Democracy: The Philosophic Principles and Mechanisms

Part One – The basic definition

by John M. Joyce (April 2008)


It is often said today that democracy, specifically western liberal democracy, is under threat. Many people maintain that democracy cannot defend itself against those who revile it, and those who also want to get rid of it and put in its place some other system of determining leadership and government which would be more to their liking, because democracy itself is inherently flawed. Of course, this is said without anyone actually defining or stating what the flaws actually are or defining what is meant by democracy! Some maintain that democracy produces weak and ineffectual government which must always, by its nature, pander to the passing whims and fancies of the electorate. Others maintain that democracy will always lead to its own collapse as the people seek to extend democracy, over time, into every aspect of their civil lives. Neither of these statements is necessarily a condemnation of democracy – rather, each one is an indication of democracy’s strengths.

There are many other arguments advanced against democracy, or used to indicate that democracy cannot work and cannot last, which I will not elucidate here for they are all false and predicated upon unreal definitions of democracy or based upon a belief that some other system, theocracy for instance, is preferable. It is worth noting that many of the arguments against democracy are based upon such unreal definitions - the most frequently encountered is the, often unstated, confusion, or conflation, of democracy with society. One should note here that twenty-first century liberal democracies are often the targets of attacks by those who would confuse morality with democracy. Rabid Islamists, in particular, frequently confuse what they see as degenerate behaviour with democracy. This is illogical, for how one determines the governing processes of one’s society is entirely independent of the behaviour of the members of that society in other respects – as they themselves so obviously demonstrate in such places as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia.

All of the foregoing beggars the question of course – what is democracy, then? How can one recognise a democracy when one sees it? How can one judge whether or not any given polity is a democracy or not? In order to answer such questions it is obvious that some sort of definition of democracy is required; a definition which will clearly separate the principles, theories and mechanisms of democracy from its fellow travellers such as liberty, freedom, society and law. These other concepts, these fellow travellers, will also need to be defined as will their exact relationships to democracy and to each other. I shall certainly attempt to define democracy, and the other related terms, but the reader must be warned that any definition will only be an approximation – a very good approximation, I hope, but an approximation nonetheless. It is in the very nature of language that it is impossible to objectively define an idea, a concept, such as democracy without constantly referring back to the thing itself or its adjuncts and such definitions can be at best unenlightening and at worst circular and meaningless in themselves. I will attempt to avoid the more common pitfalls and to produce a serviceable definition. I will make the attempt for we must know what it is we mean by democracy in order to know what it is that we are attempting to defend.

However, before I attempt a definition there are some other unreal definitions to dispose of; words, phrases, approaches, conflations and ideas which appear, superficially, to define democracy but in fact do no such thing. In disposing of these unreal definitions I will be laying the foundations for a definition of democracy by clarifying the differences between democracy and its accessories, its fellow travellers.

One of the most common of these unreal definitions is the conflation of freedom with democracy. They are two different, but not mutually exclusive, things. It is possible for a reasonable person, by which I mean a sane person possessing an average ability to reason, to live in a democracy and yet to have some perfectly reasonable part of the concept of freedom (as it is currently understood) denied to him or her. For example, there are millions, perhaps tens of millions, of homosexual people who live in democracies where their reasonable expectation of being able to love a person and to sexually express that love is denied to them, usually together with any legal recognition in almost all other areas of public life. Homosexuals in such a situation would not count themselves as fully free, nor equal to the rest of the population.

An equally sound example of reasonable people lacking freedom whilst living in a democracy would be the non-white peoples of the USA some five or six decades ago. The USA at the time was most certainly a democracy but those whose skins were not white were frequently denied some of the freedoms accorded to the rest of the population. Often they were discouraged, sometimes by the use of force, from taking part in the democratic processes of their country. The non-white peoples of the USA at that time would not have counted themselves as fully free, nor equal to the rest of the population.

