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Pondering the Character of Democratic Community and Possibility



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I reviewed an academic article this week that treated currently competing conceptualizations of how democratic societies can develop most equitably and effectively. In one view, the neo-liberal perspective, largely dominant among many major industrialized nations, including the United States, since the late 1970s and exported by them through their aid policies, development is to be secured by placing increasing faith in the market instead of the state, and by emphasizing export-led trade and capital mobility. This orientation argues that the roughly two-thirds of the globe’s human population living on less than $1 per day will be lifted ultimately from their abject poverty by markets and that even benevolently intentioned government actions on their behalf most often serve merely to undermine the efficacy of such an approach and so public sector reach and range of activity should be minimized. An alternate conception of society, the human security position, suggests that humans, because they are humans and for no other reason, should exist in societies in which at least their minimum basic needs are met. In this view, societies, read governments, should ensure that all in their midst enjoy human dignity and the capacity to participate meaningfully in their communities. The last criterion implies a life without immiseration and endemic disease and without a daily struggle simply to survive.

This same dichotomy of views has characterized American politics over at least the same period that it has dominated international politics. Neo-liberals continue to contend, even as poverty and inequality have risen markedly here in the United States, that the market prescription remains apt. In this view, government is the central problem in obtaining economic growth in developed as well as developing nations. Adherents of this perspective contend aid to the poor and hungry undermines their incentive to work and to assume individual responsibility for themselves and their families. Almost any sort of government regulation is also suspect as a force that can only erode entrepreneurial initiative and thereby slow or prevent job growth.

The major GOP presidential candidates have adopted the neo-liberal prescription for American society in their current campaign. These individuals argue government is preventing a more rapid expansion of the American economy and the current relatively high-levels of poverty, unemployment and income inequality can only be ameliorated by still greater reliance on the market. Like their international counterparts, the Republican candidates do not suggest how, precisely, such a prescription will diminish inequality or result in opportunities for the most poor. The argument seems to be that capitalism alone can create these conditions in the long pull and its efficacy should be taken largely on faith. Meanwhile, those currently impoverished should take advantage of the opportunities that will be created by government’s ongoing withdrawal from social action. Very little is said concerning how well positioned those populations might be to take such steps, assuming they do, in fact, become available.

Meanwhile, Democrats come closer to adopting the human security position domestically and surely do not predicate their governance philosophy on an anti-government stance, but they too emphasize the market as at least a principal arbiter of human dignity. What is interesting about this debate at both the domestic and international scales is what it implies not only for the provenance of democratic governance, but also for the character of society. Aristotle long ago argued that humans could not become fully human without engagement in political community. The neo-liberal claim turns that frame on its head and contends that human beings are most free and most human when the market is used to arbitrate all significant social possibilities and they have the opportunity to avail themselves of its workings. The political community, or government acting in its name, voluntarily cedes its authority and legitimacy to play a role in human development and possibility to the workings of the market. Understood in this way, our society is not merely revisiting a long-running debate over the rightful role of government in our political economy (surely always appropriate and salient), but a different controversy altogether: whether the market or political community should be architectonic in democratic societies. This is occurring at both the domestic and international scales and on its ultimate resolution may hinge how freedom itself is understood as well as whether and how societies define and address both political and economic equality and possibility.

Publication Date

January 29, 2012