Democracy and capitalism

by Richard on July 30, 2007

I have an acquaintance who hates democracy. At least he says so, and I believe him. This is because he wrote “You have no right to use the state’s power of the sword to force me to pay for the education of your children.” He goes on, in effect (though I’m paraphrasing and you can’t read him for yourself because the article has disappeared) to say that as an individual he should only have to pay for those goods and services he actually uses. “If I want a Coast Guard to patrol a river near me, or a river I use, I will gladly pay for it. But the state has no right to decide that I need, or want, a Coast Guard, and to then tax me and all my neighbors to pay for that Coast Guard.

In Britain, we’ve heard all this before. A certain Mrs M. Thatcher once famously declared, “There’s no such thing as society.” But even the sainted (?) Mrs T. would not have gone so far as my friend does. For all her enthusiasm for privatisation, even she kept away from whole-scale privatisation of schools and hospitals.

All this has a bearing on the conversation that has been happening on this post. One of the gulfs between our economic life and our civic life is that democracy is accepted as normative in the latter, but rather sneered at in the former. Whatever some might say, the United States is a democracy. Its form may not be simple - the electoral college system makes me scratch my head - but democracy it is.

Unlike my friend, I do not hate democracy. I love it and believe in it. I do believe that governments have the right to collect taxes to pay for those things that collectively we say we want as nations. My friend says that he shouldn’t have to pay for the education of other people’s children. But if he should ever become an employer, he might be glad of an educated work force. He shouldn’t have to pay for the Coast Guard if he doesn’t want to - but might be glad of the drugs that are seized instead of finding their way into his neighbourhood. Taxes are a way in which we exercise our collective responsibility for one another. The poor, sick and lame, the helpless — and yes, even the feckless. We are “our brother’s keeper” and a tax system is just one way of addressing that.

Deeper still, in a democracy we are recognising the essential worth of others in our community. For all the variety amongst us, we are of equal worth, worthy of both respect and representation. That’s what democracy does. It can be very difficult to get right, as the election of Bush Jr surely shows, but I believe passionately that democracy is a foundational principle for all civilised politics. The precise form that democracy will take will vary. It always needs to contain mechanisms for the protection of the rights of minorities. It doesn’t have to mean three wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. In one of the co-operatives in which I have worked, we had a rule that we never made decisions by a simple vote. We would respect the minority, even the minority of one, such that any individual in the co-operative could veto a policy decision. By the same token, each individual understood that they should not exercise that veto on a whim. On many occasions individuals were content that, having had their say, they could live with the decision of the majority and would support the decision once made even if they disagreed with it. But there were times when points of principle were believed to be at stake when “democracy” meant that the majority was ruled by the minority. When it is put like that, it sounds like a recipe for endless meetings and never actually getting things done. You’ll have to take my word for it when I say it was not so. Operating that sort of system on a national scale is clearly impossible, but even so I’m certain that it is possible to make democracies which represent the people without being oppressive of the minorities. But it needs continuing work — it can never be taken for granted.

Democracy is about much more than polling booths and voting methods. It is an expression that human beings are communal animals. We were not made to be alone, but to be in community with others. This should not surprise us, since the Christian faith is that we are made in the image of God, who is himself not an isolated individual but a community of persons. “God in three persons, blessed Trinity”.

OK, I admit it. This is more or less a reblog

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }


J 07.31.07 at 4:11 am

Actually the US is a republic with democratically elected representatives.

“It can be very difficult to get right, as the election of Bush Jr surely shows”

How, exactly?


Larry B 07.31.07 at 6:15 am


This is where you and I part company a bit in what I perceive could be a signpost for a difference in our thinking. My impression is that you have an overly optimistic view of the human condition much the same as which I was taught that modern humanism starts from; ie the individual is inherently good.

Myself on the other hand, subscribe more to the theory that we are inherently bad.

If I remember my Old Testament reading corectly in Deutoronomy, God ’s only form of Government was to have no leader (except for God himself) with Judges appointed to serve as daily arbiters of detailed questions. The rest of the Old Testament, in short form is how, Israel rejected that, asked for a King, even though God warned them of how a king would remove them from his blessing, and how the kings subsequently went on to make Israel pretty miserable.

I don’t think any human form of government is anything near what God wants in order to bestow his blessing upon us. I’m thankful I live in a democracy for the freedom it bestows upon me. But I don’t think it’s akin to any form of God’s ideal of the blessings of Christs death and the freedom that brings.