I have given just two examples to illustrate the idea that one can lack freedom whilst living in a democracy and that the idea of freedom should not be conflated with the idea of democracy. Democracy pertains to the making of laws and the defining of rights whereas freedom pertains to living with laws and exercising rights. Freedom and democracy are in lockstep but any given level of democracy does not automatically guarantee a given level of freedom. A third, and final, example of this rather arcane, but important, point is the use of state censorship. Many democracies actively censor the written word and forbid the verbal expression of some ideas. This does not make such democracies any the less democratic but it certainly makes the citizens of those democracies less free. Even where the censorship is passive (no actual official censor exists) – in countries such as the UK and the USA – and restricted to the way in which one writes or speaks about a subject, the fear of the penalties attached to the laws enforcing this passive censorship lead most people to avoid writing about or discussing the subjects mentioned in such laws in any way at all: self-censorship through fear. Once again, freedom is denied whilst democracy remains intact – although it is a moot point as to how long democracy can remain intact in a true sense when censorship, of either variety, is routinely practised. That, however, is a different discussion and will be dealt with at a later date.

A second unreal definition of democracy is the historical definition. Some people in their attempts to define democracy delve back into history, tracing the connexions contemporary democracy (and our democracies) have with democratic societies, putative, real, imagined or proto- democracies, of the past. In so doing they reveal the history of the idea of democracy. They reveal the successes and the shortcomings of the applications of that idea throughout past times and the evolution of the current state of the idea. This is valuable, of course, for the genesis of our modern democracies is in our histories, but the history of democracy is not the definition of democracy, nor is it a demonstration of democracy’s utility or rightness. It is merely a history and tells us nothing more about our modern concept of democracy than where it came from and how it was arrived at – it does not define modern democracy, although in telling the story of the history of democracy various forms of democracy as operated by our ancestors would, no doubt, have to be explained, or even defined. History tells us how we got here and where ‘here’ is, but it does not tell us what ‘here’ is. History is not a definition: it is a journey. It is not the place where we are: it is where we have come from and how we travelled. History does not define ‘the now’, much as some may be tempted to think that it does, but it may imprison ‘the now’. It may make ‘the now’ difficult to change and it may make ‘the now’ easier to live with – to understand on a visceral level. However, it does not define ‘the now’ in any objective sense. There is a working and nearly objective definition of democracy which I will get to later that does not rely upon the history of the idea for its validity, but it does not denigrate that history, either.

Certain words and phrases are often held to be the definition of democracy: words such as ‘vote’, ‘representative’, ‘parliament’, ‘congress’, and phrases such as ‘one man, one vote’, ‘freedom before the law’, ‘human rights’, ‘the rule of law’ and so on, and so on, and so on. One could gather all these words and phrases together and write them down on cards (one on each card) then add in some verbs on yet more cards then shuffle the pack and deal the cards in random order and the bets are that some sort of sensible looking sentence would emerge. It wouldn’t be a definition of democracy but it might look like one to many people. This hypothetical, randomly generated sentence, or series of sentences, would merely deal with the adjuncts which we expect to find in a democracy – adjuncts such as a free press (another phrase for the cards) or elections (another word for the cards). This sentence, or these sentences, would not and could not define democracy – no more than could the words or the phrases written on the imagined cards define democracy by themselves. Each word, each phrase, alone or in combination, is no more than a descriptor, or Pierceian1 icon perhaps, for one of the girders of the underpinnings, or maybe the workings, of democracy; some of these words and phrases are even less important than that, being no more than the name of some insignificant, and probably rusty, nut and bolt joining some now irrelevant part of the fabric of democracy to the greater whole. This, then, is the third unreal definition of democracy: the attempt to define democracy by its workings, its attributes and its adjuncts.

Why is this third unreal definition of no use? It’s useless because it does not define democracy in any objective way. Merely, it takes a series of words about the mechanisms of democracy, or the foundations or the attributes and adjuncts, and says that one can know democracy because it has these mechanisms associated with it, or rests on these foundations. This is quite wrong. Political systems other than democracy often have some of these attributes – communist systems can have elections (of a type, I grant you), theocracies can have a free press (by their own lights, obviously), dictatorships can have parliaments or congresses (usually rubber stamp bodies, as we all know). The language of democracy is useless as a definition of democracy because it has been hijacked by so many other systems. Words are Carrollesque2 things – they can mean whatever we want them to mean, and whatever others want them to mean. Even the word ‘democracy’ itself can have many, many shades of meaning. One cannot define democracy by its attributes, or by the words and phrases which, as icons for meaning, identify the attributes, foundations or associations – for that way madness lies. Each word and phrase would need to be defined – and each against the other – for others use them differently and others claim those self-same attributes (and meanings, and different meanings, for the same word or phrase) for their systems, too. We must seek a nearly objective definition of democracy, a definition which we can defend by reference to language alone in as much as that is possible, but not a definition which relies upon the flexible definitions of other associated concepts, but rather a definition which as nearly as possible uses plain words in ordinary everyday speech that can be defined by not referring back to the original word ‘democracy’ (or its associates) which we are attempting to define in the first place.

