Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 7: Barriers to political equality (cont’d)

November 5, 2007

Next on Dahl’s list of barriers to political equality are “limits on time” and the “dilemma of size”. Again, unfortunately, the discussion does not refer explicitly to the interaction of these two issues with the five conditions of Ideal Democracy. Here are those arguments given by Dahl that can be restated (as far as I can see) in such terms:

  • Since time is a scarce resource for any person, the time most people invest in political participation (expressing themselves, trying to convince or organize others) is small. This reduces its effectiveness of the participation of most people, and gives an advantage to those who do put in more time.
  • Listening to the ideas and arguments made by all other citizens is unpracticable (over 80 hours) even if people make their point briefly (within 10 minutes) and the number of citizens is small (500 people). Thus, if gaining enlightened understanding of a matter depends on hearing the opinions of all citizens to on the issue, then inherent time limits make it is impossible to gain enlightened understanding on even a small number of issues.
  • Dahl claims that “[e]xcept in units of miniscule size, citizens must delegate considerable authority to others[.]” However, “[b]ecause delegates have greater opportunities to exercise direct influence over decisions than ordinary citizens, their authority poses problems for political equality.” To put it a bit more bluntly: delegation (at least the standard, mandatory, irrevocable delegation) is diametrically opposite to equality in voting, since on any specific issue the delegates have votes and the public at large does not. Secondly, delegation (and this point seems to hold for any kind of delegation) runs contrary to the notion of control of the agenda by the people. The delegates alone determine what comes up for votes, the people do not.

The first issue does not seem a very formidable barrier. Society can be arranged so that all citizens have a significant amount of leisure time available. In such a situation, any citizen who wishes to put time into political activity can do so. Even under such an arrangement, some people may have more time available for political activity than others do, but such inequality would be relatively minor, and could not be expected to cause severe inequality in political power.

The last two points, however, are of considerable weight. The impossibility of discussion in large groups makes the notion of extending the model of intimate democratic groups to large groups a fantasy, and clearly, delegation is not a solution in the strong sense of preserving the 5 conditions of Ideal Democracy.

These issues, together with the issue of citizen motivation for political activity, seem to be inherent, insurmountable obstacles to the theoretical possibility of extending Ideal Democracy to large groups and cast serious doubts on the possibility of achieving meaningful democracy within large groups at all.


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