In the late eighteenth century democracy was rescued from political obscurity and given a representational structure. Civil rights—to speech and assembly, for example—were gradually established, and in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries political rights were added. The distinguishing features of democracies of this sort were depicted by Joseph Schumpeter as procedures involving periodic elite competition within widely accepted guidelines. Civil rights formed the background rules of political competition, and the exercise of political rights—roughly one person, one vote—determined winners and losers.
As more recent empirical studies have revealed, this conception of democratic practices harbors several inadequacies. For one, levels of political information and participation are not as high as the conception of electoral competition suggests. For another, this description largely overlooks how elected and appointed officials reach public decisions. Additionally, the focus on democracy as a process of selected procedures tends to downplay the outcomes—who gets what—and the values or ends those outcomes support.
Specifically, empirical studies show that individual information and participation levels are associated with socioeconomic status as well as membership in politically minded groups—unions and other interest groups, political parties, churches. And whereas the electoral competition conception of democracy focuses on individuals who are organized into parties at elections, in practice
we see a range of groups, many of which are well-organized and backed by extensive financial resources, relevant expertise, and impressive social connections, and which are active during and in between elections, lobbying public bodies to support their interests.
These findings have led some to argue that average citizens are only marginally involved in contemporary democracies. And even their interests are represented largely by groups reflecting a limited portion of the citizenry and subject to the iron law of oligarchy.
If contemporary democracy involves such modest participation on the part of the citizenry, what makes it democratic? An increasingly prominent answer focuses on a substantive matter: the values a polity realizes. By this line of thought a polity cannot rightfully be considered a democracy by procedures alone, particularly if these procedures appear to benefit primarily a socioeconomic elite. Rather, a democracy must uphold certain ends, including a conception of distributive justice whose policy outcomes benefit the population broadly. In essence, there is an implicit tradeoff: the price elites pay for encouraging political ground rules and mild competition is sharing material payoffs with the many who do not participate as regularly or thoroughly as elites in the expressive freedoms of procedural democracy. This tradeoff fits the suggestion, mentioned in chapter 2, that negative (civil-political) rights may be useless from the perspective of the masses, while positive (socioeconomic) rights are redundant for the elite. The presence of each in contemporary democracies thus provides something for everyone, or nearly so; in effect, the "subsistence rights" of feudalism have been recovered. By this reformulation democracy involves the realization of three types of rights, shared in varying degrees by different groups: civil rights, or rights against the state; political rights, or control of the state; and socioeconomic rights, or claims on the state.
What we have here are alternative conceptions of the contemporary meaning of democracy. By one, democracy is appropriately a procedural matter, and extraprocedural considerations of who gets what are external or anterior, rather than inherent, to the meaning of democracy. Charles A. Beard, for instance, argues that the American system of democracy was designed to leave "the fundamental private rights of property anterior to government and
morally beyond the reach of popular majorities." The alternative view acknowledges some substantive essence to democracy: regardless of procedures, in a democracy political outcomes realize certain other values, among them protecting citizens from the social hazards created by wage dependence and vulnerability.
Socioeconomic rights have little place in the property-rights-as-anterior conception, for they entail constraints on negative liberty—taxes—and perhaps also on economic efficiency—taxes or regulation more generally—that effectively dissolve the special anterior status of exclusionary private property rights. Nonetheless, all contemporary democracies, including the United States, have for some while treated the screen protecting property rights as permeable in at least some instances.
To a considerable degree this desanctification of property rights stems from wide experience suggesting that if the pursuit of property is left relatively unhindered by the state, a tiny proportion of the population ends up with most of it, while the vast majority of people have insufficient wealth to endure common social hazards. To meet these needs, life-sustaining public entitlements—to some a new form of property —have been fashioned. Such programs have increased the legitimacy of the state for many, but they restrict the traditional property rights of the few. Naturally, these restrictions elicit resentment and protest from proceduralists and members of the propertied minority.