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The Distribution of Power

Lars Elgstam argues for direct democracy and decentralization.

How should power be distributed within a democracy? Who should be making the decisions? I shall try to convince you that the best distribution of power is when each decision is made by the group of individuals affected by the consequences of that decision. I’ll also try to show that this gives us a standard which we can use to evaluate and compare decision-making processes.

Proposition 1: Distribution of power is in balance when each decision is made by the group of individuals affected by the consequences of that decision.

The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, the purpose of the decision-making process is to produce the best decisions possible. The individuals affected by the consequences of a decision have a personal interest in making a good decision. If the decision is good, they benefit rom it. If the decision is bad the loss is theirs, and theirs alone. Which brings us to the second reason. The people who will live with the consequences of a decision have a right to participate in the making of that decision.

Proposition 2: Each decision should be made by a group of an appropriate size: neither too small – nor too big.

Most people would agree that an assembly should not be too small. An instinctive notion is that a larger group gives increased weight to a decision, but it is equally important that the group is not too big. Consider the choice between a big group of individuals that has little or no interest in the decision, and a small subset of individuals that has substantial interest in the decision. The smaller group is obviously much better motivated to try hard to make a good decision.

Proposition 3: Each decision should be made at the appropriate level in an organisation: neither too low – nor too high.

Delegating decisions too low in organisations increases the risk of undue influence from sub-groups whose own interests may be in conflict with the best interests of the majority. Making decisions too high in organisations tends to dilute the natural incentive for good decisions described above. The resulting indifference increases the risk of alternative motives such as prestige, nepotism and bribery.

Proposition 4: To maintain the optimum distribution of power the assemblies responsible for decisions must be continuously refined.

Stagnation leads to regression. Redefining who is controlling what and how needs to be a constant and primary concern of every democratic organisation. Otherwise the organisation risks getting hijacked by the very people commissioned to manage it, as they may eventually start using the organisation for their own, personal benefit.

Discussion of Objections

No single process for decision-making can ever replace the many different ways of organising decision-making that have emerged over time within different organisations. In modern society democracy comes in all sorts of shapes and forms: the elected representatives in governments, ballot or open voting in associations, consensus decisions in clubs etc. There are a number of ‘tailor made’ processes for decision-making, based on the different needs of various types of organisations. One way of making decisions can never fit all the needs of all organisations.

For practical reasons there will always be a need for representative democracy. My four propositions above aren’t intended to replace all existing democratic methods and procedures, but to provide a standard by which different procedures can be compared and evaluated. With such a standard it would be easier to distinguish good, democratic, decision processes from bad ones. It could also be used for selecting the most appropriate democratic procedures for different occasions/decisions and for developing new democratic routines in organisations.

Without such a standard it is only possible to discuss the technicalities of a democratic process, i.e. whether or not the procedure generally considered ‘the proper one’ has been used, and whether it was applied in ‘the proper’ way. It becomes impossible to discuss why a particular procedure should be used in a certain situation, as well as the quality of specific decisions. When every attempt to discuss whether a good decision was made ends in a discussion of procedure, it becomes extremely easy to abuse an organisation for personal profit or benefit. Suppose a professional politician makes a decision that is rash, or self-interested or plainly insane. Anyone attempting to question that decision will immediately be accused of being an anti-democrat since the decision was made in proper democratic order. The fact that a decision has been made by an elected representative makes it impossible to seriously challenge it!

Today’s world is too complex for direct democracy – good decisions have to be made by elected representatives.

In the past most people were farmers or craftsmen who produced almost everything themselves. Today most tasks are delegated to specialists:

1. The production of goods is delegated to craftsmen and engineers.

2. The decision-making is delegated to politicians and elected representatives.

Good decisions have to be made by individuals that are able and willing to learn the facts. That means that the decisions must be delegated to specialists. If everyone affected by a decision shall participate in the process of making that decision, then they are forced to make up their minds on a large number of issues. That would lead to a lot of ill-founded decisions and cause a lot of people to feel guilty for not having time to do the necessary ‘homework’.

