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Democracy and Competing Values

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2014


Where it is Practised, Democracy is a) Not The Only principle practised, and b) practised differently from the way it is practised in other places. If democracy has a clear meaning and clear requirements – I shall argue that it does – then we should be able to map out the bases on which degrees of democracy are traded off in the name of other values, and with what justification. In attempting to make some inroads into the serious conceptual and empirical problems this topic presents, my point of reference will be the modern nationstate, though the use of the phrase ‘political units’ throughout signals the fact that the argument largely holds for other geographically-defined entities as well.

Copyright © Government and Opposition Ltd 1996

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1 Dahl, R. A., Democracy and its Critics, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1989, p. 192.Google Scholar

2 Graham, G., ‘The Moral Basis of Democracy’, International Journal of Moral and Social Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1992, p. 91.Google Scholar

3 May, J. D., ‘Defining Democracy’, Political Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1978, p. 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 For a fuller account of the interest‐based argument, see Saward, M., ‘Democratic Theory and Indices of Democratisation’ in Beetham, D. (ed.), Defining and Measuring Democracy, London, Sage, 1994, pp. 624.Google Scholar

5 See in particular Elster, J. and Slagstad, R. (eds), Constitutionalism and Democracy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6 Beetham, D., ‘The Limits of Democratisation’, in Held, D. (ed.), Prospects for Democracy, Cambridge, Polity, 1993, pp. 60ff.Google Scholar

7 See McLean, I., ‘Mechanisms for Democracy’, in Held, D. and Pollitt, C. (eds), New Forms of Democracy, London, Sage, 1986 pp. 135–57.Google Scholar Wolff, J., ‘Democratic Voting and the Mixed‐Motivation Problem’, Analysis, Vol. 54, No. 4, pp. 193–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 For some theorists, such as Danilo Zolo, the constraints of complexity are so pervasive that we must revise democratic theory from a position of ultra‐realism that would have made even Joseph Schumpeter blush. See Zolo, D., Democracy and Complexity, Cambridge, Polity, 1992.Google Scholar For others, like Dahl when he writes of ‘Polyarchy II’ and Beetham as he pursues a ‘democratic audit’ of the British political system, choices to democratize seemingly frozen properties of systems are available to us: there are, so to speak, moral niches in the complex, partisan state. See Dahl, op. cit., pp. 336–38, and Beetham, D., ‘Key Principles and Indices for a Democratic Audit’, in Beetham, D. (ed.), op. cit., pp. 624.Google Scholar

9 Lipset, S. M., ‘The Centrality of Political Culture’, in Diamond, L. and Plattner, M. F. (eds), The Global Resurgence of Democracy, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, p. 137.Google Scholar

10 Each of these points is taken from the discussion in Diamond, L., ‘Three Paradoxes of Democracy’, in Diamond, L. and Plattner, M. F. (eds), op. cit., pp. 95107.Google Scholar

11 Walzer, M., Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, Notre Dame, Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.Google Scholar

12 Rawls, J., A Theory of justice, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1972.Google Scholar Although he uses the term democracy often – or at least ‘constitutional democracy’– implicitly Rawls accepts the current minimalist version of democracy’s meaning rather than the more radical interpretation implicit in my own approach. For present purposes, I wish to side‐step the complex issue of the comparative status of democracy and social justice. As Shapiro has written, theorists of democracy and theorists of justice tend to talk past one another, often implicitly prioritizing the value they seek to elucidate. See Shapiro, I., ‘Three Ways to be a Democrat’, Political Theory, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 124–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13 Nozick, R., Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford, Blackwell, 1974.Google Scholar

14 Dobson provides an example: ecological attitudes to the fact of finiteness and scarcity of natural resources do not throw up any one obvious corresponding model of political institutions, though they do constrain the range of choices between sets of institutional arrangements. See Dobson, A., Green Political Thought, 2nd edition, London, Routledge, 1995,Google Scholar chapter 3.

15 In this section I draw on work by Dahl and Goodin, though I reinterpret and add to their accounts of (respectively) democracy’s internal and external values and the nature of political trade‐offs. See Dahl, op. cit., pp. 163–92, and Goodin, R. E., ‘Political Ideals and Political Practice’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 25, 1995, pp. 3756.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 op. cit.

17 Beetham, ‘The Limits of Democratization’, loc. cit., p. 56.

18 ibid., p. 59

19 op. cit.

20 For an effort to derive the appropriate precondition, see Saward, M., ‘Must Democrats be Environmentalists?’, in Doherty, B. and de Geus, M. (eds), Democracy and Green Political Thought, London, Routledge, 1996, pp. 7996.Google Scholar

21 However, if justice and autonomy were regarded as the root values of both ecology and democracy, then bringing other animals and life‐forms into the demos with humans would give us a radically altered picture of democracy – a truly green democracy? See Eckersley, R., ‘Greening Liberal Democracy’, in Doherty, B. and de Geus, M. (eds), ibid., pp. 21236.Google Scholar

22 See Hunter, S. T., ‘Iran’, in Lipset, S. M. et at. (eds), The Encyclopedia of Democracy, Washington, DC and London, Congressional Quarterly and Routledge, 1995, p. 631.Google Scholar

23 Beetham, D., The Legitimation of Power, London, Macmillan, 1992.Google Scholar

24 Weale, A., ‘The Limits of Democracy’, in Hamlin, A. and Pettit, P. (eds), The Good Polity, Oxford, Blackwell, 1989, pp. 3548.Google Scholar

25 Walzer’s comments, although not concerned with religion as such, are apposite in this context. He writes: ‘Were I to be invited to visit China and give a seminar on democratic theory, I would explain, as best I could, my own views about the meaning of democracy. But I would try to avoid the missionizing tone, for my views include the idea that democracy in China will have to be Chinese– and my explanatory powers do not reach to what that means… The principle of consent requires this much at least: that Chinese democracy be defined by the Chinese themselves in terms of their own history and culture… They must make their own claims, their own codifications (a Chinese bill of rights?), and their own interpretive arguments’. See Walzer, op. cit., pp. 60–61.

26 See for example Ophuls, W. and Boyan, A. S., Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity Revisited, New York, W. H. Freeman & Co., 1992.Google Scholar

27 The classic presentation of this view is Whelan, F., ‘Prologue: Democratic Theory and the Boundary Problem’ in Pennock, J. R. and Chapman, R. W. (eds), Nomos XXV: Liberal Democracy, New York and London, New York University Press, 1983, pp. 1347.Google Scholar See also the discussion in Canovan, M., Nationhood and Political Theory, Cheltenham, UK, and Brookfield, USA, Edward Elgar, 1996,Google Scholar chapter 3.

28 The author wishes to thank the participants at the MANCEPT conference on ‘New Directions in Democratic Theory’, University of Manchester, March 1996, for their comments on an earlier version of this article.

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