The idea that because democracy recognizes certain principles like the equal worth of individauls or protection of minority rights doesn’t lead to the conclusion that taxation by a human entity is serving the poor as God would have had it. We know from Old and New Testament examples, even from God’s own forecasting, that tax money eventually lead to corrupt behavior and the withholding of God’s blessing. It is part and parcel to our fallen nature. The money is eventually used for just the things that you despise in Bush Jr. I don’t see much of a defense for democracy or any other form of government.


Steve 07.31.07 at 12:15 pm

Interesting post. I’ve been dealing with this a little here in the Black Country, where there is a feeling that becasue of the very strong feelings about the building of a mosque, and even muslims right to worship anywhere but there own home, it’s a democratic mandate to ban muslims from meeting.

Very much, the majority is unhappy (albeit much based on misinformation), and therefore the minority should sit down and be quiet, forever.

Unfortunatly getting into the pricicplie of democracy and minorities is difficult in a tabloid context.

If I can presume to ask. If you could rewrite this for the Daily Mail - how would you put it differently?



Richard 07.31.07 at 2:52 pm

I don’t know that I could rewrite it for the Daily Mail, Steve!

Larry — no, I have no illusions about human anture. I know that changing systems doesn’t make people better. But democratic systems are able to enable people to be accountable to one another, and it’s my conviction that democracy is just as applicable to the workplace as it is to government.

Protection of, and care for, the poor is, in the Old Testament, a function of the king. In modern terms, the government.


Steve 07.31.07 at 4:02 pm

I accept and agree that government is a sub-optimal way of arranging human society. Ideally, we would all be able to live without government with God as our only final arbiter. The rich would freely share with the poor (to the point that the distinctions between the two would be minor, if they existed at all) and there would be a community of grace which would be God’s agents at delivering his blessings.

But because of the fallenness of human nature, that isn’t going to happen short of the fullness of the kingdom of God coming.

So that leaves us with a dilemma - in our current fallen reality, where each of us, in a fallen condition, is loathe to share as we should, how do we ensure that there is some sort of safety net so that those who are unable to meet their needs in the current economic system are able to do so?

Some would argue that we should strip taxes down to the barest minimum and rely on the charity of individuals to provide in this manner. However, I think it a rather optimistic view of human nature to assume that because someone now has 20 percent more of their money to spend that they magically would stop being selfish with that portion and would share at any higher of a rate than they do with taxation.

So that leaves us with the other alternative - taxation and government. It’s not perfect, but given the alternative of forcing poor senior citizens to live on the street, poor families to go without healthcare, and many more poor living in desperate situations (or even those of us unfortunate enough to be between jobs), I can see no other way forward.


dh 07.31.07 at 4:25 pm

I guess I don’t consider it a problem for there to be rich people in the world. Your first paragraph suggests or at least seems to imply that being rich is bad. Scripture talks alot about the rich caring for the poor. It also talks alot about how one becomes prosperous. Even in one of John’s passages it talks about how God longs for us to propser and to have a future. At the same time, this doesn’t suggest that people are poor because they are doing all God told them that is not the point. The point I’m trying to make is that God uses the rich for His glory by desiring them to be the vehicles for helping the poor and needy. When the rich don’t do that out of their heart then it is sin that is coopting God’s plan. I also believe it is an overgenerlaization to say that the rich are selfish as a whole. I believe they need to do more because we ALL need to do more whether we are rich, poor or middle class. I just believe the best way is giving mechanisms where people are more apt to give from their heart as opposed to having greater mechanisms that are forced and mandated. There are ways to do both that I feel are appropriate. (I say that for the sake of balance)

I don’t believe that we should strip taxes to the barest minimum. However, I don’t believe we need to raise taxes to a higher level than they already are in the US. I also believe there needs to be even more tax breaks that can only be obtained by assisting the poor and needy.

I also don’t believe anybody supports plans and/or desires anyone to live on the street, etc. However, we must do things to help the poor in such a way that the law of unintended consequences isn’t inacted.

Steve, I really do like your post here and I agree with much of what you say on it. Some of the specifics and to what extent is where we seperate.


Steve 07.31.07 at 4:58 pm

Two quick points:

1) Re-read my first paragraph. There is no implication that being rich is bad, only that if the kingdom of heaven were being lived out on earth, the rich would share so freely that the distinctions between rich and poor would be minimal. This is both for the sake of helping the poor AS WELL AS for the souls of the wealthy. Jesus is quite clear that we cannot serve two masters, and that it is important for us to give freely to ensure that we DO NOT serve wealth at the expense of God.

