Democratic Values… or … A Brief Homily on Using Values as Starting Point for Discussion, Not an End of Conversation

The ERS are conducting a members’ survey.


One of the questions is


Can you tell us the 3 democratic values or principles that are most important to you?


The space for the answer implies that a concise response is required.


I struggled with the question. Here are the notes of my struggle.


For me, there are in a democratic society two tensions that need to be paid attention to. 


I think you get better decisions if you involve more people in the decision making process and if the decisions are made as close to those who are going to affected by them as possible. On the other hand, some endeavours are best undertaken at a scale larger than can be effectively managed by getting all the people affected in a room and talking the issue through. There are specialist skills and knowledge required in many decisions. There is a tension between taking decisions as closely as possible to the people and our society organising itself in the most efficient and effective way. A solution for this is that we collectively delegate responsibility for managing our common endeavours to individuals or small groups.


The second tension is between the will of the majority and the individual. These are the questions about where the rights of the community to influence the lives of individuals start and finish and the rights of individuals to conduct their lives in ways that cause distress to the community. Some of these rights are the right not be interfered with. Others are the right to actively do something. Freedoms from and freedoms to. Often it is expedient to ignore these rights


There is a third issue, I don’t think it’s a tension, because for me the principle is obvious and non-negotiable. People should have an equal share in the management of their communities. The practicalities are harder.


The structures and institutions that we put in place affect how much of share people get in practise.  Representative democracy focused on a large chamber where people stand up and talk which is mediated by short television interviews suits a certain type of person. Governing ourselves using internet forums would suit a certain type of person. Whatever systems and institutions we create we are going to advantage some people and disadvantage other.  We should seek to minimise this effect when we design them and we should seek to find other ways for those disadvantaged to participate in our collective decision making to ensure that they are given fair and equal practical access.



There are some pretty big questions floating around here.


What is clear to me is that these tensions are not resolvable in all cases for all times into a single set of rules.  We should not be afraid of the cost or effort required to govern ourselves or to reflect on the quality of thought and conversation that we all bring to our collective government. The tensions implicit in common government require constant dialogue and reflection.



But I was asked for three values – so here are mine, as pithily as I could put them. They are the starting point for my conversation with democracy and come with an implicit reminder to myself that unless these values are taken out and tested and examined in real life every day they are just platitudes.


When making community decisions we should ensure that all individuals have an equal share of power, both in theory and in practise.


That we should make decisions as closely as possible to those people affected by those decisions and where delegation of decisions, management or administration  of our common endeavours is required we should ensure that those whose take on those delegations are accountable to those whose power they have borrowed, in theory and in practise.


That both individuals and communities have rights that ought not to be violated and duties that ought to be fulfilled no matter how expedient it would be otherwise, we should agree on these foundational rights and duties in advance and express them as clearly as can, so that everyone can understand their rights and obligations, in theory and practise, and where a dispute exists about these rights and duties these should be resolved by disinterested individuals in as open a way as possible.

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