Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 6: Barriers to political equality

November 1, 2007

Chapter 5 of “On Political Equality” – Political Equality, Human Nature and Society – discusses 6 items that Dahl sees as being barriers to achieving political equality. These are:

  1. The distribution of political resources, skills and incentives,
  2. Irreducible limits on time,
  3. The size of political systems,
  4. The prevalence of market economies,
  5. The existence of international systems that may be important but are not democratic, and
  6. The inevitability of severe crises.

The natural course for Dahl to take when establishing the effect of the barriers would 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 unconvincing. I will review Dahl’s arguments and attempt to fill in the missing analysis as to how the issue bear on the conditions for democracy.

1. The distribution of political resources, skills and incentives

Resources – Dahl defines these as things that can be used to influence others and provides a list of examples (money, information, time, understanding, food, threat of force, jobs, friendships, social standing, effective rights[?], votes) and suggest that the list can be extended substantially. The effects of inequality in votes is clear. Equality in votes is, however, relatively easy to achieve. The threat of force can, of course, be used to subvert any of the conditions for democracy. It is relatively easy to use that threat to silence particular members of the group. However, without an all out campaign of terror it would be difficult to threaten a large population of citizens which would be necessary to undermine a society in which political power is distributed fairly evenly.

Other resources in Dahl’s list are only of substantial importance (i.e., able to threaten the conditions for democracy) when some members of the group are deprived of them while others can distribute them. If most members of the group have a safe source of food, for example, having a large store of food to distribute would not bestow significant political power on the owner.

Inequality in time and information resources are dealt with separately below.

As for social standing, I would contend that maintaining elite social standing without some institutional support is difficult unless some things of value are provided to the members of the group. Rigid social stratification is therefore a product of an undemocratic society rather than a cause of it.

The conclusion of the discussion in this subsection is that in order to maintain a democratic society it is essential that the lives and livelihoods of the members are not in jeopardy – physical safety, access to food, shelter, etc. are available to all. Without a guarantee of these resources it is easy for members or subgroups to threaten or bribe large parts of the population and thus to wield disproportional political power.

Knowledge – Dahl’s argument is that many members of the public cannot comprehend the effects of public policy well enough to be able to gain enlightened understanding of certain issues. Dahl cites surveys showing that the public is uninformed about many policy issues as evidence that lack of knowledge is a significant barrier to democracy.

It is not clear whether Dahl thinks that some specific issues are too complex to be widely understood or that any specific issue may be understood, but the great number of issues makes understanding all of them impossible. I find the second argument more convincing – I think that with enough resources and incentives, most citizens can gain enlightened understanding of any single issue. The important point is, however, that it makes no sense for most citizens to put significant effort in gaining enlightened understanding of an issue when they have very little influence on decision making regarding that issue. In a democracy their influence is equal to that of their fellow citizens, so that when the number of citizens is large, that influence is tiny. This is the reason that most citizens do not bother to become knowledgeable about public policy, as the evidence Dahl refers to shows.

The “knowledge barrier” is therefore a significant barrier, but it is really a barrier of motivation (or of incentives, but not in the personal ambition sense used by Dahl and discussed below). When political power is equally distributed in a large group, it is irrational to spend a lot of effort studying, or taking any other political action – since the payoff is minuscule. [This (I understand, without actually reading the associated material) is one of the main ideas explored in economic models of electoral government, associated with the name “public choice” and “rational ignorance” and with the work of Anthony Downs as well as many others.]

Skills and incentives – In political skills Dahl seems to refer to oratorical skills and skills of political organization or deal-making and by incentives Dahl seems to mean political ambition.

Dahl’s intuition, that such elements are a barrier to democracy, stems from experience with oligarchical organizations, in which a person, through skills and ambition can put himself in position of power, in which he has a wide audience for his ideas, or in which he can organize other powerful players. However, in a functioning democratic society, having communication and organizational skills and having political ambition do not take you very far, since there are no positions of power to be acquired. People can be politically more active than others, and can be more effective in convincing and organizing other people, but as long as each person gets to have his ideas heard on an equal footing with others, gets to put items on the agenda, and gets an equal vote, such advantages have limited effect and little room to grow into significant political power.

To summarize this section – two important points have been raised:

  1. In a democracy, a certain quality of life must be guaranteed to all citizens, and,
  2. Lack of motivation to become informed about public policy, think independently about alternatives, or carry out any burdensome political activity is an inherent barrier to political equality whenever the political unit is not “intimately small” (with say, less than 1000 citizens).
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3 Responses to “Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 6: Barriers to political equality”


  1. […] 5th, 2007 Next on Dahl’s list of barriers to political equality are “limits on time” and the “dilemma of size”. Again, […]


  2. […] 7th, 2007 The next item on Dahl’s list of barriers to political equality is the presence of a market […]


  3. […] 10th, 2007 The last two sections discussing Dahl’s list of barriers to political equality are titled “the need for non-democratic international systems” and […]

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