Onkur Sen

"The way to be is to do." Confucius

A Four-Point Proposal for Effective Democracy

May 15, 2012

Democracy was a concept that was originally envisioned by the Greeks as a political method to foster fair, equal representation of all citizens as well as the open discussion of ideas (indeed, the Agora was the notable Greek venue for such conversation).

However, if we examine democracy in a modern context, we see that both of these properties fail to hold. Not only is representation unfair (inherently, since a significant portion of the population does not participate in civic discourse), but the projection of ideas has become a question of volume rather than content. This can be seen most visibly through the efforts of lobbyists and the monetary leveraging of special interest groups. One could even say this is a form of corruption.

The question then becomes, how can we implement democracy in a way that holds truer to its original motivations? First, let me note that it is impossible to execute democracy in its purest form simply due to the quantity of information available for consumption in today’s world. Thus, there must be some sort of processing of the information to select ideas which exemplify:

  • Relevance
  • Urgency
  • Fairness
  • Feasibility

I believe that policies which focus on the above four attributes will result in sustainable, brisk (compared to today’s standards), and effective democratic institutions. Let us explore each attribute further:


It is important for legislative bodies to consider ideas that are relevant to the time, place, and general atmosphere at hand. They should not deal with issues that do not affect the progress of society. An example of great controversy is that of same-sex marriage: many people have personal beliefs for or against the notion, but how does a state bill banning it foster the growth of a community in any way?

On the other end of the spectrum, consider the “beard patrol” and other appearance-related restrictions set by the Taliban. Though they are obviously not a democratic institution, here we see the manipulation of and focus on a superficial characteristic of a person, an otherwise irrelevant consideration, to suppress a society and project fear into its constituency.


On any wide scale, whether it be national or global, governments should respond to needs in the order of highest urgency. In this case, we define a need as “urgent” if it warrants a response that simultaneously:

  1. must be executed in the shortest time
  2. affects the largest number of people

Then one particular concern an objector might raise is that this does not allow for the treatment of a pressing issue that affects a small minority. However, we could note that a stratified system of government could solve this problem, and the more local establishments would be more suited for those issues.

Furthermore, the definition of urgency as given above has important and immediate consequences regarding the viability of special interests, namely in that there isn’t any. Because special interests usually pertain to a select, privileged few and generally regard issues which do not warrant an immediate or even short-term response, then by definition, special interests can be completely discarded from consideration. A famous example is the declaration of pizza as a vegetable due to pressure from lobbyists of the frozen pizza industry. By considering the urgency of the matter at hand, one could easily remove this thought from the table.


Ah, here we encounter one of the fundamental pillars of democracy. It makes sense, then, that fairness should be maximized in democratic institutions. However, I bring it up here explicitly because it extends on the consequences of policies that are both relevant (applicable to the environment in question) and urgent (applicable to a significant portion of the population in this environment) with respect to any society. More explicitly, although a legislation may affect a large number of people, it may not do so in a fair manner that allows equal opportunity for all.

Before I proceed, I would like to clarify the political model that I am following. When talking about legislation that is fair or just, we often look to past legislation as a precedent. However, because the law is never a comprehensive treatment of all possible conditions, it is often necessary to consider that which has been left out rather than that which is already written. To this end, there are two main methods of interpretation.

The Hamiltonian approach (named after Alexander Hamilton) adopts the viewpoint that what is not explicitly granted is expressly forbidden. On the other hand, the Jeffersonian view states the opposite, i.e., what is not explicitly granted is allowable and not punishable by law. Since we discuss democracy as a positive concept that facilitates discourse, it is clear that we must favor the Jeffersonian perspective.

With that in mind, let us return to our discussion of fairness. Many ideological positions can result in unfair legislation, whether they are from integration of church and state, racial/ethnic discrimination, or any type of superiority complex. Particularly with legislation that will have a widespread effect on the population (making it relevant and potentially urgent), it is necessary to consider whether all parties will emerge equally enabled. If the legislation is not comprehensive, then we should invoke the Jeffersonian approach and ensure that the same rights extend to others.


Lastly, for the progress to actually come into being, it is crucial that the plan of action can be carried out quickly, realistically, and effectively. This removes any ideas that may lean too heavily on ideals and not enough on the practical constraints of the environment. Curiously enough, many ideas satisfying the first three criteria may fall short here, whether that may be from the original conception of the idea of from how it is presented and communicated. In order for a democracy to actually be able to implement policy, the ideas must be relatively straightforward to execute. If they are not, perhaps the one legislation can be broken down into smaller, more manageable parts.

In outlining these characteristics of a successful democratic process we have obtained an understanding of how some ideas may be favored over others based on their sophistication of formulation. This is not to say that the other ideas are inherently bad (on the contrary, many revolutionary ideas were beyond the scope of implementation at the time), but rather that they are not tailored to an efficient execution in a democratic system. If one can maximize these four qualities, however, the efficacy of democracy is sure to follow.

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