Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 8: Barriers to political equality (cont’d)

November 7, 2007

The next item on Dahl’s list of barriers to political equality is the presence of a market economy.

Dahl argues that a 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 economic decision-making on a group-wide scale, a centralized economy inevitably leads to a concentration of political power in the few hands of those who do manage the economy.

Having made this convincing argument, Dahl then equates decentralized economy with “a market economy” (i.e., the economic structure as it exists in Western countries today) and goes on to state two disadvantages of market economy: infliction of harm on many citizens (poverty, insecurity of livelihood, and associated miseries), and the creation of great economic inequalities, that, he argued before (unconvincingly, in my opinion), cause great political inequalities.

This second step – assuming that a decentralized economy must be similar to “market economy” – is, of course, false. For one thing, even within the existing range of economies in the West there is a wide variety, so the term “market economy” is not well defined. But also, it is quite easy to imagine some radical changes of “market economy” which would have the potential, at least, to resolve the main problems associated with it without introducing any significant centralization of the economy. An unconditional guarantee of a reasonable standard of living to any citizen would be one such possible change.

I therefore conclude that “market economy” (in the form we know it – i.e., with the associated poverty and almost ubiquitous economic insecurity) is not a necessary feature of a democracy, and that its harmful effects cannot, therefore, be seen as inherent barriers to democracy.

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