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A Presidents’ Day for Protesters

President’s Day is really a lame holiday.  But the protesters around the world are rescuing it. Here is my all-time favorite definition of democracy, from one of today’s honorees–Abraham Lincoln:

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

The genius of the first sentence is reciprocity: democracy means I will not impose on anyone else anything I do not want anyone else to impose on me. If everyone follows this rule, then … democracy. It captures “all are created equal” and individual rights in 14 words (10 of them words of 3 letters or less), what a nice contrast to all those wordy attempts to define democracy! (including this blog post)

Could reciprocity extend internationally as well? I don’t support autocracy in your society if I don’t want it in my society?

For the figurative slaves protesting against your figurative slaveholders in Libya, in Bahrain, in Iran, everywhere else…may you realize your dream of democracy.

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  1. Jacob AG wrote:

    “Could reciprocity extend internationally as well?”

    Yes, I think it should.

    That said, by this definition no one has ever lived in a democracy, nor will they, for at least two reasons.

    1) Inevitably one man’s right (or, ahem, one woman’s) will be another (wo)man’s slavery some of the time. Unless everybody’s interests somehow stop coming into conflict, there will be no democracy… but there will always be conflict.

    2) Should I be allowed to sell myself into slavery if I want to? If I can, I don’t live in a democracy. If I can’t, I don’t live a democracy. Ipso facto, I can’t live in a democracy if I want to sell myself into slavery. And if you interpret the word “slavery” loosely enough (should I be allowed to snort cocaine? should I be allowed to eat trans fat?), it’s easy to see how no one will ever live in a true democracy… by Lincoln’s definition, anyway.

    Now the phrase “to the extent that” lets us put our system of government on a spectrum, a sort of democracy spectrum, from most democratic to least democratic, depending on how free from slavery we are, even if we’re never living in a 100% bona fide democracy. That’s useful, but it introduces more problems of its own… enter the distributional question.

    If I make an already-very-free man even more free, and a relatively enslaved man slightly less more enslaved than I make the free man more free, net-net I have created a more free system, and therefore moved closer to democracy, according to Lincoln’s definition. The average level of freedom from slavery has risen, and the societal level of freedom from slavery has risen, but is that a good thing in this case? Isn’t there something wrong with making a relatively enslaved man even more enslaved, even if I make a relatively free man more free than I made the enslaved man more enslaved? Isn’t there an argument that society might have been better off with the lower average and absolute levels of freedom from slavery? Isn’t there an argument that equality is worth something a priori?

    Seems to me that Lincoln’s got a pretty hairy definition of democracy there. Maybe he should have used more than fourteen words, or more words with more than three letters.

    I don’t know. It’s a very efficient definition though, more efficient than this comment.

    Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:46 am | Permalink
  2. jAMES BECHER wrote:

    Right on!

    Posted February 21, 2011 at 1:08 am | Permalink
  3. James Bechher wrote:

    Really right on~ I meant to say that we really should strive to follow the faith and convictions of our founding fathers.

    Posted February 21, 2011 at 1:10 am | Permalink
  4. proudly kenyan wrote:

    Very well put!!!

    Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:25 am | Permalink
  5. Kabir wrote:

    Who knew – Abe was Rawls’ intellectual grandfather.

    Posted February 21, 2011 at 5:41 am | Permalink
  6. Diego wrote:

    Lincoln would have made an excellent twitterer.

    Posted February 21, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  7. Mike wrote:

    Gadaffi is so crazy, i’m just waiting that Obama send American’s army there.

    Posted February 21, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  8. Mike wrote:

    Gadaffi is so crazy. I’m just waiting day when Obama will send his army there…

    Posted February 21, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  9. DM wrote:

    @Jacob AG

    I think you’re missing Lincoln’s point. on your first critique (1), the answer is to be more mindful of how the pursuit of your own policy preferences impact those who disagree with you. And, when in doubt, err on the side of not taking someone’s existing freedom.

    For (2), I don’t follow you at all. How does allowing yourself the right to sell yourself into slavery, violate Lincoln’s principle? Having this right doesn’t infringe on the rights of anyone else. Same with your other examples: me being allowed to snort cocaine or eat transfat has no bearing on your rights to do/do not.

    (3), your idea of a spectrum misconstrues Lincoln’s meaning. The real spectrum hinted at here judges all decisions upon how much slavery they are inflicting, irrespective of how much mastery they may also cause.
    Law 1 and 2 below are equally non-democratic.

    Law 1: Group A +10 FU; Group B -10 FU
    Law 2: Group A +20 FU; Group B -10 FU
    where FU equals freedom unites =)

    (Furthermore, your example seems odd. Just how often does a democratic government pass a law that expands freedom for one group of citizens, while simultaneously contrasting it for another? I’m sure it happens, but this is not standard operating procedure among most modern democratic societies)

    Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:20 am | Permalink
  10. Jacob AG wrote:


    1) Yes, that’s some very good advice, and I agree. My point was simply that because of conflicts of interest, not everyone can follow it, and that therefore a pure, 100% democracy, as Lincoln has defined “democracy,” has not and will not exist. Some must be masters and others slaves (figuratively), not because the good guys should be masters or anything like that, just because conflicting preferences are so unavoidably human.

