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In this provocative book, Stein Ringen argues that the world's democracies are failing to live up to their ideals--the United States and Great Britain most especially. The core value of democracy, he contends, is freedom, the freedom to live a good life according to one's own choosing. Yet he shows that democracy's freedom is on the decline. Citizens are increasingly distrustful of political systems weighted by money, and they don't participate in political affairs as they once did. Ringen warns of the risks we ...
In this provocative book, Stein Ringen argues that the world's democracies are failing to live up to their ideals--the United States and Great Britain most especially. The core value of democracy, he contends, is freedom, the freedom to live a good life according to one's own choosing. Yet he shows that democracy's freedom is on the decline. Citizens are increasingly distrustful of political systems weighted by money, and they don't participate in political affairs as they once did. Ringen warns of the risks we face if this trend continues, and puts forth an ambitious proposal for democratic reforms.
The issues that concern him are ones that should concern us all. They include education, poverty, the social and economic roles of families, the lack of democracy in our economic lives, and the need to rejuvenate municipal democracy. Along the way, Ringen proposes policy solutions aimed at restoring democracy, such as universal vouchers for education, substituting the principle of individual insurance for social-welfare pensions, and rethinking how we measure poverty in rich and poor countries. He calls for the revival of local democracy, a democratically grounded global economy, and the protection of political democracy from the transgressions of economic power.
The way to protect democracy is not to cheer it, but to reform it. What Democracy Is For offers a bold defense of democratic ideals, grounded in real reforms.
"[B]rings to bear the fruits of a lifetime of hard intellectual work, exploring the social and economic realities of contemporary welfare states--not through their fond self-imaginings or effusive advertisements for themselves, but through their far more erratic capacity to aid their many citizens who still stand in acute need."--John Dunn, Times Higher Education Supplement
"[A] reworking, in accessible and convincing detail, of the insight that the person demanding freedom to indulge unexamined impulses is a slave...a strong and thoughtful argument for putting positive flesh on the skeleton of negative liberty."--John Lloyd, Financial Times
"Ringen compiles an impressive range of data designed to evaluate various dimensions of the political, economic and social life of a number of contemporary democracies."--Martin Leet, Australian Review of Public Affairs
"Political symbols often lose value through their very success, and much work must be done to recapture the engendering experiences to which they point. Ringen . . . is dedicated to doing this work for 'democracy.' . . . [C]learly destined to be a classic."--M. Berheide, Choice
"This is a brilliant book...You may disagree with his arguments, but they have the beauty of transparency."--The Guardian
"[W]ith a tocquevillian inspiration...will easily reach the status of a classic in the literature deepening the great liberal tradition."--Raymond Boudon, Commentaire, France
"[)]ne of Europe's leading social scientists...The book is a model of social science research, analytical, rigorous and full of interesting insights."--Vernon Bogdanor, The Spectator
"[P]rovokes the reader without being provocative, thereby fostering further thoughts and reasoned disagreement."--John Samples, Cato Journal
"[O]ne need not agree with Ringen on the relationship between poverty and freedom, or even on the obligation of the state to eradicate the former in order to guarantee the latter, in order to find his ideas for policy reform quite worthwhile."--Adam Fleisher, International Affairs
"Even if many of the ideas in this book are controversial and provocative, that is precisely why it is worth reading. I think this book can be of great interest for everyone interested in social justice, democratic theory and the institutional implication of democracy and social justice."--Harald Borgebund, Political Studies Review
"What Democracy Is For offers a bold defense of democratic ideals, grounded in real reforms."--World Book Industry
Democracies have always been, and still are, failure prone. They were short lived and ill suited for survival -Giovanni Sartori, The Theory of Democracy Revisited
Democracy is better than nondemocracy. The reason I can say that with confidence is that we now know what to look for in order to compare systems of rule by quality. Democracy is a better form of rule than any known alternative because it is better for the people whose life chances depend on the rule they live under. If that system is democratic, they are more likely than otherwise to be able to live in freedom and enjoy some comfort of well-being.
