Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 1: The uneasy relationship between democracy and political equality

September 3, 2007

There exists no reasonable definition of democracy except for being a system of government in which all those subject to the government are politically equal – that is, have equal influence on government policy. Standard dictionary definitions, such as Merriam-Webster’s:

1 a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections,

are uninformative platitudes (“government by the people”, “government in which the supreme power is vested in the people”), misleading (“rule of the majority”), wrong, or a mix of all of those (“system of representation involving periodically held free elections”).

Dahl comes quite close to defining democracy in terms of political equality, but for some reason does not manage to quite do it. He leaves “democracy” undefined, opting instead to define “ideal democracy” and “actual democratic systems”. It is intriguing to see how Dahl dances around the formula “democracy = political equality”, without ever actually getting to make that statement:

p. 1: The expansion of democratic ideas […] has all but converted that subversive claim [that adult human beings are entitled to be treated as political equals] into a common place. […] Yet even in democratic countries […] the gap between the goal of political equality and its actual achievement is huge.

p. 2: I’m going to being by assuming that the ideal of democracy presupposes that political equality is desirable. Consequently, if we believe in democracy as a goal or idea, then implicitly we must view political equality as a goal or ideal.

p. 6: It almost goes without saying that the only political system for governing a state that derives its legitimacy and its political institutions from the idea of political equality is a democracy.

Why, then, won’t Dahl just go ahead and assert that democracy is a government based on political equality, rather than imply a close, non-definitive, connection? One possible answer is that doing so would put him on a risky path. Defining democracy in terms of political equality means that in order to find which countries are democratic, measures of political equality have to be defined and applied. Dahl may find that he is either unable to do so, or unhappy with the results.

As it is, Dahl puts political equality as an ideal, but defines “actual democratic systems” in different terms – ones that guarantee convenient results.

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5 Responses to “Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 1: The uneasy relationship between democracy and political equality”


  1. […] seem to rise naturally from conditions which prevail in face-to-face, intimate democratic (or, equivalently, politically equal) groups (with, say, under 10 members) […]


  2. […] thing, conflating the two leaves Dahl no room to envision a democratic system that is not a WSGS. Again, it may be speculated that making the distinction any sharper than he has would have moved him out […]


  3. Does he define political equality? “Everyone gets one vote,” perhaps? “Everyone has the same rights,” perhaps?

  4. yoramgat Says:

    I just had a look to see if I can find a definition in the book – I couldn’t.

    “Everyone gets on vote” would certainly not do, since, as Dahl’s discussion shows it is far from being a sufficient condition for political equality. “Everyone has the same rights” is too vague. It may be interpreted broadly (everyone gets exactly the same things) or narrowly (I have the right to beat you up, you have the right to beat me up; it just so happens that I am stronger than you are – tough luck for you).

    I would say that political equality means that “the preferences of all citizens have the same weight in determining public policy”.


  5. […] Democracy is political equality: Dahl’s “On Political Equality” […]

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