Volume 4, Number 106
26 July 2004

The Culture of Democracy

Dear Friends,

Is there a culture of democracy? Are there any common characteristics, or values, other than universal voting, held by all democracies and not held by others? This is a difficult question, since we do not know what a democracy is, nor do we know how to define cultural characteristics or values. However. I have done a twenty-year study of world history (published as Centuries of Economic Endeavor, Univ of Michigan Press, 1994), in which I have tried to approximate the answers to both questions. What follows is my own interpretation of history, not necessarily yours.

For me, countries are more or less democracies, depending not on the voting mechanism but on whether the bulk of their people holds certain values, more or less. I do not know what a 100% democracy is, nor do I understand what 100% of any value might be. Literally, "democracy" — from the Greek — means "rule by the people." But the Greeks held slaves and displayed other characteristics we would not today call "democratic." Furthermore, all the values, or cultural artifacts, that I list below have different meanings for different people. So, I will suggest my own meanings, to see what you think of them. Here goes:

Rule of Law

"Rule of law" is usually associated with democracies, and I agree. To some, the "rule of law" means only protection of life and property, and enforcement of contracts. To others, it means redistribution of wealth so that everyone has "enough." To libertarians, it means that no law may be passed that forcibly confiscates property from one person to pay to another. (To them, the income tax is "confiscation"). To most, it means that all persons, from the king on down, obey the same laws. A medieval European expression was "The king may make the laws, but once he has made them, he must obey them."

I join the libertarians in many of their beliefs, but not in the idea of "confiscation." I believe we do not violate the rule of law if we force the rich to give to the poor. But, do we violate rule of law if we force people to pay taxes for social security or health care, for themselves and others? Perhaps some do not want to spend their money that way. Surely people of the world's "democracies" do not all agree on this.

I believe the "rule of law" means, among other things, that all citizens are subject to the same laws in the same way. I also believe the President of the United States and the prime ministers of European countries have violated laws with impunity, blaming subordinates. The ex-president of Mexico was indicted for masterminding the slaughter of protesting students, but on a technicality he was unindicted. President Clinton violated his oath of office but is still an honorary personage. Our countries are less democratic to the extent that such incidents occur. We still believe that "the king can do no wrong."

In many countries, it is possible to bribe judges to decide in favor of one or the other party, and in some places it is possible to "buy" a driver's license without passing a test. Many restrictions on business dealings are passed by parliaments for no other reason than to allow exceptions to be sold by high mucky-mucks. Favors may be bought from high officials, who constantly break the law with impunity. (I have worked in about thirty-five such countries and know the bribe-takers personally.)

Whatever may be one's definition, I believe the "rule of law" is a commonly-held value in democracies, but not (or less so) in authoritarian societies.

Private Property

Most democracies forbid their governments to confiscate private property except for well-known public purposes (like building a road) and only with "just" compensation determined by a court. Nevertheless, the City of Boulder (where I live) has contemplated using "eminent domain" to buy up property to be sold to other private individuals. The buyers would conform to certain architectural or other regulations, presumably to "beautify" the city, and would pay more taxes than current occupants pay. I believe this "confiscation" makes us less a democracy.

Abuses of eminent domain abound in American history. To see more of them, visit the website of the Institute of Justice and click on "Private Property Rights." The Institute argues that "to increase tax receipts" is not a valid reason for eminent domain and should not belong in the same category as "building a public road."

Socialist countries have frequently confiscated property for collective farms. In some countries, land may be seized by private groups, and the occupation is validated by law. The explanation is that the owners are rich and the occupiers poor. However, in some of these countries the confiscated land is given to cronies of the politicians (Zimbabwe, for example). In the former Soviet Union, state properties were privatized in such a way that they largely ended up in the hands of the elites, who previously had managed them (and kept the spoils) as state officials. In many countries, private property may be confiscated without (or with little) payment, to build a highway to the president's country estate (Kenya for example), or for similar purposes of the elite.

Therefore, I associate "private property" more with democracies than with authoritarian governments.

