The Split In Liberal Democracy Essay, Research Paper
The Liberal tradition of democracy is split into two different theories. Each theory is based, as are most political theories, on a set of assumptions. In the Liberal tradition the assumptions made by each group are often based on what they believe is important in the Liberal tradition. Because there are two important dimensions in the Liberal tradition and people base their assumptions and theories on these two dimensions, there developed two basic theories in the Liberal tradition. They are the Thick and Thin theories of democracy.
The Thick theory of democracy is rooted in the conservative dimension of democracy. The conservative dimension of democracy is the side that is concerned with the citizen and his role in preserving democracy as a society. Authors like Alexis De Tocqueville, Karl Marx, and John Dewey believe in the citizen s ability to participate effectively in government based on the assumption that all men are naturally equal.
The Thin theory of democracy stands on the other side of the Liberal tradition. This side of the Liberal tradition embraces the capitalist dimension of democracy. Joseph A. Schumpeter and William G. Sumner are two thinkers who see democracy as a method based on assumptions made about natural markets. They believe that society works economically and that everything should be done that is possible to maintain a free economic system.
The split in the Liberal tradition, having two distinct models and way things should be done, creates a whole slew of interesting questions. One of the most fundamental and probably the most fun is whether one theory is superior to the other. I believe that the Thick theory of democracy is superior to the Thin theory of democracy. Using both Dewey s and Sumner s works I ll show that the Thick theory of democracy has a positive view of individuals citizens in government and society and is therefore more realistic.
An important idea to look at in each theory is the rights or liberties of the individual citizen. Because both of the theories lie in the Liberal democratic traditions individuals are given rights, but the scope of those rights are very different in the two theories.
Sumner is a social Darwinist, so he believes all mean are not created equally, but in fact people are unequal especially socially. Sumner writes, Certain ills belong to the hardships of human life. They are natural. They are part of the struggle with Nature for existence (p 17). It is fundamental to him that people are not created equally, and when society tries to make everyone equal like in the Thick theory things go really wrong, We Shall find that all the schemes for producing equality and obliterating the organization of society produce a new definition based on the worst possible distinction the right to claim and the duty to give one man s effort for another man s satisfaction (p 15). The Thin theory isn t concerned with preserving or giving man equality. What they are concerned with is mans liberty.
Dewey and the Thick theory have a different spin on what rights and liberties should be afforded to individuals. They believe that all men are created equal and that it is the states job to protect the rights of individuals so they have the capacity to develop as human beings. Her writes, Liberalism is committed to an end that is at once enduring and flexible: the liberation of individuals so that realization of their capacities may be the law of their life (p 56). This points out the importance of maintaining the equal rights of each individual to develop himself to his highest potential.
Another important idea to look at in each theory is where the individual stands in terms of government. The Thin and Thick theories are very different when it comes to this subject.
The Thin theorists don t think the individual has any place in government. This is because at the base of their theory they say that the individual is only out for his own interest. Sumner says, If political power be given to the masses who have not hitherto had it, nothing will stop them from abusing it but laws and institutions (p28). The Thin theorists believe that the only purpose of the individual in government is to create it and by giving citizens the right to vote is the only involvement. Government belongs in the hands of the elites for those in the capitalist dimension of Liberal democracy. The Thick theorists have a very different view.
In the Thick view of democracy each individual is responsible for educating themselves and making themselves an important piece of society. Dewey writes, Liberalism has to assume the responsibility for making it clear that intelligence is a social asset and is clothed with a function as public as its origin, in the concrete, in social cooperation (p 67). The individual is given a much more important role in democracy in this theory and I think it s a more appropriate interpretation of what kind of role the individual should have in government.
So the Thick theorists see the individual as something that is integral in democracy, in fact, they believe that democracy can t work without the individual. The Thick theorists on the other hand think that individuals should only be involved in the construction of government. Now where do these ideas come from? I think that they are rooted in the assumptions made about individuals that are at the base of each of the theories. I think the assumptions are as fallows. The Thick theorist assumes that people are pretty intelligent on their own and with the help of institutions can become even better. The Thin theorist assumes that people are as stupid animals that will only do what is in their immediate self-interest.
I think that the Thick theory of Liberal democracy is stronger for several reasons. First, it is a model that accounts for the fact that society is changing. Second, I think that the Thick model gives more rights to the individual. Finally I think the Thick model gives the individual a larger role in government and this is because the theory assumes that the individual is capable of learning and improving himself, which I see as a whole lot more realistic that seeing people as merely self interested.
Dewey, John. Liberalism and Social Action. New York: Capricorn Books, 1963.
Sumner, G, William. What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, LTD, 1978.