Why Using The Term ‘Democracy’ Loosely Is Dangerous

Capitalism’s ‘Deal’ Falls Apart (washingtonpost.com)
It’s hard to know where to start on Michael Kinsley’s column. The most obvious starting point is the beginning of this excerpt, which says that democracy means equality. Well, no. That’s wrong. Democracy, in its purest form — majority rule — is just three wolves and a sheep deciding who’s on the dinner menu. If he means liberal democracy he would still be wrong, but at least he would be in the ballpark. You’ll note I tend to use the term liberal democracy when referring to our country, but in truth it is a constitutional republic that has derived its values from liberalism.

The only equality that liberal democracy enshrines is equality before the law. Kinsley, since he believes democracy means equality, seems to believe that it is at odds with capitalism. That’s where the problem arises in his analysis. There is no conflict between liberal democracy and capitalism. In fact, the two are barely separable because both rely on property rights.

You’ll also note that when I use the term “liberal” I use it in it’s original meaning and not as it is used to apply to today’s Left. A quick etymology:

The English word liberal comes from the Latin word liberalis. Liberalis, in its own turn, came from another Latin word, liber. Liber means, quite simply, free. The meaning of the Latin word liberalis according to A Latin-English Dictionary of St. Thomas Aquinas is “free, befitting a free person, independent.” This definition is carried over directly into language in the instance of the phrase “Liberal Arts” when referring to an education. The liberal arts, artes liberales in Latin, were, in Roman times, only allowed to be studied by free men. Thus, the most literal rendering of the definition of liberal based upon its Latin roots is “appropriate to a free man.” In a modern dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, we see liberal as defined in definition number two as one that professes views that “favor the freedom of individuals.”

The Latin word liber is also the word from which “liberty” is derived.

Oddly, except in the anglosphere — Canada, America, Britain and Australia — the word liberal refers to a member of the political right, an advocate of capitalism. Globalization is known as “neo-liberalism” throughout most of the world.

Why am I making such a big deal out of this? Because we have infused the word democracy with meanings it simply can’t hold. It doesn’t mean equality and never has. Even if it did, what type of equality would we be referring to? Equality of outcome? Equality before the law?

It’s clear from Kinsley’s essay that he means equality of outcome, otherwise he wouldn’t be talking about a contradiction or conflict between democracy and capitalism. Nor would he be talking about President Bush’s tax cut’s as a breakdown of any type.

A final note: Kinsley uses democracy to justify campaign finance laws as a protection against capitalism. Apparently the first amendment plays no role in his calculations.

Democracy presumes and enshrines equality. Capitalism not only presumes but requires and produces inequality. How can you have a society based on equality and inequality at the same time? The classic answer is that democracy and capitalism should reign in their own separate “spheres” (philosopher Michael Walzer’s term). As citizens, we are all equal. As players in the economy, we enjoy differing rewards depending on our efforts, talents or luck.

But how do you prevent power in one from leaching into the other? In various ways, we try to police the border. Capitalism is protected from democracy, to some extent, by provisions of the Constitution that guard individuals against tyranny of the majority — for example, by forbidding the government to take your property without due process of law. Protecting democracy from capitalism is the noble intention, at least, of campaign finance laws that get enacted every couple of decades.

Separation of the spheres also depends on an unspoken deal, a nonaggression pact, between democracy’s political majority and capitalism’s affluent minority. The majority acknowledges that capitalism benefits all of us, even if some benefit a lot more than others. The majority also takes comfort in the belief that everyone has at least a shot at scoring big. The affluent minority, meanwhile, acknowledges that its good fortune is at least in part the luck of the draw. It recognizes that domestic tranquility, protection from foreign enemies and other government functions are worth more to people with more at stake. And it retains a tiny yet prudent fear of what beast might be awakened if the fortunate folks get too greedy about protecting and enlarging their good fortune.

That was the deal. Under George W. Bush, though, the deal is breaking down.


Now look at the fellow who has a few million or billion. He probably has paid no income tax on most of that pile, because investment profits are taxed only when they are “realized” — i.e., cashed in. Any investment profits that he hasn’t cashed in when he cashes in himself escape the income tax forever. If he can hold on for a few years, under current plans, the estate tax will die before he does. His investment income also is exempt from the 15 percent FICA tax that hits the minimum-wage worker at dollar number one.

By bringing the tax system into the equation he’s opened a hornet’s nest. There are ways to make the system fairer and simpler, but none of the talking heads is advocating anything like that. Instead there’s talk of providing income tax credits on income that was never earned to make up for the regressivity of the FICA tax. Why not fix the FICA tax instead of providing tax credits on income that was never earned?

The tax system in this country is a mess and needs to be replaced, not tinkered with.

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