Friday, December 29, 2006

Political Equality and Equal Chances

Political equality requires that each citizen has an equal chance of exerting political influence, in some sense. Aggregating equally weighted votes, one per person, is a familiar way of doing this. A simple, non-aggregative alternative would be to randomly select whose vote will count as the winning one. So long as everyone has an equal chance of being chosen, that seems to satisfy political equality, even if most people do not thereby get to actually contribute to determining the outcome. (After all, coin-flipping is widely recognized as a fair way to settle disputes, when all else is equal.) This principle is crucial for securing the democratic legitimacy of citizens juries and the like, given that only a random subset of the population get to actually participate in them.

My question is this: how far back in time can we push the random selection? How about the "genetic lottery"? Could even aristocracies and racist regimes count as satisfying political equality, so long as everyone had an equal chance of being born into the privileged class? If not, why not?

One might suggest that I never really had a chance of being born a prince -- the apparent possibility may be merely epistemic. (That is, the scenario is conceivable, but not one that ever had a real chance of eventuating.) But it would be a bit odd for questions of political justice to be held hostage to such abstruse modal metaphysics.

So I see two basic options here. One is to bite the bullet and simply accept that there's nothing intrinsically illegitimate or unfair about aristocracies and the like. Their flaws are purely pragmatic: unaccountable rulers tend to do a crummy job.

Alternatively, we could reconceive of political equality, in a more demanding fashion, as concerned with the ongoing relationship between the rulers and the ruled. It's not enough that everyone initially has an equal chance of influence, or whatever. Political equality must be maintained, by limiting the extent (power and duration) of the inevitable actual inequalities. In particular, those who receive power must be precluded from exercising it in an oppressive fashion. On this conception, political equality requires civic respect: the ongoing recognition of other citizens' political agency or potential to contribute to future decision-making.

What this means in practice is that political inequalities, though unavoidable, must never be entrenched. The moral requirement of "equal chances" cannot be ultimately satisfied by any one chance of selection. Instead, the chances must be revisited and maintained, so that those who are powerless today retain a real chance of becoming empowered tomorrow. In short: the ideal of political equality requires that our actual inequalities of power be always in flux.


  1. Ben (University of Leeds)4:23 pm, December 31, 2006

    Just stumbled across your blog and have found it very interesting to flick through. I regretably don't have time to make a more detailed or constructive criticism but I would like to put forward one objection to your argument: you seem to generalise quite dramatically in terms of aristocratical (including presumably monarchial, oligarchial, dictatorial?) government.

    I would disagree that accountability increases the quality of rule in any way, it merely changes the way in which a governing body is decided upon. Democracy only really adds a loose filter on government, by watering down those who would govern "wrongly" with those who would govern "rightly" (however undefinable right and wrong rule may be outside the opinion of the individual). To illustrate this point in less theoretical terms: a king rules "rightly" or "wrongly" by virtue of his character, one king may rule benevolently while another melevolently. All a democracy does is increase the burden of responsibility to all those eligable to elect government, in my opinion it is just as likely that one out of two individuals is benevolent as it is that over 50% of a nation's voters are. The reason then that I say democracy even acts as a filter is because the majority will naturally act in it's own interests, and is therefore more likely to elect someone who will act benevolently to them, the down falls though still being obvious in that the ruler does not need to worry about the opinions of none-voters if he is melevolent (e.g. Hitler->Jews, G.W. Bush->Aramaic peoples etc (Apologies to any Nazi's and Republican's who agree with the agendas of those governments)).

    Anyway, before I got lost in my own rambling the point I was trying to arrive at is that I do not think that you should presume to say that aristocratical rule is pracmatically flawed, not that they tend to do a crummy job. One can rule just as well as a nation can.

  2. I think 'biting the bullet' that aristocracies are not bad (in themselves) is a pretty soft and fluffy bullet (just like a marshmallow... mmmm...) After all one doesn't feel much better having Lenin or Hitler as one's overlord compared to Queen Victoria or the emperor of Japan.

    Anyway - I think most models of political equality aren’t very equal at all, they just redistribute power to another set of people, often 'the politically opinionated', or 'the well networked'.

    If you want equality I think you first have to define on what grounds it matters, which requires you to do the old "guessing what everyone wants" (just in this case only giving a certain amount if it).

    One strategy would be to allow everyone to live normally for the first half of an average life and punish them for their success in later life, or to use statistics to have things like a "Chinese tax" and an 'ugly benefit' or whatever it was that got you as close as possible to equality.


  3. GNZ, I agree that democracies can be bad too. That doesn't show that aristocracies are ever ideal, however. Democracy is obviously insufficient for ideal government; but perhaps it is still at least necessary.

    In response to Ben, too, we may wish to distinguish political rightness from legitimacy. Let's say that "rightness" is concerned with whether a decision is objectively best (regardless of who is making the decision). It is about what decision is made. "Legitimacy", by contrast, is about how the decision is made (and by whom).

    The rightness of a decision is logically independent of who makes it. Hence democracy and aristocracy may start on equal footing in this regard (at least until we consider pragmatic reasons for thinking that democracies are less likely to be corrupt in practice).