The idea that the citizens are unable to decide on their own destiny but at the same time fully capable of electing their own guardians seems slightly absurd. Unlike political elections a referendum is not a popularity contest. The purpose of direct democracy is not to allow the public to air spontaneous thoughts, but to provide an opportunity to first consider an issue thoroughly and then make an informed decision. A referendum preceded by a free public debate produces a high quality decision based on arguments and ideas from many cooperating and competing intellects.

There is no contradiction between direct democracy and the principle of consulting specialists. The public debate consists mainly of specialists pursuing ‘their own’ issues by informing and influencing the public. The fact that public opinion has substantial political power, but no formal responsibility can actually lead to worse decisions. Without formal responsibility people will not feel motivated to learn the basic facts, and then they become very easy to manipulate. Systematic propaganda can turn erroneous facts into political realities. Whatever facts elected representatives have learned while preparing a decision, they still have to consider public opinion, no matter how manipulated it may be.

Party politics has a tendency to reinforce centralization. The strategies of the political parties are often outlined in closed rooms by a few top politicians; members and voters are expected to side with the selected strategy without discussion. Anyone attempting to question decisions derived from the party strategy is immediately criticised for implicitly supporting the opposition. It is mostly politicians who are elected into democratic assemblies, which makes it easy to perceive politics as being the same as democracy. It is not. Politics is much older than democracy. Plotting for power, lying and manipulating people are key elements in politics that obstruct democracy and frequently devastate the quality of democratic decisions.

Representative democracy is the most common method for exercising democracy today, but compared to direct democracy it is marred by risks and problems. Electing leaders means concentrating power with a few individuals,which sometimes leads to centralization – the logical opposite of democracy. This paradox can be illustrated by an example: When Adolf Hitler was elected into office he abolished free elections and made himself permanent leader of Germany. He used the democratic processes and the democratic institutions to scrap democracy.

Direct democracy is impractical. Delegating decisions to a leader is far more efficient.

A parliament makes thousands of decisions every year and attempting to hold a referendum on each and every one of them would be absurd. Society would seize to function because everybody would be busy voting.

The proposition: ‘each decision should be made by the group of individuals affected by the consequences of the decision’ expresses a method for implementing direct democracy without forcing everyone to participate in the making of every decision.

In democratic parliaments many decisions are prepared by standing committees consisting mainly of people interested in specific subjects. The same technique is sometimes used in other organisations. The propositions suggested in this article provide a general formula for delegating the responsibility for any decision, anywhere in society, to groups of peers. The propositions are transitive, i.e. decisions can be delegated further as long as the power is trusted with a group rather than an individual. Some issues may for example concern many citizens; if a group becomes too big and overloaded with decisions it may be practical to delegate some of the matters to sub-groups, who in their turn may choose to delegate some decisions to a smaller sub-group, who in their turn delegate… and so on. As the process goes on the power becomes distributed downwards in the organisation.

In representative democracy power is delegated to individuals. Transitive delegation of decisions between elected leaders often brings about a concentration of power, as leaders seem inclined to delegate decisions step-by-step upwards in organisations. The tendency to take all decisions to the top level is a behaviour inherited from the hierarchies of the past into the democratic institutions of the present. Members of political parties and other democratic organisations often turn to strong leaders. That reaction comes from a yearning for the safe hierarchy and order of ancient tribal societies. A common consequence of strong leadership is that the ability and courage to make decisions withers away among the members of the organisation. The strong leader gets overloaded with numerous small and big issues, but has neither the motivation nor the time to prepare the decisions properly. Centralization of power causes organisations to produce ill-founded decisions intolerably slowly.

An elected representative can be forced to assume personal responsibility for a decision – but a group cannot be held personally responsible.

Experience shows that decision makers have a tendency to make better decisions when knowing that they may be held personally responsible if something goes wrong.

In reality it is the very group that has to live with the consequences of a decision that assumes the actual responsibility, regardless of who is discredited in public or forced to resign or whatever ‘assuming responsibility’ is supposed to mean. There is no need for scapegoats when the decisions are made by the groups of individuals that has to live with the consequences.