It has not always been accepted that democracy is better than autocracy, nor is it universally accepted today. For example, democratic rule is sometimes thought to be less efficient than some forms of autocratic rule and therefore less suitable in countries that are up against serious problems, such as underdevelopment or overpopulation. That, as it happens, is probably not true; the evidence is that democracy outperforms the competition also in efficiency. But this disagreement depends not only on facts and figures, it also goes back to different ways of assessing quality. I say that democracy is better than nondemocracy because it is better for people. The case for autocracy is usually made on the argument that it is potentially a more powerful form of rule.
A first version of this essay was delivered as a lecture at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados, on 19 May 2004 while I was a visiting professor at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies. Revised versions were given as lectures at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik on 8 October 2004, on the occasion of the centenary of home rule in Iceland, and to the Graduate School of Governance at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul on 13 April 2005. I am grateful to those universities for the invitations to present these ideas for discussion, and to Andrew Downes, Jonathan Lashly, Don Marshall, Lynette Eastmond, Torfi Tulinius, Gunnar Helga Kristinsson, Páll Skúlason, Sandrine Rui, Huck-ju Kwon, Chulwoo Lee, Sung Hyun Moon, and others for helpful comments on those occasions. I have benefited greatly from conversations with and suggestions from Øyvind Østerud, Frederik Engelstad, Ruud Luijkx, Miles Corak, Tim Smeeding, Bruce Bradbury, Guillermo O'Donnell, Laurence Whitehead, Gianfranco Pasquino, John Keane, and Larry Diamond on matters dealt with here.
These are different ways of answering the same question, different in methodology. In the first case, we insist that the quality of a system, in this case a system of rule, should be assessed by what it does for people. In the second case, systems are assessed by how they work without any direct observation of what they produce. That kind of analysis is clearly relevant but in my opinion incomplete, at least for the present purpose. Of course we need to know something about how political systems work in order to make any kind of judgment about them, but if we want to judge them by quality we need to follow through and observe not only how they operate and run the machinery of politics but also what they actually do, deliver, and produce. Democracies are supposed to be for the people they serve. It is because I go by and trust that kind of analysis that I feel able to say with confidence that democracy is the better form of rule.
That's democracy versus nondemocracy. Presently I want to compare democracies among themselves. Again, my concern is with the normative issue of quality. I want to measure democracies by quality and compare them so as to see which ones are better than others. My argument will be that we must use the same kind of analysis when comparing democracies that has enabled us to establish the superiority of democracy to nondemocracy. We need to follow through and see what they do for people.
The analysis in this chapter is comparative; I say something about which democracies are better than others but less about just how good any of them finally are. In appendix B, I reproduce a summary of what is perhaps the most careful assessment ever of a single democracy. That is the case of Norway, which not surprisingly happens to do comparatively well on my scale of quality. The Norwegian review is critical and finds much that is inept in a democracy that is of very good standing in the world. Comparatively good, then, is not necessarily very good (while, by extension, comparatively bad really is bad). This juxtaposition of comparative evidence against the backdrop of a strategic and more absolute case study proves helpful when I come to questions of democratic reform in the concluding chapter, and I make full use of it there. In appendix C, I compare press quality in two neighboring European countries, Britain and France. This is to underscore a message of difference. Both Britain and France obviously have a free press but are, surprisingly perhaps, far from being on an equal pegging in press freedom. That shows up again in my comparative data where the fragility of press freedom in France is one of the factors that contributes to its relatively low rating on democratic quality overall.
Getting the Methodology Right
Political scientists have in recent traditions been reluctant to take on the question of "the good democracy." While the world was divided in a competition between democracy and autocracy, that comparison attracted the most attention. In addition, many of them probably did not think it a very good question in the first place. Rather they may have thought the right democracy to be the one that is right for each country, depending on its historical experience and cultural heritage, and that it is simplistic to want to order them along a single dimension of quality. Or that democracies have different qualities, that democracy A may be better than democracy B by one criterion and B better than A by another criterion, and that no more can usefully be said.
