The "Negative" Virtues of Democracy

Isaiah Berlin famously described two concepts of liberty, one negative, the other positive. Negative liberty consists of rights against state interference with basic human activities: freedom of movement; freedom of speech; freedom of religion; etc. Although the notion of positive rights is now commonly used to refer to rights to affirmative assistance from government in achieving certain minimal material benefits (as under the South African Constitution but not the U.S. Constitution), Berlin used the term positive liberty to refer to the liberty of self-governance. Berlin worried about abuses of authority in the name of positive liberty (e.g., an autocrat claiming to act on Rousseau's general will), and so liberal democracy in the sense of majority rule with protections for individual rights was the natural consequence of his view.

Inspired by Berlin, I wonder whether we might not distinguish two concepts of democracy--or perhaps two functions of democracy might better capture what I have in mind. In mature democracies, we are accustomed to gauging the success of our political life by asking how well our lawmakers govern: Do they respond to the views of a majority of citizens? Do they legislate in the public interest? (These two do not always go hand in hand but let's put that issue aside.) These sorts of questions fall within what I would call a positive concept (or function) of democracy, to distinguish it from a much more basic, but often overlooked, negative concept (or function) of democracy. The negative function is taken for granted in mature democracies: to avoid periodic anarchy.

In autocratic societies, the death of the leader can be a perilous time, as rivals jockey for power. Sometimes open warfare breaks out among supporters of various candidate rulers. To be sure, there are systems of succession other than democracy for ensuring a smooth transition to power. Hereditary monarchy is the most obvious. Oligarchy is another solution; the death of one leader does not deprive the governing group of power. But neither of these is perfect, as intra-familial or intra-oligarchic violence can erupt. More broadly, in non-democratic regimes, the absence of a democratic pedigree does not deprive a ruler of legitimacy, and so there is a constant risk of a succession crisis. Somali warlords who, only a month ago, supported the Islamists, now pledge their loyalty to the Ethiopian-backed transitional government. With no democratic criterion for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate regimes, it pays to back a winner. The risk of chaos is also high in nominal democracies in which the military lacks a strong commitment to civilian rule. Perhaps the best one can hope for in such circumstances is that periodic military coups are taken as almost part of the established political order, so that they can occur bloodlessly, as in Fiji.

During the post-election contest of 2000, The Onion ran a piece describing actual civil war between red and blue states. What made the article funny was the sheer preposterousness of the idea that open warfare would erupt. Our commitment to democracy--including obeisance to judicial rulings--was and is just too strong. That doesn't mean that our democracy works perfectly, or even very well, along the positive dimensions, but it is a credit to the negative strength of democracy in America, and as tragic events around the world illustrate, that's worth quite a lot.