That, more or less and in a grand and broad-brush manner, sums up the unreal definitions. Certainly, it should give the enquiring reader of this essay sufficient insight to enable him or her to avoid the more common pitfalls of definition. That said, I will next attempt to offer a definition of democracy which I hope will be satisfactory, objective and sufficiently rigorous for the needs of future discussion. Therein, I have defined my parameters for the definition: it needs to satisfy – to be as compleat as possible; it needs to be objective – using plain language capable of only limited dispute; it needs to be rigorous – to exclude everything which cannot fall within its purview by virtue of such things having no attribute pertinent to the subject, in other words, satisfying and compleat and an aid to future discussion.




At its simplest democracy means ‘rule by the people’, but that is a phrase that tells us nothing for it does not define ‘rule’ nor does it define ‘the people’ and it gives no sense as to what mechanisms may be involved. The Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe claimed that the people ruled – although the people obviously disagreed as witnessed by the  rallying cry of the people on the streets as those dictatorships were toppled: “WE are the people”, they cried, implying, rightly, that they did not rule themselves. That cry was also, I would argue, a claim of right, a claim of morality3, but that’s another discussion.

I would argue that democracy means having everyone within a community, a polity4, take part in the governing processes of that polity at all levels and all the times. I would define a ‘polity’ as any group of human beings which identifies itself as such, or is identified by all other polities as such. I would define ‘governing processes’ as those processes which lead to law making, or in some way to defining the structure and mechanisms of the society within the polity, or which lead to the formalising of the rights and obligations of those living within the polity – or all three. (Note, please, that I would not include the actual execution of things so formulated just the process of formulation itself as ‘the governing processes’. The execution of laws, the exercising of rights and the use of a society’s mechanisms are not properly to do with democracy – they are more properly to do with freedom as it is permitted to be exercised by any given governing process in a polity.) I would define ‘at all levels and at all times’ to mean a constant involvement in the governing processes every minute of every day by everyone in the polity by using public acclamation, ballots, counting of raised hands, or whatever, to decide each and every question no matter how great or how small. An Utopian5 definition, in other words, and a severely impractical one at that in our modern polities.

This Utopian definition has some use, however, in this attempt to usefully define democracy. It is the Utopian ideal which lies at the very core of democracy, the yardstick against which democracy must measure itself, and the ruler by which we must measure it also. The further away from this ideal that any process, or system, of government has drifted, or has deliberately moved, then the less likely it is to be a system of government which we could realistically claim to be a democracy.

Of course, all our modern Western liberal democracies have moved away from the literal application of that ideal for good and practical reasons. (After all, one could scarcely gather all three-hundred million Americans in the same place every few minutes or so and demand a show of hands on some word or other in some minor piece of legislation.) So, are they still really democracies and where does that leave my quest to usefully define, in modern terms, our modern democracy? Well, not in ruin as you might expect from the foregoing, but closer to realisation. However, to get to the desired definition I need to introduce two more concepts – trust and consent – after which I will be able to state the definition in a useful, tripartite, way.

There are philosophical problems with both the concept of trust6 and that of consent7. I do not propose to deal with the various strands of philosophical thought about either of these concepts in this essay, but it should be obvious as I proceed just which strands of thought I am relying upon in order to substantiate my evolving argument or summary statements.

