How Democracy Works
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

Note: Reposted From My Old Blog. Excuse the use of jargon. Also all the reference to “DataNazi” are meant in humourous vein.

I have been meaning to comment on this post  (and its follow up) byDataNazi, which ostensibly on Nuclear deal, is actually commentary on Indian democracy. I have somewhat similar take. The chain of reasoning whereby I arrived at it is as following.

1. On the one hand is the behavior of  individual in a society. In individual capacity, humans have a tendency to act in self interest. They can also act in a way which is altruist, but the altruistic behavior is in general much weaker than self interest in context of individual, having  any appreciable effect only if present as a cultural, (and therefore in context of collective) norm.

However the problem with actions solely based on self interest is that it leads to uncontrolled competition leading to conflict, and breakdown of governance.

2. On the other hand is the return to the individual in participatory democracy. I don’t have the link, but I think it is well established that effect of individual voting in a particular way is negligible to the result.

These two condition present challenges for democracy to function in any meaningful way. First condition challenges the capability to provide stability, whereas the second condition challenges the ability to deliver the goods.

These two challenges can be resolved by an existing phenomenon in human society, identity groups. Human, given a large, and heterogeneous, sample space, tend to coalesce as identity groups. This process of coalescing takes place along, to coin a phrase similar to phase boundaries, identity boundaries, the specific boundaries being ever fluid, present form depending on the past history as well as immediate power dynamics, when I say I include both social as well as economic perspective.

Therefore, how well a democracy is capable of delivering, is a function of how the power struggle between identity groups is resolved*, in other words the (dynamic) equilibrium state**.

Now here my analysis differs from DataNazi. He classifies the voters as interest groups and free agents, with (according to him) interest groups working for their narrow interest, and free agents for the interest of larger group, further from the reading of the posts, one gets the impression that interest groups are taken to be mainly social, that is based on caste or religion (though he does give example of big farmers as interest group, for some reason he excludes bureaucracy from the definition). I disagree with both the criteria.

First interest groups can be economic as well as social in nature. Caste/language/religion/ethnicity are examples of purely social interest groups, whereas class/occupation are examples of economic. In reality the interest groups are bound to project both into social as well as economic spheres.

Second, his distinction between free agents and interest groups, and recommending more free agents (though there is some confusion, as in follow up he calls pay commission an exercise to mop up free agents, calling in question desirability of free agents). He also introduces concept of rivalrous vs. non rivalrous economic resources, in order to understand the difference between interest groups and free agents. However  I will formulate it differently.

The key to understand is while all groups act according to their respective group interests, the important point to consider is effect of their actions on the whole. If the net effect of action on the whole is positive we call it positive externalities, and in the opposite case, negative. As a general rule the actions with positive effects are co-operative in nature, whereas those with negative ones are coercive or conflictive in nature. From the above we conclude that democratic systems deliver or succeed when the group interaction is set up such that it promotes positive externalities while suppressing  negative externalities, whereas inability to do so results in failure of the state and with it of the community.

Related to above is the fact that very frequently the democratic systems act as a feedback loop, in that systems with net negative promote conflict which strengthens conflict based negative identities***, ultimately causing the system failure, whereas systems with net positive promote cooperation which strengthens positive identities. In general it is possible for a stable system to switch between negative and positive cycles.
Here I will like to note that the feedback effect in both the cases is not same with conflict feedbacks more effective that cooperation feedbacks. ****

Hence the desirable course is

a) Indian democracy at present is configured in such a way that the result in a negative system with feedback. In order to succeed, suitable changes must be effected so that system switches to positive. Easier said than done. (Will try to address this point later)

b) This above is possibly only if we can forge group(s) based on the identity(ies) which promote positive externalities.

* In the previous post I listed following social conditions for meaningful democracy.

a) The various competing groups (based on differing identities) are matching in the power

b) There should exist at minimum tradition of co-operation to not only participate in democratic process, but also for democratic state to govern, this requires consensus on, in other words common assumptions about, certain issues where the whole take precedence, at least politically, over the constituent (and competing) groups.

** Just to be clear the equilibrium state is variant and will change as the competing forces continuously adjust themselves.

*** Here I am identifying conflict with negative, and cooperation with positive this many not be always true.

**** Why the asymmetry ? My best guess is conflict is a more basic response, and hence stronger, to man than cooperation.