Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 11: “The political institutions of representative democracy”
December 24, 2007
Before conflating eklogecracy with democratic government, Dahl devotes a short section (pp. 12-14) to arguing that certain institutions or patterns, characteristic of eklogecracy, are necessary (but not sufficient) for democracy. He lists 6 such patterns:
- Elective representatives
- Free, fair and frequent elections
- Freedom of expression
- Alternative sources of information
- Associational autonomy
- Inclusion of all members of the demos
Dahl sees a system possessing these patterns as approximating Ideal Democracy. A more realistic evaluation of those patterns – at least as they are commonly interpreted and implemented in the West – is that they form a system in which whoever can command the attention of large numbers of people possesses great political power.
Each of the six patterns has two aspects: passive and active – the first applying to the masses, the other to a political elite.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
November 5, 2007
Next on Dahl’s list of barriers to political equality are “limits on time” and the “dilemma of size”. Again, unfortunately, the discussion does not refer explicitly to the interaction of these two issues with the five conditions of Ideal Democracy. Here are those arguments given by Dahl that can be restated (as far as I can see) in such terms:
- Since time is a scarce resource for any person, the time most people invest in political participation (expressing themselves, trying to convince or organize others) is small. This reduces its effectiveness of the participation of most people, and gives an advantage to those who do put in more time.
- Listening to the ideas and arguments made by all other citizens is unpracticable (over 80 hours) even if people make their point briefly (within 10 minutes) and the number of citizens is small (500 people). Thus, if gaining enlightened understanding of a matter depends on hearing the opinions of all citizens to on the issue, then inherent time limits make it is impossible to gain enlightened understanding on even a small number of issues.
- Dahl claims that “[e]xcept in units of miniscule size, citizens must delegate considerable authority to others[.]” However, “[b]ecause delegates have greater opportunities to exercise direct influence over decisions than ordinary citizens, their authority poses problems for political equality.” To put it a bit more bluntly: delegation (at least the standard, mandatory, irrevocable delegation) is diametrically opposite to equality in voting, since on any specific issue the delegates have votes and the public at large does not. Secondly, delegation (and this point seems to hold for any kind of delegation) runs contrary to the notion of control of the agenda by the people. The delegates alone determine what comes up for votes, the people do not.
Chapter 5 of “On Political Equality” – Political Equality, Human Nature and Society – discusses 6 items that Dahl sees as being barriers to achieving political equality. These are:
- The distribution of political resources, skills and incentives,
- Irreducible limits on time,
- The size of political systems,
- The prevalence of market economies,
- The existence of international systems that may be important but are not democratic, and
- The inevitability of severe crises.
The natural course for Dahl to take when establishing the effect of the barriers would be to show how each of them diminishes the possibility of achieving one of the 5 conditions of Ideal Democracy. Disappointingly, Dahl does not do that. His discussion is therefore unfocused and often unconvincing. I will review Dahl’s arguments and attempt to fill in the missing analysis as to how the issue bear on the conditions for democracy.
In the first half of chapter 2 of “On Political Equality” Dahl spends 14 pages talking about the “Ideal Democracy“, “Actual Democratic Systems“, and “Democratic rights.” Then, Dahl moves on to describe what he sees as the forces leading to political equality – their causes and effects. I find this part of the book confusing and aimless – it is a mix of superficial historical, theoretical and psychological analyses.
It seems a fact of life that people are unhappy about inequality within a group of peers. This applies to inequality in general, rather than to political equality only. Dahl’s example of monkeys being upset when they are dealt with less generously than other monkeys (p. 37) is an example of this phenomenon. It is curious that Dahl does not notice (or at least does not comment) that the equality in question is not political equality, but economic equality.
It also appears, however, that the reference group that one compares one’s conditions to, the peers, may be only a subset of the people. Some people are viewed as not being comparable to oneself – often some are viewed as naturally deserving less and others as naturally deserving more. If not a matter of deserts, at least the situation where some others get less (of something) and some others still get more is seen as acceptable.
Instead of focusing, then, on the desire for equality, it would be much more informative to examine how and when someone comes to see oneself as superior, equal or inferior to others. How and why those views change over time, and how those views can be mobilized into action. Dahl’s description is much too sketchy and unfocused to be of much value.
Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 4: “Democratic rights” and limits on the power of the demos
October 1, 2007
The scheme of Ideal Democracy determines that the democratic group must be arranged in certain ways, so that the scheme can be followed. For example, all members of the democratic group must have enough time, resources and authority to obtain and analyze the information needed to gain an understanding of all the political issues on the agenda. These are the inherent “democratic rights”. Other things that are usually associated with “democracy” or with “open society”, such as freedom of religion or property rights, are not inherent democratic rights.
Two rules of Ideal Democracy, final control of the agenda and equality in voting, secure the omnipotence of the majority of the members of the group. Like any statement of omnipotence, the omnipotence of the group can come into conflict with any rule or structure, including self-conflicts.
It is easy to imagine situations where the omnipotence of the majority comes into conflict with the other rules of democracy, abridging the democratic rights associated with those rules. For example, a majority may decide that certain pieces of information, which may be relevant to gaining an understanding of some political issue (such as military intelligence reports), will not be made widely available. In such a case, the right to determine policy by a majority of votes conflicts with the right to gain an understanding of political issues.