The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Democracy and Size? Can a populous democracy work?

I, and others, have noted a number of times that the only nation which handled the financial crisis correctly was Iceland: they bailed out ordinary people, let the banks go bankrupt, and jailed bankers who had broken the law.

The only one.

Iceland’s population is tiny, but it isn’t size, exactly, that matters, what matters is that politicians and bankers can’t live in a bubble in Iceland.

You live in a bubble when you don’t have to deal with ordinary people: you take a helicopter everywhere; fly on a private jet, your kids go to private school, you stay in hotels ordinary people can’t afford, and you live in enclaves far away from the hoi polloi. You are surrounded at all times by people who work for you or someone who is dependent on you: your daily interaction is with other people like you, or with retainers.

Iceland is too small for the bubble to work.  Politicians in Iceland could not avoid the Icelanders they would have been impoverishing if they bailed out bankers, and let ordinary people go bankrupt.  The people who taught their kids, prepared their food, whom they say on the street every day would be people they had fucked over.  Their lives would be living hell, even without violence (Iceland being a very peaceful society), they would have been social pariahs.  Everyone knew them, and given the population size, would recognize them, and in that small a country, would probably eventually see them and be able to treat them as they deserved.

Now in Iceland’s case this is related to population size, but in larger countries it is related to the absolute rule for prosperous and egalitarian societies: elites must not be able to opt out of their own society.  They must go to the same schools, eat the same food, travel on the same planes, buses and roads, and so on.  If the economy does badly, they too much suffer.

Under no circumstances, in a democratic society which wishes to not turn into an oligarchy, can a bubble be allowed to form.  Under no circumstances can elites be allowed to prosper if the rest of the population is not.

This does not guarantee a wonderful society: if the mass of the population are bigots or racists or unpleasant, that will be reflected in public policies and government.  The government will be no better than the people, but it won’t be a lot worse, either.

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  1. Dan H


    Not going to happen in societies that worship such separation, e.g. celebrity, wealth etc, though.

  2. elitist

    Ian Welsh wrote: ” Under no circumstances can elites be allowed to prosper if the rest of the population is not.”

    Is not the very definition of the word “elite” to mean ‘the very best?’

    Trying to reconcile capitalism with egalitarianism is a hopeless task. One implies running a race with relative winners and losers and the other does not.

  3. Iceland is effectively a city-state. City politics tends to be closer to home and as you point out closer to home trends more personal.

    But what Iceland had going for it, that few big cities do, is their own sovereign currency.

  4. russ

    Good point; I’m reminded of the software development concept of “eating your own dog food”.

    Too many politicians influence the way society goes but aren’t willing to eat their own dog food (live as part of that society).

  5. jump

    Scale I think, does play a role and is an issue for democracy. For a small enough group you can have a fully participatory democracy, say a co-op or tribe. As the group size increases the issues become more complex and the capacity for full participation diminishes and there is a move to representative democracy. However, representative democracies open the door to abuses which I think are proportional to the distance between the representative and the constituents.
    Is there a size at which democracy will break down? Communication and information are key to the ability to scale.
    In business there have been a lot of studies. Departments have divisions, divisions have sub-divisions and so on down to teams. The optimal size for a team to be efficient has been studied at all levels of a corporate hierarchy. Are there any such studies in the political sphere?
    There are other factors, cultural norms, empowerment of people as agents…, but scale can out weigh those factors if the structure does not say otherwise.
    Definitely an interesting question you address Ian.

  6. Spinoza

    While it’s true that the smaller and more local a government or authority the more likely common people will have some sort of say there are still pitfalls. In the history of the United States it has often been the case that the local lords and masters were far worse than the central authority. I come from and live in the historic Confederacy and in the South since the beginning it has been necessary to bring the full weight of the Federal State to crush the tyrannies our local oligarchs impose.

    For a very long time localism was the handmaiden of a racial and economic caste system.

    This is true in a small sense even today. Most people’s lives are made miserable not by the bankers on Wall St. or arrogant scheming DC politicos but by your asshole boss or coldhearted landlord or that arrogant cop. The power of the politicians would be nothing without the support of those very same elements in society who are able to swagger with impunity since there are few powers in the community equal in strength to them.

    If these thoughts are confused, I apologize. I don’t typically comment on websites at all nor am I exactly an educated guy. Just a few thoughts.

  7. Ian Welsh

    Interesting comment above on what Iceland did and didn’t do. Worth following the links.

    Don’t feel like rewriting the article, I think the main points still stand, but Iceland may not be the example many of us have thought.

    I’ll probably revisit at a later date.

  8. Ian Welsh

    Yeah, the local tyrannies can be terrible as well Spinoza. I had considered having a part on them in particular, but skipped it, probably should have.

    It’s more than possible, in small towns, to set up bubbles as well – you, your cronies, your enforcers.