The proposition above uses the phrase “the group of individuals affected by the consequences of the decision”. Who are those individuals? A decision affects different groups differently.

Consider the following example: a factory must decide on an investment that may increase by 20% the productive capacity of a department. It is not obvious who are those “affected by the decision”, i.e. which group that according to the proposition should make the decision. Should it be:

1. The owners investing the money (the capitalistic perspective) or

2. The employees running the production (the Marxist perspective) or

3. The consumers buying the products (the liberal perspective) or

4. The people living close to the factory, who are affected by the environmental consequences (the green perspective) or

5. The government acting in the public interest (the perspective of Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’) or

6. All living things in the universe (the Hindu perspective)?

It is obviously impossible for everyone affected by a decision to participate in the decision-making, and equally impossible to let their influence vary depending on how much each particular individual is affected by the decision. Tradeoffs must be made; the principle ‘one individual – one vote’ must always apply. But the fact that it is impossible to reach ideal democracy should not stop feasible improvements. Systems that allow various groups to influence decisions in different ways produce much better decisions than rigid hierarchies. In a democracy there are numerous ways to influence decisions: elections and opinion polls express the opinion of the majority. Matters are frequently referred to concerned organisations for consideration. Debates in parliaments and in public cause decision-makers to be influenced by numerous arguments. The democratic system has its flaws, and politics is often infested with lies and intrigues, but democracy is much better than any alternative system of government. In an open market there are a number of ways to influence decisions. In private companies the shareholders elect the board. Decisions are primarily based on assumptions about consumer reactions. Economic signals are important control mechanisms between companies as well as within them. The distribution of influence they bring about is a key to understanding why market economy and democracy mix so well.

A perfectly balanced distribution of power is an ideal that can never be achieved. But the development of today’s democracies and market economies has had an enormous impact on the daily life of the citizens, which indicates that there are a number of improvements that can be done:

1. Power and influence can be distributed further downwards in organisations.

2. Changes need to be implemented carefully in order not to counteract advances already made

3. Each institution and procedure that today serves to distribute influence should be protected against further centralization, no matter how old-fashioned or unstructured and chaotic it may seem.

Example: The European Union – Centralization versus Subsidiarity

One of the primary purposes of the European Union (EU) is to promote trade between companies in the European countries by suppressing trade obstacles caused by national regulations. This could have been achieved by a small set of federative meta-regulations, designed to limit the jurisdiction of local governments by strengthening the legal protection for citizens and companies. But instead an alternative approach was pursued: To ensure a uniform set of rules for the entire European market, the central EU administration always elevates decisions to the international level, above the jurisdiction of the national governments, causing local regulations to become superseded by central EU regulations. The resulting organisation is much too big for the extremely detailed decisions being made, and at the same time too small to cope with the enormous number of such decisions.

The concept of governing through a strong central administration has a long tradition in some European countries, particularly in France. The belief that it is possible to develop democracy by concentrating as many decisions as possible under an elected strong central government, is a widespread notion among European socialists and social democrats, but I doubt that many of them have contemplated the issue long enough to realise that this ideology ultimately goes back to Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’. Some left wing politicians, eager to expand their personal power, argue that the EU should be made the basis of a political power strong enough to match the economic power of the multinational companies. Yet there exists no evidence supporting the idea that a huge super-bureaucracy could ever lead to increased democracy in industry, or anywhere else for that matter.

In an attempt to restrain the uncontrolled growth of EU bureaucracy, several member nations demanded that the EU institutions should conform to the ‘subsidiarity principle’. Subsidiarity is a concept originating from Catholic social theory, where it expresses the idea of a benign authority that supports and helps (Latin: subsidium) the lower levels in a hierarchy temporarily, but is cautious not to dominate and take over the tasks permanently. A common secular interpretation of this principle is that each task should be handled at the lowest level possible in an organisation, close to the citizens.

