New Economy Journal

Book Excerpt: The Good State

Volume 2, Issue 2

May 6, 2020

By - A.C. Grayling

Piece length: 1,370 words

Share article

This is an excerpt from A.C Grayling's book ‘The Good State', which was Published by Bloomsbury in February 2020.

The fallacy in hoping that the people who populate and operate a democracy’s institutions will not abuse the latitude for action they find in them is illustrated by Han Fei’s story of the farmer and the hare. The story is that a farmer was ploughing a field in the middle of which stood a tree. Suddenly a hare came racing through the field, collided with the tree, broke its neck and died. The farmer so enjoyed eating the hare that he thereafter set aside his plough and sat by the tree to wait for another hare to come along and break its neck. Han Fei, one of the leading Legalist philosophers of the Warring States period in ancient China (third century BCE), drew the moral: the folly of doing the same in the hope that another sage king would appear speaks for itself. His view that government must be a matter of law-governed institutions rather than the happenstance of talent or good character in individual people was echoed by Livy two centuries later.[1]

An appeal to ‘constitutional morality’ as what politicians will observe in legislating and governing is therefore no longer good enough, if it ever was. The formal side of the question has to address this problem by imposing a far clearer set of requirements on those who occupy the institutions and offices of state. But because it can never obviate the potential problems that arise on the informal side, there has to be renewed effort to create a situation in which the informal side is less susceptible to the corrosive influences to which, by its very nature, it is vulnerable.

These are the great questions, both formal and informal, discussed in the following chapters.

In arguing for the conclusion that the concept of democracy itself entails a set of specific principles that government must be based upon, I identify a correlative thesis: that politics is too often the enemy of government – at least, of good government. Politics is about people organizing themselves to get their policy preferences enacted; a political party aims to assume the power of government so that it can further its agenda, which in the adversarial nature of politics has to be achieved against the opposition of other parties. Does this way of conducting affairs lead to good government? If at the minimum democracy means a state of affairs designed to protect and further the interests of the people – of all the people – a surprising requirement comes into view: that government has to be drained of politics as far as possible, not in the sense that people should not come together to argue for a set of policies and a direction of travel for the society and economy, but in the sense that these discussions should happen on the hustings and when elected representatives form a government. Once a government is formed its duties to the people and the national interest must trump party-political considerations. Politics should assuredly continue outside and beyond government, but once a government has been installed on the basis of an agreed platform of policies among the constituent parties forming it, the executive’s implementation of them must be governmental, not party-political. This simply follows from the idea that democratically constituted government is for the people and not for a winning political party or part of the people – say, the rich, or the working class, or adult males, or the followers of a particular religion.

This view in effect says that in a good state, government transcends politics. This claim will of course be controversial – but only among political activists. I doubt that it would be so controversial among the people as a whole.

Unpacking the concept of democracy does not reveal a perfectibilist possibility.[2] Democracy is about a continual negotiation, a gyroscopic keeping of balance, in an effort to achieve the best for all – not for most or some – and therefore accepting the costs and limitations of inclusivity, of respecting the right of all to participate. Democracy is not an optimal arrangement economically or in terms of ergonomics; it is optimal in human social terms. It is pragmatic in its idealism, recognizing that government cannot do everything, and therefore valorizing civil society activity and organizations and such traditional structures as the family and the community, but at the same time recognizing that the collective endeavour, as expressed through government constituted by the enfranchised to serve their interests collectively and individually, needs to be oriented towards high ideals as the lodestar of its endeavours, even if all recognize the meliorist reality in the perfectibilist hope.

The natural tendency of theorists to position themselves in one of two camps – the conservative and the progressive – too often distorts the analysis they give of what the possibilities are for society. My argument here is that the direction in which the concept of democracy, on analysis, prescriptively points us lies between these positions, though closer to the progressive than the conservative pole. That is not intended to be a parti pris point; it is where the argument leads. My own initial starting point is at the progressive pole, but the argument has drawn me at least one step from there by compelling recognition both of the practical and some needed limitations on government – though not of the kind that libertarians (and let there be an emphatic distinction between ‘libertarianism’ and ‘liberalism’[3]) would most like to see in their advocacy of ‘small government’ and their belief that society is a market in which the mechanisms of ‘pricing’, whether in economic or social terms, will effect adjustments. The progressive impulse in the inclusivist tendency of democracy finds the human cost, which is to say the moral cost, of an unrestricted market-centred view too high, and will not rest content with it: it demands that the strength of collective power be used where no individual or sectional power is enough to mitigate artificial disadvantages imposed on fellow-citizens, or to address any consequent human suffering when it occurs and however it arises.

In practice much of this is conceded by states which see themselves as democracies. These states see themselves as democracies because they have multiple competing political parties, hold periodic elections by secret ballot to constitute representative government, see peaceful and orderly changes of government as a consequence, have a significant degree of accountability in their institutions, uphold the rule of law, do not have only state-controlled media, and respect the civil liberties of the populace. The states of Europe and North America, together with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and some others, fill this bill. This is a recent phenomenon in historical terms, and it is a great advance over preceding circumstances – only think of the absolute monarchies, the oligarchies, the disenfranchisement of great majorities of people by those in possession of the various means of power, until the process to remedy this began less than three centuries ago.

But even these states fall short of what the concept of democracy fully entails. Political partisans capture governments as a matter of accepted course, the separate powers of government lie in unseparated hands, the democratic demand for inclusivity is insufficiently met, inequality in the distribution of wealth and social goods is persistently far too great, the conditions for full participation – reliable information, genuinely representative electoral systems, institutional safeguards on probity of performance of servants of the state (including elected representatives) – are not satisfied or are indeed actually violated, and the system falls short in realization of the full extent of rights that democracy by its nature defines. While this is so, the major democracies of the advanced world can only be regarded as, at best, partial democracies.

I think everyone who considers the matter knows this. Some aspects of what democracy demands are partially met in these partial democracies, a tacit recognition of the justice of those demands. What our century needs to see everywhere is constitutional reform aimed at bringing democracy fully into operation at last, and capable of remaining apt for the continuing processes of reform that time and changing circumstances will always require. This is because democracy is about people: the people – all the people – to whom both state and society belong and for whom they exist.


  • [1] Han Fei, Han Feizi (2003).
  • [2] ‘Perfectibilism’ (the possibility of achieving perfection) was part of the great Enlightenment debate in which it was contrasted with ‘meliorism’ (the more modest possibility of improving things).
  • [3] Libertarianism is about maximizing licence for individual and corporate activity to pursue selfidentified interests. Liberalism is about valorizing civil liberties while correlatively respecting moral demands for a humane and inclusive society. To put the point tendentiously: the distinction lies in competing construals of ‘liberty’. In one view it means licence, including in practical terms the licence to ignore the rights of others in advancing one’s own interests; in the other it means a right that others possess too and must be respected in all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.