The Culture of Democracy

…the decisions made by the political process critically affect the functioning of economies.

                                    Douglass North

                 Institutions, Institutional Change

                  And Economic Performance



Sophisticated rules and technology result in the globalized stock market. When purchasing a stock through the market, you can sit at your computer connected to the Internet, your computer follows protocols, you follow rules, the broker follows rules, you don’t know the former owner of the stock – but in return you get to buy operating assets from around the world with a general assurance of fairness.

Justice, writes Eli Sagan (1991), is a complex and abstract concept. It makes liberal democracy possible, allowing relationships beyond trusted kin by, “…the attribution of rights that I claim for myself to others whom I do not know…” 1 As world history in the last two hundred years has illustrated, this idea of justice has grown to encompass more people, especially their increasingly complex activities in economic life.

The idea of justice can also be less extensive. In parts of the world, economic ties are closely related to kinship ties. When economic change occurs, the social reactions can be extreme. Sagan writes that normal and usually balanced human goals can become, under threat, their fixated extremes. The excess of wisdom is ideology, which is crystallized political theory.

What warranted the invasion of Iraq? Our adventure was first warranted by WMD 2 and then by a political theory that assumes the easy spread of liberal democracy around the world, making the U.S. safer post 9/11. In contrast with other schools of political thought, which focus upon people in their societies, this primarily institutional viewpoint holds that the spread of liberal democracy is a matter of proper institutional design, with societies “malleable.”

A significant paper on institutionalism, published by March and Olsen in 1984 was more nuanced. In that paper, the authors observed, “The ideas (of institutionalism) de-emphasize the dependence of the polity on society in favor of an interdependence between relatively autonomous social and political institutions…” 3 Institutions, in other words, can have an effect. This is a reasonable observation that has led to useful research into the economic reasons why institutions and organizations exist in modern societies, under the conditional of individual rational choice.

But, can procedural democratic institutions whose goal is justice for all, in themselves, create democracy and therefore spread its universal promise? Conditions matter; societies differ significantly in how they handle conflict.

Democracies require trust to settle conflicts without violence, making possible rational compromise on specific issues. Putnam (1993) writes, “Honesty, trust and law-abidingness are prominent in most philosophical accounts of civic virtue. Citizens in the civic community…deal fairly with one another and expect fair dealing in return.” The author then goes on to say the survey evidence is consistent with this account. 4 How is this trust developed and transmitted? Almond and Verba (1965) writes about the necessary civic culture, “The civic culture is transmitted by a complex process that includes training in many social institutions – family, peer group, school, work place, as well as in the political system itself.” 5 Economic globalization 6 is part of this. (Try a thought experiment, starting with “trust,” take the inverse of all the factors we mention in this paragraph. What do you get?)

The New York Times 8/14/05 issue succinctly states the dilemma the U.S. now faces in Iraq:

“When the Americans smashed Saddam Hussein’s regime two and a half years ago, what lay revealed was a country with no agreement on the most basic questions of national identity. The Sunnis, a minority in charge here for five centuries, have not, for the most part, accepted that they will no longer control the country. The Shiites, the long-suppressed minority, want to set up a theocracy. The Kurds don’t want to be part of Iraq at all. There is only so much that language can do to paper over such differences.”

After dismantling the command and control society that Saddam built, the U.S. now faces a condominium where tribal disagreements are handled by violence, and whose new management committee can hardly manage. Democracies can form real political compacts to which all can subscribe according to shared ideas. If the Iraqis are unable to reach a meaningful consensus about their society, serious discussions should start in the U.S. and with other countries about how to contain the chaos. The following story is about the crucial ability of democracies to compromise.

After twenty-seven years of intermittent fighting, Athens finally lost the Peloponnesian War. In spite of the entreaties of their allies, the victorious Spartans decided not to obliterate the city, to avoid creating a power vacuum. However, they imposed a puppet government of the Thirty Tyrants that ruled for only eight months amid a reign of terror. Major struggles within the Greek cities were almost always between the oligarchs and the democrats. 7 When the Spartan commander, Lysander, was recalled, the democratic Athenian forces under Thrasybulus fought their way back into the city (403 B.C.) and restored democracy by treaty with a moderate Spartan king (there were different factions in Sparta). What followed was not, as one might expect a counter purge, but a general amnesty that restored calm and stability, allowing the Athenians to rebuild their city and fleet within a decade.

