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Some thoughts on democracy

di Marco Visentin

Alfred Tarski (1901-1983), one of the most renowned logicians, once stated that a suitable definition of “truth” should respect both conditions of “formal correctness” and of “material adequacy”. That is, it should not only be sound from a logical viewpoint (i.e. it follows some rules on which we have agreed on), but also respect the relevant intuitions prior to the formalization (it needs to make sense also if you do not know anything about logic). We might reasonably add that the argument he later develops defines truth as “adherence to being”: if we want to say something is true, then that something needs to be true.

Moreover, these two criteria should be applied to any concept requiring a rigorous definition – including democracy – as they are the basic requirements for adequacy. We never really ask ourselves what democracy is, do we? We have vague, sometimes inconsistent, ideas about that. I do not want to enter this perilous field – I am not a jurist, after all –, yet I believe applying logic to the concept in the form of these two principles might draw some interesting conclusions.

First, there can be – actually, there exist now – so-called democracies where only the “formal correctness” requirements are satisfied. Some countries claim to be democratic, but are actually governed by authoritarian regimes when certain conditions do not hold: the material possibility to express opinions challenging the hegemonic rule; the actual presence of opposition parties, together with the protection of minorities; a legislative power independent from the government; transparent elections and respect for individual vote… As an example, think of nowadays Venezuela: its constitution guarantees in theory full political rights to its citizens, yet the country’s elected President has been threatening and arresting many opponents.

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Although this might appear obvious to our reader, recognizing when the conditions for de facto democracies hold is untrivial. Formal correctness is stated by law, whereas material adequacy requires a collective effort undertaken by the whole community of citizens. Let aside the Arrow’s impossibility theorem, which states that a consistent aggregation of individual preferences is impossible, and only consider our imperfect democracies: is the present time seeing a decline in the quality of democratic life? if so, how to cope with it?

Gustavo Zagrebelsky, an Italian constitutionalist, mentions[1] education within the necessary conditions for a democratic system to survive: it helps shaping the people’s minds enabling their contributions to the country’s political life and training them to live  by a certain set of values peculiar to democracy.

Other relevant requirements are those regarding the quality of debate: it needs dispense of argumentation fallacies and be productive, i.e. provide with an idea better accepted by the people than the many there were before debating.

However, none of these conditions is relevant as this last one is, linked to the fact that democracy is the dialectic that originates from the continuous, productive debate between multiple minorities, each with its necessities and suggestions: a majority has to be seen as the result of a temporary aggregation of some of those minorities, whose interests continue to partially diverge from one another – and to partially converge with those of others not belonging to the majority. This majority has therefore no right to discriminate the various minorities.

The saying “vox populi, vox dei”, Zagrebelsky argues, allows the majority’s abuses on the minorities; “vox populi, vox hominum”, we should instead say: as we are “limited beings, always liable to error and normally in contrast with one another, yet determined to the continuous search for the best possible solutions to the problems of living together”.

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Many relevant results are directly derived from this cornerstone: if we are all part of a minority, how can we discriminate others based on their opinions, ethnic group, culture…? we should, instead, welcome different identities and cultures, as they can enrich ours! Also, we need to accept the relativistic nature of democracy, i.e. accept that different people might have different opinions, all logically valid – a “better” one might originate as a synthesis of those, but a tout court “best” one cannot exist. Last, as all majorities are no more than a temporary aggregation, we should be reluctant to adopt irreversible decisions – among which is the death penalty.

As I said at the beginning, I am not a jurist, hence the conclusions I draw might be seen as ingenuous or heterodox by those who know more of the subject. Nevertheless, I do believe democracy can be studied by many disciplines (logic, above all, and philosophy), and be enriched by their contributions.


[1] G. Zagrebelsky, Imparare democrazia, Torino, Einaudi, 2007


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