One way in which this skepticism has been expressed is in a widely shared view that there is a built-in trade-off in democracy between representativeness and efficiency: perfection in representativeness costs something in the efficiency of governance, and vice versa. If that is right, a country cannot have a democracy that is excellent in both these qualities; it has to choose what it considers to be the most important quality.
This theory of contrasting qualities has now been put to careful testing and in an important breakthrough work shown to be false. Arend Lijphart has compared two types of democracy that differ in the way they work; he calls them majoritarian democracies and consensus democracies. By the conventional theory, consensus democracies should be better in representativeness and majoritarian democracies better in the efficiency of rule. Using a rich set of indicators-including indicators of what democracies produce for people-he found that consensus democracies tend to outcompete majoritarian democracies in both ways, not only in representativeness and in being "kinder and gentler," but also in efficiency of governance, such as in macroeconomic management and the containment of violence. This finding undermines the trade-off theory and establishes that it is possible to get further than has usually been assumed towards positioning democracies along a scale from better to worse.
Lijphart introduces the quality of democracy concept, but not as an overarching one. He considers quality to be one of several dimensions for comparing democracies but not a matter of final assessment. More recently, however, the concept of quality has started to be used in this general way. That, I think, reflects a renaissance of interest in "the good democracy." With the resolution of the competition between democracy and autocracy in favor of democracy, we can now devote more attention to the democracies themselves. That stronger focus internally on democracy has drawn attention to weaknesses even in the established democracies. With the recent rapid expansion of democracy in the world, we need to get a better grip on what democracy is capable of. The scholarly literature on democracy is now steeped in the language of quality-democracy is consolidating, evolving, developing, retracting, improving, weakening, strengthening, broadening, deepening and so on-and a new branch of research is emerging under the name of democratic audit.
The question of goodness having been asked, the task is of course to answer it. A recent review of the state of the art, however, shows that we are like blind men searching in the dark. It is not just that we are unable to answer the question; we have so far not answered the question of how to answer the question.
The October 2004 issue of the Journal of Democracy published the proceedings of a symposium on the quality of democracy held at Stanford University the year before, with the aim of exploring what constitutes quality in democracy and how to measure it. This collection of papers by leading authorities in the field contains a mass of information about contemporary democracy and a range of original analyses and insights. But as to the question before the symposium-how to evaluate democratic quality-it makes for discouraging reading. A reflective afterword by the journal's editor reverts to the skeptical view that the question is probably not a very good one.
For my part, however, I read these papers in a different way. They show that the question is on the table and in search of an answer. If we are, like this symposium, unable to get very far towards answering it, that is not for want of knowledge about democracy and democratic governance, either theoretically or empirically, but because we are not in control of how to use that knowledge to answer this question. The symposium plunged right into the effort of compiling information about democracy with next to no consideration of what methodology to use to answer the research question. Democracy was sliced up into eight "dimensions" that were treated one after the other by separate authors, with the inevitable result that each dimension was subdivided further into as many subdimensions. The effort became one of amassing information without a methodological apparatus to bring it together towards some kind of consolidated conclusion. The question was no doubt seen to be complex, and it was therefore tempting to think that its answer must depend on bringing together as much as possible of data. But measurement is never about piling up data. It is about considering carefully what the relevant data are and then arranging those data with plan and economy.
It is without question correct that the right democracy is the one that is right for this or that country. Democracies are, must be, and should be vastly different. Methodologically, this means there is an awful lot of information about democracy that is irrelevant to the assessment and comparison of their quality. The job at hand is to sort out what information not to use and then to organize what remains relevantly. We need first a methodology that can tell us where to look and what to look for.
