Jan 24, 2011

Democracy: Intrinsically or instrumentally valuable?

When we distinguish political activity narrowly construed from political activity in a broad sense, we can give an interesting argument that democracy lacks intrinsic value. Or so I will argue in this post.

First, a quick recap of my last post. I gave an argument against the view that a policy's being democratically selected by a majority gives citizens a reason to endorse or follow the policy. The argument left open an instrumental view of democracy's value, however: on this view, democracy is valuable insofar as it instantiates goods such as justice, equality, or liberty, promotes the common good, etc., and any other system that did so just as well would be just as valuable and give citizens just as much reason to follow the policies enacted by the system. It also left open a view on which a supermajoritarian democracy has intrinsic value.

Now I want to suggest that we should doubt any view, majoritarian or supermajoritarian, according to which democracy has intrinsic value. We begin by distinguishing what I will call narrow political activity from political activity in a broad sense. I'm involved in narrow political activity when I do things like vote, run for office, and exercise the official capacities of an elected position. Broad political activity, on the other hand, includes the whole panoply of ways in which citizens exert influence in the civic realm: writing op-ed pieces, spouting off on talk radio shows or in town hall meetings, arguing with neighbors, helping one's children learn virtues of justice and prudence, being a good (or bad) example for others in one's community, and so on. All these things, and many more besides, are in a sense political activity, but they go far beyond narrow political activity. 

I can now introduce a dilemma. Either the intrinsic value of democracy includes only narrow political activity, or it also includes broad political activity. (The normative significance of a majority or supermajority selecting a policy has to come from somewhere. Does it come from the fact that citizens voted for it? Or do other ways in which they influence the choice of policy matter?) The first option draws a sharp normative boundary between narrow and broad political activity: the former is valuable in a way the latter is not. I cannot begin to imagine an argument that could justify this, especially when one considers that it's very often the case that broad political activity is more influential than narrow political activity. Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat have far more political influence through their New York Times columns than by voting in presidential elections. A similar point probably holds for most of us as well. We have more influence by just talking with friends and neighbors than we do by marking a ballot. So much, then, for the first option.

The second option is also problematic. Suppose that both narrow and broad political activity are intrinsically valuable. This in itself does not seem problematic to me, but it does seem to loosen the connection between the value of political activity and the value of democracy. Broad political activity is of course possible in any political system, provided it allows a sufficient degree of First Amendment type freedoms. Maybe democracies are better at protecting such freedoms, but that's irrelevant since we're asking about the intrinsic value of democracy. If broad political activity is intrinsically valuable and (in principle) possible in any political system, its value does not in any way ground the intrinsic value of democracy. The sole ground for democracy's intrinsic value must then be narrow political activity. As I argued above, however, that position is indefensible given that it draws an inexplicable contrast between broad political activity as intrinsically valueless and narrow political activity as intrinsically valued. 

Both options, then, have been found wanting. Whether the democracy is question is majoritarian or supermajoritarian, the claim that such a system has intrinsic value must be rejected. We thus have an even stronger argument than given in the last post. If democracy has value, it must have it instrumentally.


  1. This argument doesn't seem to apply to the understanding of 'democracy' (i.e. rule by the people) that I set out here. I agree with you that the formal process of voting is not intrinsically valuable. But that doesn't show that rule by the people lacks intrinsic value. It merely suggests that rule by the people doesn't necessarily have much to do with voting (an upshot that one might draw from your discussion of "the second option").

  2. Thanks, Richard, for the comment and the paper; I'll try to get around to the latter at some point. For now, I'm inclined to say that on any reading of "rule by the people" that I find important, such a rule will be compatible with both non-democratic and democratic systems. So rule by the people may have intrinsic value, but a democracy with rule by the people might not have intrinsic value merely by virtue of being so ruled.