Theories of emergent social order give us a new perspective on how human societies function. In doing so constitute a genuine paradigm shift in the social sciences, which have long been dominated by reductionist or statistical approaches to the subject. No where is this shift more important than in understanding what democracies are. Perhaps they will help us maintain one we are on the verge of losing.
Democracies are traditionally defined as governments based on popular or majority rule, a point agreed to by advocates and critics alike. This definition is based on analyzing undemocratic states, which by definition involve some people ruling over others. “Ruler-ship” is simply expanded to cover the population ruled rather than a small portion.
History seems to support this approach. The United Kingdom evolved into a modern democracy by a gradual expansion of the electorate. Further, the democratic UK inherited the previous state apparatus that evolved when it was undemocratic, and proceeded to develop it farther.
It all seems quite straightforward. It is also wrong, and the consequences of its being wrong are severe.
A brief summary of the American example suggests why. Citizens of 13 independent republics voted to accept a constitution which established sovereignty in “the people” while delegating limited powers to elected national officials chosen to make decisions in their place and enforced through the judicial and executive branches. The powers of the original 13 states were also reduced. Neither national government nor state government were sovereign, the American people in their capacity as citizens of both were. As Madison emphasized, government should serve the people, not the states. This brief summary is a simplification, but not a distortion.
Crucially, there is no institution of rule established in the Constitution, no king, no elite, no single will of any sort. Governmental sovereignty is limited by a greater popular “sovereignty” and even that word, with its flavor of unified will, is misleading.
The constitution describes not so much how the law is to be enforced as how it is to be discovered when no one knows what “the people” want. The constitution describes the legislative branch at some length. The House and Senate are elected by different means for different terms and from different constituencies precisely to prevent any unified will arising to dominate the government. Madison’s entire discussion of factions in a free society explains that this diversity of positions is essential to preserve freedom. The legislative branch that was to be by far the most powerful, being able to remove both presidents and justices but being immune from attempts by either to dominate them.
Also significantly, the constitution is very brief concerning the executive and the judiciary. These, the traditional institutions of rule within undemocratic states, are subordinate.
The constitutional focus is on decision-making without a ruler not enforcement of those decisions. Ideally all voting citizens are equal at a crucial stage of this process, which is why current right wing attempts top restrict the franchise are so subversive to American principles. In the language of complex adaptive systems and spontaneous orders, the constitution established abstract procedural rules regarded by all as fair and suitable for facilitating contradictory proposals regarding public values where selection would be made by feedback processes (voting) controlled by no one.
This is the same kind of dynamic we find in markets or science, but oriented to discovering different values: whatever the community believes is desirable to realize at the time the resulting laws promote. The logic of Madison’s famous Federalist 10 assumes that such values will be beneficial for the community as a whole because great diversity and geographical extent prevent the formation of a powerful unified will able to rule over others. Put bluntly, the constitution seeks to make rule by some over others impossible.
In the Federalist and even more later in life, Madison emphasized that European modes of thought could not comprehend the new American experiment. He was right. Sadly, so great was Europe’s intellectual prestige that he was almost universally ignored, despite being recognized widely as the constitution’s most insightful commentator.
Representative democracy is fundamentally a discovery process that determines what the executive branch and judiciary will enforce. This term, introduced by Thomas Jefferson and agreed to by Madison, had the advantage of being precise in a way “republic” was not. In such systems the ‘state’ is subordinated to the spontaneous order of the democratic process. No unified ruler existed at any level.
Today, when for very interesting reasons this constitutional discovery process is breaking down around us, we see the institutions of the state, the executive and judiciary, increasingly acting independently of congress and the people. For example, “Citizens united” is an instance where the Supreme Court’s majority actively degraded the democratic discovery process in service to an ideology incompatible with sustaining a democratic government. The considered judgment of the community is subordinated to the prejudices of ideologues safe from popular checks who sought to increase the power of a portion of the community over the rest.
Libertarian and conservative Americans have long predicted that as “the democratic state” grows, freedom wanes. There is no evidence they are correct. Europe’s “welfare states” are in fact democracies that provide public services on a scale dwarfing the niggardly American performance, yet their citizens are as free and prosperous as ours. Arguably in many cases they are more free. These “welfare states,” now over 50 or 60 years old, with no evidence of growing authoritarianism. Meanwhile the US has the highest documented imprisonment rate in the world. An important libertarian and conservative prediction has been falsified as thoroughly as any Marxist prediction that central planning would bring about prosperity.
Ironically, conservatives and libertarians seeking to prevent “state growth” are empowering interests that might in time destroy democracy and put a genuine state in its place. Conservatives and their allies have sought to strengthen traditional state functions, like the police and military, weaken civilian oversight, and insulate government from popular influence while making it more difficult for citizens to act to influence government in turn. Except when not in power they are turning the executive branch from a department subordinate to the legislature to one superior to it while seeking to free the legislature from complete dependence on the electorate. Under President Obama they have acted to cause the legislative function to break down, which also strengthens tendencies in the executive branch to become more independent.
This problem is not just on the political right, although it is most toxic there. In different ways “managerial liberals” to their left have often sought to “take the politics out” of government and so insulate it from popular influence. They also use a state model, but think a democratic state that is ever more like an organization can be trusted since “the people” control their rulers. In reality the people lose more and more influence. But managerial liberals see democracy primarily in administrative terms which means administrators must have a sphere of action free from interference. If more humane than the right, they also reduce popular control and degrade the democratic process.
We desperately need a new way to think about democracies of we are to have a chance to preserve our own.
Envisioning Democracies as CO-OPS
I want to suggest the cooperative as a far better model than the state for thinking coherently about democracy. The exception is foreign affairs, where we must still deal with powerful states such as China. Not surprisingly, here there is a far greater national tendency to act and think in terms of a unified will.
If every American were a member of a co-op equal in extent to their state or to their country the domestic policies libertarians and conservatives complain about would seem only good sense to virtually everyone. Co-ops would provide public services for their members either directly, as in building roads, or by contracting out, as might be the case with services requiring a high level of expertise, such as health care. None of this would be controversial in the slightest. It would be what they were supposed to do: serve their members. We would be getting value for our membership rather than becoming “dependent” on “rulers.”
A libertarian might object that governments can manipulate and change “property rights” at the expense of individuals who are thereby “coerced.” But if individuals were members of cooperatives, their elected boards would also exercise governance over the co-op’s property, and be able to change how resources are used. Members who disagree could campaign for change, or for getting elected to the board. The packaging is different but the content in this respect is the same.
Of course, despite important similarities democracies are not co-ops. They have militaries and police forces and courts, that constitute the old state apparatuses. But when viewed from the perspective of the co-op model these are seen as importantly and properly subordinate to the membership, the citizens rather than as its defining features.
When a national crisis intervenes, such as Pearl Harbor or 9-11, the membership shifts its priorities so as to place the crisis first, but this is a temporary situation. Interestingly, in practice, it is in such times that democracies act least democratically, and the most like traditional states. This fact should tip observant people off to the fundamental incompatibility of state centered models of government and democracy, but that is difficult when there is no alternative model to compare it with.
A territorial cooperative of residents who own and administer the land as a whole, and sublet parts of it for their own purposes, is such an alternative, one able to expand our grasp of the possibilities open to a free society.