CAN DEMOCRACY HANDLE ITS SOCIAL PROBLEMS ?

The philosophy and practice of democracy in handling controversies requires some discussion. The term democracy refers both to a broad social philosophy and to a set of governmental structures and political processes. We must deal briefly with both. Each may be said to imply the other; the social philosophy calls for such institutionalization, and the institutions could be expected to be based on a consensus on a democratic social philosophy. Such a philosophy ignores social classes and treats the rights common to all individuals as worthy of respect. One of those rights is to be able to express their own views. Another is to have a fair chance to develop their own finest potentialities. One question is how the economy can maximize such opportunities and the other economic and non-economic objectives which we all share. Another question is how can the political process handle the controversies where we do not agree on objectives or on the means to achieve those we share? Basically the answers are supposed to be that we can achieve a consensus on both through talking together about our views. As it is sometimes put, truth will win out through much discussion.

But the political process as it has developed does not involve much talking together to understand our differences and to see on what we have or can develop a consensus. The process has become highly partisan and adversarial instead. This is alleged to promote at least temporary resolutions of controversies to which all consent, since all views could be heard before votes are counted. In practice, however, partisan rivalry focuses primarily on who gets the chance to propose and more importantly to vote on governmental policies, with much less than adequate resolution of, let alone fair and thorough discussion of, the whole range of complex issues that ought to be faced. The determination of policies to be advocated by a political party is even less enlightened and enlightening than is the subsequent contest with the other party or parties in many cases.

The rise of late campaign TV political commercials threatens however to remove the final semblance of fair and rational discussion of policy issues from the election process. Elections are no longer bought by bribing voters at the polls, but special interest financing of elections was an absolute scandal that long cried out for correction. Mild reform did not complete the job. The free speech issue opposition is itself fraudulent--when some have money to flood the mass communications media so those with little or no money can hardly be heard. The final outcome is in any case heavily influenced by the amount of pressure brought upon elected officials and bureaucrats by affluent special economic interest groups or groups advocating specific public policies.

The adversarial nature of the political process dominates and distorts the sort of discussion that is most needed. The sort of discussion that is most needed is that through which people come to fuller understanding of each other, come to understand that they have more values and interests in common than old controversies indicate, and through which discussion they proceed to work out some agreements on ways of trying to solve the common social problems. We need discussion to evolve an increasing consensus on both ends and means. Such consensus should not be undermined for partisan political advantage. There will always remain enough disagreement over still unresolved issues for candidates to give the public a choice between fairly stated and agreed upon differences on specific matters.

As to broad economic philosophies, it can be said that proponents of each often tend to be much too doctrinaire and inflexible, and much too ready to misrepresent the others, when in fact there is a broad area of consensus on values across the spectrum and a broad area of consensus on some important issues between conservatives and liberals when they are not doctrinaire or seeking political advantage. Where they continue to disagree, voters deserve opportunities for policy choices after thorough and fair discussion.

Viewed historically, it is amazing how much economic progress was made in the 20th century in some countries. Whether some of the accompanying inequity was unnecessary is perhaps debatable. But equity issues now are clearly inherent in economic issues. A democratic social philosophy calls for an economy that is increasingly humane as well as productive, an economy with both good working conditions and good living conditions, available to all. Though muddling through has gotten us to our present stage of accomplishment and failure, it is less certain that it can enable us to grapple successfully with the problems of the present, let alone those of the future.

Our tendency these days is to suppose that technological progress can be counted upon to solve many if not all problems. Technological progress may help us deal better with some of the environmental problems, but it is not all that will be needed to deal adequately even with them. And most socio-economic problems will require at least a few changes somewhere in our ideologies and in some of our institutions. Our ideologies include all the ideas in our heads, all the values we profess and those we live by, and various degrees of emotional attachment to various ideas and values. Our ideologies are in part responsible both for the accomplishments about which we like to boast and for the problems that they prevent us from dealing with adequately. The other responsibility for both accomplishments and unsolved problems .lies chiefly with the entire set of institutions that we have developed in each culture. It is of course important that the leadership a society follows and the policies employed grapple effectively with the problems. A social ethic must replace a “smart-guy ethic”.

The question is whether democracies will be able to develop the leadership and policies consistent with the needed changes in ideology and institutions that would be most helpful in meeting present and future problems? For this to occur, more people than at present will need to understand what is necessary and work actively to promote the desirable changes.

Present problems need to be grouped under several headings without being able to spell out the specific problems noted under each heading.

I suggest the following problem areas::

1. DEVELOPMENT: How each country could best develop. Increase in the per hour productivity of human labor, measured by contributions to human well-being, by increase in fair opportunities for everyone to develop their finer human potentials and harmonize their creativities with others and with nature. Investment in human and other capital and in technological improvement helps.


2. SECTORAL: Agriculture, labor, consumer, youth, urban & rural community problems, not further detailed here.


3. BUSINESS: Inventiveness, entrepreneurship, management problems in the context of promotion of development as outlined under #1. Business regulation and social accountability. Special problems involved involved in subjecting finance to a role subordinate to production instead of a dominating role. Problems of protecting other stakeholders better than at present.


4. CYCLICAL INSTABILITY: Moderating and offsetting irregular cycles and dealing well with different types of unemployment and inflation.


5. INSECURITY: Welfare state problems including those of private and social insurance, the future of Social Security and of medical and long term insurance.


6. JUSTICE: Distributive, retributive, procedural, outcomes, discrimination, civil, political, and human rights, inter-personal and inter-group, in taxation, excessive inequalities (economic & power), especially poverty, affordable housing, schools.


7. ECOLOGY: Population, growth limits, depletion, pollution, energy, and the sustainability of the human life support system and economy.


8. GLOBALIZATION: Control and regulation by governments, not by transnational corporations. Regulate especially unstable international capital. Fair trade not free trade. Prevent the intellectual property rights movement from curtailing freedom of scientific information exchange or working to the disadvantage of economic development of the less developed countries.


9. GOVERNMENT: Maintain its vital role in providing a good legal framework for economic and civil society. Permit a variety of structural patterns and political processes. Do not confuse size and scope of government. Be open to a variety of experiments to deal better with the various defects of different governments.


10. VIOLENCE: Macro-violence--international wars, civil wars, terrorism. Need to demilitarize the war system. Micro-violence--breeding such violence now. How reverse this and teach empathy and non-violence and de-institutionalize violence?



Can social rationality now be developed to contribute in rational ways to dealing with these problems?

Some of these problems will almost certainly continue to be future problems, not likely settled completely in the short run. In the future the national security system must be changed drastically because war must be prevented between different nations. It is now possible for the human race to destroy itself by the means intended to make nations militarily secure, which they can no longer do, but by which they could inadvertently commit national and human race suicide. Violence within societies must also be continually reduced. Any people who remain trapped in poverty will need to escape their poverty. A fully sustainable world economy will be needed in place of those still dependent upon depleting some exhaustible resources, dangerously polluting the environment and overloading the biological systems upon which our existence as well as our economy depends. These are problems that the future will still need to deal with more fully and more successfully, for failure on any one of these would eventually bring unprecedented tragedy.


In all these problems the equity dimension and the economic dimension will be inseparable aspects of policy decisions, so economic philosophy is indispensable. Can we arrive democratically at one that will be adequate and can we implement it democratically?

 


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