Power to the people: Democracy Day this weekend

The swimmer who is doing fine just swims; the swimmer who is drowning yells for help. A democracy that is functioning doesn’t need a Democracy Day. On Saturday, June 13, Athens County will have a Democracy Day. Perhaps its function is to celebrate democracy, or to ask if we really have a democracy, or at least what is wrong with it, or to explore how we in southeast Ohio might make better use of democracy to address issues of local concern.

Democracy means rule by the people, but a question long debated is whether people can be trusted to rule themselves, to govern themselves. Should governing instead be done by a subset of the population, such as an aristocracy, or an educated elite?

Democracy insists that people can be trusted to govern themselves. Rule by the people in modern democratic states is, however, typically indirect, namely through elected representatives, but democracy is distinguished from systems such as monarchy, aristocracy or oligarchy in which rulers are not popularly elected. Democracy implies a degree of equality among people, one vote per person.

Democracy has had a rough history since its flowering in Athens, Greece, 2,500 years ago. Whenever it arose, the equality of its citizens tended to be eroded over time by concentration of wealth and power, either from within or from outside. Human communities always have needed a degree of organization in order to survive and prosper. That organization typically involved a hierarchy, and along with it came the concentration of wealth and power.

The American Revolution established the idea of democracy among the Europeans who had come to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. It rejected monarchy and included voting for government leaders and protection of certain liberties for all. Well, not quite all. Just as people aren’t perfect, democracies aren’t perfect either. At the start, American democracy applied only to white, property-owning males. Now people of all races and women can vote and are, in principle, afforded equal justice under the law.

Democracy seems under siege today, possibly as much from the apathy of the comfortable and the apathy of those who feel completely disenfranchised, as from antidemocratic intent, but both are detectable. The pervasive polarity of our current democratic process is tearing apart the very community required for democracy to function.

Those on the political right emphasize personal liberty; those on the left emphasize community. Both are essential for human fulfillment. Liberty without community devolves into chaos. We have seen in places like Libya the tyranny of a tyrant replaced by the tyranny of chaos. Community without liberty saps our souls of meaning and is likewise unacceptable. The real question is, “What limitations on our liberties are we willing to accept in order to live together?”

Rights are not absolute. Free speech doesn’t allow us to slander others or to endanger public safety by yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Property rights don’t allow us to use our property in ways that endanger others or the property of others. We have the privilege to drive, but only within the limits of the law.

The tradition of common law is that injuries are redressed by penalties and restitution. Regulatory law tries to prevent the injuries from happening. These include such things as traffic laws, and health and safety laws. Regulatory laws limit some of our freedoms in order to preserve community, our quality of life, and our fundamental freedoms. As John Locke wrote in 1690, “where there is no law there is no freedom.”

An important question is, “At what level of government should regulatory laws be established?” Having regulations established at the highest level, the federal government, brings about a uniformity which is often useful. Uniformity comes with a price, however. Uniform regulations imposed on non-uniform regions and situations can have non-uniform, and often unfair effects on people.

It can be argued that democracy demands that functions of government, business and other secular activities should be as local as possible. If a complex function is carried out at a local level just as effectively as on the national level, the local level should be the one to carry out the specified function. This principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual.

When uniform state regulations of fracking waste disposal threaten the quality of life for people in some regions of the state, but not others, something is wrong. When decisions are made in Columbus on economic terms, they foster exploitation of some for the benefit of others. They ignore the autonomy and dignity of people in the exploited areas. Should the people of the region not have something to say about these decisions?

In the light of increasing population densities and rapidly changing technological capabilities are there human rights beyond the familiar ones in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights that need to be recognized? Is it time to claim our rights to clean air, water and soil at a local level through the mechanism of county charters provided in the Ohio Constitution?

Perhaps the Democracy Day gathering will provide a forum for these challenging questions to be considered.

Editor’s note: John Howell, a retired Ohio University physiology professor, currently serves as coordinator of Democracy Over Corporations, a local group dedicated to making democracy work (democracyovercorporations.org).

By John Howell
Readers Forum
Athens News
June 11, 2015

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