The Interplay of the Democracy Dimensions – Complementary and Conflicting (Trade-Off) Relations

1. The Interplay of the Democracy Dimensions – Complementary and Conflicting (Trade-Off) Relations

In contrast to other tools for measuring democracy, the democracy matrix distinguishes two different types of influence of democracy dimensions among themselves (Lauth/Schlenkrich 2018; Lauth 2016). On the one hand, the dimensions reciprocally support one another in the form of complementary effects. On the other hand, they can come into conflict and trade-offs can arise. Both relations will now be described in greater detail.

Complementary Effects of Democracy Dimensions (Basic Concept)

The dimensions are not only necessary for understanding democracy, but they also reciprocally condition and support one another. Dworkin emphasises the close relations between them (1996: 57): “So we have come, by different routes, beginning in different traditions and paradigms, to conceptions of liberty and equality that seem not only compatible but mutually necessary”. In democracy theory, freedom without a minimum of equality is as little thinkable as equality without freedom. Control is required for securing and realising them: control that, in turn, marks the boundaries of democratic rule in the orientation to legally established norms of freedom and equality. This reciprocal reinforcing effect between the dimensions expresses the basic concept of the democracy matrix: all dimensions and hence all 15 matrix fields must be sufficiently functional, in order to classify a country as democratic.

Conflicting Effects of the Democracy Dimensions (Trade-Offs)

Despite this complementary relationship structure, potential tensions are not to be ignored (Diamond/Morlino 2004). The relations are all the more conflictual, the greater the number of presuppositions of a dimension or the more rigid it is. If we consider the degree of development of the dimensions on a scale, the following thesis can be affirmed: whereas in the greater part of the scale, the dimensions reciprocally condition and need one another, competing goals come into conflict when maximum values are strived for.

These reflections on the conflict potential of the three dimensions can be summarised as follows: an “optimal” or “perfect” democracy cannot, in principle, be based on the complete implementation of all three dimensions, but rather gets expressed in a suitable gradual realisation, which preserves a balance between them. Conflicting effects (trade-offs) can also be understood as a normative dilemma for democratic societies. They give expression to a political conflict over values, on which a society has to take a position. Stressing one value, which has been selected in a process of negotiation by the different social forces (Bühlmann et al. 2012: 123), changes the degrees of development of the individual dimensions and their weights relative to one another. The conflicting effects of the dimensions or trade-offs give citizens the opportunity to shape their democracy according to their normative conception: they find themselves “in the downright paradoxical situation of having over and over to come to agreement about the rules of the game without, however, abandoning the game” (Lauth 2004: 99).

Definition of Trade-Offs

In democracies, a relevant trade-off meets the following conditions:

  1. The trade-off is political in nature: just as democracy and democracy quality are purely politically or procedurally defined, trade-offs are only relevant for democracy quality, if they are situated in the political sphere. Hence, economic trade-offs are not considered.
  2. A trade-off arises, because only one institution fulfils a given political function in one dimension. At the same time, this institution necessarily generates contrary or inverse effects in another dimension that is connected to the same function. This relationship means that a choice has to be made between different institutional designs. The resulting institutional solution involves specific advantages, but also disadvantages.
  3. Opposing democracy concepts, which are thus interrelated, deploy different institutional solutions for the same function. These conceptions have an equal normative weight and it is equally possible to justify them. In addition, they are recognised as having the same amount of democracy quality, which means that the conceptions and their institutional decisions are neutral with regard to the quality of democracy. In the end, every conception of democracy emphasises different political values, while others are neglected (e.g. freedom as opposed to equality). This means that they exhibit a different dimensional structuring of the same democratic quality. Hence, due to their connection to different conceptions of democracy, institutions emphasise various democracy dimensions.
  4. If an institution overemphasises one side of the trade-off, inasmuch as it completely ignores the other pole, an overextension of a trade-off occurs, and this harms the basic concept. However, we would no longer speak of a trade-off when a democracy leaves the democratic space (e.g. by overvaluing the control dimension at the cost of the freedom dimension: a constitutional court that acts as a super-legislature). In this case, the basic concept, in the sense of the mutually supporting effects, is damaged.


This interpretation distinguishes between two levels of abstraction: institutions and dimensions. The fundamental claim is that it is not possible completely to realise all three dimensions of the democracy matrix, since they are inevitably tied to conflicting goals. This assumption does not mean, however, that every democratic conception, as liberal or republican democracy, problematises decisions as trade-offs. The reason for this is trivial: such conceptions have already decided upon their preferred dimensions. The idea of trade-offs between different democratic conceptions becomes clear for participants when one attempts completely to realise two different democracy concepts at the same time. The close connection between institutions and dimensions makes possible the measurement of dimensional trade-offs. The tensions between the dimensions get manifest in institutional decisions.


In short, a trade-off in democracies can be defined as follows: a trade-off is an insoluble link between two inverse effects of an institution with regard to two dimensions. This trade-off expresses two contrary, but normatively equal, conceptions of democracy to which the chosen institutions pertain.