Law of Contract

Contracts are more respected in democratic countries than in authoritarian ones. The Government of Bolivia (one of the poorest in Latin America) made a contract with the Bechtel Company to create a new water system for the City of Cochabamba and to charge market prices. It did not consult the Cochabambinos. The prices turned out to be more than the people were willing to pay; they would have preferred the older, more disease-ridden but cheaper system. They rioted, and the government rescinded the contract. It was a bad contract, but the world knew only that Bolivia had broken it. Just this month the people voted for five principles of government which (many thought) would break contracts with energy suppliers. But foreign investors are not attracted to countries that break their contracts, and Bolivia lacks enough investment for strong development. Bolivia does not become a full democracy just by electing public officials.


The more democratic a country is, the more compassionate (toward the underprivileged) are its people. Four centuries ago, our British ancestors would hang people for minor offenses, or put them in stocks where the public would throw stones at them, or whip children in school. Now we do not do that. Instead, we have special reserved parking for the handicapped, and entrances and passages must be adapted to them. (I have found this privilege useful, since I walk only with pain).

Freedom of Enterprise

"Freedom of enterprise" is a much-debated concept, but in my research for Centuries, I came to associate freedom with democracies more than with authoritarian governments. We know that businesses try to monopolize, and they cheat (even Adam Smith knew that), but so do governments. We have often wondered why less developed countries (in Asia, Africa, and Latin America) have not produced many inventors or innovators. By confiscating property, violating contracts, violating the rule of law (by whatever definition), and by passing regulations solely to facilitate corruption, their governments have reduced the climate for invention and innovation.

The democracies, by contrast, have historically promoted  more innovation than the authoritarian world. (What about the Soviet Union? Well, they innovated for the glory of government – the elite and the military.) The power of the elites leads to greater regulation. This regulation is both "good" and "bad," because those with the power to regulate hardly can ignore their own interests or their own constituencies. Thus it is not possible to have all "good" regulations with no "bad."

If this is so, I wonder whether "good" regulations (such as environmental) have contributed more to prosperity and development than "bad" regulations have diminished them. My study of history has persuaded me that the more governments regulate, the more "bad" regulations they produce – even in the United States. Price control is "bad" regulation, for example. It inhibits innovation more than it protects consumers. So is abuse of eminent domain. Quakers would do well to oppose regulation per se, not try to pass good regulations instead of bad ones (which is what Quaker lobbies often propose).

The more developed countries are therefore those that have allowed freedom of enterprise, even when businesses monopolize and cheat. The positive nature of freedom outweighs the negative aspects of authoritarianism. Thus I associate freedom of enterprise with democracy.

I conclude also that these common values are held by the mass of population of a democracy, and that it is not possible to impose them from the outside. They take centuries to be inculcated. Therefore, even if you are not a pacifist, our intervention in Iraq will never result in democracy. Historically, the values associated with democracy come first.

Come on, now, I've given you a lot to mull over, or argue if you will. This Letter has presented my own views, which I have collected from (I believe) a dispassionate and lengthy study of world history. I hope to hear from those who disagree with me.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments:

"Maybe Jack likes to get a rise out of getting a reaction from Friends. After all, he's old, and sometimes when people get old, no one pays them any attention. I'd say, unfortunately, that few Friends pay him much respect. He gets attention, but often negative attention from Friends. I have seen Jack literally brought to tears by the name calling and disrespectful treatment he has received at the Friends General Conference Gathering by Friends who were completely ignorant of economics and economic history, but were quite sure they knew what they were talking about anyway."

— Janet Minshall (quoting another reader).

The Author Replies:

To my nameless reader: On the matter of the FGC Gathering, the year was 1999, and your memory is correct. Since then, I have learned a lot about the ineffectiveness of anger, especially with the help of Jane Kashnig, my co-author of Seeking Truth Together. On all except FGC, Piffle!!

