Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 10: “Actual Democratic Systems”

November 18, 2007

The first 9 parts of this series present a review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality” which is focused on purely theoretical aspects of his arguments. I now wish to pick up issues mentioned by Dahl which are associated with the relationship between democracy or political equality and the reality of Western Style Government Systems (WSGSs).

Dahl groups WSGSs and the Athenian government system in a category which he calls “Actual Democratic Systems” (p. 10). He makes the argument that “no actual political system is likely to meet fully the requirements of the ideal” and presents both WSGSs and the Athenian system as being approximations to an Ideal Democracy (a system which achieves a high degree of political equality).

Although I find Dahl’s analysis of the barriers to achieving Ideal Democracy at a state level to be flawed, I think the conclusion is correct: Democracy cannot work in a large group in the same way that it does within a small group and thus alternative approaches are need. However, I see the Athenian system as being fundamentally different from WSGSs, and deserving separate treatment.

Dahl does not spend much time dealing with the Athenian system. He does indicate that in his opinion classical Athens’ smaller size made it possible to have a system that was closer to the ideal, and that it could function in much the same way as an intimate democratic unit functions.

This is a rather naive perception of the Athenian system. Having about 30,000 citizens (counting only adult males who were fully enfranchised) makes intimate-like dynamics impossible in theory, and in any case the historical record (see for example, H.M.Hanson, The Athenian Democracy at the Age of Demosthenes) shows that Athens was very far indeed from being a primitive intimate democracy.

The differences between the Athenian system and WSGSs are useful in the study of those systems, and it is therefore a drawback of Dahl’s text that he makes no such comparisons. I will use such comparisons when reviewing Dahl’s analysis of the WSGS model.


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