Making democracy function as it should

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States sent a shock wave around the world. Here is a man whom his predecessor, President Barack Obama, characterized as “unqualified, temperamentally unfit and a threat to the republic who should never be president”. His election by winning the Electoral College, despite a majority of the nation voting for his democratic opponent, Hilary Clinton, raises a number of troubling questions about democracy. For one thing, it is clear that his election does not represent the will of the people if his opponent won more popular votes. His election also points to a paradox of the federal system of government, or what systems scientists call “level inconsistency” among different levels of government—between the state-level decision and the national-level decision in this instance.

Level inconsistency is but one way in which democracy as a system can go wrong. There are other ways in which democracy fails to live up to its promise of representing the will of the people. The way democracy fails to live up to its promise, or the way democracy dysfunctions, may be classified into four types.1

Democracy is a contrivance of organizing the political life of a social system in which the sovereign power is relegated to the people, or their representatives. Choosing between two major candidates may seem a rather simple choice for the people. However, the choice is made complicated by the wide range of issues the people are asked to make their judgment, from the environment to the economy, from immigration to national security, from health care to social security. Since the people are asked to weigh merits and demerits of each candidate’s policy on each of these complicated issues, it is quite possible that the decision is made out of ignorance on the part of the voting public. This type of dysfunction of democracy may be termed “type-C” dysfunction after Coriolanus, the Roman general in a Shakespeare play. It was Coriolanus who, because of his aristocratic contempt for the wisdom of the masses, characterizes democracy as a system where “gentry, title, wisdom cannot conclude but by yea and no of general ignorance.”

Whether the decision is made out of ignorance or reflects informed judgment on the part of the people, no social action is exempt from the possibility that its consequences could be very different from the intended one. This type of dysfunction may be termed the “type-M” dysfunction after Robert K. Merton, a sociologist who called our attention to the importance of unintended consequences of purposeful actions in social life.2 Unintended consequences come about because the people cannot always foresee complicated patterns of actions, reactions, and interactions that any social action triggers. It is a dysfunction in the sense that another action is needed if the outcome originally intended is to be regained, resulting in some cases in an endless cycle of actions and corrective actions.

In a democratic society where the freedom of association is guaranteed as one of the basic rights of the people, the number of groups that promote special interests tends to multiply as the people’s interests diversify. And as the number of special interest groups multiples, the functioning of the whole society, including that of the representative government, comes into conflict with the functioning of groups, which are subsystems of the society. The resulting loss of effectiveness of social action may be termed the “type-R” dysfunction, for it was Rousseau who foresaw this type of dysfunction for democratic societies. The majority rule ceases to be an effective method of reaching a social decision because “there are no longer as many votes as there are men but only as many votes as there are groups”.3

A social system is a complicated system as systems go, and a complex system is susceptible to a dysfunction that reflects inconsistency between different levels of the system. Consider, for example, the classic problem of organizing economic life based on the individual pursuit of self-interest. The problem of level-inconsistency arises in the preservation of limited resources, for example, because the pursuit of self-interest by individuals runs against the common interest of the overall system to preserve limited resources. This is the situation described by Garrett Hardin as “the tragedy of the commons”, and may therefore be termed the “type-H” dysfunction.4 The type-H dysfunction presents a special challenge for a democratic society because the common interest is not usually represented by any subsystem and, therefore, tends to be left unattended.

Given that democracy is not immune from these dysfunctions, we may well wonder whether a democratic form of government is one phase in human history which is destined to be replaced by some other form of government. We may indeed recall how Plato warned of the possibility that democracy may pass into despotism. In fact, democratic societies, if not an endangered species, only occupy a limited niche in the eco-system of human societies.

The fact of the matter is that democracy, like any other social system, does not offer a complete solution to the problem of organizing social life. Though incomplete, democracy offers the best hope for the betterment of the human condition in that it allows the people to be the master of their own affairs not only in the political arena but also in the cultural and economic arenas. Institutional reforms are certainly needed if we are to rid a democratic society of the symptoms of these dysfunctions. However, no amount of institutional reform would rid democracy of these dysfunctions unless the people become fully aware of the full implications of their sovereign power invested in them.

  1. A detailed discussion of the four types of dysfunction of democracy is found in: Koizumi, Tetsunori, “Knowledge, Power, and Democracy”, Cybernetica, 31(3), 1988, pp. 215-224.
  2. See Merton, Robert K., Social Theory and Social Structure, Glencoe: Free Press, 1957.
  3. See Rousseau, Jean Jacques, The Social Contract, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968, p.73.
  4. See Hardin, Garrett, “the Tragedy of e Commons”, Science, 162, 1968, pp. 1243-1248.