Note: Carol Conzelman is a Fulbright scholar studying village democracy in Coroico, Bolivia. Because Bolivia is mentioned in this Letter, I sent her a first draft, for comments. While I did not change anything because of her comments, I would like to publish them. This is what she replied:

"Hi, Jack: — I'm glad you took on this topic, and I like the way you organized it into sections. What about access to information? This seems to me a major part of a functional and fair democracy. The referendum that Bolivia just pulled off was dependent on people's access to proper info, but info was not readily available in the countryside. Soe people just voted accroding to whatever they heard on the radio that morning, or according to what Evo Morales or other national leaders said. Now the articles in the La Paz newspapers glorify this 'new phase of democracy and peace' in Bolivia, but I am not sure it means this at all. Many people voted only because they would not have been able to do business at the bank and other places without the card that proved they had voted.

"And of course, access to information also links to education, and the quality of the education system is abysmal, so many people could not understand the questions on the referendum. Many had no idea what they were really voting for, or what the subtleties were or implications. But President Mesa is riding high now, feeling the country is unified behind him and his agenda to export gas. Energy contracts are not going to be broken here, but revised, and so every political party is developing its own version of what they want the new contracts to look like. Congress now has to figure out how to proceed, which could take months.

"What about leadership in a democracy? Charismatic individuals with vision and intelligence, a vision for the country as a whole and not just their limited special interests, are essential. Also, in Bolivia, the idea of a paternalistic state is deeply entrenched after its experience with the socialistic (I use that word on purpose) MNR (National Revolutionary Movement) and the 1952 Revolution itself. They still feel that the state should provide services, whether it has tax money to do so or not. Bolivian people do not want to pay taxes because they have little proof that the government will spend them wisely. But if they don't pay taxes, how will the government improve services? A stand-off if there ever was one, and I think the blame goes to the gross mismanagement of public funds up until now, and the people have every right to demand improvements in this case before they increase their taxes. How this would happen, I don't know. But CONFIDENCE in government is crucial. This is what is lacking here and preventing any real movement forward."

— Carol Conzelman, Coroico, Yungas, Bolivia

I can't believe I hear a Quaker advocating the use of force.  Is there any difference in nature between the force used to extract the wealth of the rich and the force used to stop a killer regime?  Do you think that all citizens are being treated equally when citizens who have gotten money (and who foolishly failed to spend it) are forced to pay money to people who spend every dollar they get?  Jack, you know that the poor get ahead only because of capital accumulation.  Taxing the rich to give to the poor is just Bob Schutz's $30,000 solution writ small.  It's capital consumption, the main accomplishment of which is to make everyone worse off.

— Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Robin Hood tax policy: If a poor person sticks a gun in the back of a rich person and says "give me your money" and the rich person complies, that form of redistribution is called "theft." Using the implied threat of jail time for nonpayment of taxes, when a politician imposes a special tax that only applies to rich people, such tax ostensibly used to support the poor, then that tax is called "redistribution" and the tax policy — which discriminates against a small number of rich people — is referred to as "progressive."  At some level, discriminatory "soak the rich" tax policies, which single out rich people and force them to pay taxes at much higher percentage rates than other people pay, seem like theft to me.  For example, New Jersey just enacted a special "millionaires tax" that only applies to about 28,000 people — 3/10ths of 1% —  of the total 8,500,000 population of NJ.   This discriminatory 41% tax increase on income above a certain level will finance a 17% increase in NJ's total spending this year. No other citizens in NJ will have any tax increase.  Democratic Governor McGreevey is very generous — with other peoples' money.  It's easy pickings — take a large amount of money from a small number of people who probably wouldn't vote for you anyway.   I think the Bible talks about a 10% tithe, but does it talk about top marginal federal, state and city combined tax rates that approach 50% in some states, combined corporate and income tax rates on dividends that will approach 67% under the Kerry tax plan and estate tax rates of around 60%? How much is too much?  What do you think, Jack? No limit on tax rates for the rich? If they don't like it, well, tough luck?  Wonder what other Quakers think. There are billions of poor people in the world and relatively few rich people.

— John Spears, Princeton Monthly Meeting, Princeton, NJ

I was surprised that you did not include in your characteristics any mention of a Bill of rights:  Freedom of the Press and Religion, right of  people  peacefully to assemble and petition the government, protection against  unreasonable searches and seizures, and Habeus corpus . . . . 

