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Inequality and democracy

By John Wright - posted Thursday, 28 November 2013

Treasurer Joe Hockey recently announced that those with a superannuation derived income of over $100, 000 would pay a reduced rate of tax, arguing that such a move would help "create jobs". The hope is that by allowing the already wealthy to become even wealthier they will use the surplus to create work for the less fortunate. But, as has been pointed out, it will have another, more immediate effect: it will increase the gap between the rich at the top and the rest of us.

In some ways, of course, this perhaps ought not to be too surprising. After all, it is traditionally the Labor Party, and the Left more generally, that has aimed to lessen the gap between rich and poor. The conservative side of politics, by contrast, has been less concerned with economic inequality. But, in another way, a growing gap between rich and poor ought to be of concern to anyone who values a healthy democracy.

Democracy – or at least a healthy democracy – is, we ought to remember, more than just a matter of regularly holding elections. In a democracy, the people express their view about who they wish to have governing them. But, in a healthy democracy, this view will be an informed view.


Any election will need to have been preceded by public discussion in which a wide range of views were given a hearing. We evaluate our leaders, and potential leaders, by critically discussing them, their policies and their values. Ideally, a wide variety of views are put up for discussion, subjected to fair, informed, but critical debate accessible to all, and then the population indicates which party it likes best by voting. And, for democrats of all stripes, this process of open, critical discussion is to be valued. It is to be valued whether you are a democrat of the left or of the right, whether you are a progressive democrat or a conservative.

But having too much wealth concentrated in a small number of hands risks corrupting this aspect of the democratic process. In many ways, it risks moving a society away from a fully healthy democracy towards a plutocracy.

One way in which a decision making process can be nominally, but only imperfectly, democratic is familiar to all of us. I guess many of us have been in the following situation: we are in a meeting or conference, with perhaps a dozen or twenty people seated around a table. In theory, everyone is able to make a more or less equal contribution to the discussion. But often what actually happens can be very different. Sometimes the discussion is monopolized by a small number of dominant personalities. These might be: people who are better informed than others, they might be experts, or better educated, or who have access to information that the rest of us do not. Or they might be people who are more articulate and "quicker on their feet" in the cut and thrust of debate. Or they may be exceptionally confident. Or: they might just like the sound of their own voice. At the end of the meeting a decision may be made. Perhaps a vote is taken on some issue, or perhaps the chair just gauges the "mood" of the meeting. Will the decision be arrived at "democratically"? Pretty clearly, in one sense it may be: if each person gets one and only one vote, there is an important sense in which it is democratic. But in other respects it may fall rather short of being fully democratic.

If the discussion has been dominated by a small number of prominent figures, then perhaps not all views will have been given a fair hearing. Some might not have been heard at all. Even the topics that are raised for discussion might have been controlled by just a few. Although in a sense all had the opportunity to contribute, not all views actually managed to get a fair hearing.

Would a decision made by such a group be democratically legitimated or justified? Under some circumstances we might be reluctant to say it had been. More specifically, we may be reluctant to say the decision had been legitimated if, had there been a more equal power of being heard in the group, then the outcome of the vote would have been different. Only if a decision is arrived at after a discussion in which everyone had a (more or less) equal input are we confident the decision genuinely reflects the will of the group, and is democratically legitimated.

Of course, it might be asserted that if someone does not speak up around a table, they have only themselves to blame. However: whether or not this is a reasonable ting to say about an individual in a room of twenty people, it is not at all reasonable if someone is trying to contribute to the discussion in a nation of twenty million. Try as they might, the average person perhaps has as much chance of being heard as the average person shouting in a crowded MCG.


It may perhaps be pointed out that if everyone in a country of twenty of million had an equal power of being heard in public discussion, the result would not be meaningful, coherent public debate but a hopelessly overloaded blizzard of information. Perhaps, therefore, it might be asserted it is actually a good thing for only a limited number of voices to be effectively heard in public debate.

In one respect, this point is, of course, entirely correct. But still, it does not follow that we must put up with a completely unequal or unrepresentative input in to community debate. While it is true that it is not practical for each and every individual to have an equal input in to debate, still, it may be possible for each significant group or subculture or section of the community to effectively participate in community discussion. And a society in which all groups or subcultures are able to effectively participate will be a society with a healthier democratic process than one in which only some can participate. An equal power of subgroups or subcultures to effectively participate in community debate is conducive both to the health of democracy, and the degree of legitimacy of decisions arrived at by the society.

There cannot be a (more or less) equal degree of effective in put in to community debate from all sub-groups within society without there also being a high level of economic equality in society. The reason for this is very simple: money is one of the things that gives a person, or group, the power of being heard. Suppose there was some subgroup in society that was very much poorer than the average. This sub-group might be ethnic, or religious, or cultural, or linguistic. The relative poverty of the members of this group would mean that they would find it harder for themselves, and their children, to get a high quality education.

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About the Author

John Wright lectures in philosophy at the University of Newcastle. He has published books in philosophy of science, metaphysics, and ethical issues of economic rationalism.

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