Democracy is a political system, a system of institutions that guide how citizens of a country live and how society functions. John Dewey was a political philosopher who claimed that democratic institutions are not enough; people must behave democratically to maintain this system. People need to cooperate, share different ideas, and be involved in society.
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Some figures in political theory criticized these aspects of democracy. Friedrich August von Hayek was an Austrian economist, who argued that even though people cooperate, there is no such thing as a public good. He favored individualism over collectivism in his view of democracy. Malcolm X was a civil rights activist who fought for the rights of African Americans. He believed that the American democratic system cannot solve human rights issues. Although Hayek and Malcolm X criticized Dewey’s conception of democracy, Dewey is right about the fact that there must be civic involvement, cooperation, sharing of different ideas. These are key elements of democracy that must be present for a democratic system to function effectively. Nevertheless, Dewey’s theory does not work, because Hayek’s concept is fulfilled: people are more concerned about individual interests than the common good. Furthermore, the opposition of individual interests leads to constant conflict.
John Dewey was a philosopher who is known for his progressivist and liberalist views. His main idea is that democracy is not only a set of institutions. He defined democracy as “a personal way of individual life, that signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life”. He claims that people used to view democracy as the “product of a fortunate combination of men and circumstances”. In other words, we live in a democratic society because of a coincidence. It has been passed on to us from our ancestors; therefore, we live in a democratic society today. However, he argues that democracy is not automatic, and institutions are not enough to keep a democracy functioning. He claims that “for a long period we acted as if our democracy were something that perpetuated itself automatically”. However, he states that “inventive effort and creative activity” is needed to keep democracy running. That is, people should not take democracy as self-evident, natural way of living. People need to live and behave in a certain way that fosters democracy.
Dewey lists several elements that must be present for a sustainable democracy. Other than the institutions, he states that there must be human equality, which he describes as “the equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he has”. Another important aspect of democracy is cooperation. He claims that people must work together, gather, share ideas, and discuss their opinions. As a result, people are able to express different opinions, which Dewey argues is also essential. He states that “the expression of difference is not only a right of the other persons but is a means of enriching one’s own life-experience”. In other words, hearing different opinions generates more knowledge, and incites people to reason and make judgements.
Dewey believes that democracy not only has to be electoral, but also participatory. That is, institutions are not enough. Civic engagement is necessary. He states that “merely legal guarantees of civil liberties of free belief, free expression, free assembly are of little avail if in daily life freedom of communication, the give and take of ideas, facts, experiences, is choked by mutual suspicion, by abuse, by fear and hatred”. In other words, people must cooperate, gather, and share their ideas and different opinions. However, if these conditions are not present, democracy is in danger.
Friedrich August von Hayek was an Austrian economist. He was an adviser of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He favored individualism over collectivism. He claims that democracy is “the highest political end. Democracy is essentially a means, a utilitarian device for safeguarding internal peace and individual freedom”. Furthermore, he states that the welfare of the people “cannot be adequately expressed as a single end, but only as a hierarchy of ends, a comprehensive scale of values in which every need of every person is given its place”. In other words, a common goal or interest cannot be identified. Each individual has his or her own interest, and all individual interests must be taken into account. Therefore, he states that “the individuals should be allowed to follow their own values and preferences rather than somebody else’s”. Furthermore, he shares his main concern that causes democracy to be oppressive by arguing that a unitary action invades individual freedom: “the government of a very homogeneous and doctrinaire majority democratic government might be as oppressive as the worst dictatorship”. In other words, if a collective action or plan that invades individual freedom is being enforced, it is in Hayek’s opinion similar to having dictatorship.
Malcolm X was a civil rights activist, and advocate of black nationalism. He was very critical of the American democratic system. He stated that African Americans are victims of the American democracy. He claimed that they have suffered from “political oppression at the hands of the white man, economic exploitation at the hands of the white man, and social degradation at the hand of the white man”. He stated that Blacks should be able to decide how they want to control their own community. He also argued that Black votes could be decisive factors in major elections. He asserted that “when white people are evenly divided, and black people have a bloc of votes of their own, it is left up to them to determine who’s going to sit in the White House”. As a result, white politicians make promises to African Americans to win over their votes. Therefore, he stated that Blacks should hold off on their votes, because it only puts white men into power. He also called for a black nationalist reform, claiming that “the black man in the black community has to be re-educated into the science of politics so he will know what politics is supposed to bring him in return”.
Hayek’s main idea that criticizes Dewey’s theory is that he believed that even though people cooperate, there is no common good or plan that they would agree upon. He claims that “in our society there is neither occasion nor reason why people should develop common views about what should be done in such situations”. Furthermore, he argued that cooperation is a “coincidence of individual ends which makes it advisable for men to combine for their pursuit”. In other words, cooperation is not means to achieve a common interest; people only work together if it helps them achieve their individual goals. Hayek also argues that a unitary action invades individual freedom
Malcolm X’s biggest issue with Dewey’s concept of democracy would be the fact that African American involvement and engagement in democratic practices does not assist them in any way. He stated that “they get all the Negro vote, and after they get it, the Negro gets nothing in return”. As a result, African American’s had become very unsatisfied with the type of democracy they were living in. Therefore, Malcolm X claimed that African American’s should not vote, and called for a new strategy that could potentially include violent revolts. Another concept that was missing from Dewey’s democracy is human equality. For Dewey it is essential in a democracy for individuals to have equal opportunity for development. This was clearly not the case for the African American community in the 1960’s. As a result, it is not a feasible expectation to have African American involvement and engagement in democracy.
Hayek’s main issue with Dewey’s conception of democracy is that he does not believe in the common good of society. In his opinion, only individual interests exist and if people cooperate, that is just a coincidence where individual interests happen to meet. However, Dewey argues that even though individual interests exist, people will eventually cooperate: “even when needs and ends or consequences are different for each individual, the habit of amicable cooperation… is itself a priceless addition to life”.
Dewey talks about an ideal society in which citizens cooperate. However, in reality this is not the case. Different individual interests lead to conflict. A good example is Malcolm X and the issues of the African American community. The main difference between Hayek and Malcolm X is that while Hayek talks about individual interests, Malcolm X is concerned with the interests of different groups, in this case the African Americans. Nevertheless, they both argue that there cannot be a common purpose or plan that would be suitable for everyone. The reason is that since individuals and groups have different interests, it is hard to find a standpoint that everyone would agree to.
Dewey’s conception of democracy is very convincing. He describes key elements that are essential in a democratic society. People need to behave democratically, be involved, cooperate, and share different ideas. The issue with his theory that Hayek points out is in reality, people are more concerned with their own interests and issues, that leads to people not getting involved in politics and societal affairs. The only time we see civic involvement and collaboration is when individual interests are hurt or if the involvement benefits the individual.
Cohen, Mitchell. Princeton Readings in Political Thought: Essential Texts from Plato to Populism. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.
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