Democracy is a complex idea that requires balancing conflicting values. On one hand, it demands equality of all citizens — men and women — to have their views respected equally in public affairs. It also calls for the freedom of expression to challenge authority, develop unconventional ideas and experiment in ways that are not possible in authoritarian societies. On the other hand, it demands the rule of law to protect individuals from being unfairly treated by power centres or the courts. It also advocates fair electoral procedures, competition between candidates and an independent media.
Despite its complexities, democracy is often simplified to ‘rule by the people’ or to ‘one person, one vote’ in a representative parliament. But this is too limited a description of what democracy offers to be an effective moral justification. It ignores the fact that many citizens are excluded from this political process — immigrants without citizenship status, those living outside of the political territory and certain intellectually disabled people. It also excludes those who are not able to make their own choices about how they should be governed, such as children and the elderly.
It also overlooks the fact that democratic governments take into account many different facets of the social fabric when making decisions. For example, decisions about the distribution of wealth affects not only the individual beneficiaries but the entire community. They also impact on patterns of inequality over time and across generations. These decisions are not just about economic policy but about the very foundations of society – justice, equality and transparency, for instance.
These are just some of the issues that must be taken into account to fully appreciate the value of democracy. But there is more. Democracy is a fine balance of a society’s values, which means that it will almost always have room for improvement — for example, more inclusion, more considered judgement and more transparent decision-making. Moreover, a democracy’s health and success depends not only on its institutions but also on the contributions of all citizens — think taxes, voting and respect for others.
Many philosophers have endorsed democracy on the basis that it is best able to exploit the underlying cognitive diversity of its citizens and to uncover their interests and troubles (Dewey 1927). A second epistemic justification for democracy is that it provides an opportunity for citizen input into a collective decision process, even if experts know better how to solve such problems than the masses (Mill and Rousseau).
Finally, some argue that democracy unleashes human potential. As Daron Acemoglu explains, democracies tend to invest more in education and health care, which enable poorer segments of the population to reach their full potential and grow the economy (PDF).
It takes an enormous amount of hard work and sacrifice to create and sustain a democracy but it is worth the effort because it has so much to offer the world. The United Nations supports a range of policies to help promote democracy, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It is important to remember that this support is not for any particular model of government but for a broader approach to governance that fosters participation, equality, security and human development.