Identification of Relevant Trade-Offs

Majoritarian and consensus democracies (Lijphart 2012) are obviously opposed concepts of democracy, which cannot be realised simultaneously. The former focuses on majority rule, the latter on an extended system of reciprocal control. Whereas consensus democracy thus emphasises several veto point structures, which restrict the action of governments (e.g. strong second chambers, coalitions, constitutional courts), the ideal-typical development of majoritarian democratic structures favours structures with more limited oversight capacities. Consensus democracy can also be understood as a constitutional democracy, whose core element is a strong constitutional court. Popular legislative initiatives are included as a further trade-off element.

 Majoritarian DemocracyConsensus Democracy
FunctionEffective government
InstitutionOne-party governmentCoalitions/divided governments
Unicameral systemsBicameral systems
No popular initiativesPopular initiatives
No constitutional courtConstitutional court

The second opposition is the gap between libertarian and egalitarian conceptions of democracy, which relate to the tension between freedom and equality. Whereas egalitarian democracies underscore political equality, libertarian democracy focuses on the realisation of political freedom. This trade-off has triggered profound ideological and philosophical conflicts (Dworkin 1996). The table lists the different institutions that constitute the trade-off between the two dimensions (freedom and equality). These institutions, their effects and the measurement of the trade-offs are discussed in greater detail here.

 Libertarian DemocracyEgalitarian Democracy
FunctionAccess to the government; influence
InstitutionMajoritarian electoral systemProportional electoral system
Voting not compulsoryCompulsory voting
No gender quotasGender quotas
Unregulated financing of political partiesEqual financing of political parties
Unregulated media accessEqual media access



Quality Measuring vs. Trade-Off Indicators

On the level of operationalisation, the conceptual distinction between the complementary and the conflicting effects of the dimensions is captured by two different types of indicators. Quality-measuring indicators undertake regime classification, by referring to the constitutive elements of democracy quality. Hence, their scale comprises the entire spectrum of regimes from autocracies to democracies. The dimensions have a reciprocally supportive effect, and thus maximum values are possible in each dimension. This type of indicator is the point of departure for classical democracy measurement and is used by Polity, Freedom House and the Bertelsmann Transformation Index. However, given the assumption of the complementary effects of the dimensions, no highly differing dimension values are possible here in the domain of working democracies.

Trade-off indicators serve for determining the democracy profile of democracies and, hence, for structuring the democratic domain using the dimensions. The latter no longer provide reciprocal support to one another, but rather are characterised by opposing dependencies in the sense of trade-offs. Therefore, maximum values are not possible simultaneously in each dimension. The conflicting effects are not characterized by generally differing degrees of democracy quality, but rather by the distribution of democracy quality in different dimensions: whereas in the case of the quality-measuring indicators, differing degrees of development of the dimensions are the result of transformative and hence qualitatively gradual differences (quality type), in the case of the trade-off indicators, differences in the dimensions represent qualitatively equivalent differences between dimensions whose goals are in socially-defined conflict and that are reflected in a democratic institutional set (democracy profile).

Quality-Measuring IndicatorsTrade-Off Indicators
Complementary effects of the dimensionsConflicting effects of the dimensions (value conflicts)
Universality: autocracies and democraciesOnly democracies
Gradual quality differences in regimesEquivalent quality differences in democracies
One-dimensional interpretationTwo-dimensional interpretation
Quality typeDemocracy profile

Hence, trade-off indicators are interpreted in a different way than quality-measuring indicators: whereas quality-measuring indicators experience a one-dimensional evaluation going from a low to a high value for democracy quality, trade-off indicators are always interpreted with respect to two dimensions in the sense of a two-dimensional interpretation, such that the two ends of the scale stand for different dimensions. One extreme represents high values in one dimension and low values in another dimension – and vice-versa for the other extreme of the scale. The chosen trade-off relationships are found here.

2. References

Bühlmann, Marc, Wolfgang Merkel, Lisa Müller, Heiko Giebler and Bernhard Weßels. 2012. Demokratiebarometer: ein neues Instrument zur Messung von Demokratiequalität. In: ZfVP 6, pp. 115-159.

Diamond, Larry and Leonardo Morlino. 2004. The Quality of Democracy. An Overview. In: Journal of Democracy 15, pp. 20-31.

Dworkin, Ronald. 1996. Do liberty and equality conflict? In: Barker, Paul [ed.]: Living as equals. Oxford, pp. 39-57.

Lauth, Hans-Joachim and Oliver Schlenkrich. 2018. Making Trade-Offs Visible: Theoretical and Methodological Considerations about the Relationship between Dimensions and Institutions of Democracy and Empirical Findings. In: Politics and Governance 6, pp. 78–91.

Lauth, Hans-Joachim. 2016. The Internal Relationships of the Dimensions of Democracy: The Relevance of Trade-Offs for Measuring the Quality of Democracy. In: International Political Science Review 37, pp. 606-617.

Lauth, Hans-Joachim. 2004. Demokratie und Demokratiemessung. Wiesbaden.

Lijphart, Arend. 2012. Patterns of democracy. Government forms and performance in thirty-six countries (2nd edition). New Haven, CT and London.