Non-intimate democracy

December 14, 2007

Dahl presents a list of the conditions for Ideal Democracy. Trimmed to its core conditions, the conditions are1:

  • Gaining enlightened understanding (condition U),
  • Final control of the agenda (A), and
  • Equality in voting (V),

defining the UAV model of the democracy. The UAV model can occur within an intimate group: a family, a group of friends, a social club, or a band of foragers. There, it is based upon the possibility of all-to-all interaction and of a considerable weight for the single member in shaping policy decisions taken by the group.

The two barriers for extending the model of intimate democracy to a large scale democratic society are thus:

  1. In a large group, most members can be heard only by a small minority in the group. This makes it impossible to allow all members who wish to put items on the agenda to so do. It also makes enlightened understanding less likely since achieving a good understanding of an issue requires hearing out all points of view on the issue.
  2. In a large group, the median political influence of a member is small, therefore there is very little motivation for most members to become politically informed or active in any way. Without being informed and without political activity, most members do not gain enlightened understanding of issues on the agenda.

Thus, only condition V is not made intractable by size. This is a relatively simple technical condition. Whether the decision is on a specific matter of public policy as in a referendum or the decision is on the selection of a delegate, it is not too difficult to achieve a semblance of equality in voting.

It is therefore on this condition that all current “democratic” systems and most of the “democratic” rhetoric focus. It is clear, however, that that condition alone guarantees little in terms of political equality.

Granting that in non-intimate groups political equality cannot be achieved by simply using the methods used within intimate groups leaves us with the question of what could be done instead: “What is the best way to achieve, or get as close as is possible to, political equality in large groups?” This, of course, is a question that has been given a lot of scrutiny since the 18th century. It is also a question that was given some thought to by the ancient Athenians – not so much the philosophers, who were mainly busy showing that political equality is not a good idea, but by the citizens of Athens as they continuously made changes to their constitution, achieving and maintaining for about 200 years broad distribution of political power.

The modern answers are very different from the Athenian answer. In fact, it seems that the Athenian answer was completely ignored by modern thinkers, without so much as a reason for the dismissal. This indicates that with all the attention given to the issue in modern time, a methodical analysis of the set of possibilities for achieving political equality has not been undertaken. Assisted by ignorance and vanity, I will attempt to embark on such a task in future posts.


Note:[1] The conditions I eliminated are

  • effective participation,
  • inclusion, and
  • fundamental rights.

“Effective participation” is the condition that members must be able to represent their views and interests to other members of the group. This condition can be deduced from conditions U and A, since it would be difficult to gain a thorough understanding of issues and control the agenda without discussions in which all the members of the group can express their points of view freely. Furthermore, in the unlikely case that conditions U and A can be somehow achieved without it, effective participation would become unnecessary.

“Inclusion” simply means that the other conditions apply to all the members of the group – it is thus not a condition in itself, but rather an explication of the scope of the other conditions. “Fundamental rights” indicates that members need to be able to do certain things (“rights”) in order for the other conditions to hold. These rights are thus deduced from the other conditions, and therefore need not be stated separately as a condition.

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4 Responses to “Non-intimate democracy”


  1. […] hostility expressed in many Athenian sources, all of whom were written by members of the aristocracy1. The political ascendence of capitalists coincided with the obsolescence of the traditional way of […]


  2. […] local matters, I do see decision making at the local level – i.e., at a level which allows for the UAV model of democracy to work – as superior to decision making by delegates. The problem lies in the fact that decision […]


  3. […] October 29, 2009 This post is aimed at being the first part in a long-delayed “attempt to embark on” “a methodical analysis of the set of possibilities for achi…. […]


  4. […] Democracy, elections, sortition and scale: Non-intimate democracy […]

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