2) I’ll make an even larger “overgeneralization:” Not only is every single rich person on the face of the planet selfish, but so is every poor person. It’s human nature - or original sin to use Christian terminology.


dh 07.31.07 at 7:57 pm

Well, I see what you are saying with regard to the 1st point. It makes a little more sense. However, to me having wealth and serving wealth are two different things. I know many people who are wealthy whose wealth is not at the expense of God who give so much to the poor and needy.

On point two, I just do not agree with your premise here. For me the Scripture in Malachi with regard to the “storehouses” and the blessing associated with giving seems to go against the concept that “every rich person is selfish”. I might say that every person on the face of the planet is selfish in that that is one of the many foundations of why people sin. However, being rich is not in and of itself a sin it is the attitude and the actions of the person who is rich that is a sin. If the rich person gives a good percentage (I say good percentage in that is between God and the person) to the poor and needy then yes the rich person is not sinning. However, if a rich person doesn’t give, when they give have alterior motives or places wealth over God in their hiearchy then yes the rich person is sinning. Jesus explains that as well. He never said it is impossible for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He said it is hard. There is difference. He also never said being rich is sin. Scripture nowhere says being rich is sin except when wealth is placed over God or the persons attitude and actions of giving are limited and/or not there.

Also, this concept of wealth, rich, poor and needy is interesting with regard ot Spiritually rich, poor and needy. When one reads Scripture on that as well one understands that it is the heart of the person that God admires. “Man looks at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart.” Some the most Godfearing, men of Faith from Scripture were rich: Abraham, Issac, Joseph, David, etc. Some the most wicked men in the Bible were rich: Pharoah, Ananias & Saphira, Herod, etc. (On a side note seperate from this discussion but interesting nonetheless)The people mentioned in the first set were physically and Spiritually rich whereas the second group were physically rich but Spiritually poor.

Steve, were moving more together on this subject. We have our differences but I see a small moving toward each other. Steve, I totally respect you for that and I hope you can see the same from your side as well toward me. When one gets beyond some of “loading” of certain phrases then one can get to the heart of what each is saying. :)


Larry B 08.01.07 at 6:29 am


I think I might have missed your overarching point of why not democracy in the workplace. That intrigues me a bit, but I don’t quite understand what you mean. In a capital market as I understand it, price theoretically contains the collective wisdom of a market as to the value of something. Price - Cost = Profit. Generally speaking then the markets act to maximize profits given the information obtained from prices. How then does one apply a democratic philosophy to such activity?

I recently attended a seminar where a member from the world bank laid out the case for developing products for third world markets. (In this particular case he was referencing lighting products) It takes a bit of a perspective change to realize that even in the poorest countries, markets don’t operate differently. He had several cases where low price products fit the needs of the population and still returned a profit to the manufacturer. It was the application of product to these markets that was causing swift changes in quality of life, more than any other form of aid.

His example to us was that in this poor country, most of the lighting was accomplished by kerosene oil because they have no electricity. The cost of the kerosene was a substantial percentage of their daily income (almost 75%). As a result, almost no marketing could be done after dark due to the high cost of lighting a product stand, children cannot study or read after dark, and their available income for other necessities is limited. No amount of aid dollars remedies this situation, it just buys more expensive kerosene for them and puts money back into the kerosene suppliers pocktes. However, enter a low cost LED device that doesn’t put out a whole lot of light, but more than a kerosene lamp, that can be powered by low cost batteries and togeter they are substantially cheaper than kerosene even when sold at a profit. As a side benefit, the marketers of goods can now sell into the evening and are making more money for themselves and their families, children can read and study more after dark and benefit too.

That to me is how individualistic capital markets can and do make great impacts on the least fortunate. I don’t see how democracy in the market would improve that or even how it would lead to those kind of solutions?


ee 08.03.07 at 9:30 am

Richard - good post. I remember reading an article by Matthew Paris (British conservative commentator, for friends across the pond) where he said that the jury was out on democracy as a form of government. He brought in unwillingness to use referenda and ever-greater use of quangos (bodies carrying out state functions without democratic accountability) as evidence of this. We now even have parties recommending that the health service is managed independently of democratic control.

I agree that formal or informal democracy is vital for every aspect of life. Those who argue against it most vehemently are almost always the powerful. Woe to the nation who is Managed without a voice.

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