Suppose there’s freedom of religion: everyone can choose what religion to practice. Is there some sense in which this is “undemocratic”? Would it be more “democratic” if the democratically-elected government declared a state religion, and everyone had to follow it?

You could, in theory, define “democratic” this way, so that the more areas of life are subjected to the control of a (democratically elected) government, the more democratic your society is. But in that case, the most democratic possible society is totalitarianism1 - a society where the government controls every facet of life, including what religion you practice, who you marry, and what job you work at. In this society there would be no room for human freedom.

So either you should avoid defining “democratic” this way, or you should stop assuming that more democratic = better. Otherwise it’s easy to prove that any step towards totalitarianism is good.

I first noticed this during a discussion with Rob Reich (the professor who studies charity, not the former labor secretary with the same name). Reich flirted with an argument that charitable donation is inherently undemocratic: people are allowed to donate money to whatever causes they personally want, instead of giving it to the government to be distributed via the elected government’s budgeting process. I agree that you can define “undemocratic” such that it includes anyone spending money or trying to improve society outside of government. But if you define it this way, and also try to correct undemocratic things, you get totalitarianism - a society where everything must be done through the government.

I thought about it more recently during a discussion of AI. Some people argued that AI should be banned by default, because it’s “undemocratic” for scientists and tech entrepreneurs to be able to change our society (by creating AI) without anyone voting on it. Again, taken to an extreme, this suggests nobody should be able to express an idea, release a new product, or invent a new technology without government permission. Again, this is totalitarianism. Everything - including converting to a new religion - changes society. But some changes to society - like changing religion, or writing a book, or developing a new technology - can’t be default-banned without becoming a totalitarian state.

I feel the same way about the word “accountable”.

If ordinary people are allowed to change their religion without having to get someone else’s permission, we can describe that situation as “there’s no accountability in religious conversion”. If the government isn’t allowed to jail authors who write books they don’t like, and authors agree the government should not be able to jail them, you could describe that situation as “authors are trying to avoid being held accountable for their work”. This means that demands for accountability shade very quickly into demands for totalitarianism - any time someone becomes “more accountable”, they also become less free. It’s proper to demand accountability as a condition for vesting someone with unusual power - for example, Presidents should be accountable to the people they govern. But once people are supposed to be “accountable” for their personal lives and ordinary decisions, you’re being totalitarian again.

When people were trying to get Substack cancelled back in 2021, one common complaint was that, absent a boss who could fire them if they said politically incorrect things, Substack writers had no “accountability”. Here it’s painfully obvious that “accountability” is opposed to people retaining ownership of their own output, to them working for themselves instead of a megacorporation, and to them keeping control of their own lives. A society where every writer has “accountability” is totalitarian - or, if you don’t like that word for something that might lock in merely corporate rather than government control, at least it would lack a flourishing private sphere.

It might sound like I’m arguing that it’s okay for small things like your private life to stay undemocratic and unaccountable, it’s only big things that change society which should be subjected to democratic scrutiny. I’m not sure I believe this. Martin Luther King changed society a lot, but not through being democratic and accountable - he didn’t ask permission from the majority of Alabama voters before marching, and he didn’t lodge his complaint with the appropriate state officials and wait for the government to solve it. He just marched. Sure, part of his march was to change voter minds and get new democratically-passed laws2. But part of it was to provoke direct extragovernmental change of people being less racist in their everyday lives. If MLK had been “accountable” to someone, he never would have been able to do what he did. But what he did was what we tell everyone to do: try your best to make a difference and leave the world a better place, according to your own values, without needing permission from the government or the majority of people. The same is true of the original Martin Luther, of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, of George Orwell and Bill Gates, and virtually every important, heroic, or interesting person in history. The only society that doesn’t leave space for the person trying to make the world better as they understand out outside of the existing governmental process is - again - totalitarianism.

I think the word “democratic” is most useful when applied to the structure of a government; a government where the military can overrule elected officials is less democratic than one where they can’t. I would avoid using it for discussions of the size of government (eg whether the government determining a state religion is more democratic than permitting religious freedom). This will lead inevitably to the conclusion that any attempt to strip individuals of their rights is automatically more democratic than not doing that3.

I think the word “accountable” should be reserved for people who are being vested with specific powers being held accountable to the people who are vesting them (elected officials accountable to voters, managers accountable to owners, charities accountable to donors, etc) and not used in a general sense where everyone needs to be accountable to everyone else all the time. I realize this rules out some venerable usages like “hold criminals accountable for their actions”, but I’m willing to change this to “punish criminals”.

Likewise, the definition of an independent judiciary is one where judges are unaccountable or only very tenuously accountable; we turn “unaccountable” into a generic insult at our peril.

  1. Here I’m using the word “totalitarian” to mean “the government controls every aspect of life”; I use the alternative word “authoritarian” to mean “the government is a dictatorship without checks and balances”. The opposite of “totalitarian” is “libertarian” or just “free”, the opposite of “authoritarian” is “democratic”. I think totalitarianism and authoritarianism are correlated, but represent two different concepts, and that it’s coherent to rate democracies on how totalitarian they are. My ideal form of government would be mostly democratic and mostly not totalitarian, in the sense that the government would control some limited part of life (“the public sphere”), and decide what it did with that part through the democratic process.

  2. This is ignoring the difficult question of how “democratic” government should be, and what that means. For example, is the existence of an unelected judiciary that can sometimes overrule the elected legislature “undemocratic”? Is Secret Congress “undemocratic”? Is the Federal Reserve “undemocratic”? Are the changes proposed in Garett Jones’ book _Ten Percent Less Democracy _“undemocratic”? Completely separately from the totalitarian thing, I find myself nervous at the recent trend towards using “democratic” to mean “good” and “undemocratic” to mean “bad”, because it either makes us twist language in an Orwellian way to say that courts overruling elected officials is “more democratic” than them not doing that, or serves as a bludgeon that would-be dictators can use against an independent judiciary.

  3. Related: there’s a sense in which our democracy has established, through normal government processes of establishing things, that people may donate to charity or choose their own religion. In that sense, those processes are democratic, in the sense that a fair election has been held and the winner was to do things the way they’re currently done, and not “democratize” them further. I get stuck in infinite regresses if I try to think too hard about this, so I don’t.