Re: Relative welath - democracy, standards, and treaties

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From: Kragen Sitaker (
Date: Tue Jan 25 2000 - 15:17:21 PST

Dr. Ernie asks:
> Now, this is something I'm still trying to understand. What does it mean to
> be "less democratic" (which is at least more reasonable than the term
> 'unaccountable' often used). Is that in fact a well-defined term, or is it
> just a generic perjorative?

I'm sorry to have taken so long to answer; your question is very difficult.

There are probably as many definitions as there are people; still, I
think there is probably a certain amount of overlap that makes the term
somewhat useful.

For the purpose of the discussion, I will use "democratic" as an
adjective to describe a situation in which many people have significant
influence over events that strongly affect their lives. You will note
that all of these components are gradable; you can say something is
"democratic", but nearly all situations are more democratic than some
other situations and less democratic than other situations, and given
two situations, it may not be possible to come to a conclusion as to
which is more democratic.

I think that definition is something that we can agree is reasonable.
We can conclude from it that typical corporations are not democratic;
that the neighborhood grocery store is democratic if its owner listens
to his customers; that devolution increases democracy, and conversely,
centralization of power decreases democracy; that representative
democracy is less democratic than direct democracy; that longer office
terms decrease democracy; that natural disasters are extremely
undemocratic; and that, as long as money conveys power over others,
bigger gaps between wealth and poverty are less democratic.

Does anyone disagree with those statements, as applied to their own
notion of "democracy"? If most people agree with them, we can conclude
that my definition does a reasonably good job of expressing a consensus

I further postulate that living in more democratic societies --- as
defined above --- makes people happier, wealthier, healthier, and
generally moves them up on the Maslovian scale. I'd be interested to
hear serious disagreements to this statement.

As a result, I think making societies more democratic is an important
task, and one not without many difficult obstacles.

I'm not going to tackle the question of whether we should try to make
things other than societies, such as families, corporations, and
natural disasters, more democratic.

As a somewhat relevant digression, I should note that I think freer
markets are more democratic than more-planned markets in general, and
that knowledge by itself increases democracy.

The WTO represents centralization of power, moving it from local
(national) governments to a larger body. Furthermore, while the local
governments do, collectively, control the larger body, the people of
the countries involved have less control over their WTO delegates than
over the rest of their government.

The US delegate to the WTO is, as I understand, appointed by the
president, who is elected for a four-year term by a system somewhat
similar to popular vote. (Originally, the plan was that electors would
be popularly elected, and the electors would meet to elect the
president, but electors these days pledge their vote to a candidate
before the plebiscite. This is a more democratic system.)

I think it follows from the definition above that the situation of
great power being wielded by a presidential appointee is less
democratic than the same power being wielded by the president himself.
The people whose lives are affected by the appointee have less
influence over him than they have over the president.

Most other countries select their delegates similarly, although a
significant number have much less democratic systems.

There's another angle, too; according to the article I posted, the WTO
routinely weights business considerations above environmental, labor,
and health considerations. I think that, if this article is correct,
the WTO's decisions have the effect of decreasing democracy in the
world; I can defend that statement if someone would like.

> So, is the 'less democratic' argument stating:
> a) It is undemocratic for a democratic govt to make open-ended binding
> treaties of any kind
> b) In principle this is OK, but there is something specifically
> objectionable about this particular treaty/charter.
> c) the agreement itself is OK, but unscrupulous people have perverted it in
> an unfair manner

I think it's a little bit of all of these, as explained above.

> Still, I can easily imagine ways and times this might break down. I would
> be curious as to which failure mode is ascribed to the WTO -- or if it has
> even been analyzed that deeply.

Do my answers above help?

> Most of the arguments I've seen are of the form of one of:
> a) "free trade is bad"
> b) "they aren't doing what I want, so they must be undemocratic"
> c) "we must require the rest of the world to play by our rules" (which
> actually seems undemocratic to me)

(c) would indeed be undemocratic. (Although, from what I hear, the WTO
has been attempting to force other countries to adopt, e.g., the US's
patent rules, and the US's foreign policy over the last 50 years has
had the same aims.)

(b) requires deeper analysis. It depends partly on whether what I want
is democracy; if "they" are doing something undemocratic, like forbidding
people to enact local food-purity laws, it may be something I don't
want, but that's irrelevant to the point.

But also, if it turns out that the WTO's actions are strongly opposed
by most of the people whose lives are strongly affected by them, their
continuing to do similar things would be evidence that they aren't very

(a) may or may not be relevant, depending on what you mean by "free trade".

> I know about specific annoyances, like not being able to completely ban
> certain objectionable categories of products (which I think have already
> been discussed). While those may be bad decisions, it is hard to describe
> them as undemocratic, since this actually means people have greater latitude
> for their individual decisions.

Well, you could argue against any law at all on that basis. But it
turns out that, while the direct effect of the law against assault and
battery is that I can't beat the shit out of that guy who scratched up
my car, the indirect effect is that I'm a lot less likely to get the
shit beat out of me. Not living in fear of violence allows me much
more freedom to act, which actually turns out to be more important than
what I lose by not beating that guy up.

Product-purity laws and environmental laws are similar. If you live in
a society where most people aren't willing to spend an extra ten hours
a month to determine which brands of products contain
genetically-modified organisms so that you can avoid buying them, the
cheaper GM products may drive the natural products from the market.
But that same society may have a majority of its citizens willing to
spend an extra ten dollars a year on taxes and an extra ten cents a day
on groceries to keep GM products out.

In this case, forcing the individual consumers to make the decision ---
and prohibiting them from requiring labeling so they can make the
decision without spending ten hours a month --- is definitely

> What I am trying to figure out is whether there really is a structural issue
> with the WTO, versus just a collection of unrelated grievances.

Does this help?

<>       Kragen Sitaker     <>
The Internet stock bubble didn't burst on 1999-11-08.  Hurrah!
The power didn't go out on 2000-01-01 either.  :)

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