What Democracy Is For: On Freedom and Moral Government

What Democracy Is For: On Freedom and Moral Government

What Democracy Is For: On Freedom and Moral Government

What Democracy Is For: On Freedom and Moral Government


In this provocative book, Stein Ringen argues that the world's democracies are failing to live up to their ideals--the United States and Great Britain most especially. The core value of democracy, he contends, is freedom, the freedom to live a good life according to one's own choosing. Yet he shows that democracy's freedom is on the decline. Citizens are increasingly distrustful of political systems weighted by money, and they don't participate in political affairs as they once did. Ringen warns of the risks we face if this trend continues, and puts forth an ambitious proposal for democratic reforms.

The issues that concern him are ones that should concern us all. They include education, poverty, the social and economic roles of families, the lack of democracy in our economic lives, and the need to rejuvenate municipal democracy. Along the way, Ringen proposes policy solutions aimed at restoring democracy, such as universal vouchers for education, substituting the principle of individual insurance for social-welfare pensions, and rethinking how we measure poverty in rich and poor countries. He calls for the revival of local democracy, a democratically grounded global economy, and the protection of political democracy from the transgressions of economic power.

The way to protect democracy is not to cheer it, but to reform it. What Democracy Is For offers a bold defense of democratic ideals, grounded in real reforms.


Because some critics, to my disappointment, have read this book as a collection of essays, it might be worthwhile, with the publication of the paperback edition, to spell out one or two of its main arguments.

What Democracy Is For is a book that speaks urgently to citizens and leaders about the state of democracy and how to repair what is breaking. It is a warning. It observes the best democracies and finds them failing. It observes trends and finds decline. It is a call to citizens to accept responsibility. Freedom is not a license to do as one likes; it is to enable people to arrange their lives with reason. The book is a call to leaders to critical self-awareness. Political leaders, in both the United States and Britain, admonish all and sundry to be as democratic as we ourselves are. But that is hubris. Our own democracies are brittle and in crisis. The way to protect democracy is not to cheer it, which we do too much, but to reform it, which we do too little.

This book is a manifesto on democratic reform. That manifesto starts with the individual and the creation of freedom, with children and the rearing of citizens in the setting of their families. It calls for economic democracy and the eradication of poverty. It embraces the challenge of multiculturalism. It links together local, national, and global democracy. There is a vision of free and proud citizens who create for themselves democratic cultures and who live in autonomy in communities of decentralized political and economic power.

I also speak to my fellow political scientists. We need a change of paradigm. We need to think more about people and to be less obsessed with regimes, as if they were their own purpose. Comparative democracy should not be a beauty contest where countries strut their democraticness. The purpose of democracy is not to be democratic but to serve citizens. We who study democracy should be less preoccupied with procedures and processes and much more concerned with how well the democracies do their job for citizens. We should learn to observe the quality of democracy in the lives of men, women, children, and families.

Oxford, December 2008 . . .

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