So, to return to the main argument and follow the first of the three threads which, I now propose, must all be present in a democracy: we the people acknowledge that it is impractical for all of us to be involved all of the time in the governing processes of our polities (the ideal situation). Therefore, we consent to the next best thing: we will all be involved some of the time and only some of us will be involved all of the time. In other words, we decide, by an active and ongoing process of consent, to entrust the governing processes of our various polities to a selected few, but not a self selected few, nor a few selected by some sort of superstition or religion, nor by inheritance or some other equally esoteric qualification, but a few selected by us, all of us, regularly and repeatedly at short intervals (typically anywhere between two and seven years in most of our polities). We insist upon the short intervals for we know our own natures as human beings and we know how corruptible we can be. We trust the people we select and we trust ourselves, and our fellow citizens, to select sensibly – and those are two huge leaps of trust for often we trust on the basis of very little, or no, evidence of trustworthiness. We trust because we can and also because we have no choice, but we do not trust absolutely. The selected few are hedged about by laws and institutions (such institutions as, for example, the military and legal systems which are kept in most democratic polities as separate as possible from the selected few) which they may not change without our consent and if they try to do so then we reserve to ourselves, as ‘the people’, the right to take any necessary action against them in order to maintain, or restore, our power as ‘the people’. Some of these laws and institutions are deemed by us to be so important in the maintenance of our power as ‘the people’ that we have made changing them extremely difficult and they have a special name in many polities – the constitution. Moreover, in many of our democratic polities we the people insist upon plebiscites for the taking of some decisions so that the most important decisions of all are taken by us, the people, not by the selected few. In other words, we have not resigned all of our power to the selected few but only as much as we have deemed to be expedient for the good (undefined, but I will get to that later and in another essay) of our polities.

The second strand of my definition of democracy is precisely what we mean by ‘the people’. In the Utopian ideal which I outlined previously, the term ‘the people’ would mean everyone from the newborn babes to the oldest inhabitants, the competent and the incompetent, the law-abiding and the criminal, the freethinking and the religiously bigoted – quite literally, everyone. Once again, however, we back off from the Utopian point of view and favour an idea of ‘the people’ which is perceived to be more pragmatic and practical – or so the argument runs. We exclude the juvenile of our species from the process of selecting the few for we believe, almost universally, that they are not sufficiently biologically mature enough to have developed mental processes which would allow them to give, or to withhold, informed consent. (It is worth noting here that different polities set different ages at which they believe biological maturity, and hence sufficient mental maturity, to have been reached; but a discussion of such differences forms no part of this discussion for obvious reasons).

We exclude, also, those whom we perceive to be clinically and/or criminally insane for almost the same reasons that we exclude our juveniles from ‘the people’. We do not believe that the insane have a sufficient command of their mental processes such as would render them capable of giving, or withholding, informed consent in any meaningful way. Of course, who decides who is sane and capable is an issue that democracies struggle with, but this point should more properly be discussed in a different essay.

In many of our democratic Western societies convicted criminals are also excluded from the roll call of the people, either whilst serving their sentences or permanently – during and thereafter. Some would argue that this is not justified for criminals who are not juvenile and not considered insane (criminally or otherwise), for the convicted felon has merely transgressed a law or two and that does not prove him or her to be incapable of the exercise of reason, trust and consent in the selection of the few. Yet others would say that such transgressions do in fact prove that the convicted person is incapable of taking part in the selection process because he or she by undertaking a criminal act has proved that no mature or reasonable concept of trust and consent exists for the said criminal individual. In either case, each polity must make up its own collective mind about this particular exclusion – but each must do so knowing that there is a valid counter argument against whatever is decided upon. Of course, what constitutes criminal behaviour can also be an issue, for laws can be drafted in order to criminalise entire groups of people and exclude them from the body of the people. This is an issue of freedom and the exercising of rights and will be dealt with in a later essay.

Almost all democratic polities exclude those who do not conform to a given definition of citizenship from taking part in the selection of the few, although some will allow permanent, or semi-permanent, residents who are not citizens some involvement, but usually only at a local level. An argument can be made that citizens of other democratic polities, especially those resident or semi-resident in the polity in question, should be able to take part freely in the selection of the few for they will be just as appreciative of the necessity to do so properly no matter which polity they may find themselves in. An equally valid counter argument can be made which usually cites conflict of interest, lack of precise knowledge about the polity such people may find themselves in, differences in cultural mores and so on. Each polity must do as it sees fit about the issue of strangers within it and the selection process – but, once again, each must do so knowing that there is a valid counter argument against whatever is decided upon. A definition of citizenship is not germane here but will be discussed in a later essay.