The democratic Athenians repudiated further violence, exemplifying the political progress they had made since the time of Solon. 8 Aristotle wrote, “…their attitude both in private and in public in regard to the past disturbances was the most admirable and the most statesmanlike that any people have ever shown in such circumstances.” 9 The closest modern example we can think of was Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. If you are interested in politics, the “trc report" summary is definitely worth reading, for it describes the path the South Africans consciously chose. This dramatization describes what happened.


Democratic societies are based upon a stable social consensus, the foundation for planning and sustained economic growth.


As a matter of principle, when dealing with early societies that have not yet developed the pertinent terminology, we should not take for granted that a political concept can be simply transmitted from one area to another unless conditions (our note) are favorable for its reception.

…”Changes in the matrix of rights that prevail in any society normally begin in a struggle over specific issues, not over abstract concepts or slogans. The rhetoric and the abstractions come later and then are (in subsequent events, further) reified.” 10





Aristotle described a concept called phronesis, discussing the considered choices involved in practical belief when handling complexity, that involves both the particular and the general.

The qualitative social sciences can also justify general conclusions. In “Designing Social Inquiry,” King, Keohane, and Verba (1994) discuss the problems of political science analysis and show that rules relevant to quantitative econometric research can apply as well to qualitative questions. Consider the general hypothesis, “Liberal democracies require social trust.” Qualitative political science makes the same core assumption, that knowing something about X (the independent variable) reduces the uncertainty of Y (the dependent variable).

We have made an analogy between the democracy of ancient Athens and the modern democracies. To validly reason by analogy, the cases have to be matched in their essential features. But as in the significance rules of qualitative studies, the results can be more certainly interpreted in there are a large number of cases. The authors write, “We are always well advised to look beyond a single analogous observation, no matter how close it may seem. That is, the comparative approach – in which we combine evidence from many observations even if some of them are not very close analogies to the present situation - is always at least as good and usually better than analogy.” Huge stakes require careful study.


Democratic societies also have a collective dimension.

First consider ancient Athens. Democracy wasn’t, as Aristotle suggested (after the Peloponnesian War), mob rule. After intense social disorder, Cleisthenes in the sixth century B.C. split the residents of Athens up into ten fictive tribes, “…each tribe embodied a cross section of populations, regional characteristics, and kinds of activity that made up the city…unifying the body of citizens by mixing them together…” (Vernant, 1982, p. 1000) This voting arrangement was duplicated in the city’s institutions. Athens was partially governed by the rotating Council of 500 that set the agenda for the sovereign Assembly. During a year of service, “Each councilor learned the value of working intensively and cooperatively on a team He learned to place his trust in men from very different parts of the polis: a trust based on developing a personal knowledge of them as individuals, and on a shared dedication to the flourishing of the organization to which they all belonged. Furthermore, the ten tribal teams had to learn, in turn, to work together.” (Ober, 2005, p. 39) The result was, he writes, “…a system of learning and knowledge exchange” and an Athenian team spirit that served the city well in its subsequent history.

In the modern world, this dimension is more complicated. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Democracy…is a…valuable form of social organization in which freedom and order are made to support, and not to contradict, each other.” Like Athenian law 11, the laws of the United States have a substantial procedural component, a concern for due process. They allow opposites to contest, resulting in evolutionary social change. Globalization requires good judgment, particularly by the United States.


  For most of recorded human history, people have lived in command and control societies, not in democratic ones. But as Ober (2005) describes, the institutions of ancient Athenian democracy required a high degree of social interaction and therefore created social trust. In spite of the Macedonian conquest in B.C. 338, the Athenians kept at least a nominal democratic independence until the era of the Roman empire under Augustus.

In 2015, the Greeks, now in a national state, are struggling to make their institutions of government function in a manner expected of modern democracies. Across the Aegean sea, the Turks are struggling to rid themselves of the command and control society inherited from the Ottomans, secular military rule, with personal dictatorship now threatening. This posting recounts that struggle.