Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 2: “Ideal Democracy”

September 11, 2007

Dahl’s description of the Ideal Democracy includes 5 conditions which are fulfilled by a society in which people are politically equal. He seems to consider these conditions to be both necessary and sufficient:

  1. Effective participation
  2. Equality in voting
  3. Gaining enlighten understanding
  4. Final control of the agenda
  5. Inclusion

The inclusion condition and and the equality in voting condition are straightforward. Inclusion mandates that everybody within the democratic group is subject to (or enjoys) the same conditions of political equality (or, for Dahl, the same 4 conditions 1.-4.). While there can be, and there often is, disagreement about who should be included in a democratic group, it is clear that for political equality to exist within a certain group, the rules of regulation of political power must be applied equally to all the members of a group. Equality mandates that whenever a formal vote is taken to decide on a certain policy, all members can vote, and their votes have the same weight.

The remaining three conditions seem to rise naturally from conditions which prevail in face-to-face, intimate democratic (or, equivalently, politically equal) groups (with, say, under 10 members) .

In such groups,

  • All members can make “their views about what the policy” on any important issue “known to [the] other members of the group”, which is how Dahl defines effective participation.
  • Any member can probe any other member to obtain information needed to understand an issue facing the group. In this way, any member can come to understand the issue approximately as well as any other member of the group (enlightened understanding).
  • Any member can put any item on the agenda and have a decision taken on it. This is a strict form of control of the agenda by the group members, ensuring that the opportunity for putting policy changes to a vote is available. This fulfills Dahl’s condition of final control of the agenda.

Interestingly, Dahl does not require that members can communicate their ideas to “the other members”, being satisfied with merely “other members”, although it seems clear that if someone is only able to make some members of the group aware of his ideas while others can reach everybody, or a significantly larger subset, then political equality does not prevail. Even if everybody can communicate with equally sized subsets, if the subsets are very small compared to the size of the group, it becomes difficult to coordinate ideas, reducing the control of the agenda. It seems that requiring communication with all other members, or at least a substantial subset of them, is necessary.

Dahl also formulates enlightened understanding and control of the agenda in somewhat weaker, or more ambiguous, forms than those that exist in intimate democratic groups. Enlightened understanding does not require, according to Dahl, the right to probe other members, but only the existence of “equal and effective opportunities for learning about relevant alternative policies and their likely consequences”. Control of the agenda merely requires that policy changes can be made if the group members choose to do so, but does not require that any member can bring up any item. These looser definitions hint at the possibility that those rules can be applied to non-intimate groups, although Dahl does not tell how.

I find the case for Dahl’s 5 points to be convincing (after inserting the missing requirement of near universal communication, as mentioned above). It is hard to imagine political equality without those conditions, and hard to imagine those conditions holding without political equality existing.

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6 Responses to “Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 2: “Ideal Democracy””


  1. […] 26th, 2007 Having discussed briefly his rather convincing concept of Ideal Democracy, Dahl quickly moves on to what he calls “Actual Democratic Systems,” being mainly […]


  2. […] rules of Ideal Democracy, final control of the agenda and equality in voting, secure the omnipotence of the majority of the […]


  3. […] be to show how each of them diminishes the possibility of achieving one of the 5 conditions of Ideal Democracy. Disappointingly, Dahl does not do that. His discussion is therefore unfocused and often […]


  4. […] decentralized economy is essential for political equality. His argument, when restated in terms of the conditions for Ideal Democracy, is that since it is virtually impossible for the people to participate in an ongoing process of […]


  5. […] 14, 2007 Dahl presents a list of the conditions for Ideal Democracy. Trimmed to its core conditions, the conditions […]


  6. […] evolved in Dahl’s own usage from a prescription for democracy, akin to his prescription of Ideal Democracy (A preface to democratic theory, 1956), to an axiomatized description of something similar to a […]

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