I have discussed four exclusions from the body of the people – the juvenile, the insane, the criminal and the non-citizen – and I have indicated the problems with each one. My argument is that there can be no more than these four exclusions if any polity wishes to claim that it is a democracy. These four exclusions, and these four only, in some sense can be justified. It may be tempting to exclude other groups of people and to justify so doing on other grounds, but those other grounds will say nothing about the fitness of those other people to engage in the selection process and to give, or withhold, trust and informed consent. Rather, those putative other grounds are much more likely to reveal mere prejudices in those asking for such additional exclusions than to reveal some defect in the targeted group of people – exclude black-skinned people, exclude homosexuals, exclude females, exclude males, exclude the less intelligent, exclude the more intelligent, exclude the religious, exclude the non-religious, exclude some religious but not others, exclude anyone who doesn’t have a property worth forty pounds per annum, exclude those who don’t have a proper hearth, exclude those who come from the wrong tribe and on and on and on it goes. All that these calls for exclusion mean is that those doing the calling merely perceive the targeted group as somehow less fit and less able to engage in the selection of the few than they themselves are, usually on spurious grounds.

There is, however, in many democracies today a call to exclude from the process of selecting the few (and from the governing processes also) a particular group of people who are almost universally seen as undesirable. These undesirable people are those who seek to use the selection and governing processes in such a way as to destroy those very processes and substitute entirely different ones. The different processes which these people wish to use are invariably predicated on a worldview which is wholly informed by their deep belief – some would say fanatical belief – in a religion such as Islam or extreme fundamentalist Christianity, or a socio-political system of thought such as Marxism or Fascism. The existence of such people in our democratic polities, and please bear in mind that such people do not accept that power and legitimate rule comes from the body of the people, raises some interesting questions.

Foremost amongst these is whether or not a democracy, by definition, can only be a democracy if it can encompass those who would destroy it if they could and give them a voice as well. A second question is whether or not a fifth exclusion, that is to say the exclusion from the process of the selection of the few of those people who wish to destroy that process, is possible or justifiable. Here is the point at which we run into trouble, for it is argued that our belief that power is invested in the people is just that, a belief. It would appear that since it is a belief it can therefore be no different from any other belief – indeed, that is what those who seek to destroy democratic polities would wish you to believe. This is a false position, however. Belief in the people as the source of power and legitimate rule and the expression of this belief through democracy is in no way equivalent to belief in some other deficient system such as theocracy or communism – that is as daft as asserting that in all important aspects apples are the same as tectonic plates.

Why do I say this? How can I justify it? I refer you to that important fellow traveller of democracy – freedom. I addressed, in cursory fashion, the relationship between democracy and freedom in the fifth, sixth and seventh paragraphs of this essay and I do not propose at this point to add anything philosophically substantive to that which I have already said for I will address the issue of freedom and its relationship to democracy in a forthcoming essay. However, our belief that power is invested in the people can be proved, in as much as anything can be proved, by referring to the state of the people in democratic polities such as ours and asking two simple questions: ‘Do the people in democratic polities have the maximum amount of freedom commensurate with a functioning polity?’ and: ‘Do the people in non-democratic polities have more or less freedom than those in democratic polities?’8 The answer to the first question is usually a resounding affirmative (except, obviously, in the EU – but that is a special case concerning the rise of modern, belief driven, powerful and arrogant oligarchies within otherwise democratic societies which I will address in another essay) and the answer to the second question is invariably that people in non-democratic polities have far less freedom than those in democratic ones. Since one of the purposes of democracy (I will discuss the purposes of democracy in other essays: it is not relevant to do so here for this essay is about definition) is to ensure maximum freedom for the greatest number of people in every aspect of life it should be obvious that democratic polities are to be preferred for only such polities can protect freedom for those who believe in power vested in the people as well as for those who believe differently. In other words, democracy benefits not only those who believe in it but also those who don’t or can’t. Paradoxically, those who most dislike democracy are those who benefit the most from it.

So, should there be a fifth exclusion? Should those who seek to use democracy to destroy it be excluded from the processes of democracy? I don’t know, but I suspect that each democratic polity will have to address this question in the near future given the violent resurgence (yet again) of Islam and the emergence of anti-science and anti-reason extreme fundamentalist Christianity – not to mention the completely understandable (given the history) rise of assertive Hinduism on the sub-continent. Whatever each democratic polity seeks to do in the matter of a fifth exclusion they should be aware that no argument would ever be watertight – no matter which side the polity opts for9. I am aware that I have skimmed over, or ignored, many of the issues about a fifth exclusion. I will return to this topic in a future essay.

