Self-Policing in a Democracy

In “The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law” Barry Weingast analyzes how both the state and its citizens must engage in self-policing of each other’s rights as well as their own in order to create stability with a democracy. The hard-line power of the despot keeps him firmly in grasp of power until the military might of a nation can be convinced to turn against him, but in a democracy the only thing that may keep an elected offficial from utilizing the same authoritarian tools of the despot is the realization that transgressing those rules can instantly result in the masses turning against him.

Weingast applies a theory based upon sovereignty-constituency coordination to reach his conclusions. He applies his theory to a variety of possibilities and reaches the conclusion that in order for coordination theory to work in a democracy, there must be a social consensus on the limits that transgression of laws by the sovereign can reach before rebellious action takes place.

This consensus is especially illuminated in representative democracies. Weingast observes that officials elected to positions for a set period of time, subject to removal from office through an electoral process, maintain subjection to the laws of the state not out of any actual allegiance, necessarily, but because they fear being voted out of office. A democracy, therefore, may be said to be dependent upon two things: a stable history in which its citizens have come to form certain attitudes about how government should work, and officials who respect those attitudes. Weingast contrasts that attitude toward the attitudes of many Latin American countries who have not yet adopted the attitude that democracy works best and so aren’t willing to defend it when under attack.

Another way to confront this issue is through the suggestion that elected officials cannot simply be concerned with the rightness or equality of a piece of legislation. Just as democracy has an advantage in that citizens can remove lawmakers with whom the majority disagrees, so also is there the disadvantage inherent in a electoral system. It is the legislative body that draws up the laws and rules of the land, but if enough legislators fear not getting re-elected, even the most baldly equitable of laws may be rejected. Democracy is dependent upon a social consensus, but in the legislative process where each legislator must answer only to his constituents, problems are bound to arise.

Rules and laws can only be effective as long as there is mass acceptance, but that even then there will be exceptions. One need only look to the history of teens crossing the border from one state to another to buy alcohol when a law is passed making it illegal for someone of their age to buy it in the state in which they live. This is analogous to the difficulties in establishing democratic stability under certain conditions. For instance, when ethnic or religious differences divide the electorate, there always exist the tendency to place rules that have been culturally inculcated over centuries above rules that are in effect only as a result of governmental intrusion. Some underage drinkers will respect either the law or the consequences of breaking the law enough not to drink. In the same way, some people will respect their cultural traditions more than a legislated law and feel no compunction at all about breaking it.

This instability in attitude toward rules and regulations creates a chasm that contributes to the difficulty that regions have in establishing democracy. As Weingast makes explicit, it is simply not enough for citizens to respect and accept laws, they must be willing to take action to defend them. This creates a problem for those wishing to expand democracy into regions where the allegiance is divided between the optimism that democracy brings and the instilled beliefs of a religion or cultural tradition.

Weingast’s article points up the sad reality about the effectiveness of rules by clearly delineating that rules only work when there is a reason for those living under them to accept them.