Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Book review

Review: How Democracies Live. Power, Statecraft, and Freedom in Modern Societies, by Stein Ringen

Edmund Fawcett



| 5 mins read

Many books lately have told us of democracy's decline or death. Stein Ringen is not so glum. Focussing on the representative kind, he thinks democracy is alive and can stay alive on two related conditions. Government needs to be much better at its job. People must accept that governments, not they, are in charge.

The tensions in that double proviso—better government and better public understanding of government—make How Democracies Live more than a statement of hope. Ringen has a sharp eye for what government is failing to do and a keen ear for exaggerated claims about what it should be expected to do. Crisp distinctions and theoretical ground-clearing, which might sound dry or over-general on their own, are balanced throughout by specific recommendations for reform.

Government, Ringen writes, is there to protect us. When effective, it protects us from excessive power, from each other's worse sides and from outside threats or calamities. Democracy is there to protect us from government. Neither protection, however, is enough on its own. Autocracies and one-party states, he explains, can be effective at protecting people from chaos and want, although at the cost of arbitrary and unacceptable power. Democratic voice can control governments, but is not itself good at governing.

From experience, Ringen is alert to the practical as well as theoretical sides of politics. The focus here is Britain and the United States, with side glances at South Korea and Norway, his own country. If a partisan label is wanted, ‘hard-headed progressive’ would be fair.

The strength and appeal of representative democracy lies for Ringen in how it answers five distinct problems. A chapter deals with each, in the company of a relevant earlier thinker: power (Weber), statecraft (Machiavelli), freedom (Aristotle), poverty (Alfred Marshall), and democracy's own problems (Tocqueville and Robert Dahl). With each come ideas of how to improve government and people's respect for government.

On power, Ringen corrects Weberian traditions that over-focus on the state's unanswerable weight and the end-of-argument character of government decisions. What matters more for him is government's capacity to use the state's weight effectively and to make its decisions stick. Official order issuers may disagree with each other. Citizens have powers of ‘inertia, disobedience, resistance’.

Statecraft requires persuasiveness, a feel for what people hear as much as for what government says, and a sense of timing. Small power handled with skill can have more effect than clumsy use of big power. Ringen ironises here on ‘the English delusion’ that effective government must be strong.

In chapter three, on the ‘choice theory’, as Ringen calls it, freedom is simply non-interference with whatever options someone decides on. Ringen offers an Aristotelian view of freedom as self-mastery or, to give it a less strenuous-sounding label, autonomy.

Alfred Marshall (1842–1924), the British godfather of marginal economics, is guide for chapter four, on poverty. Marshall hoped ‘abundance’ would abolish poverty. Ringen thinks that will not happen unless there is also ‘sharing’.

Ringen's recommendations can be grouped in two rough kinds: repairs or fixes to existing institutions and ambitious social goals. Among the first, he recommends for Britain proportional representation; control by the Commons of parliamentary business; more powers for local government. In the US, he wants a Supreme Court of ten, making six votes for a majority; a breaking up of media and data trusts; web platforms to take editorial responsibility for content. To improve democratic representation generally, he would like to see a ‘fit-and-proper-person’ test for candidates to office and votes to children, under parental guidance. Inequality is liberal democracy's biggest current problem. To ‘eradicate poverty’, Ringen would ‘remobilize the welfare state’.

In the fifth chapter, on democracy itself, he picks out twelve advantages democracy has over competitors. They include classic virtues—resistance to tyranny, insistence on liberty, pressure towards equality—as well as superior outcomes on international comparisons of human wellbeing and personal flourishing. Democracy, Ringen sums up, is likelier to be a better form of rule for most people.

His wise, provocative essay reminds us less of what is non-ideal or corrupted in democracy than what is healthy enough or repairable. He sets a high argumentative bar for the ‘decline-of-democracy’ school: what other system does better?

Ringen wants of us three things: lowering—or at any rate re-focussing—our sights on what reasonably to expect of government, recognising our democracies as ‘better than most’, and yet staying as clear-eyed as he is about their many actual profound flaws. He makes a cumulatively strong case that such hard-headed progressivism is necessary.

How Democracies Live. Power, Statecraft, and Freedom in Modern Societies, by Stein Ringen. Chicago University Press. 225 pp. £24

Read the full article on Wiley

Need help using Wiley? Click here for help using Wiley

  • Edmund Fawcett

    Edmund Fawcett

    Edmund Fawcett is author of Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (2nd 2018) and Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition (2020).

    Articles by Edmund Fawcett