Let us look now at the third, and final, thread in my definition of democracy. It’s about the mechanisms used in selecting the few. In the ideal, or Utopian, polity which, I maintain, is the philosophical foundation of our modern democracies, all of the people would come together in some convenient place in order to select some few from the horde so assembled who would run the governing processes of the polity for some limited and fixed, period of time. After debate and discussion the people so assembled would, in this theoretical ideal polity, choose, perhaps by acclamation or a show of hands or some method of public balloting those few from their number who appeared to be most desirable and fit for the position which they would occupy. It may be that in this notional ideal polity the selection of the few might be the outcome simply of discussion and consensus without any formal or structured ballot at all. In any event, the assembly of the people would depart content that all had been heard and taken note of, even though some of them might not have wanted to see some, or all, of those who were selected actually be selected.

Again, however, our modern polities back away from the primitive ideal. We do not all assemble in one place because that would be impractical. We do not use public balloting or acclamation for we recognise that some of us have sufficient weakness of character such that we would use this method of selection for our own selfish ends, ignoring the good of the polity as a whole, by bringing undue pressure to bear on our fellows; some of us may even believe that we have a better understanding of the greater good than our fellows and would use coercive methods to achieve our perception of it. This last point would particularly apply to those who believe in some fanatical branch of religion. So, we the people have opted for secret ballots and casting them in our own locales, rather than the hazards and inconveniences of centralised and public voting. There is also, of course, an enormous element of trust involved with secret balloting; we trust the collectors of our ballots, we trust those who administer the process and we trust those who count the ballots. Once again, the position of trust as a concept is deeply involved with democracy.

It should be said here that there is a drawback to our living in highly populated and geographically large polities and that is that we no longer have the luxury of selecting our few on the bases of simply believing them to be good and sensible people. Today, we have had to evolve a system of representative politics to stand alongside, and be a part of, the selection process. We no longer live in small city-states, for example, where we could know all our neighbours and make judgements as to their qualities, abilities and perceptions and beliefs which would enable us to rapidly, and with confidence, select the few. Instead, it is now necessary that we have some sort of social machinery, or similar, to undertake a pre-selection winnowing of those who would want to be the few. This has led to the modern polity with its political parties and its pronounced, and perhaps undesirable, emphasis on adversarial politics. Do we really consent to this way of working? Do we really trust the people involved? Perhaps not, but we the people pragmatically recognise that we have very little choice and few, if any, alternatives. We recognise that consensual politics would probably not protect us and our democratic freedoms as well as the adversarial model (although the politics of consensus can be used to great effect in some special situations such as those which pertained to Northern Ireland where broad cross-party agreement on the peace process was vital if normality in civil life in the Province was to be achieved).




Considering all of the foregoing, I can state now a working definition of democracy.

A polity which is a recognisable democracy acknowledges that all power over the governing processes belongs to the people of that polity. The people are acknowledged to be all persons apart from juveniles, the insane, the criminal and the non-citizen. The people consent to (s)elect, by secret and locally conducted (for practical reasons) ballot, some few of their number to serve for a fixed term as comptrollers of their polity and decision makers within their polity on matters of law and procedure because of the impracticality of universal assemblage and, furthermore, consent to trust the few so (s)elected. The people acquiesce to the idea that the few so (s)elected represent them but the people reserve to themselves the right to take back, at any time and by any appropriate means, power from the few and to select others to serve as the few. The people reserve some of their power to themselves despite (s)electing a few to manage the polity and insist thereby on plebiscites about some issues deemed by them to be important. The people do not consent to any changes to this definition.

There you have it. It is simple and you, the reader of this essay will, no doubt, protest that you already knew it. Well, of course you did! However, what I needed to do in this foundation essay of the series is to spell out the obvious; to formalise and to put into words the inchoate knowledge, which most of us already have, of what constitutes a democracy, for without a stated definition, and without the reasoning which underpins that definition, it would be impossible to move on and sensibly and validly discuss the other concepts which drive our polities (concepts such as equality, freedom, justice, liberty, obligations and rights). As I implied at the beginning of this essay, we must know and be able to state what it is we mean by democracy in order to be able to defend it; one cannot defend something which one cannot define!

The percipient reader will have noted the one glaring omission from this essay. I have not addressed, deliberately, the issue of the validity of democracy (excepting tangentially); I have made no effort to justify the statement that power resides in the body of the people. After all, some people believe that power rightfully belongs to a divinely appointed monarch, yet others believe that some cleric or other has the divine right to power, whilst yet others believe that some tribe, or group of people, within a polity have a right to power and that no others do. It was never the intention to address the rightness of democracy and the power of the people in this essay. That will be addressed, and justified, later. This essay is only about achieving a working definition of democracy and the power of the people.

