should all institutions be democratic?

Many of my friends and colleagues believe that the more democratic any institution is, the better. I take a more pluralist position: democratic values are worthy but they are inconsistent with other values, and what we want is a mix of institutional types.

You can’t enter this debate without having a definition of “democracy” in mind. I would reserve the word for any system that defines a group of people (the demos) and empowers them all to rule (the “-cracy” part, from kratein) with roughly equal influence or authority over the outcomes.

Voting is neither necessary nor sufficient for democracy. It isn’t necessary because other devices, such as lotteries, common property regimes, and consensus decisions, can also afford everyone equal influence. And it isn’t sufficient because a vote can’t achieve its purported purpose without various supports. These supports include at least freedom of speech and assembly and also (I would assert) universal education, an actual press that performs its role well, an independent judiciary, habits of deliberation, and enough social equality that no caste, class, race, or gender is able to dominate the discussion because of its perceived superiority. Social equality may, in turn, require at least a limited degree of economic equality. These conditions are highly debatable, but it’s pretty clear that at least some of them are necessary.

Democracy embodies at least two valid principles: 1) equal respect for the dignity of all people, and 2) a general presumption that decisions made by the demos will be wiser, or more just, or at least less corrupt and self-serving than decisions made in other ways. These two democratic principles are always worth considering, whether you are involved with a firm, a neighborhood, a church, a university, a family, or a scientific community.

But they are not the only valid principles. You should also consider: liberty, solidarity, excellence of various kinds, truth, diversity, peace, rule of law (which implies stability and predictability), psychological and material wellbeing, intimacy and privacy, efficiency, the interests of future generations and animals, and–if you are so oriented–God.

Alas, these various principles do not fit neatly together but often trade off. For instance, empowered groups can easily suppress individual liberty or ignore the rule of law. So how should we decide how to make the tradeoffs? A superficially appealing answer is: “Let’s decide democratically.” But democratic processes are biased in favor of the democratic principles over the other ones. Likewise, market processes are biased in favor of efficiency and liberty; scientific processes privilege truth and certain kinds of excellence; legal processes favor rule of law.

The cautious, pragmatic solution is pluralism. Let there be powerful democratic institutions and also intentionally undemocratic ones, where the latter category includes physics departments, for-profit startups, hierarchical churches, anarchistic commons, and many more. Assign decisions about certain broad questions of distributive justice to democratic institutions. But limit the scope of democratic decisions with a strongly liberal constitution that defends pluralism.

This is very far from an original or idiosyncratic position, but it may be useful as a dissent from the “strong democracy” thesis that is pervasive in some circles I move in. It also suggests a more capacious definition of “the civic” or “civic engagement.” I use these phrases to mean not democratic participation but rather creative love for the world. It is a secondary question whether the best way to improve the world (in a given situation) is democratic. Sometimes it is, but definitely not always.

If this statement seems lukewarm about democratic reform, it shouldn’t. The institutions that make decisions about broad questions of distributive justice are badly undemocratic, and changing that situation is a fundamental task of our time. I just wouldn’t interpret it to mean that all organizations must become democratic, because if they did, I would want to leave them.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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