    2) To answer your question, if I wanted to sell myself into slavery, then having the right to do so would, by definition, make me a slave. That would violate Lincoln’s principle, unless you think he wouldn’t count self-imposed slavery as undemocratic. Maybe all he meant was don’t impose slavery on others, but is that it? Really? Surely he wouldn’t think that Uncle Tom’s preference for slavery makes Uncle Tom a democrat… surely he would say that Tom has a master, even if he’s “willing,” and that that’s not democratic.

    I don’t know if he thought about it, but other liberty-loving men took this criticism seriously. J.S. Mill considered it, and argued that an individual could not be allowed to sell himself into slavery. But who would stop him? A master, presumably.

    My point about cocaine and trans fat was that in reality some people DO want to sell themselves into slavery–they want to shoot up heroine, or smoke tobacco (among countless other examples). In the case of heroine the state is the master (or the drug dealer), and in the case of tobacco it’s Philip Morris (except in restaurants in New York, where it’s once again the state… or non-smoking restaurant-goers, depending on how you look at it).

    Either way somebody ends up losing their freedom to somebody else, so nobody lives in a bona fide democracy. Again though, what alternative is there? Should New York City allow people to smoke in restaurants? Or not? Either way, there will be a “master” and a “slave,” because some people want to smoke in restaurants, and others want to eat at Bertucci’s without their steak smelling like cigarettes.

    Moreover (and I didn’t think of this before), selling oneself into slavery can be a form of mastery. Your addiction to heroine might push you into crime, which abridges my freedom; your addition to trans fat (yes, fat is addictive) might push you to eat more meat, which raises food prices for me, or forces me to pick up your higher medical bill through higher taxes and/or insurance premiums. This would violate Lincoln’s principle even if he didn’t consider selling oneself into slavery (or Uncle Tom’s situation) undemocratic.

    3) Lincoln’s definition does imply a spectrum. On one extreme is a pure democracy, where there exists neither master nor slave, and on the other is the furthest system possible from a democracy, where everyone is a slave, perhaps to some outside force, a colonizing power or a single autocrat, for example. In the middle are a whole range of scenarios with varying degrees of slavery, mastery, and “neither.” In Lincoln’s view, the more “neither” the closer we are to democracy. That’s implied by the phrase “to the extent of the difference.”

    On your Laws, you write:

    “Law 1 and 2 below are equally non-democratic.

    Law 1: Group A +10 FU; Group B -10 FU
    Law 2: Group A +20 FU; Group B -10 FU
    where FU equals freedom unites”

    Suppose you pass Law I. You’ve made Group A more free, and Group B less free by exactly the same amount. Now that’s not democratic; Group B becomes more enslaved, and Group A becomes more the master, right?

    Not so fast–you haven’t taken into account their starting positions. Suppose that before either law is passed, Group A starts out with a mere 20 FU, and Group B starts out with a whopping 80 FU. In that case, Law 2 is clearly less anti-democratic than Law I, because it liberates Group B, the relative slave, at the expense of Group A, the relative master.

    So no, these laws are not necessarily equally non-democratic (maybe you were assuming that Groups A and B start from the same level of FU..?).

    The more interesting question is what happens if Group A’s and Group B’s positions are switched (so that they have 80 and 20 FU respectively), and Lincoln’s considering whether to pass Law 2.

    Would Lincoln consider passing Law 2 democratic, if Group A had 80 FU and Group B had just 20?

    Maybe he would; net-net Law 2 would increase the sum of all liberty, as well as the freedom per capita. Maybe he would consider it undemocratic for further enslaving the relatively enslaved Group B, but then maybe he would consider it MORE undemocratic to prevent Group A from achieving their +20 FU, thereby enslaving them (in a certain sense) just for the sake of Group B’s 10 FU. I don’t know, but I think this is implied by his definition.

    Then again, maybe he wouldn’t; Law 2 makes a relatively enslaved group even more enslaved, albeit not so much more enslaved than Group A was made more free. Maybe he’d say it’s fine to leave Group A at 80 FU, even if he could liberate them up to 100, if the alternative was to cut Group B from 20 to 10 FU. But in this case, isn’t Lincoln’s definition inimical in some way to the idea of freedom?

    Either way, I see an unresolved moral tension in Lincoln’s definition of democracy. It is compact and beautiful, but it has this moral hole, this unanswered distributional question. It has to do with equality.

    Anyway, other than it’s practical (points 1 and 2) and moral (point 3) limitations, it’s quite lovely. And very efficient, as I said.

    (On your parenthesized point, I would only point out that expanding the rights of one group at the expense of another happens all the time in a democracy, and indeed in any system of government. Here are some examples:

    – Murder is illegal: expands freedom for peaceful people who don’t like being murdered; contracts freedom for people who would consider the right to murder worth the risk of being murdered
    – Social Security: expands freedom for the old, contracts freedom for the young (especially the young who don’t live long enough to collect Social Security)
    – Progressive income tax: expands freedom for the poor, contracts it for the rich.
    – etc. etc…. many laws have winners and losers)

    Posted February 22, 2011 at 5:22 am | Permalink
  11. Jacob AG. Wow, what an amazing excluded middle: all conflicts of interest must involve a master-slave relationship. Only if you have no concept of what ‘slavery’ means. Figuratively or otherwise.

    I have a longstanding interest in the economics of human bondage and it is very annoying when people way over-use the concept of slavery, since it so belittles the real thing.

    Posted February 23, 2011 at 4:59 am | Permalink

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