Building Democracy 2.0: What Is Democracy and Why Is It Important?

This is part 1 in a multi-part series examining ways to build an inclusive democracy for the 21st century.

In The Social Conquest of Earth by evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson, a pattern emerges.  Humans experience rapid advancement after a series of seemingly small adaptations.  Changes in social behavior set the stage for a breakthrough that occurs dramatically.  Fire offers one of the best examples.  At first, controlled fires offered a way for hunters to flush and trap animals.  However, fire also cooked animals unable to escape.  Cooked meat proved easier to render and consume.  Later, cooking provided an important source of social bonding.  As humans became more adept at controlling fire, they settled around campsites.  Those campsites allowed humans to develop specialized skills and adopt highly attuned social cues needed to work cooperatively with others.  In other words, an important step toward human’s competitive advantage arose after several adaptations connected to the use of fire.

Democracy offers a more recent example of human adaptation.  Following a series of innovations occurring over a number of centuries, representative democracy burst onto the scene in the late 18th century.  It represents one of the greatest advances in human innovation because, once established, democracy became a machine for unparalleled human prosperity.  And yet as Americans, we tend to think of democracy as a political system magically created by our Founding Fathers.  The brilliance of a few men at the right time and place produced a framework that propelled this nation forward and made us a beacon for the world.

That perspective can create an ossified view of democracy.  It leads to a view that the Constitution is infallible.  If only we can divine the intent of the Founders through its text, we can answer today’s challenges.  Further, this view can obfuscate the norms, practices and necessary conditions around democracy that allow it to strengthen society as a cohesive force for improving the lives of its members.  The magical view of democracy makes it harder to focus on which of today’s challenges pose the greatest risk of unraveling society.

Part I of this series will focus on what comprises democracy and why it has been so important to human development.  It describes two primary human adaptations associated with democracy and the conditions necessary for the success of those adaptations.  The first adaptation described in this essay relates to a fundamentally new role for the individual in society.  This new role made the individual a driver in the decision-making of society.  Rather than governance flowing from a monarch, an autocrat or other central authority, democracy makes the individual – acting in a decentralized, rational and self-interested manner – the source from which government gains its legitimacy.  The notion that individuals could play such a role was radical and certainly a dramatic departure from other systems that predated its emergence.

Antecedents

As stated, democracy did not occur magically or by fortunate happenstance.  Like other major breakthroughs in human adaptation, democracy had antecedents that laid the groundwork.   Of course, the city-state of Athens practiced direct democracy among certain privileged citizens.  In other words, these citizens voted directly on public matters brought before them.  The flourishing of Greek Civilization during its classical phase provided an indelible marker for all political thinkers who followed.  The example of Socrates and writings of Plato and Aristotle and others provided a record for later political theorists to consider as a model for structuring society.

Following the Black Plague, which marked the nadir of the “Dark Ages” in Europe, societies experienced new economic and cultural activity.  The energy began around merchant cities of Italy where individuals enjoyed a limited amount of personal freedom.  This movement, which blossomed into the Renaissance, marked a period of cultural activity, which rested on the notion of humanism:  individuals had value and were unique.  They could express those qualities through literature and art.  Humanists believed people could live honorably on earth rather than merely preparing for the afterlife.

As the individual moved from the periphery toward center stage, political philosophers began making the case for greater political power.  John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government published in 1689 outlined the idea that government rested on the consent of the governed.  However, he argued such a government need not be democratic so long as a social contract existed between the ruler and ruled.  During the course of several centuries, the individual evolved from object under the control of others to independent being with free will and unique value.  These developments provided a framework that allowed the Founding Fathers and others to see an alternative path to governing society.

1776 and the Birth of a New Paradigm

It is no coincidence that Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence the same year Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations.  Both works acknowledged a fundamentally new place the individual held in society. Rather than an object compelled to action by other forces, the individual held agency and played a central role in governing society when that agency was aggregated writ large.

1776 offers a decisive point in time to describe this new paradigm as reflected in these two documents.  While the purpose of those works was different, both offered important insights into the new social order. The Declaration of Independence provided the legal justification for breaking with English rule.  Nowhere does the Declaration mention the word democracy. It avoids lofty statements about what government should be.  Instead, it relies heavily on John Locke’s theory of social contract, arguing that the role of government is to secure “the unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It continues, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying the foundation on such principle and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall see most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The Declaration then launches into England’s “long train of abuses and usurpations” to justify the colonies’ right to “throw off such Government.”  This is where the Declaration lays the foundation for democracy, arguing that citizens should not only consent to be governed but should have a say in government.  By this time, most colonies elected members to a legislative body.  Many of the items listed in the “train of abuses” concerned England’s dissolution of, interference with or general ignoring of these elected bodies.  In other words, Jefferson justified independence on England’s failure to secure unalienable rights reflected in the colonies’ increasing desire for self-government.

The same forces that revealed to Jefferson and other Founders the new role individuals could play in directing society, were becoming plain to others at this time – even in other fields.  No one had a better understanding of this concept in the economic realm than Adam Smith.  In Wealth of Nations, he observed the benefits accruing to society from the cumulative self-interested actions of individuals.  Such actions optimized efficiencies, production and specialization in an economy.  His famous analogy of “an invisible hand” underscores the power of individuals acting in their own self-interest:

“As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value, every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can … He intends his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, [led] by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention …  By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really means to promote it.”

