Ramón A. Feenstra – Kidnapped Democracy

Guyana is a small Latin American nation. Its population is about the size of Seattle. Its population is among the poorest in South America. But its economy is expected to grow 85% this year thanks to the discovery of a significant oil deposit off its coast. Amid this good fortune Exxon Mobil was able to negotiate a one-sided agreement before the announcement of the drilling results. The Guyanese government claims they felt compelled to sign because Venezuela wanted to claim territorial rights over the waters. But many recognize the disproportionate power relationship between a large multinational corporation and a small Latin American government.

Ramon A. Feenstra argues democracy has been kidnapped. It is held hostage for loans from global institutions like the World Bank or the IMF. Multinational corporations have disproportionate leverage in negotiations with national governments as they propose plans to bring jobs and new sources of investment. Even Americans have felt trapped as sport teams threaten to leave their cities unless they are given new stadiums. Feenstra makes the case that elections have become empty ceremonies as the most important social decisions are decided for the people rather than by the people. Democracy is no longer about the empowerment of the people but rather the recognition of their submission to the neoliberal economic system.

Late in the book Feenstra acknowledges he is not prepared to “write a Democracy Liberation Manual.” Yet he does find fault in the institutions central to democratic governance. He refers to political parties, governments, the media and trade unions as accomplices. They have largely accepted the rules of the neoliberal economic system. The neoliberal order is largely economic so there is a false sense of assurance for political institutions as though economic conditions have no influence on political realities. Yet economic policies have political consequences.

The time has come for a new school of economics. Neoliberalism has distorted the economic role of government. The public sector is reimagined as dependent on the tax revenue of the private sector. This reimagination allows economists to interpret government expenditures as an expense while the expenditures of private business are an investment. This is a false dichotomy. Market economies emerged out of the implementation of a fair and consistent legal standard that is loosely referred to as the rule of law. Binyamin Applebaum goes farther in recognizing how private industry largely depends on the policies and investments of the public sector.

Adam Smith recognized the government is necessary for services the private market is unable to deliver. Private toll roads have long existed, but they were largely limited to the most traveled routes. The public sector maintains an entire network of roads whose economic value depends on their ability to connect distant places to each other. Its economic value is not limited to the toll revenue of any single route but the economic potential it unleashes through multiple other business activities.

Government establishes the critical foundations of the economic infrastructure. Private businesses extend this infrastructure in new directions that a bureaucracy may never have imagined. Yet its ability to grow is limited to the foundations of the public sector. The politics of austerity looks to roll back the public infrastructure. It reduces benefits not just its citizens but also its business community rely upon. Neoliberalism largely ignores the role of government in fostering an environment amenable to business. Instead it refers to the public bureaucracy as an expense rather than a part of the economic infrastructure that has taken decades to develop.

Schumpeter believed in a creative destruction that was central to capitalist economies. Indeed, it is necessary to recognize how the public sector needs to transform over time to strengthen the economy. And neoliberalism has helped recognize how regulations have the capacity to hold back business. Of course, there are times when government needs to hold back business. A strong sense of law is necessary to keep business under its control, so it ultimately works for the public good.

Kidnapped Democracy is ultimately a work of political philosophy rather than political science. Yet it was refreshing the way Feenstra incorporated the works of Dahl, Sartori, Schumpeter and Michels. Feenstra is well read in the classics of political science, but it was his ability to adapt these ideas into philosophical concepts that was impressive. The reader may become caught off guard as the work concludes without a clear resolution. Indeed, many theorists might have portrayed their philosophical account as a paradox without any possibility of resolution. But Feenstra gives the reader a riddle. The solution ultimately depends on the choices of the people. This is surprising because the people are largely absent from his account of a Kidnapped Democracy. It is the institutions of democracy who are simultaneously described as the hostages and the accomplices.

The work portrays an implied sense of alienation that the people must overcome to reclaim democracy. It is the representatives of democratic institutions who are incapable of resolving the contradictions between the economic and political order. Perhaps this is inevitable since modernization leads toward democracy while it simultaneously undermines its central premise. Durkheim described a transition from mechanical solidarity to an organic solidarity as people became tied through their economic relationships rather than their cultural similarities. A modern economy depends on vast differences between people, so they can specialize in different careers. It may seem inevitable for some that the division of labor in society will culminate into technocracy where specialists manage governance while everyone else focuses on their own careers. Garett Jones has praised the government of Singapore for these exact features.


My wife and I have two small children. Both of us are professionals with our own careers so we have relied on childcare. Six weeks after the birth of our oldest son, we dropped him off at the local daycare. I was unsure of my role in this arrangement. Would my son grow more attached to his teachers than his parents? He would spend more time awake at the center than he would at home. But there was no cause for concern. He always recognized the difference in the love of his parents.

Parenthood is sometimes described as a right, but it is really an obligation. Democracy is also sometimes described as a right, but it is better understood as an obligation. It is necessary to elect representatives to handle the daily administration of governance. But there is a difference in professional administration and actual governance. The people cannot ignore governance until the next election. They must remain vigilant and involved daily. The portrayal of democracy as a right conveys a choice. Parenthood is not really a choice. It is a moral obligation. A parent cannot simply walk away from their child without the guilt of abandonment even when they know it is the right decision for the child. This is how people must think about democracy. Its neglect is a moral violation and its abandonment should cause an irrevocable guilt that cannot be washed away.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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