Democratic Governance and Societal Welfare
Government is a means to pursue, through collective action, a set of ends that are essential to societal welfare. To some people government is a "necessary evil." It prevents anarchy by providing the order essential to fruitful human intercourse. Government is objectionable because it constrains liberty, which is a vital wellspring of happiness. Basic human freedoms are essential in order for individuals to maximize their talents and to realize their desires, which form the bedrock of societal welfare.
Most modern political thinkers assert that democracy is the least objectionable form of government because it provides for order while placing the fewest constraints on liberty. It is also argued that democracy provides the most flexible means for resolving the tension between order and liberty, which is essential to meeting challenges that vary across time. These assertions underlie the conventional wisdom about democracy's superiority in enhancing societal welfare. They also provide the basis for domestic and international efforts to promote democracy.
Because of the importance of these assertions about democracy's advantages in promoting societal welfare, many scholars have sought to determine whether they are empirically supportable. Research generally supports conventional wisdom about democracy. However, many observers believe that democracy is insufficient, by itself, to generate marked improvements in societal welfare.
Significant disparities in the performance of democracies across the globe have given rise to questions about the role of other institutions and conventions in complementing the performance of democratic governments. The institutions and conventions that are considered adjuncts to democracy are the rule of law, free market economies, independent judiciaries and monetary institutions, formal guarantees of fundamental freedoms and liberties, and a free and active press. These devices are asserted to be essential in such areas as protecting human and property rights, addressing market failures, insuring equality of opportunity, and eliminating poverty. Despite the plausibility of the assertions, they rest more on beliefs rather than on firm empirical foundations. Moreover, we know little about how these largely Western inventions mesh with diverse cultures and settings throughout the world.
These knowledge voids must be filled if democracies are to realize their potential in providing for societal welfare in the new millennium. Consequently, the objectives of the Program in Democratic Governance and Societal Welfare are twofold. The first is to conduct a program of research that refines our understanding of (1) the relative benefits of democracy for societal welfare, (2) how democracies can best be structured and supplemented to enhance human well-being, and (3) how best to achieve optimal institutional arrangements in diverse democratic societies.
Intellectual leadership in this area is provided by Professor Peter Nardulli. Moreover, the Center's signature research initiative, the Societal Infrastructures and Development Project, is designed to address the key issues in this programmatic area. See current projects under this program.