Is democracy measurable?

I was posting this on our securing liberty facebook page and thought it raised some questions that might be worth discussing

Christian Caryl in foreign Policy's Democracy Lab blog questions whether democracy can be measured. There are numerous rankings of countries on all sorts of criteria that are relevant to democracy; perhaps best well known are the surveys by Freedom House into how free countries are. Others concentrate on government and elections and some take a wider range of measurements. However democracy is so complex it is difficult to capture where a country is in a single number.

So why is this question important to securing liberty? Mostly because in order to have democracy you need both security and liberty. We have at times been guilty of portraying a continuum that travels between liberty on one hand and security on the other. We tend to portray security as being bad and liberty somewhat better! The need for liberty is pretty obvious; people need to be free to have their own opinions, to vote, to voice those opinions and try to persuade others etc. But people also need security in order to be able to make use of these liberties. There is no point in being completely at liberty to vote if the voting station gets blown up and those wanting to vote killed by gunmen. Absolute liberty leads to anarchy which is every bit as antithetical with democracy as as absolute 'security', which will almost certainly mean dictatorship, is.


I guess there are two obvious questions that come out of this; do you agree that extreme liberty harms democracy? and do you think that democracy is unmeasurable?

No I dont think it is. This is because our ideas of what is democracy and what is necessary for democracy varies. Most people would agree that there is a need for some kind of elections; but does it matter what kind, whether they are for all offices, how the elections take place, how often should they be held? Most people would also include the rule of law with impartial judges as necessary in a democracy; but it is not exactly in the definition.

Beyond this does it matter if the state is liberal? Is a state that has loads of referendums but an unelected leader democratic? it may afterall be taking more account of the people's views than any set of elected politicians.

Democracy is defintely a measurable concept. If it was not that countless acadmic institutions such as the Systemic Peace Organisation who came up with the POLITY democracy score.Quantitative political research would cease to exisit with measuring democracy. 

The "Polity Score" captures this regime authority spectrum on a 21-point scale ranging from -10 (hereditary monarchy) to +10 (consolidated democracy). The Polity scores can also be converted to regime categories: we recommend a three-part categorization of "autocracies" (-10 to -6), "anocracies" (-5 to +5 and the three special values: -66, -77, and -88), and "democracies" (+6 to +10); see "Global Regimes by Type, 1946-2006" above. The Polity scheme consists of six component measures that record key qualities of executive recruitment, constraints on executive authority, and political competition. It also records changes in the institutionalized qualities of governing authority. The Polity data include information only on the institutions of the central government and on political groups acting, or reacting, within the scope of that authority. It does not include consideration of groups and territories that are actively removed from that authority (i.e., separatists or "fragments"; these are considered separate, though not independent, polities) or segments of the population that are not yet effectively politicized in relation to central state politics. http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/polity4.htm

This complex scoring system helps create a single number that measure the level of regime type whether it is a democracy, autocracy or the in between- anocracies. Using a measure like this is excellent for comparing numerous countries together, or looking for patterns in states like what occured during the Arab Spring. 

The problem with measuring democracy is that in order to get the concept into numbers than you must have some sort of way of turning that into a score. Determining that scale can be extremely difficult. But in the case of POLITY IV it does provide the best measure of democracy. 


As for the question of whether extreme liberty harms democracy. It is critical to have security in any democracy, and you often see states that are transitioning into a democracy. There needs to be a fine balance between having enough security to ensure a healthy democracy. A tolerate environment is paramount to a healthy, liberal democracy in any state. 

I am not really sure how well that measures democracy. France seems to get a lower score than the UK when the UK effectively has a parliamentary dictatorship and very weak local government. On the other hand both Japan and the US get a 10 despite their democracies regularly being touted as being broken and unable to do anything. The component measures seem arbitary it says there are six then only mentions "executive recruitment, constraints on executive authority, and political competition." But are these all it means to be a democracy? I dont think so; what about freedom of the press? It does not go into questions about whether all systems of elections are equal; is fptp as democratic as proportional representation? Moreover while there are not currently any examples it does not consider that a democracy could be totally different; what about a country in which there are no elections but all decisions are made by referendum; that would be very democratic but would score nowhee on executive recruitment or constraints on executive authority. 

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