Contemporary Western Religion: Democracy

Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Prize laureate in economics, argues for democracy as a universal value in The Journal of Democracy (vol. 10, no. 3, 1999). But the only strong case he succeeds in delivering is how indoctrinated he is of democratism, and how ignorant he is of obvious alternatives, and democracy's limits and shortcomings.

Democracy has in only about a century developed from a theory that political philosophers would rather not touch (unless under certain circumstances, such as in very limited societies, e.g., city-states), to a premise of politics. As Sen shows, one no longer has to argue for a country being 'fit' for democracy, as was the case in the Nineteenth Century. Instead, 'we' take that for granted in each and every case.

This may very well be the main contribution in the Twentieth Century, Sen argues. Democracy is becoming a universal value, which he proposes is a 'major revolution' in thinking. Is it?

The democratic system of rule is only different to monarchy and other totalitarian systems in practice, not in principle. Society was and still is under the burden of the State's monopoly of violence and coercion. The real change is from one ruling class to another; from subjects to voting subjects. Thus, the real change in thinking is from a 'divine right' of kings to a 'divine right' of the majority. The divine right of democracy, if you wish.

This is of course a major change in thinking if one limits the scope to the public's idea of rule. The change from subjects with no influence to subjects 'with a right to vote' who thereby influence the rule is obviously the paradigm. But philosophically speaking, the change is only marginal. The state is still a state, rule is still not objectionable. A true 'major change in thinking' would be the final rejection of the state as normal, for the benefit of a free society.

Sen then seems to argue in line with the opinions of Dr. Rummel, who has shown democratic states do not aggress against other democratic states, and Swedish professor in economics Rydenfelt, who provokingly asks why natural catastrophes causing famines only seem to come about in totalitarian states, in that substantial famines have never occurred in countries 'with a relatively free press.' He argues the policies causing the famines were not criticized because 'there were no opposition parties in parliament, no free press, and no multiparty elections.'

Even though typical one-party, restricted press states such as the Soviet Union, People's Republic of China, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or Taliban Afghanistan all have suffered severe famines, it is hard to believe adding a couple of political parties and allowing CNN's news broadcasts would make things considerably better. Sen's analysis is probably correct in that there is a statistically significant correlation between these variables, but multi-party politics and a 'relatively free' press are only indicators of a much more fundamental factor, the degree of freedom.

He further argues there are three distinct virtues interrelated with 'unfettered' democracy: political freedom and its practice through political and social participation; enhancement of the hearing that people get in 'expressing and supporting their claims to political attention'; and the opportunity to learn from one another and form society's values and priorities.

These virtues all include a certain degree of freedom, which is interesting. But though Sen explains them as 'ways in which democracy enriches the lives of the citizens,' they are in full described to uphold certain values within the political system. As described by Sen, these virtues are impossible without a democracy.

As we can see, Sen argues democracy is becoming a universal value, owing mainly to its virtues. The virtues are then defined as freedoms directed towards the system itself. Thus, democracy, according to Sen, is superior to other political systems because it guarantees certain freedoms, but these are freedoms only towards the democratic system itself.

The conclusion is democracy guarantees a certain degree of freedom, which is not allowed under other systems of rule. On the other hand, this freedom exists only because the system of rule does not claim obedience in full. Hence, the citizens or subjects are free to the extent the state does not assert otherwise.

Sen is partly correct. Democracy is indeed a leap forward for freedom and civil liberties. Using Amartya Sen's scale, democratization is a 'major change' in the way we think and live our lives. But comparing democracy not only to totalitarianism and feudalism, but to possible degrees of freedom, it is but a 'small step' for mankind.

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Per Bylund's picture
Columns on STR: 63

Has a passion for justice.