Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Democracy: Mechanics vs. Values

Easterly has a masterful post up in celebration of Lincoln and Valentines: I Love Democracy. After lamenting the tendency in development circles to pine for benevolent dictators, he asks why we don't celebrate democracy more:

Many just can’t get that excited about majority voting. But the MECHANICS of democracy (majority voting among many others) are not the essence of democracy, which is about VALUES. The latter we care a lot more about than the former. ...

Lincoln [defined democracy thusly]:
As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.
 The brilliance of this definition is how it also includes equality. No group is so second-class that we can deprive them of their rights without opening the door to deprivation of our own rights. Slavery is an extreme that can be generalized to all forms of oppression by arbitrary self-appointed authorities, which then leads to guaranteeing all individual rights.

I think I care about slavery — and my risk of being enslaved — a lot more than I care about whether elections are winner-take-all or proportional representation.

He also notes that we celebrate forms of scientific, technological, and social democracy that allow even very junior or people to achieve great things and overturn the results of their established colleagues. He then provides another fitting differentiation between mechanics and values:

The hypothalamus transmits chemicals to the pituitary gland, which releases hormones into the bloodstream, creating a rapid heartbeat and lightness in the head.
value that corresponds to these mechanics:
Perhaps some Valentine’s Day Development Bureaucracy worked on the mechanics, say a Hypothalamus Transmission Stimulation Program, featuring “results indicators” like heartbeat speed. But I think most Valentine’s Day celebrations stressed the value rather than the mechanics.

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