Democracy omnibus, part 1/2

February 9, 2008

This post collects some ideas that I had originally planned to develop into posts but have given up for the time being on fleshing them up completely.

Dahl’s “On Political Equality”: My series on this book retires. Here is the beginning of what was meant to be the 12th part of the series:

      Under the heading “The growth of political equality” (pp. 22-24) and elsewhere in the book (e.g., “Gain for political equality”, pp. 47-49), Dahl discusses what he sees as change in government systems toward more equal distribution of political power.

      The events Dahl discusses actually fall into two categories: the first is equalization of living conditions – such as those of the blacks in the US during the 60s, the second is the spread of eklogecracy (WSGS), and increasing inclusiveness of voting rights. While developments of both types can be seen as implying increased political equality, this implication is far from obvious. Desegregation and equalization of living conditions may happen without increase in political rights. The link between being able to cast a vote occasionally and having political power is even more doubtful. For one thing – the two indicators can easily go in opposite directions: more voting rights coinciding with decreased living conditions for some segments of the population typified some countries in the post-Soviet era.

      Dahl resorting to proxies, and dubious ones at that, to measure political equality, is due the non-existence of direct measurements. Measuring political power can be difficult even in small groups (did certain ideas become accepted because of their eminent utility or because of deference to those promoting those ideas?). In large groups, where delegation of power occurs, some people will have, at least formally, many orders of magnitude more power than others.

      I was considering suggesting a measure of power which has the advantage of being a direct measure, but have the shortcoming of being based on considering a hypothetical situation: the power of a person or of a subset of people is proportional to the significance of long term policy change that would result from his or its removal from the group.

      On the matter of virtue-based and the rewards-based theories of elective delegation:

      • To what extent is virtue inherent in people rather than people responding to incentives and norms of the system?
      • For the rewards based theory to make sense, there must be a reward in being re-elected. Three types of such rewards come to mind – the first is reward in honor and appreciation by others (either for the good works done as an elected official, or for the mere achievement of being re-elected), the second is specific material rewards granted by law to the re-elected officials, the third being the ability to use the political power of the elected to further their own interests.

      The ideology and factual accuracy of the Federal Papers: In the Federalist Paper #10 Madison talks about “pure democracy” which he defines as:

      [A] society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person[.]

      Madison intends this definition to include Athens, and differentiate it from his “republic” which relies on delegation. This is erroneous. The Athenian democratic system relied heavily on delegation. In fact, the idea of delegation is explicit in one of the basic mottos of Athenian democracy: “rule and be ruled in turn.”

      Several interesting side issues crop up in this context: The first is Madison’s hostility to the idea of political equality. Madison goes on to lament the shortcomings of “pure democracy” and blames it for the troubles of those governments based on that arrangement:

      [S]uch democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths,

      and explains that support for political equality stems from a misconception:

      Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

      The second issue is that Madison’s claim about “pure democracies” is flatly contradicted by Federalist paper 63 which states:

      In the most pure democracies of Greece, many of the executive functions were performed, not by the people themselves, but by officers elected by the people, and REPRESENTING the people in their EXECUTIVE capacity.

      The third is the fact that while #63 is correct about the use of delegation of power in Greek democracies, it is in error regarding the method of selection of the delegates:

      Subsequent to that period [Solon’s reforms], we find an assembly, first of four, and afterwards of six hundred members, annually ELECTED BY THE PEOPLE; and PARTIALLY representing them in their LEGISLATIVE capacity, since they were not only associated with the people in the function of making laws, but had the exclusive right of originating legislative propositions to the people.

      Whether through ignorance or deceit the author(s) of #63 claim that the council of 500 (the boule) was elected – in fact, it was selected by lot.

      How necessary is it for a democratic group to have economic equality? I believe that if a reasonable standard of living is guaranteed to each member, then a group can tolerate rather high levels of economic inequality and still remain strongly democratic. Eklogecracy is inherently non-democratic, and it is this fact that generates the economic inequality, rather than vice versa.

      Freedom of speech: The use of a mass media channel to gain widespread attention to the ideas held by a certain person, such as may be done by an advertiser, an editor or a regular columnist is obviously a privilege that most people do not have. It is therefore absurd to call it a right, since if it were a right it would be one that is much more regularly abridged than respected. Such acts should be prevented rather than protected by law. In a democratic group, control of mass media is regulated by the use of rotation or allotment.

      Xenophon on force and persuasion: “[T]he man who ventures to use force needs no small number of allies, but the man who can persuade needs no one.” Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1.2.11

          To rule and be ruled in turn: According to modern thought, freedom is expressed by selecting the rulers. The Greek notion is that freedom is achieved by taking turns at ruling. I find this idea much more natural. Aristotle puts it as follows (Politics VI, 2):

          The basis of a democratic state is liberty; which, according to the common opinion of men, can only be enjoyed in such a state; this they affirm to be the great end of every democracy. One principle of liberty is for all to rule and be ruled in turn, and indeed democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality; whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just. Every citizen, it is said, must have equality, and therefore in a democracy the poor have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme. This, then, is one note of liberty which all democrats affirm to be the principle of their state. Another is that a man should live as he likes. This, they say, is the privilege of a freeman, since, on the other hand, not to live as a man likes is the mark of a slave. This is the second characteristic of democracy, whence has arisen the claim of men to be ruled by none, if possible, or, if this is impossible, to rule and be ruled in turns; and so it contributes to the freedom based upon equality.

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          5 Responses to “Democracy omnibus, part 1/2”


          1. […] is interesting to note the connections of this issue to those of the definition of free speech and of the function of peer review in academia. Posted in academia, democracy, elitism […]


          2. […] 17, 2008 Bringing the democracy omnibus to a […]


          3. […] 6, 2008 In a previous comment I discussed the possible types of rewards that may collected by a re-elected delegate. These are […]


          4. […] 9, 2008 While economic equality may not be a necessary condition for a well-functioning democracy, in an eklogecracy an economic advantage translates to a political advantage. While there are other […]

          5. Yoram Gat Says:

            The fact that the council of 500 was selected by lot was mentioned by John Adams in his survey of Ancient Democratical Republics:

            [Solon] instituted a senate, of one hundred persons out of each or the four tribes; and this great council, to which he committed many of the powers of the archons, he hoped would have a weight which all the archons together had not been able to preserve. It was afterwards increased to five hundred, when the tribes were increased to ten, fifty out of each, and was then called the council of five hundred. They were appointed annually by lot; but certain legal qualifications were required, as well as a blameless life.

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