The Founding Fathers were familiar with Smith’s writing.  Benjamin Franklin was a personal friend of Adam Smith.   Unlike Smith, who taught economics at the University of Edinburgh, the Founding Fathers lived in a new land.  They had the good fortune of imagining a new political structure free from the legacy of monarchs and other forms of central government.  As Americans, we tend to focus on one phrase in the Declaration of Independence – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – as if the Founding Fathers were solely guided by high minded principles.  In reality, the Founders recognized through their own experience with self-government, increasing economic independence and reading of prior precedents that the individual now had the capacity to participate in directing society without creating instability or undermining it.  Their efforts in response to conditions on the ground produced a new paradigm.

A Collective Brain

So what gives democracy a radical advantage over other forms of government?  Rather than a few making decisions about the direction of society, a democracy gathers input from a multitude of sources and channels it into collective decision-making.  Direction comes from the act of voting in an election.  This act affords a mechanism to aggregate the sentiment of the public on the future direction of society.  When all citizens have an equal opportunity to express their individual viewpoint at the ballot box, the collective and diverse views of the populace are expressed.  The compilation of such views optimizes political decision-making in the best interest of society.  Studies going back more than a century show that when given a problem to solve, a large group has much greater success at solving it than a few — even if those few are “experts.”

One of the best descriptions of this phenomena is The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.  His book describes four conditions that make the decisions of large groups so effective:  diversity of opinion (each person should have some private information, even if it is just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts), independence (opinions are not determined by the opinion of those around them), decentralization (people are able to draw on local knowledge), and aggregation (some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision).

Under these conditions, judgment expressed by the group is more likely to be accurate over time than any individual or subset of people.  Simply stated, the average of the opinions cancels out the outliers, arriving at the optimal outcome.  Democracy meets this test.  Of course, voting on representatives who will make policy decisions has no objective standard for right or wrong.  Nevertheless, an election typically presents voters with a central problem or set of issues (jobs, health care, crime, taxes, etc.) and potential solutions.  Polling helps to test these issues and solutions, ensuring campaigns craft messages that resonate with the electorate. Ultimately, voters weigh all of the information – much of which has nothing to do with policy prescriptions – and make a judgment about which candidate will best solve the problems determined to be the highest priority.

This process makes democracy more resilient, more adaptive and better at aligning leadership with priorities than other forms of government.  By tapping into the insights of a diverse, independent and decentralized populace, democracy can identify and adopt policies that harmonize with the needs of the group.  As in so many other fields, the judgment of the many has a much better track record than that of the few.  This process makes democracy a revolutionary and effective system for guiding society.

In Wisdom of the Crowd, Surowiecki focuses on certain types of problems to make his argument.  The first kind of problem is cognitive – ones that may not have a single right answer, but where some answers are clearly better than others (e.g., “How likely is it a drug will be approved by the FDA”).  He points to coordination problems as the second type.  These problems require groups to coordinate behavior such as how to drive safely in heavy traffic.  The final problem is cooperation.  How do you get people to work together when it is not in their individual interest (e.g., paying taxes or stopping pollution).  Across all of these problems, the author provides ample evidence that large, diverse crowds acting independently find the best result.

The book largely avoids political questions because they lack clear and objective solutions.  Nevertheless, in the final chapter, Surowiecki speculates about the relevancy of these principles in the context of government.  He notes that democracy may not be a way of solving cognitive problems or even of revealing the public interest:

“But it is a way of dealing with (if not solving once and for all) the most fundamental problems of cooperation and coordination. How do we live together?  How can living together work to our mutual benefit?  Democracy helps people answer those questions because the democratic experience is.  an experience of not getting everything you want.  It’s an experience of seeing your opponents win and get what you hoped to have, and of accepting it, because you believe that they will not destroy the things you value and because you know you will have another chance to get what you want.”

In other words, democracy provides a mechanism for society to direct the actions of government consistent with the priorities of the people as expressed by a majority at a given time.  Individually, the people may not have a clue about the detailed policy solutions on the table but collectively they possess super-computing intelligence.

James Madison understood this aspect of democracy.  Why should a new nation put its trust in individuals subject to all manner of self-interested and divergent passions rather than a king?  In Federalist 10, Madison answers the question.  He argues a representative democracy, especially one large enough to capture a multitude of fractious viewpoints, can “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, which wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whole patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial consideration.”  Democracy harnesses the distributed perspective of the individual for the good of society.  That is its first major innovation.

Conclusion

Understandably, we attribute special importance to the concept of democracy.  Americans are justifiably proud of the role this nation played as the crucible of democracy.  However, it is easy to accept the Constitution as “lightning in a jar” – as the product of a unique event in the annals of history.  This view of America’s founding can be crippling because it entices us into a cartoonish version of history and diminishes the lessons that can be applied today. By understanding democracy as human adaptation, we can appreciate it as a remarkable step forward in bringing efficiency, cohesion and strength to a society.  More importantly we can identify the norms, practices and core principles that define democracy.  The first innovation central to democracy revolves around the role of the individual in charting the direction of a society.  We now know that large numbers of individuals acting in an independent and decentralized manner make better decisions than a few – even a few with specialized knowledge.   


Mack Paul is a member of the state advisory board of Common Cause NC and a founding partner of Morningstar Law Group.

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