From Iceland — Democracy In The Balance

Democracy In The Balance

Published April 16, 2016

Democracy In The Balance
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Iceland is a very interesting country. With its small population, it can, more easily than larger countries, experiment and innovate in social organization. For instance, it has held its bankers liable for what happened in 2008, while no other country had the courage to do so.

The constitutional draft written in 2012 is another impressive and innovative achievement. Coming out of a bottom-up process involving a large citizen forum defining the key values of the country and an election of a smaller council which proceeded in a remarkably open way, it is a unique blend of popular wisdom and expertise. And perhaps that is why it has stalled in the parliamentary process.

What is at stake? Perhaps, the very essence of democracy. There are two conceptions of democracy. The conception that dominates in usual public discourse about the “democratic countries” was theorized by the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, for instance. It sees democracy in institutions that allow for competition in public offices, with a system of elections from which few normally able adult citizens are excluded. Some countries are less democratic than others when they erect barriers that make it difficult for voters to access the polling stations, “gerrymander” districts to engineer artificial majorities, or exclude some political groups from the competition on dubious grounds. But, according to this conception, an open and fraudless electoral system is enough to have a thriving democracy.

There is, however, another conception of democracy that is generally supported by popular wisdom. It does not see democracy in political competition but in the possibility for everyone to have a say in the decisions that affect one’s life, in all domains and not just in the general political decisions. According to this more demanding conception, democracy is lacking when the key economic and political decisions affecting the lives of citizens are influenced by unelected elites and lobbyists, when the media are controlled by particular interests, or when the funding of political campaigns is a channel of occult influences.

This conception is supported by popular wisdom because everyone wants control over one’s life, and such control is thwarted when power is captured by an oligarchy in the organizations where important decisions are made. This conception of democracy is completely in line with the ongoing push for the empowerment of women in the family and in society at large, for the empowerment of stakeholders in corporate governance, and for a greater control of citizens over economic and social affairs.

Which brings us back to the Icelandic constitutional draft. The way in which it was drafted, with open participation by many citizens, is itself a vibrant expression of the philosophy of participative democracy. Moreover, its text also pushes in the same direction. It characteristically does not just sanction basic human rights and basic parliamentary institutions. It also requires transparency in media ownership and political funding, publicity of public administration proceedings, it asserts “the right to an adequate standard of living and social security,” access to health care and education, it imposes constraints on the appropriation and exploitation of natural resources to preserve public interest and protect future generations, it regulates conflicts of interests in parliament. All these provisions can be read as promoting the citizens’ ability to have a greater control over their lives, their private and their common interests. Is this what the incumbent class of politicians is afraid of?

Marc Fleurbaye is an economist and professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University.

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