Should we advocate for democracy as an innate human right?

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A human right is not something that can be traded off for something else. Rights are absolute, there are no caveats and they must be upheld regardless. Democracy is often associated with certain human rights such as freedom of thought, but given such a high burden, is democracy in and of itself a human right?

There are several different implementations of democracy with various different systems such as the Electoral College in the US or the First-Past-The-Post system in the UK. The minor differences in these systems is irrelevant however to the larger question at hand. Put simply, a democracy is a state where citizens of a country have the ability to choose their government.

Is it an innate human right?

It is worth having a discussion about whether it is actually the case that democracy is an innate human right. Given that human rights are so important to uphold, it is important that we advocate for them so that they can be implemented through policy.

The state has a monopoly over power through the police and military which essentially allows them force certain things on people. This looks like the police being able to put you in jail for breaking certain laws. Given that states force certain things on people through violence, if people do not consent to it, it is completely arbitrary that they are born into a state and should have to follow its laws. Furthermore, this arbitrariness is actively a bad thing as it is morally illegitimate for people to suffer over something they have no control. The ability to influence who is in power through democracy breaks this arbitrariness. Therefore, this power to have some control over how a state is run is why democracy is a human right.

Furthermore, democracy provides a unique mechanism of self-protection which is a human right. Governments have the power to oppress and subjugate people due to the monopoly of power mentioned above. But furthermore, your fellow citizens also have the ability to perpetuate certain harms against you. Therefore democracy gives you the ability to vote out oppressive governments, but also to vote for governments that stand for certain policies and laws that prevent other citizens from being able to harm you. This does not necessarily have to be simple things like murder and theft, but also things like regulations that prevent nuclear factories from dumping nuclear waste right next to your house.

However, perhaps most importantly, democracy is so important because of the right to self-determination. A common justification against democracy is to say that there is some sort of utilitarian benefit that could accrue from an alternative system. However, this very utilitarian metric is flawed. The reason for this is that nothing inherently has utility insofar as there is no epistemic certainty over what utility is. Instead, it is a human will that decides if something is valuable and thus attaches utility. Democracy is perhaps the best way to allow people to exercise this human will as everyone (with a small number of caveats) is allowed to express self-determination through voting. While you do still have some degree of human will in daily interactions, your will is still constrained by certain systems and policies in the country you live in. Therefore, democracy is important in maximising a human will on a much larger scale. Even if there are competing values and desires, democracy allows for the maximum expression of free will and so the right to self-determination is a pre-requisite to any utilitarian argument.

Ultimately, human rights are somewhat arbitrary as they are a social construct. But based on the basic human needs we base these rights on, there are at least very strong reasons to believe that the right to democracy should be considered a human right.

Should we advocate for this even if it isn’t an innate human rights?

Even if democracy isn’t a human right, there are still pragmatic benefits to portraying it as such. It is important to note that democracy is likely to exist regardless of whether we believe it to be an innate human right. Given that people fiercely want to be able to have a say in what the state can actually do, a large number of countries tend towards democracy through soft policy changes or large-scale revolution. Furthermore, the vast majority of countries with the highest education levels, economic growth and happiness indices are democracies and so democracy would likely still be implemented purely because it leads to such practical outcomes. Therefore, not advocating for democracy as an innate human right does not mean that alternative forms of government would be in place, but instead it affects how democracy is implemented on a more subtle level.

Another argument some people use against democracy is that countries use it as an excuse to stage military interventions. However, often when we examine this more closely, these interventions can be made on the basis of other humanitarian grounds such as governments being oppressive. When interventions happen in the name of democracy, often they can equally be made on a host of other moral issues and so this cannot be pinned to democracy as a fault. However, when people believe that democracy is an innate human right, this does have some impact on how the intervention itself is carried out. When people uphold certain values such as self-determination, there is more scrutiny on how the government carries out these interventions. To this extent, governments will be expected to uphold democratic values during these interventions, and this does somewhat reduce human rights abuses by soldiers.

Also, given a slow trend away from military interventions over the last ten years and increasing isolationism, new avenues are opening up to prop up freedom movements. This narrative is useful in giving attention to these movements. If interventions don’t happen, governments are still likely to give more aid to democratic movements so as to seem as they are upholding key human rights. Everyday citizens are also more likely to be sympathetic to those who they believe deserve this key human right and perhaps they will donate to these causes. This means that overall, you have more international pressure, funding and media for these movements that fight for freedom and democracy, which increases their odds of success.

This narrative is also very important within these democracies themselves. One of the largest flaws in democracies is the possibility that governments can manipulate elections (through processes such as gerrymandering) or that there are low turnouts, especially among minorities. This is where the idea that democracy is a human right and therefore is absolute is important. On either a conscious or subconscious level, when people believe that democracy is an innate human right, they are comparatively more likely to support and campaign for things like increasing access to democracy because the point of a human right is that everyone should have it. This can look like supporting education that allows people to understand more about politics, or simply ensuring that more people feel politically enfranchised and willing to vote. This is crucial in the maximisation of the expression of human will discussed earlier. Furthermore, governments cannot use this as an excuse to hold back alternative policies that also aid the politically disenfranchised. This is because when democracy is no longer viewed as a luxury, but is now seen as a necessity, they cannot say we have given you X, therefore we don’t have to give you Y. 

Conclusion

Crucially, there are many different ways of implementing democracy, and the narrative that democracy is an innate human right allows us to move towards the best possible implementation of it. While democracy does indeed seem like something that is an inherent human right, you do not have to believe this to see the value of advocating for it as such. The key question is this: given democracy is likely to be the prevailing system in the vast majority of countries regardless of whether we consider it an innate human right, how can we ensure we have the best possible implementation? The answer is by ensuring that people believe every single person should be able to access it and that democratic values must be unfailingly met which is best done when we consider it an innate human right.

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