    (Aside for elitist: I wasn’t discussing capitalism, but democracy. They are distinct things, for all that we tend to conflate them. If you have a mixed capitalist system it is in possible to have a “tide lifts all boats” situation: but only if you work on it.)

  9. S Brennan

    In my time, the nation has roughly doubled in population, mainly from the gates being opened in 1965, to give plantation holders replacement workers/[slaves really] in payment for allowing the abolition of Jim Crow.

    Immigration had been halted during the depression due the inability of workers to find jobs, which placed a burden on society. Today, anybody who suggests we do the same will be tarred as racist. Since I support immigration restrictions until U-6 unemployment falls & labor participation/wage rise, I will be similarly tarred.

    But for the record, if 150,000,000 pro-immigration white folks want to leave to make room for 150,000,000 Mexicans I am more than good with it…truth be told, a huge improvement. I don’t care about the color, just the raw numbers.

  10. jump

    Democracy as it is envisioned by folks like Mill et. al. seemed to assume that the greater good for the greater number will be the goal.

  11. elitist

    Ian, good point on the distinction between capitalism and democracy. I was confused as to what you were aiming to critque really.
    I’d label the problem as also being a fundamental problem of money in politics. Alongside the ability of people to insulate themselves from the consequences of their desires, the means to be effective in shepherding change through political action committee donations and money in politics plays a huge role. Access for change and insulation from the consequences are both at play here.
    The idea of corporations as people and the supreme court’s decision last week on campaign donations, seemed like the end of democracy as we once knew it.

  12. mindmoth

    I think that democracy must be an economic democracy or it becomes the oligarchy we have now. If your voice isn´t heard at workplace, the market and within community you live in (and this necessarily include larger scales), you don´t have democracy.

    Note how the rich and powerful actually have economic democracy (eg. their voice is heard in shareholders meetings as opposed to those of small shareholders) and socialism (state help when they are in trouble), even communism.

    So, it´s about scale and place. Maybe contemporary world is really an Athenian democracy for 1%, with 99% slaves 🙂

    Democracy that works is rooted where you work and earn your living. As simple as that.

  13. Celsius 233

    Well, as most cognizanti already know; the U.S. isn’t a democracy, functioning or otherwise.
    This from, over yonder, at the Agonist;

    But then, I already knew. Not being smug; it’s just so bloody in your face. How could one miss it?

  14. Formerly T-Bear

    Reflecting on the question “Democracy and Size? Can a populous democracy work?” the best answer can only be a qualified maybe, dependent on conditions. Only Switzerland comes to mind as achieving a modern state in size with the distinction as being one of the oldest having an actual democratic form of governance (somewhat a republican federation as the national governing form drawn from localized democratic assemblies). It should be noted that the Swiss geography plays a decisive rôle in creating a strong defensive barrier to invasion backed by a dearth of natural resources that would attract those who would disposes the Swiss. Mountainous living is quite difficult, not many would find that life an economic paradise worthwhile (or worth the conquering).

    Iceland is not only remote from greedy eyes, possessing a significant moat of the North Atlantic, its population are basically homogeneous sharing lifestyle, history and a common genealogy. Again geology does not provide rich pickings attracting ravaging hoards. Iceland only in recent modern times has become a republic after being a dependency of Norwegian and Danish monarchies for most of its history as an otherwise autonomous province but one that retained an earlier tradition of a commonwealth in its foundation mythologies. Being remote from central control allowed the population to retain local independence, a condition that supports democratic governance through republican forms.

    The United States may have been the largest democratic governed state in the period shortly after the Civil War when universal male sufferance was established until late 1960’s (approximately a century) on the back of the investment made in blood during that war. Prior republican requirements were based upon male owning property and subsequently beginning with the Nixon administration on marketing manipulation of the voting public (recall the selling of the ‘silent majority’ to gain political power). Check the census figures for that period for some idea of population. Here again is a (continental) region, protected by both ocean and no neighbour capable of existential threats. Uniquely, the population was highly diverse but held together by a combination of renouncing former allegiances to gain citizenship and a healthy dose of ‘American’ mythology and economic promise. It worked until the advent of divisive marketing for political power ends that rent asunder the operative mythology into a us v. them which continues to this day as foundation of political power (currently being usurped by possessors of great economic power (and malfeasance) for nefarious ends). For that intervening century, a democratic republic existed, not perfect, not always responsive, but effectively a democratic governance in republican form. Its like will not be seen again, those skills of citizenship are no longer, orchestrated beliefs and emotions have supplanted and buried the necessary characteristics for democratic governance, only the delusion of democracy remains. The ability of the political system to self-correct has been negated, a regime of political and economic orthodoxy replaces the republic, no dissent is permitted to be effectively heard (allowed only in free speech zones).

    Niccolò Machiavelli noted in his “Discourses on Livy” that populations accustomed to independence in republican form had a superior chance to reestablish that form of governance than those who had not that experience were to establish a republican form coming from some authoritarian history of being governed. Must be another way of saying either use it or lose it – at the end of the day, bottom line.

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