The Case for Democracy Markets

Note to businesses, nonprofits, businesses and individuals seeking table space at DemFest 2024: Table fees are $100 for half a 6-foot table, and $150 for a full 6-foot table for those with 2023 revenue less than $250k, and $150 for half and $225 for a full table for those with 2023 revenue above $250k.  Further details and vendor registration form to come.   

The DMV Democracy Festival (DemFest) is intended to be financially sustainable if not profitable in order to encourage the spread of democracy festivals across the United States and the wider world.  Democracy markets — virtual or in-person spaces where businesses, nonprofits and government agencies can provide democracy goods, services and activities to people at local to global levels — can and should be an asset and feature not only of democracy festivals, but of local and regional economies.

Some may understandably argue that profit and democracy do not go together.  Clearly, there are tensions between money and democracy (e.g., individuals and organizations with more money have more influence in government, often at the expense of the public interest) which need to be addressed, but there is also another serious problem: lack of citizen participation in and knowledge of democracy, especially among those with less power (income, wealth, education, occupational status, etc.), which makes democratic governments less accountable to those less engaged.  Indeed, wider engagement (i.e., knowledge plus participation) could help reduce money’s corruption of democracy because more citizens paying attention and taking action can lessen the power and places (e.g., private meetings) where monied interests exercise disproportionate influence.  However, many if not most people are far less engaged in public life (i.e., community and politics, local to global) than private life (i.e., social life with family, friends and entertainment that does not engage people in public life), and there is a large industry that doubly profits from that imbalance between private and public life.  That is, disproportionate citizen engagement in private life means more sales of consumer goods and services (TVs, game consoles, internet and streaming services, home renovations, etc.) and less citizen engagement in the ways that industry influences government in their favor.

Nonetheless, family, friends and entertainment are clearly enormously attractive and important to most if not all people.  The question then is: how can those who care about democracy get more people to engage more in public life?  Learning Life’s answer is, in part, through fun public activities like democracy festivals, and democracy markets.  Festivals and markets recognize and embrace the fact that people frequently enjoy consumer activities (browsing, discussing, testing, buying and using goods and services) and that democracy can, does and should involve such activities.

Markets are concrete or abstract places where buyers and sellers meet and exchange things, like consumers’ money for shop owners’ goods and services, or workers’ labor for employers’ wages and benefits.  Markets have long existed, even before capitalism became widely established in modern economies, owing to what the founding economist Adam Smith called the human penchant to “truck, barter and exchange.”  Capitalism makes that penchant a more central and systematic part of people’s lives, greatly increasing wealth and waste, with all kinds of often adverse environmental and social consequences (air, water and land pollution, depleted resources, climate change, material status competition, conspicuous consumption, insecurities, addictions, etc.).  Clearly then, markets can be destructive forces, but this is arguably not an inevitable feature of markets.

No one in complex modern societies can make all the goods or services they need, so everyone needs to buy from others, and market activity need not undermine social life nor destroy environments if they are made more public rather than private, that is, shaped by, of and for the people.  Markets can be structured to better meet human needs, nourish social life and sustain environments by making business licenses contingent on serving the public good, “internalizing” or including social and environmental costs in the prices of goods and services, making social and environmental costs clear on labels, quickly and strictly prosecuting offenders, engaging wider publics in careful deliberation and planning of new, problematic goods and services, like artificial intelligence, before their approval for sale, etc.  Countless books, articles, reports and proposals have been written on these means for making markets more public.

However, less attention has been given to how markets can also be made more public by (a) forming local associations of businesses, nonprofits and government agencies devoted to democracy, and (b) engaging local publics in these democracy sector associations as consumers, employees and volunteers through regular festivals, markets and other activities.  Such democracy sector associations, formed at local to international levels, can at once help:

  1. Share information of value to association members
  2. Increase traffic, sales, knowledge, volunteers, voters and other goods members value
  3. Bolster local tax revenue through the association’s market activities
  4. Foster collaborations among members for their mutual benefit
  5. Improve relationships with citizens, customers and clients
  6. Strengthen citizen engagement in democracy and community

Regular (annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly, even daily) democracy markets can be a central activity of democracy sector associations, engaging their members with the public in fun ways.  Such markets can be held in the same place — a civic or community center, school, park, company or government office, online — or in different places on a rotating basis to bring attention to different association members’ locations.  As the sixth benefit above indicates, holding regular markets can help deepen public commitment to democracy and community.  This is probably particularly true at local to regional levels, where the public and democracy sector association members can meet and cultivate relationships in-person.

For all the above reasons, Learning Life is excited to pilot a democracy market at the first DMV Democracy Festival in October 2024.  Stay turned to Learning Life’s website for updates on our progress!

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder & Director, Learning Life