— Wink Halsted, Racine, WI.

The Author Replies:

Wink is an old friend of mine in the Experiment in International Living in the 1940s. He is right, but (as I have written above) it is not the specific values that count but the fact that democracies have a common set of values.

I think it has been claimed W.J. Clinton was "honorable" though I don't find enough action examples, not "honorary."  He talked a good game, and still does.  Frankly, I find it hard to tolerate any Clintons or Kennedys, save for Chelsea and the Shrivers. Also, sending the Bushes and Bushies to be ambassadors for life to Tuvalu would be a good idea.

My hope now: Barack Obama.

— Maurice Boyd, Friends Meeting of Washington (DC).

The Author Replies:

Once I was having lunch with a friend at a French restaurant in Washington. On the menu were the words, "Where Maurice Chevalier eats when in Washington." We were just saying "Ho Ho, he probably ate here once," when in walked Maurice Chevalier, along with Robert Kennedy and Sargent Shriver, and took the table next to us. — Jack

How do you define or describe charisma? Or, is a charismatic individual something different? To be charismatic is innate in a person, and it draws people to their voice and presence, and thus to their ideas. If their ideas can measure up to the charisma, they can be a great leader. Clinton has it, Bush does not (at least in my mind — though he certainly has fooled a lot of people). Robert Kennedy, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and President Mesa of Bolivia all have it. The mayor of Coroico does not. It's a fearlessness, a kindness, an honesty, a forthrightness, an articulateness, I believe in the power and beauty and necessity of charisma — but not to the exclusion of other qualities, and of course sometimes there are other variables that outweigh charisma if the person doesn't have it, like Ralph Nader.

— Carol Conzelman, Coroico, Yungas, Bolivia

It is not desirable to have no regulation — driving on the right and stopping at red lights are regulations and they are enforced by police power. They too can be abused ( a one-way street that benfgits the private residents, for example). I don't believe there is any good that does not sometimes become bad (there is a flood warning out for my area right now). So like everything else, how much regulation and what regulations are a matter for discernment. Consideration of the bad effects along with the good ones much be part of the discernment process for any proposed regulation.

— Bruce Hawkins, Northampton (MA) Meeting.

You come close to saying that a country with all of the characteristics you associate with a culture of democracy, will choose a free market economy, and we are about to see if that is true.  I submit that no country has  had a stronger culture of democracy for the last century  than Uruguay, and it successfuly resisted and overcame a military dictatorship in the l970-l980 period.   But Uruguay is also a largely failed welfare state, and the voters in two plebiscites have refused to dismantle  and privatize inefficient government corporations. Now the populist  post-Marxist left  is poised to  elect  its first president and control its first legislature in October, if the polls are correct.  Will that happen and  Uruguay will go through the travails that populist leftism brought to Chile and rgentina? Or will their culture of democracy bring them back from the brink?  It would help if the IMF gets tough quickly on the Argentine defaulted debt, and does not let the Uruguayans think that leftist populism is working fine next door.

— William G. Rhoads, Germantown (PA) Monthly Meeting

The Author Replies:

It’s a question of definition. I do not believe a country is a "democracy" if it is also a "welfare state," unless it also has the other characteristics I mentioned. Merely "voting" does not make a democracy.

Having spent ten of the last 40 years in Thailand, I think I can accurately name the main obstacles to democracy here: insufficient respect for education, truth and justice under law.  Legend, superstition, social position and convenience take higher place. Under the present, democratically elected, cockeyed dictatorship, cigarettes, cocktails and swords are censored from TV screens, while depictions of private M16 battles, and even rape, are common fare.  Tales of paid off courts, cheating on exams, conflict of interest and purchase of governmental position are endemic. It’s a Cargo Cult kind of thing: the underprivileged expect only the hand of the powerful can improve things.

— Joel Barlow (member Brooklyn, NY Monthly Meeting), Chiang Rai, Thailand.

