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Varying Conceptualizations About Democracy Philosophy Essay

This section will be made up of two parts: the theoretical literature and empirical literature. The theoretical literature section makes a review of the varying conceptualizations about democracy dating as early as Plato and Aristotle. It emphasizes on the definition of democracy within the framework of liberty, equality, and active citizenship. The empirical literature analyzes the practical experience of three countries which follow compulsory voting: Australia, Belgium, and Italy. A discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of compulsory voting to these acknowledged democracies is made.

Theoretical Literature

This section discusses theories in relation to the concepts of 1) state and government, 2) liberty, equality, justice, and democracy, and 3) the right to vote.

The concept of state and government

The manner in which leaders are selected distinguish democracies from other forms of governments such as oligarchies or aristocracies. Analyzing the issue of compulsory voting requires an exploration of the theoretical notions of the state. The ancient Greek philosophers considered the state as an important part of human existence. Aristotle in Politics explained that humans are naturally inclined to associate with one another in the fulfillment of needs. All forms of association are based on human relationships, may it be parent-child, husband-wife, or master-slave. From the family which is the basic natural association, man assumes a higher level of social development in the village which is composed of families associating with one another. Next to the village is a still higher form of association in order to maintain the needs of existences – the polis or the city-state. Aristotle defined the polis as:

The complete association, formed from several villages, is a polis, which should be said to have attained the point of self-sufficiency: It came into existence for the sake of life, but exists for the sake of the good life. So every polis exists by nature, since the basic associations did, too (Aristotle 2008, 1252b27-34).

Human existence then rests on the principle of community and the polis is the symbol of the community in its completeness because it provides the means to self-sufficiency and exists “for the sake of the good life” (Aristotle 2008, 1252b27-30). Those who live outside the bounds of the city-state cannot guarantee their self-sufficiency because they are dependent on the polis to provide them with basic material needs, education, and morality. When found outside of the city-state, the human is separated from law and justice, and in this case, he is “worst of all” the animals (2008, 1253a31-3). In order to attain the best existence for human kind, individuals must be ruled under the authority of the polis. The dichotomy between the ruler and ruled is an essential part of existence and comes out as a natural result of human relationships, “... This [relation] is present in living things, but it derives from all of nature” (2008, 1254a28-32).

The state is an agency within the community with prescribes a certain set of laws to be applied by means of coercive force throughout the community. Mere residency within the community did not make a man a citizen, since slaves and resident aliens did not qualify as citizens. The citizen in the strict sense, according to Aristotle, is a man who partakes in judgment and authority, which is to say that he has some role in establishing or applying the laws by which the polis is governed (Aristotle 2008, 1275azz-23, b17-19). The state (polis) is finally defined as “an association of citizens in a constitution” (Aristotle 2008, 1276b1-2). It is the function of the constitution to define which offices shall exist for the sake of framing, applying, and coercively enforcing the rules and to spell which portion of the entire community is eligible to fill these offices and how they may come to fill them.

Other arguments drew from ancient Greek political philosophy to substantiate the idea of political duty. In his Republic (360 BC), Plato explicitly attacks those who abstain from politics: “the greatest punishment is that he who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by someone who is worse than himself” (Plato 1969, 45). For, in an ideal society, what drives men into politics is not money or honor, but fear of bad governance, in other words interest of self-preservation. Hence, abstention does not make sense in the Platonic society. On the other hand, the Aristotelian concept of political community through equality provided for an alteration of command and obedience. An inalienable condition of liberty is ruling and being ruled in turn reads a famous passage from Aristotle’s Politics (350 BC): “People who could be governors as much as governed would be free persons too” (2008, 342). If voting is an act ruling, then liberty is partly enshrined within.

What is democracy?

Democracy is such an abstract concept that it’s generally considered an ideal, hence, something that does not exist. While it is true that there have been various interpretations of democracy, the contemporary notion of democracy at the present time was shaped and influenced by the theorizing of the ancient philosophers dating back to Aristotle. A review of the works of Aristotle, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill point to a definition of democracy emphasizing on principles of liberty, sovereignty, equality, and active citizenship.