My next essay will address, amongst other things, the concept of freedom. Again, I will offer a definition, but I will also tie the concept of freedom into democracy and, hopefully, point out the limits of freedom in functioning polities as well as the parts of freedom, our liberties, which we, the people, must not sacrifice under any circumstances.




1) ‘Pierceian’: of a type of reasoning as advanced by Charles S. Pierce concerning words as icons (placeholders) for meaning. See: Hookway, C.J, Pierce, London, 1985; and Pierce, C.S, Reasoning and the Logic of Things, Cambridge (Mass.), 1992; and Brent, J, Charles Sanders Pierce: A Life, Bloomington (Ind.), 1993. See also: and at and at and at .

If you are a user of Internet search engines, or even, simply, a citizen of the United States of America, and you do not know of this man then be ashamed, be very, very ashamed.

2) ‘Carrollesque’: pertaining to the literary nonsense in the writings of the Reverend Charles L. Dodgson when he wrote, under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass.

3) This is not my thought but belongs more properly to Professor Russell Hardin at the University of Chicago, although I think he’s now at New York University. At least, I think it does for I remember reading it in the late nineties and I’m fairly sure it’s his thought but I can’t find the book I read it in.

4) Polity: a politically independent or autonomous social unit, whether simple or complex, which may in the case of a complex society (such as a state) comprise many lesser dependent components. This definition from for no better a reason than that this definition is the one which I wanted.

5) Utopia comes from the Greek words: ‘ο?’ meaning ‘no’ and ‘τ?πος’ meaning ‘place’ – literally ‘no place’ – and it’s an imaginary island, depicted by Sir Thomas More as a perfect social, legal and political system. It’s negative connotation means a society that may be theoretically desirable but one that will be impossible to attain in practice; but note that its opposite, as opposed to its negative, is usually given as ‘Distopia’. The Wikipedia entry at seems to be, by and large, accurate at the time of writing.

6) Trust is a difficult concept, philosophically speaking, and if you want to know more about the difficulties, and the relationship of the difficulties to social anthropology and other disciplines, then I suggest you start by reading Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative [sic] Relations, New York, 1988, edited by Diego Gambetta. Read, most particularly, John Dunn’s essay therein, entitled Trust and Political Agency. One can also find two reasonably good (Philosophy 101 type of thing) starting point discussions about the nature of, and problems with, trust at and at .

7) Consent is another philosophically difficult concept – probably even more difficult than trust. Start by reading Plamenatz, J.P, Consent, Freedom and Political Obligation, (2nd. Edit.) Oxford, 1968, then follow that with Beran, H, The Consent Theory of Political Obligation, London, 1987, then top those off with Simmons, A.J, On the Edge of Anarchy: Locke, Consent and the Limits of Society, Princeton, 1993. Look at and at and read: Stark, Cynthia A, Hypothetical Consent and Justification in ’The Journal of Philosophy’, Vol. 97, No. 6 (Jun., 2000), pp. 313-334. and also read: Faden, R.R. & Beauchamp, T. L, A History and Theory of Informed Consent, Oxford, 1986. Regrettably, much of the writing around this concept has focused on consent for medical procedures in recent years, rather than the abstract philosophical question of consent. However, if you’ve read this far then you should be able to abstract the philosophical meaning of, and the problems with and about, consent and my point about it from the texts which I have pointed you at. Good luck!

8) I am aware that I offer no definition of freedom here. I stated in paragraph seven that “Democracy pertains to the making of laws and the defining of rights whereas freedom pertains to living with laws and exercising rights. Freedom and democracy are in lockstep but any given level of democracy does not automatically guarantee a given level of freedom” and later on indicated that I will address the concept of freedom in a future essay. Readers may care to refresh their memories of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, in any edition, and may care to read chapter three of Peter Singer’s Hegel, Oxford, 1983. I also recommend Miller, D. (ed.), Liberty, Oxford, 1991.

9) The fifth exclusion seems to me to carry overtones of the fifth elephant. Let us hope that we do not all end up as BCBs. (pace Pratchett).

John M Joyce is fifty-six year old businessman who divides his time between London and the Highlands of Scotland.

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