I was largely agreeing with you right up until you stated, effectively, that in a free market democracy the harm caused by bad regulations outweighs the good caused by good regulations.  This is a very subjective statement that is impossible to quantify. I suspect if it was your child that was grossly disfigured by thalidomide you might think favorably of laws and regulations. The Office of Management and Budget publishes an annual report assessing the costs and benefits of major federal regulations adopted by agencies since 1992. In this most recent study the OMB assesses 31 major rules adopted by the Departments of Energy, Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency since 1992. Apparently they used a new, updated methodology to assess costs and benefits that supersedes earlier reports. It estimates total benefits to Americans from these rules to be $2.3 - $6.5 billion and total costs to range from $1.6 - $2.0 billion.  In other words, a large net gain from US federal regulations. Assuming the validity of the study, this tends to undermine your claim in your last newsletter that the harm caused by bad regulations outweighs the good caused by beneficial regulations.

— Paul Murphy, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting

The Author Replies:

On the contrary, many studies have been done, and they are not all subjective. See “Cost of regulation,” in TQE #107.

I've been getting and reading your interesting and challenging Newsletters for a few months now. More power to your elbow, Jack.  We don't have to agree all the time, but we do have to listen to each other. Here we have a Peace and Justice Forum, part of our Monthly Meeting activities.  We have been much exercised by issues relating to economic justice, what it means and what it implies for how we live our lives.  I have recommended that Friends sign up to your letter as part of our ongoing consideration of the issues.  But we feel it is no use just talking about these things and we all want to be living our faith on a daily basis.

— Brian Fellowes, Pickering and Hull monthly meeting, United Kingdom

I greatly enjoyed your Balkan Travelogue and your essay on democracy. About a year ago, I returned from an assignment in Sarajevo, which gave me much food for thought on both subjects. Those trying to bring Bosnia the benefits of a free market found a culture of one-party elections, politicized state syndicates, and a subservient press.  Initiative and private capital accumulation were risky, and the courts were not geared to the  enforcement of private agreements.  The only people who understood how markets worked seemed to be small shop owners and black marketers.  Efforts to instill instant democracy and enterprise fell flat: we forced an election on the heels of a bloody ethnic conflict, and the candidates ran on their ethnic identities, entrenching themselves in policies of hateful divisiveness; and we abetted a kleptrocracy that converted significant public assets into the private domains of a few lucky families.

— Steve Birdlebough, Sacramento (CA) Meeting.

In my business of managing money, the fastest growing cost area, by far, is in legal and compliance as we try to keep up with an avalanche of new rules and regulations.  I don't think that this kind of cost increases overall standards of living at all. The invention of the tractor brought down the cost of producing food and raised everyone's standard of living by making food more affordable to more people:  real economic wealth.   By comparison, it seems to me sometimes that wealth just gets burned up by many of the very well-intentioned rules and regulations that various governments pump out. Consider this:  the US tax code has over 61,000 pages.

— John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.

Responding to TQE 106, in which is written, "Quakers would do well to oppose regulation ..." I believe the TQE perspective is excessively conflated with underlying wrong assumptions about the value, necessity, inevitability, and goodness of private property. Quakers would do better to oppose systems of government and organizations of human interaction such as systems of contract law to protect private property rights that rely ultimately on armed violence to enforce social order. Let us put the abstract usefulness of market mechanisms to work defining "value" as what one gives to, puts into, the system, not what one takes from it for one's self. It is when we collectively put in more than we take out that the world becomes a better place.

— Dave Britton (did not say from where)

Consideration of the roots and basis of democracy is something that, as a thinking South African born nine years before the onset of Apartheid in 1948, has always fascinated me. For democracy to exist in a society a question that needs to be considered is, to what degree is there within the individual members  of the society an acceptance and real understanding of the rights and responsibilities that comprise individual freedom. If there is generally a poor or limited understanding, then the way is open for an individual or individuals to entrench themselves in positions of state authority through misusing the state legislative power leading to the misuse of the instruments of state like the police and the army etc.. The individuals concerned can do this because the number of citizens who actively object to what is happening is insufficient to prevent it. Zimbabwe under the despotic rule of President Robert Mugabe is a current example of just such a society.

— Rory Short, Friend from South Africa.


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters a week in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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