Until recently, the theory of social measurement took it to be more or less obvious that the site of social change was, in one way or other, "the system." Development, for example, was seen to be something that happened in "the economy." The consequence of that view was that measurement approaches used "the system" as the unit of observation. Development was observed for countries, usually with the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita indicator.
In the last couple of decades, however, there has occurred what amounts to a change of paradigm in this branch of measurement theory. That has come about through a better understanding of just what the site of quality is and from there a better understanding of what is the appropriate unit of observation. We are now inclined to argue that social quality resides ultimately with the persons who belong to or live in a system and not exclusively in the system itself (at least, so we will argue if we work within a framework of democratic values). Systems have potential but the value contained in that potential is manifested or not in the lives of persons. If development is for people, it needs to be measured in how it manifests itself in the lives of persons. If that is the case, we need to use the person as a relevant unit of observation. The change of paradigm is in this meaning towards methodological individualism.
This has not made the system irrelevant as a unit of observation, but we would now see measurement approaches that observe only the system as insufficient. The measurement of development, to stay with that example, would observe first the system and its potential, using the GDP per capita indicator, for example, and then in addition the value that flows from that potential into the lives people live, using poverty as an indicator, for example.
There is a specific logic behind the change of paradigm according to which the robust measurement of social quality depends on a kind of double bookkeeping in which information both about the system and the lives of those who live in it is recorded. Neither one nor the other is on its own enough. In the case of development, again, it is not enough to observe the living conditions of persons. These could theoretically be better than what is assured in the potential of the economy, for example, if poverty is held back by development aid rather than by the economic potential of the country itself. Such well-being would be precarious, and this country should therefore not be considered an economically developed one. Nor is it enough to observe the country's economic potential. Two countries that have the same economic potential but differ in their performance on poverty should not be considered equally developed. We observe two things-potential in the system and quality of life for persons-and measure development by a combined use of both observations. The obvious example is the Human Development Index (by the United Nations Development Programme). Development is here measured in an index based on the economic potential of each country and the standard of health and education in its people. That change in approach makes a very considerable difference in measurement results.
Another area of research that has moved forward in authority and versatility thanks to having matured into post-paradigm-change methodology is the measurement of income inequality and poverty. Here, the double bookkeeping regards the household as the unit for the measurement of income and the individual as the unit for the measurement of the economic well-being that is contained in the economic potential of the household. This, together with improvements in the database, has enabled us to attain much safer knowledge about comparative income inequality and poverty.
Pre-paradigm-change methodology used single bookkeeping: information about the system only. Post-paradigm-change methodology does not offer a different kind of single bookkeeping but has advanced to double bookkeeping.
My argument here, obviously, is that we should take on board this change in methodological paradigm for the measurement of democratic quality. Approaches of the Journal of Democracy kind are stuck in single bookkeeping mode; they observe only the system, that is, the regime. If we get the methodology up to post-paradigm-change scratch, we are halfway there. In fact, once we get the methodology right, we can, as we will see, get pretty far towards robust comparisons with the help of simple and rudimentary indicators. The Human Development Index is proof of that. It, deservedly, carries heavy authority in spite of being estimated from a few rough-and-ready indicators. On the other hand, unless we get the methodology right, not even the most refined and complete data will do the job.
The Measurement of Democracy
There is an extensive literature on the empirical comparison of democracies. The most authoritative source is the Polity project (presently Polity IV). This project measures the "degree of democracy" on a year-by-year basis, covering a period of roughly two hundred years, for all independent states (with populations of more than 500,000). The indicators are:
Existence of a functioning polity (a functioning central political authority having been established and not interrupted)
Openness (democracy) or closeness (autocracy) of political institutions
Durability of the polity (number of years since the last regime transformation)
Institutionalized procedures for the transfer of executive power
Competition in executive recruitment
Independence of/constraints on the chief executive
Institutional structures of political expression
Competitiveness of participation
The regime classification, based mainly on expert assessment, is on a scale from +10 (most democratic) to -10 (least democratic).
Excerpted from What Democracy Is For by Stein Ringen Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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