A vote, for better or worse

What Democracy Is For

August 17, 2007

What Democracy Is For is a necessarily vague answer to an inherently confused question. Democracy in contemporary political speech equivocates between two starkly discrepant meanings.

In the first place, it refers to a form of government once pioneered in the city-states of Ancient Greece and recently and somewhat arbitrarily reassigned to the system of representation grounded in competitive elections that now prevails with varying degrees of security throughout most of the relatively wealthy world. In the second place, more elusively, it refers to a political value that its admirers (and some of its fiercest detractors) have firmly identified with personal freedom.

If it was self-evident that it was the form of government itself that did carry this enticing association, its title could scarcely have been transposed convincingly to a successor that, whatever its other merits, differs from the original in almost every pertinent respect. As an idea, a form of government can be simple and abstract enough; but as a feature of the human world at particular times in particular places, its simplicity and abstraction largely drop away and are replaced by bewilderingly various and largely opaque arrays of institutions, practices and attitudes. (Hence the demand, and arguably even the need, for political science: the discipline that aspires to tell us what is going on in these opaque spaces and explain why it is doing so.)

In actuality, accordingly, no form of government can be accurately said to be for anything determinate. The purposes, beliefs, sentiments and energies of huge numbers of people flow ceaselessly through them, always on starkly unequal bases and frequently with widely disconcerting results. Few forms of government explicitly repudiate responsibility for the welfare of their subjects, and virtually none officially proclaims the immorality or even amorality of its purposes. As Isaiah Berlin long ago pointed out, the most formidable and self-righteous opponents of the capitalist democracies of today vindicated the superiority of their own regime precisely through its pretension to serve a richer, deeper, less self-serving understanding of human freedom.

Stein Ringen, a professor of sociology and social policy at Oxford University, is not at his most compelling as a political theorist or philosopher and shows little interest in the activity of politics that determines the consequences of contemporary democracy in operation. Fortunately, however, what he does have to offer more than offsets these conspicuous handicaps.

The core of his expertise lies in the study of social welfare policy in action and, above all, its impact on the lives of its putative beneficiaries. Here Ringen brings 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.

For the past century and more, this has been one of the most deeply engaged and salutary domains of British social inquiry, and the potency of its political presence has often been at its height when national politics was at its most edifying. However Gordon Brown's premiership turns out in the end, one thing that is clear at its outset is that his political roots lie deep in the long struggle to respond to the message of this unending inquiry.

At Oxford, one of Ringen's principal responsibilities is to teach those who mean to devote their lives to social work - the practical enactment of welfare policies for the immediate benefit of the individuals and families they are devised to aid. Before going to Oxford, Ringen, a Norwegian by birth, carried out extensive research into the welfare of his fellow citizens on behalf of the Norwegian state. He remains extensively involved in the life of that country, both as citizen and social scientist. For better or worse, it is this blend of personal provenance and professional responsibilities that gives his book its angle of vision and lends it its characteristic pathos.

Norway is in many ways a very nice country: beautiful, civilised, considerate, courteous and, nowadays, enviably rich - a lone refutation of the oil curse. It is also about the most solidary and committedly democratic country in the world.

All countries have their weaknesses. In Norway's case, it is perhaps a little priggish, and potentially even a little dull; and any lingering suspicion that it may lack a dark side is belied by its formidable contribution to world drama. But Ringen is understandably proud of its achievements, and he makes a powerful case for the instructiveness of studying the achievements of its welfare state as evidence of modern civilisation under conditions as ideal as any that history is likely to offer.

To see Britain through the prism of Norway is to pick up some things more clearly than natives are likely to manage by themselves. Interestingly, the most distinctive note that Ringen chooses to emphasise is the vitality and politically beneficial insubordination of the British press, a note seldom struck by natives who are not its immediate clients, and scarcely a balanced appraisal of its overall impact on national life.

Ringen believes, reasonably enough, that we should judge political regimes principally by their consequences for the lives of their subjects, and that contemporary democracies are losing credit with the latter mainly because so many of those consequences have proved unwelcome. He is less compelling in construing these consequences as evidence of a deficit in democracy.

Democracy's central boast is to ensure to its citizens control in the end over their government in full accordance with their own choices. You can refute its alleged presence by demonstrating that it ensures nothing of the sort. You cannot do so by noting that citizens dislike its effect upon their lives. It is not necessary to be an expert on social policy to register that humans often regret the consequences of their own choices - and sometimes gravely harm themselves by these. These effects do not fade away by being compounded. Ringen's level-headed chapter on families is a vivid reminder that democracy in action is no specific against indiscretion.

A harsh verdict on this book would therefore be that it is hilariously confused and represents a fairly comprehensive debacle for the instructional efforts of Isaiah Berlin. In juster and more instructive assessment, what it does is show densely, and with pretty steady judgment, just why every real gain in democracy must also extend the need for temperance and practical good sense.

Freedom for humans will always be a burden as well as an opportunity. The more democratic the regimes we live under, the more we will have no one to blame but each other - or, more dismayingly, ourselves - for what we dislike about their consequences. As yet, we are some distance away from that destination and have many other and often more urgent claims on our political attention. But there is much to be said already for reflecting on the implications of ever reaching it.

What Democracy Is For: On Freedom and Moral Government

Author - Stein Ringen
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 334
Price - £23.95
ISBN - 9780691129846

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