    But I'm really interested here in the question of political legitimacy. Arguably, an aristocracy is never legitimate. No matter how benevolent a dictator, or how perfect their decisions, the decisions are not rightfully theirs to make. At least, so would say a believer in popular sovereignty.

    I also agree that those who call for "community consultation" often have a rather limited conception of who actually constitutes the "community" (i.e. often limited to "community leaders"). Since they "aren’t very equal at all", this would clearly violate the value of political equality.

    I don't follow your last paragraph -- you seem to be talking about material equality. That's a different matter.

  4. I think being a democracy is a demanding limitation. It means that you can't optimize all sorts of things because the public doesn't (at first glance) want them optimized.

    Having said that I am inclined to think democracy beats the other options so far. Because generally other systems choose the wrong people to be leaders. So it is the best of a bad bunch, but I don't think it could be the optimal solution.

    > you seem to be talking about material equality.

    I think political power is almost identical to material wealth in is nature, except even more slippery and more important. (In fact I see money as a bit like paper credits for power)

    As to my point - a smart person or a beautiful person will be more influential (ok it isn't quite that simple - but it is almost that simple). So someone like Charlize Theron might get a lot of attention when she talks on a political subject while a less intelligent (or lets say ‘less eloquent’) and ugly person might be ignored regardless of what he was saying.


  5. Oh, a deliberative democrat won't much care about what the public thinks "at first glance". (At least, I certainly don't.)

    But you rightly note a serious objection to deliberative democracy: that some people are naturally more persuasive than others (independently of the merits of their argument), and that people lacking discursive skills will effectively be excluded. Perfect political equality is no doubt impossible to achieve in practice. Still, we may take steps in the right direction. Education should, in the long term, provide all citizens with the basic civic skills required to participate meaningfully in our democracy. And skilled moderators can reign in dominant personalities, to ensure at least that everyone in the forum (e.g. citizen's jury, or whatever) gets to have their say. You can't force others to accord their voice equal weight, of course. We must simply set up the system as best we can -- and not despair simply because it falls short of perfection.

  6. Yes I agree. We can of course improve the situation (and certainly we don't want to despair).

    I'm not sure that legitimacy and equality exactly match. We seem to be adding a component of 'rightness' to equality thus allowing us to pick deliberation over pure influence despite it's equality imperfections.

    Considering that - is legitimacy (where it does not coincide with 'rightness of decision') or equality really a goal? (which is what is required to rule out aristocracy I presume)

    Also I can imagine a benevolent aristocracy gaining support from the public in the long run (the wholistic sort of optimization). You could even get a situation where the public in a future time looked back and said 'thank god we did not have democracy!'. In fact I dont have to look far to find an example of that - ask your average Chinese and you will probably get something like that answer (although that isn't exactly an aristocracy - maybe Thailand where the public are generally appreciative of their king is an example). On the other hand Iraqi's may well wish they did not have democracy.

    This differs from how a true power equality fetishist might look at it of course.

  7. Richard,

    A couple of questions:

    "One might suggest that I never really had a chance of being born a prince"

    I think that there is certainly an issue (and one that shouldn't be brushed away) about whether it would still be "I" that is being born if "I" had a different genetic heritage. More broadly, talking about people having a chance to be born in certain places and with certain attributes seem to require some very strong thesis about my identity being independent of my attributes. Still, you're more of an expert on this than I am, so I'm interested to know if you think this kind of objection can be sustained.

    "It's not enough that everyone initially has an equal chance of influence, or whatever. Political equality must be maintained, by limiting the extent (power and duration) of the inevitable actual inequalities."

    I suspect that this misses the point of the hypothetical position. If the ideal of equality is satisfied in the sense that we each had an equal chance of ending up in the top spot, then there is a sense in which equality /is/ maintained even when, prima facie, things are unequal. A race is /still/ fair even when the runners are winning/losing towards the end of the race; so long as the initial start was fair. Similarly, there is a sense in which equality can be maintained merely by the societal hierarchy having arisen in some chance-based fashion.

    "One is to bite the bullet and simply accept that there's nothing intrinsically illegitimate or unfair about aristocracies and the like"

    Bear in mind that utilitarians, and many consequentilists, are happy to bite this bullet (to the extent that it is one at all) in the substantive moral case. I see no reason to change that outlook for the political case, and I'm perhaps still a little intrigued to see that you do.

  8. Hi Alex,

    Essentialism about our origins is certainly a respectable philosophical position. It would just seem strange to me if issues of political justice really hinged on such metaphysical questions. (Perhaps my metaphysical deflationism is influencing me here: I tend to think that such issues are not really substantive questions at all.) But even if technically impossible, the mere idea of the birth lottery is - I think - sufficiently suggestive to lead us to question my initial portrayal of political equality.

    This then brings us to your second point. Because what the whole idea really brings out for me is precisely that ensuring "the initial start was fair" is not sufficient to establish the global fairness of the race. If we imagine a normal (post-birth) lottery to elect a dictator for life, such a system still seems unfair and politically unequal in some important respects! Hence my conclusion that what really matters here is keeping people's chances open, throughout their lives.

    On your final point, here I'm tempted to identify as a democrat first and a utilitarian second. The procedural issues have priority. The starting point for normative inquiry is that we have to work things out together in a rational way. But utilitarianism is, I believe, the conclusion that we all should reach.


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