Aristotle made the concept of liberty as a fundamental tenet of democracy in Politics. He define liberty as “the aim of every democracy” and the process of “govern[ing] and being governed in turn” (2008, 342). Democracy also relates to justice which he equated to equality. Furthermore, an important condition for liberty is respect for the rule of law and of the constitution and the respect for individual choice, “And one is for a man to live as he likes; for they say that this is the function of liberty, inasmuch as to live not as one likes is the life of a man that is a slave” (Aristotle 2008, 1317-b). Men are therefore self-interested or share bonds with other men who are limited to private ends - relationships based on utility. In a democracy, citizen are both equal and free, but not to such an excess that they become wholly self-regarding but concerned for the good of the whole.

Even as Aristotle considered democracy repugnant, he acknowledged in Politics the value of freedom in the quest for the good life, which to him, is the fundamental aim of human existence. Because individuals exist in order to live happy and virtuous lives, the state therefore must be a machinery to facilitate this goal. Hence, the function of the state should not be to coerce individuals into submission. Coercive force can only be applied by the state to prevent people from doing harm against each other. For Aristotle, the polis exists to provide a legal framework so that the community can perform its respective functions. Anything beyond this would be coercion. Virtue and happiness are attained only by means of voluntary, spontaneous activities, e.g. friendship, career, the pursuit of wisdom. A man cannot be forced to be happy or virtuous. But the pursuit of virtue and happiness in the community by means of voluntary activities would be impossible without the existence of a state dedicated to the protection of individual freedoms.

The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville considered too much emphasis on individual freedoms dangerous. The phenomenon of individualism, which he observed in American society in his book Democracy in America, is “a threat when citizens no longer feel called out of themselves by the needs of the larger society about them” (2003: 508). Unfortunately, according to de Tocqueville, this rampant individualism is due to the excessive thrust on equality. Equality promotes self-interest and selfishness because it leads to “more and more people who, though neither rich nor powerful enough to hold much power over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs” 2003, 508). Because people are now able to satisfy their own wants and needs, they tend to care for no one but themselves, “imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands” (De Tocqueville 2003, 508) and hence, lose sight of the big picture.

Individualism is also supported by the principle of sovereignty, which is the principle which governs the whole political system of America. However, Tocqueville reiterates that sovereignty acknowledges both rights and duties of the individual because the relationship of the individual and state if mutually beneficial. The principle of sovereignty recognizes that:

Every individual possesses an equal share of power and participates alike in the government of the State. Every individual is therefore supposed to as well informed, as virtuous, and as strong as any of his fellow citizens. He obeys the government... because he acknowledges the utility of such an association, and he knows that no such association can exist without a regulating force (2003, 46).

To de Tocqueville, the efficient operation of democracy in America is threatened because of sheer individualism. Americans, he said, tended to think only of their own welfare and not the public good:

He is free and responsible to God alone for all the concerns himself... Everyone is the best and the sole judge of his own private interest, and that society has no right to control a man's actions, unless they are prejudicial to the common weal, or unless the common weal demands his co-operation (2002: 46).

De Tocqueville recognizes that individualism is a natural result of concentrating political power to “the people” but asserts that a government which genuinely represents their interests is only possible with the collective power of its citizens. Moreover, this collective power rests only upon “a presumption of the individual's right to participate in his or her own governance” (2002, 47).

John Stuart Mill writing in On Liberty considered liberty as the community’s collective effort to set limits on the power of rulers. Liberty is attainable if the community is able to secure for themselves specific immunities, referred to as political rights or liberties, which the rule cannot infringe, and in the instance he infringes, would make rebellion or resistance justified. That civil and political rights should be esteemed highly in a democracy is a condition to any state or governing authority. The enjoyment of these rights protects the individual against tyranny. With historical developments and the progress of rationality, Mill said that persons considered it just that those that governed them should not be allowed too much power since this power must be used to pursue selfish interests. It was better, then, that people wield the power to revoke the power and authority of those that govern them. It is only in this manner that the people can be completely assured that the powers of government cannot be used to the detriment of the collective interests. Hence, liberty came to represent the power of the majority to put a restraint on the powers of rulers. Liberty meant that the power comes from the ruled, and no longer the ruler.

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