What is American democracy, and why is it worth defending? The current political climate, in which democracy is increasingly (and troublingly) equated with populism, compels us to reflect on this question. Democracy is an ancient form of government, but historically, democracies that rise above mere mob rule and reflect genuine self-governance, while respecting basic rights, are rare. Although the Declaration of Independence asserts the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are self-evident, they’ve been embodied and respected in few societies throughout human history. By comparison, the US government does a reasonably good job at protecting those rights.

The Declaration also says that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed. The United States is an inherently democratic enterprise. Although it takes the particular form of a constitutional republic, legitimacy is rightly derived from our collective voice. As the Constitution’s Preamble makes clear, we, the people, are the continuing source from which political authority flows.

But do we really understand what democracy means? This is an especially important question to ask given the current election cycle, which is quickly becoming acrimonious and divisive. We increasingly associate democracy with the act of voting, perhaps complemented by the occasional protest march or social media rant. Troublingly, these are often done in a spirit of anger: more because of what we are against than what we are for. Are these really the best means we have at our disposal to continue our ambitious experiment in self-government?

Voting has its place, of course. So do protest marches—and probably social media rants too, strange as that may seem. But though these activities are democratic, they are not among the most vital elements of democracy.

To understand what democracy is and why it’s important, we need to consult two of the most important social scientists of the 20th century. Both are Nobel laureates in economics, but their scholarship was much broader and more humane than that pursued by most economists. Their names are James Buchanan and Elinor Ostrom. Taking them seriously just might help us get out of the political arms race in which we’re trapped.

James Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987 for his contributions to political economy. The field of economics he pioneered is known as constitutional economics. Orthodox economics studies how people make choices within constraints. But constitutional economics studies the choice of which constraints we adopt. Buchanan realized that because we rationally reflect on our political institutions and sometimes modify them, we needed a theory of how we choose which rules and institutions will govern us.

In Buchanan’s conception, this is an inherently democratic enterprise, since the choice of rules must occur through deliberation among social equals. In choosing how we will constrain ourselves, Buchanan believed, we practice true self-governance. Just as an individual becomes a self-governing person through conscious restraint of his appetites, so a group of individuals becomes a self-governing body politic through conscious submission to rules. In Buchanan’s framework, finding the rules by which we can live together peacefully and profitably is the essence of democracy.

Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her contributions to the economics of governance, especially common-pool resources such as fisheries and irrigation systems. Her research was heavily empirical, often requiring significant time doing fieldwork. Like Buchanan, Ostrom saw her project as essentially democratic. Figuring out how communities oversee their use of common-pool resources is crucial for those who want to understand self-governance. The tendency for common-pool resources to be depleted too quickly is well-known. If communities are to get the most out of these resources, they must find some way of limiting their use.

Economists typically had two answers to this problem: either privatize them or turn them over to the state. Ostrom showed there was another way: The individuals within these communities can and did devise norms and other rules that provided the information and incentives to use the resource responsibly. Ostrom convincingly demonstrated that communal self-governance often took place in the social space between markets and states.

Democratic societies cannot solve collective-action problems solely through privatization or socialization. Instead, they need to do the difficult but necessary work of experimenting with rules that align personal well-being with social flourishing. This conception of democracy comes from Alexis de Tocqueville, the great observer and interpreter of early American democracy, who was Ostrom’s lodestar. Thanks to Ostrom, we know that democracy, as a “science of association,” means communities assuming for themselves the responsibilities of living rather than outsourcing them to a businessman or a bureaucrat.

The lessons bequeathed by Buchanan and Ostrom remind us that, in defending our democracy, we’re not just defending the right to vote, or to protest, or to offend. We’re defending things much more important than that: the right to associate, to deliberate, to govern, in the best sense of the word.

It is easy to forget that the political chasms that separate us can be bridged by common allegiance to the peaceful pursuit of experiments in living. Because we can choose how to live together, realizing our freedom in rational and consensual constraint, we can be governed without being ruled. That’s what American democracy means, and that’s why our continuing experiment in government “of the people, for the people, and by the people” is worth defending.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Election Day in Philadelphia” (1815) by John Lewis Krimmel (1787-1821), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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