Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 9: Barriers to political equality (cont’d)

November 10, 2007

The last two sections discussing Dahl’s list of barriers to political equality are titled “the need for non-democratic international systems” and “crises”.

I find the arguments in both sections unconvincing. Dahl is essentially trying to argue that phenomena that are observable when looking at existing national and international governmental bodies are inevitable and are inherent to democracy. Dahl appears to gloss over the flaws of his arguments because, despite his expressed qualms about those systems, he implicitly accepts Western government systems as the model of what a democratic government is, and thus sees the reality of those systems as being a logical consequence of democracy.

Regarding international systems: International government systems are useful. Just as having a centralized national government is necessary for carrying out many popular (that is, democratic) policies, having centralized international decision making bodies is necessary for many global issues. Putting this in terms of the conditions for Ideal Democracy, international governing bodies are necessary for the people to be able to control the international agenda.

Dahl sees international government systems as a barrier to political equality because “decisions of international bodies […] probably cannot be made democratically”. To support this claim he argues that issues of complexity, size and diversity are significantly more problematic at the international level than at the national level. I cannot see why, and Dahl does not explain. There is no qualitative difference between global issues and national issues – both involve highly complex matters, influencing very large populations who have diverse ideas and backgrounds. All the problems associated with having a democratic government at a large scale exist even at much smaller scales than the national, so that the move from national to the international does not introduce any significant new issues.

Regarding crises, Dahl makes the claim that “even in a country where democratic institutions and supportive political culture are long-standing and relatively sturdy, a severe crisis is likely to bring about a shift of power away from elected representatives to the executive – from the Parliament or Congress to the prime minister or president.”

Dahl does not attempt to make it clear why a shift in power from a set of elected officials (legislature) to a single elected official (executive) is necessarily anti-democratic. It clearly reduces the political power of the legislature, but whether it makes any difference in the power of the average citizen, is a more difficult question.

Putting this issue aside, Dahl may be seen as making a more generic statement – that during crises political power tends to become more concentrated. Dahl, however, does not attempt to substantiate this claim, and at least one important historical precedent shows him to be completely wrong. The polis of Athens, during the 200 years of its independence following the reforms of Cleisthenes, was in an almost continual state of war, moving from one existential crisis to another. And yet, political power in Athens stayed at least as broadly distributed throughout that time as it was immediately following the reforms. Democracy was finally terminated due to the occupation of a foreign power. This example alone is enough to make one suspect that political equality is a self-sustaining circumstance with enough stability to withstand severe crises, and any tendencies toward concentration of power during a crisis indicate a weakness, or unevenness in power, that pre-dated the crisis.

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