republic for themselves with a little help of courage.
However, the topic of my essay is devoted to another issue. Is it important to live in a democracy? Someone can say that a democracy generally leads to better decisions on a social level in comparison to an autocracy. But is it really a case? In 1951 the economist Kenneth Arrow proved the so-called “Arrow’s impossibility theorem”, which formally shows that a dictatorship is able to create better social outcomes than democratic majority rule voting if there are more than two possible options to choose. Even if such a formal approach does not persuade you, we can easily understand that the majority can be desperately mistaken, and sometimes it can become a true tyrant. Probably, democratically chosen death penalty of Socrates in ancient Athens influenced Plato’s ideas about the poverty of democracy and the necessity of some virtuous philosopher-kings, ruling the society. A majority in a society can simply consist of bad people, who will happily vote for cruel war campaigns, torturing suspects, racist policies etc. Alternatively, people can be irrational and just do not understand a better policy for their own good, such as many economists claim when we talk about taxes, social spending.
There are also arguments against democracy, which are connected with the process of decision-making. Democracy requires complex and time-consuming procedures to make a decision, in contrast with an autocracy. In addition, there is such a thing as “political business cycle”: democratic politicians can be interested only in short-term goals, timed to coincide with election dates, in order to be elected, so long-term issues remain missed.
In all of those cases, it can seem that a virtuous expert ruling a country as a dictator will cope with it much better than people will. So why democracy is still important? Because it makes us better.
There are examples of good monarchs and autocrats, which were able to reach economic growth, stability, sustainable development, peace and justice for their countries. But what was the role of ordinary folk in those processes? Their very virtue was a virtue of a servant, which is to be loyal and to follow instructions properly, perhaps only sometimes nudging a master in the right way. Democracy cannot guarantee us happiness or good economy. However, it enables us to make our own decisions and be fully responsible for them.
At first, it can be quite painful. Reaching a consensus with a huge number of conflicting interests may seem impossible. Despite this, if violence is avoided and rule of law continues to function, people will start to persuade each other and at the same time listen to each other in order to compromise. And the proceeding democracy will gradually change them. They will now better understand each other, and so become more responsive, respectful, friendly. Knowing about others’ aspirations, which are quite similar to their own, will teach people temperance, humility, justice. A necessity to convey successfully their point of view will improve people’s eloquence. Bearing all the risks will force people to be more responsible, prudent and courageous.
In the case of representative democracy, those impacts can slightly weaken, because of an aristocracy element involved into political institutions structure. Then the only small class of politicians needs to be persuasive, and this class bears only a few parts of risks, which are in a certain way “split” between them and their voters. In a direct democracy, people cannot shift the responsibility for their decisions to someone else, so they consider bad decisions as made by their own. In contrast, representative democracy enables both people and politicians to shift the responsibility. People may not feel guilty about careless voting, thinking of elected politicians as some aristocrats whom they cannot affect much. At the same time, the politicians can shift the responsibility, considering themselves as just some representatives without their own will.
In spite of this, issues from political debates become an integral part of the social discourse with a help of mass media, and even ordinary folk starts to get involved in the democratic process. It can be said also that local politics hugely rely on ordinary citizens’ activity. Overall, the process of human betterment is anyway encouraged even in the representative democracy, since a society somehow should get a compromise, by listening to different opinions and by creating the Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator” embedded into the society’s culture.
A democracy opens people up: their worst and best. Since people are not ideal, some degree of elitism and hierarchy will exist in human societies, in its turn, creating a possibility of power manipulation. But democracy is real and it is extremely valuable because it gives anyone a chance to become a virtuous person. Democracy grants us with a status of moral subjects, who are free to make ethical judgments. We can use such status badly; however, we are able to use it wisely and so to become better people. That is not possible in any autocracy, which makes us either lucky or unlucky servants. In this sense, democracy is an expression of liberty, unpredictable but hopeful.