The first premise of my Democracy Argument for Basic Income is:
A functioning democracy is impossible if there is extreme economic inequality and extreme poverty.
I think this notion probably needs some further explication. One might wonder, “Isn’t the United States a Democracy despite high levels of economic inequality? Democracy refers to a form of government where the leaders are elected and the levels of economic inequality are not relevant to whether a country has a functioning democracy.”
The above notion is, I believe, premised on an impoverished understanding of democracy. A political system requires a number of elements to be considered a democracy proper, that is a fully functioning democracy. Periodic elections with citizens being able to go to a ballot box and vote does not itself indicate that the country is a democracy. Consider the recent elections in Egypt as an example of elections without democracy. Dictatorships usually have some sort of staged election but in some way or another the election fails to be a true election. Maybe all the candidates are members of the same political party. Maybe citizens know that if they vote for the wrong candidate they face significant danger to themselves and their families. Maybe the election is rigged so that no matter how people vote the official result will always be in favor of the dictator or ruling party.
Democracy is much more than being able to cast a vote. I don’t intend to lay out all the conditions of what is required for a country to be truly democratic but I think we can do enough here to make the originally intended point, that poverty and inequality undermine democracy.
Clearly we need a definition of democracy, so here is a very rough working definition:
A system of government in which all persons have equal rights guaranteed in the constitution of the state. One of the rights guaranteed to all the citizens is the right to vote for a candidate that represents their interests. In a functioning democracy the government represents the interests of the citizens.
One might be inclined to wonder about this notion regarding a right to vote for a person that represents one’s interests. I think it is helpful to take a detour and think about the modern era of history and how modern liberal governments came to exist, what they replaced, and what their founders expected them to be and do.
Around 500 years or so ago in Europe things started to change in terms of social and political structures. There was major shift from aristocratic form of political organization to a democratic form of political organization. The basic insight and zeitgeist of this period was that governments and rulers existed not at the expense of the citizens but for the good of the citizens. The form of government that they created was to try and ensure that government would function for the benefit of the citizens. So, to this end they created institutions of governments that included election of leaders, constitutions guaranteeing individual liberties, checks and balances on governmental power by dispersing power amongst various parts of the government, etc. It is fundamentally built into the notion of democracy that government should work for everyone, that it should work towards the common good. Voting is almost superfluous to the notion of democracy. Voting is instrumentally valuable because it is important to build a certain kind of government. The act of casting a vote in and of itself is not that meaningful and oftentimes in many parts of the world is totally meaningless.
Now let focus on the question of whether the United States is a democracy currently? If so when did it become a democracy? And what are the reasons for our answers to those questions?
While the United States was under British control it was clearly not a democracy. The citizens didn’t have the ability to vote for a leader and government that represented them. And the government wasn’t working for the benefit of the citizens.
So what about when the United States declares independence and becomes an independent country with a constitution and democratic election of government? Upon the founding of the United States the practice of slavery was legal. So we can say that from 1776 – 1864 the United States was not a democracy. Slaves couldn’t vote and didn’t have basic rights. So, the United States was not in fact a democracy, meaning a fully functioning democracy, until 1864.
Unfortunately the United States was still not a democracy because women didn’t have the right to vote. They didn’t get that right until 1920. So, the United States was not a democracy, again meaning a fully functioning democracy, until 1920.
Unfortunately the United States was still not a fully functioning democracy because although slavery had been abolished Jim Crow laws that legalized discrimination against African Americans was still legal. Legal discrimination did not come to an end until 1965!
Even after the official end of legal discrimination there was still significant discrimination in various forms most notably in discriminatory housing and lending policies, some of which persisted up until the recent economic crash and whose effects are still being profoundly felt. The United States drug policies have also been a very profound form of discrimination that has dramatically affected African American communities and still does up until today.
So just on those grounds I feel confident in claiming that the United States is not a fully functioning democracy as it does not work for the common good and the political leaders do not represent the interests of all the citizens.
Here is the above in argument form:
1. If a government is a fully functioning democracy then the government represents the interests of the citizens.
2. The United States government does not represent the interests of the citizens.
3. So, the United States is not a democracy.
Now, what should we say regarding the role of poverty and economic inequality in determining whether a country is a fully functioning democracy?
Clearly there is a problematic connection between money and political influence. People with more money have always had more political influence, but one of the fundamental principles of democracy is that everyone should have equal rights. What can we do about this tension?
One of the most important things we can do is make sure there are not people with no money. If money partially determines how much political influence a person has then I think it is of paramount importance that we make sure there are not people with no money and no influence.
There are certainly other things that need to be done like reform campaign finance laws, closing the revolving door between government and lobbying entities, etc.
But fundamentally the most important thing we could do, I believe, is to end poverty. Once we end extreme poverty we give people the power, freedom, and opportunity to work to make the government work for them. And as long as extreme inequality exists there will be people who are able to use the political system to continue to reap benefits at the expense of those at the bottom.
Check out some of my other posts Basic Income: