Three Pillars of Democratic Empowerment

By Dan Kervick

Brad Delong recently presented what he impishly called ‘The Seven Cardinal Virtues of Equitable Growth’.  For me, DeLong’s list is a mixed bag.  But there are a few items on the list I would unreservedly endorse.  One is his second virtue:

2. Invest. Invest in ideas, in equipment capital, in structures capital, in education: we need more of all forms of investment. Boost public and private investment: we need both kinds.

I also very strongly support the last two items in DeLong’s virtuous septet:

6. We need more equality. If we want to have equality of opportunity 50 years from now, we need substantial equality of result right now.

7. We are going to need a bigger and better government. The private unregulated market does not do well at health-care finance, at pensions, or at education finance. The private unregulated market does not do well at research and early-stage development. The private unregulated market does not do well with commodities that are non-rival. We are moving into a twenty-first century in which these sectors will all be larger slices of what we do, and so a well-functioning economy will need a larger government relative to the private economy than the twentieth century did.

But let me add a few additional items to DeLong’s rousing itemization of the virtues. The Christian thinkers of old, developing their own list of seven virtues, actually distinguished the four cardinal virtues from the three theological virtues. I will steer well clear of theology, but would instead like to make some analogous suggestions in the realm of political ideals. So in amending DeLong’s list of cardinal virtues, let me put forth these Three Pillars of Democratic Empowerment:

I. We need more democracy. And that doesn’t just mean we need more elections and more access to voting. We need more real, honest to goodness, full-participation, deliberative, hands-on democracy. We need more active citizen engagement in all aspects of the processes that determine our future. We need more democracy at the national, regional, state, local and sub-local level. And we also need more democracy inside organizations, including corporations. We need, in a word, an American democratic renaissance.

And since we are dabbling here with analogies to high doctrine, let me put the matter in suitably apocalyptic terms: The 21st century in America is the battlefield on which will be waged a moral and political war to determine which shall be the dominant form of social organization in our country: (i) the democratic form of organization based on the equality of all and the engaged participation of all members of a social organization in the decisions determining the future of that organization, or (ii) the corporate form of organization based on hierarchical systems of command and control. Both of these forms of organization may survive in some degree, but only one can be dominant. Democracy must win. Americans must choose decisively to embrace the best parts of its muddled but vigorous democratic tradition, and extend democratic forms of decision-making throughout the social sphere.

We have to get back into the habit of thinking that the future is not something that only happens to us. It is not a place where fate just happens to land on us with a heavy, unsummoned weight. It is a place we are entitled to deliberate about, argue about and then democratically choose. And once we have made an informed and thoroughly debated choice about what kind of future we want as a people, we then formulate a strategy for getting to the place we have chosen, and execute that strategy.

Some will see this as heresy. For some decades now, Americans have been taught to believe that only evil communists think this way about the future. For the true-blue, decadently neoliberal American, the future isn’t supposed to be chosen or planned in any degree; it’s supposed to be delivered to us by 1,000,000 independent entrepreneurs seeking their own self-interest by building better mousetraps and tastier burritos. Social progress on this model reduces to the indefinite multiplication of just so many improved salsa options at The Burrito Pavilion.

This is a slavish and doltish attitude. It is slavish in that in its ultimate psychological and political effect it defers real power not to the so-called invisible hand, but to those individual titans who happen to possess and control our society’s capital resources. It is doltish in its blind denial of the innumerable examples of the successful implementation of bold, deliberate plans and strategies, both in our society and other societies.

II. We need to advocate for a restructuring of work and life in the United States. Real democratic citizenship and equal dignity for all cannot be realized without changes in the way we live and work. It is impossible to predict how the nature of work will evolve over time. But however that evolution of work goes, we know there will be a great deal of work to be done. The burdens of that work must be divided and shouldered fairly; and the fruits of that work must be shared equally as well. Also, a democratic people cannot afford to exhaust all of their precious, limited time in forging a material living, but must conserve and set aside enough time to do the work of governing their society.

I propose a reduction in formal employment to a firmly enforced, national  4-day work week, with the new open day to be devoted to community and democratic work.  Everyone will be expected to participate in or on a school board, a conservation committee, a zoning board, a parks committee, a legislature, government commission etc. In a functioning democracy, everyone needs to be part of the government. Preserving democratic liberty isn’t just a matter of claiming rights; it’s a matter of shouldering responsibilities. Self-government is hard work, and the first rule of democratic understanding is this: govern or be governed. A citizenry can’t govern itself, and make itself into a truly democratic polity, if the heavy demands of income-earning work squeeze out all of the time that needs to be devoted to the responsibilities of engaged and effective participation in democratic society.

III. We need to restore the bargaining power of labor and restore work and the people who do it to a place of privilege over capital and the people who own it. We must commit to a system of 100% full employment, with the public sector permanently mobilized and standing ready to provide work and income-earning opportunities to everyone who is willing and able to work, but for whom the private sector has been unsuccessful in generating a viable employment opportunity. And having done that, we must double the minimum wage and enact suitable compensatory adjustments and restrictions at the top end of the income scale. This is the only way to end the permanent buyers’ market in labor that is responsible for decades of rising inequality and insecurity.

Right now, both of our major parties are failing to grasp this imperative, as is seen in the recent debate over the House of Representatives vote to cut the SNAP program. The ruthless Republican solution is based on permitting plutocratic capitalists to lord it over a demoralized and insecure workforce that must bow and scrape for work and income opportunities, and choose between either accepting whatever degrading and meager opportunities are on offer from the plutocrats or accepting the destitution of unemployment without public assistance. The Democratic welfarist alternative is more humane, but is organized only around the idea of alleviating that ruthlessness somewhat. By failing to push forward toward a commitment to full employment, Democrats passively accept a de facto caste system consisting of the fortunately employed on the one side, and the dependent poor and unemployed recipients of aid on the other side. What is really needed is a powerfully engaged and active public sector that provides all of the work opportunities that the private sector can’t or won’t provide. This is the only way to secure full dignity and democratic equality for all of our fellow-citizens.

By combining some of DeLong’s recommendations for equitable growth with these pillars of democratic empowerment, maybe we can come up with a society that is really worth living in again.

Cross-posted from Rugged Egalitarianism

Follow @DanMKervick

15 responses to “Three Pillars of Democratic Empowerment

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  2. “We need more democracy at the national, regional, state, local and sub-local level.”

    Bravo, Dan Kervick! But the international level should also be added to your list. We need more effective global democratic institutions that can keep us from destroying each other and the environment. The Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly (detailed at proposes a consultative body, first composed of national parliamentarians, that transitions to direct elections. A Parliamentary Assembly at the United Nations would by a symbol of a new global consciousness and a way for the world to work more effectively together in the common interest.

  3. a society that is really worth living in again–

    A nice post. These ideas should be specifically propagated in less developed and less democratised countries of the world. By having that much democratic culture we can improve our awareness for human dignity and purpose of living,

  4. True, it is a nice post, but invest? ? ?

    I mean, all the jobs, technology and investment of pretty much been offshored (to China, India and a host of other countries). The concept of reinvesting in one’s country, or amortizing, is now defunct, hence the various jobless recoveries over the previous twenty years.

    With a Transnational Capitalist Class, or global banking cartel, and their globalization, and the upcoming TPP and TAFTA, we should all realize we are sunk!

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  6. A fascinating post but somewhere between Ludwig Von Mises telling us to sit down and let our betters run things and complete participatory democracy there’s a spot that works best. Interest and participation in the community is essential but that also comes with a responsibility to be informed and thoughtful. I’ve spent thirty years serving on planning boards, local commissions, and in low level public offices. I hated meetings where no one showed up – they never felt quite legitimate.
    On the other hand I’ve been at meetings where a bunch of people showed up who had virtually no idea about an issue other than a line or two that they read in the local county newspaper. Rather than inform themselves they jumped to conclusions. Rather than arm themselves with facts and an appropriate understanding of the applicable laws they came demanding action. Rather than presuming that the people sitting on the board or commission were decent well intended people trying to come to a reasonable decision they presumed ulterior motive at every corner.
    I’ve been on the other side of the table as well, leading grass roots groups trying to influence policy. I often spent more time trying to educate those on my side than fighting the powers that be. The response to an arrogant bureaucrat is not bullying behavior, facts are better than threats, and information trumps passion.
    Madison posited that there were three possibilities in response to a clash of interests. The first was to give government overwhelming power to suppress, the second was to insist in uniformity of opinion, and the third was to control faction and interest through well designed institutions with appropriate checks and balances.
    Calling simply for more democracy and involvement sometimes falls under the category of be careful what you wish for. A well informed public is essential but there’s also a line between informing and indoctrinating and there will always be people on both sides of any question who cannot distinguish between the two. Some of this can’t be legislated, it has to come from societal pressure to develop expectations about the responsibilities that come with citizenship.
    The post was excellent, it’s far past time that we figure out ways to design an economy that creates more equality and it’s virtually impossible to do that for opportunity without also ensuring that there are at least some minimal equalities of outcome as well. It’s also time we understood that in the current world we are going to have fairly large an active governments and institutions. Along with that must come an understanding that there are pretty much no permanent solutions. Every solution comes with unintended consequences and there must be means and mechanisms to address them. Every institution needs constant attention and nurturing, a sort of ever vigilance, to ensure that bureaucratic tendencies are minimized.
    Many of these aspirations are cultural as well as institutional, they must be supported by societal norms that truly value openness, fairness, transparency and accountability.

  7. Very good post, Dan. On pillar 1: take a look at this effort. I think it’s the “more real democracy” we and other nations need.

    • Thanks Joe! I’ll take a look.

    • Thanks for the link, very interesting. I’m not sure what would protect the concept from special interest hit squads though (i.e. NRA in Colo.), maybe there’s a solution I didn’t see in scanning.

      I also liked your first quip “societies like our own”, but “less [fairly] developed and [decreasingly] less democratized” might describe us more accurately.

      • Perhaps that would be a more accurate way to say that, but not quite as much fun.

        What could the NRA hit squads do? Form their own voting blocs and electoral coalitions? That’s fine. Their voting blocs and coalitions will be more narrowly based than those created by the opposition. And with the opposition now able to negate their fund raising advantages by working within the system to organize for free, the opposition would finally be in a position to win.

  8. “This is a slavish and doltish attitude. It is slavish in that in its ultimate psychological and political effect it defers real power not to the so-called invisible hand, but to those individual titans who happen to possess and control our society’s capital resources. ”

    Step one is realizing that it’s precisely those individual titans that we have to thank for the dissemination and wide adoption of ‘these slavish and doltish ideas.’

    Just two of the wealthiest of those titans have spent forty years, and untold billions of dollars in promoting these very ideas, built into an enormous network of think tanks, lobbying organizations, to organizations that are simply writing our laws for compliant legislators to enact, with the enthusiastic assistance of a vast network of propaganda outlets. They’ve succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, to the point where health care policy that they created is now viewed by many as the greatest threat to our country since the Nazi regime.

    A popular uprising against entrenched oligarchs is possible, but first the idea of an uprising has to be popular.

    When these oligarchs have successfully, to use Jay Gould’s words, ‘hired half of labor to murder the other half’, we have a deep hole to climb out of. Look how thoroughly and quickly the most recent attempt, Occupy, has been put down and discredited, even in the so-called ‘liberal’ press. I fear things will have to get much, much worse before they get better.

    It will have to reach the point where average people actually think those ‘dirty effing hippies are right’, and we’re a long way, perhaps a generation or more from that point.

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