The EU adopted the subsidiarity principle in Edinburgh in 1992. Unfortunately there was no agreement on a common definition of subsidiarity and today there are a number of different interpretations, each one expressing a general preference for decentralization, vaguely, to evade the fact that the ultimate logical consequence of decentralization is to scrap all institutions and leave all power to the individuals (i.e. to reinstate the law of the jungle). The lack of a distinct definition limits the practical use. The subsidiarity principle provides no normative guidance when trying to figure out the appropriate level in a hierarchy for a specific decision, or how to divide power between peer institutions within the same organisation, or worse, between institutions belonging to different organisations / hierarchies.

The implementation of the subsidiarity principle in the EU is primarily regulated by Article 5 of the Treaty of the European Union (Amsterdam, 1997). A brief examination of the text shows that the EU institutions shall continue to rule with unlimited authority in areas defined in the treaties as being their ‘exclusive competence’; examples of such areas are trade, agriculture and consumer affairs. Furthermore, nothing in Article 5 prevents the EU institutions from expanding into other areas – all that is required is an acceptable reason, and Article 5 contains plenty of loopholes. Either the justification could be based on the fact that some of the areas where EU has ‘exclusive competence’ are so broad that they entangle almost every aspect of production and infrastructure in the member nations, or it could be based on the fact that most countries share most issues, so to ensure that the same rules apply over the entire EU area such decisions must to be made centrally, by the EU institutions. Some people claim that Article 5 prevents the EU institutions from growing out of control, and initially it was intended to do just that. But looking at how Article 5 is formulated and how it is used today, it rather seems constructed to promote and legitimise a further expansion of the power and authority of the EU institutions on the European continent. The failed attempts to counteract centralization with the subsidiarity principle show that centralization and decentralization do not mix. From the EU experiment we can learn three things:

1. It is impossible to ‘fix’ a centralized organisation so that it functions like a decentralized organisation (just as it is impossible to ‘fix’ a wolf so that it will graze peacefully with the sheep). The only way to get an organisation to function in a truly decentralized manner is to decentralize the power structure of the organisation.

2. The best way to accomplish decentralization in an organisation is never to centralize it in the first place.

3. A normative definition for decentralization needs to be very strictly formulated to survive hostile interpretations in centralized environments.

Concluding Remarks

Many of society’s problems emanate from conflicts between egoism and public interest. Typically one group of individuals force decisions they have made in their own best interest upon other groups. Some say that the solution to this problem is to abolish human selfishness or, if that should prove impossible, at least to reduce it to some extent. I doubt that it is possible to change the human heart all that much. Another approach is to distribute power in such a way that decisions are made by individuals whose self-interest coincide with the public interest. An extreme, but precisely-defined form of this is expressed in the first proposition at the start of this article which says that each decision should be made by the group of individuals affected by the consequences of the decision.

With this approach it is possible to start making improvements now – it is not necessary to wait until everybody has become better human beings.

Another advantage of this approach is that it becomes obvious how to make improvements: by distributing power downwards in organisations, closer to the people affected by the decisions, rather than concentrating power in huge central administrations.

A third advantage is that this approach opens a wide range of opportunities for social and political change. Comparing today’s democracies to ancient societies, ruled by warlords, shows how the development of representative democracy has brought enormous benefits to practically every aspect of human social life. A closer look at modern political democracies reveals that large numbers of decisions are being made constantly, but besides electing the top leadership every fourth year or so, the citizens participate in the actual making of very few of those decisions. There is obviously considerable scope for further improvements in continuing to distribute power and influence to larger groups of citizens.

© Lars Elgstam 2003

Lars Elgstam is a middle-aged man living with his family (two teenage children) in Sweden. He has an MSc in Computer Sciences and works as an independent consultant in the Stockholm area. He would like to thank Thomas Wahlberg for his valuable contributions to this article.


“The principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of te rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” (Centesimus Annus No.48 §4, John Paul II, 1991)

The European Union on Subsidiarity

“In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.” (Article 5, The Treaty of the European Union, Amsterdam 1997)

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