Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 5: The desire for equality
October 10, 2007
In the first half of chapter 2 of “On Political Equality” Dahl spends 14 pages talking about the “Ideal Democracy“, “Actual Democratic Systems“, and “Democratic rights.” Then, Dahl moves on to describe what he sees as the forces leading to political equality – their causes and effects. I find this part of the book confusing and aimless – it is a mix of superficial historical, theoretical and psychological analyses.
It seems a fact of life that people are unhappy about inequality within a group of peers. This applies to inequality in general, rather than to political equality only. Dahl’s example of monkeys being upset when they are dealt with less generously than other monkeys (p. 37) is an example of this phenomenon. It is curious that Dahl does not notice (or at least does not comment) that the equality in question is not political equality, but economic equality.
It also appears, however, that the reference group that one compares one’s conditions to, the peers, may be only a subset of the people. Some people are viewed as not being comparable to oneself – often some are viewed as naturally deserving less and others as naturally deserving more. If not a matter of deserts, at least the situation where some others get less (of something) and some others still get more is seen as acceptable.
Instead of focusing, then, on the desire for equality, it would be much more informative to examine how and when someone comes to see oneself as superior, equal or inferior to others. How and why those views change over time, and how those views can be mobilized into action. Dahl’s description is much too sketchy and unfocused to be of much value.