Saturday, June 14, 2008

Inverting Democracy

In 'What is Democracy?', I argued that majority rule may, in certain circumstances, constitute a form of oligarchy rather than democracy. To truly qualify as rule by the people -- rather than some (however large) subset thereof -- it must be the case that anyone has the opportunity to significantly affect the outcome. One vote alone cannot do this, but if each voter is receptive to being persuaded by any other, then we each have the potential to persuade a large number of people (if we come up with a sufficiently powerful argument, say) and thus to exert significant political influence. I thus concluded that 'democracy' in the fullest sense is realizable in the form of deliberative democracy.

But it's worth noting that this is not to conflate 'democracy' and 'good governance' (as emerged in comments). Although deliberative democracy would ideally involve citizens being responsive to (good) reasons, it's possible to invert the normative substance whilst maintaining the democratic form. That is, we might have a citizenry that is receptive and reliably responsive to bad reasons. All you've got to do is come up with a sufficiently atrocious argument, and you can exert significant influence. This anti-rational society is surely democratic in the strongest sense, being formally identical to the ideal deliberative democracy. But it is a (substantively) terrible government nonetheless!

Another possibility is that a democratic society may be responsive to some other universal capacity besides reason: perhaps rhetoric, or humour, say. Again, these needn't be good political orders, but -- so long as each citizen had the opportunity to exert significant influence in this way -- such a state would presumably qualify as "ruled by the people" in the strongest sense.

These examples suggest that democracy is not strictly sufficient for political legitimacy. There's no reason to accept or abide by the rules of a reliably wrong, anti-rational system, and it's at least logically possible that a democracy might be unreliable (or reliably atrocious) in this way. I'd suggest that whether a government is legitimate is more a matter of whether it is sufficiently reliable and responsive to good reasons.

In short: democracy requires that citizens be receptive to each other's persuasion (somehow or other). Legitimate democracy further requires that what the citizens are receptive to being persuaded by is good reasons.


  1. I just wish I knew how to even reliably get philosophers, economists or physicists to be receptive to being persuaded by good reasons. Maybe some drug?
    If there was such a drug would you endorse democracy with franchise restricted to its habitual users or would occasional users be eligible. Maybe people who had logged 18 net years under the influence?

  2. And who defines good reasons? Okay, this may seem as a relativistic objection, yet I think arguing for "good reasons" may evoke one's own reasons. And what are truly good reasons anyway? Maybe democracy is not about what is good. Instead it's tolerating even bad ideas and bad reasons, given that there is a democratic state which assures people won't kill each other because of ideas or opinions on what or not to do.

  3. I would suggest caution given that 'democracy' is a contested term laden with positive affect in Western (including
    Australian/New Zealander) culture: because of the propaganda and taboos requiring everyone to endorse 'democracy,' factions strive to define it in ways that suit their commitments. Similar problems attend terminological discussions of the supposed true nature of 'freedom' or 'justice,' and avoiding such terms helps to avoid affective bias.

    On the substantive question, have you read the
    Myth of the Rational Voter?

  4. Michael - sure, if there were a reliable (objective, transparent, etc.) way to tell who is reasonable and who isn't, it would obviously make sense to empower the former group.

    Adriano - you're no doubt right that each person takes their own reasons (often mistakenly) to be good reasons. So caution may be advisable in practice. But for sake of theory (which I'm engaged in here) we can take 'good reasons' as a primitive notion, not 'defined' by anything -- or anyone -- further.

    Having a system which prevents people from killing each other sounds like a good idea to me. (Some forms of) democracy may be good for this in practice, though that's not necessarily guaranteed. Even so, don't you think it's this good aspect of the system, rather than its democratic nature, that most recommends it? So I don't think you can get away from substantive evaluations altogether (and nor should you want to).

    Carl - I don't really care about the word. What I'm interested in here is the idea of a form of government in which the citizenry as a whole (and not just some subset of them) rule. I use the term 'democracy' as a convenient and familiar label for this idea, but if you worry about the term you may replace it with an 'X'. Everything I say about X should still hold.

    Caplan's book makes empirical claims, whereas my post is a priori philosophy. We're addressing different questions.

  5. How does the group deliberation work, exactly? Ideally there should be some some consensus view that represents everybody's opinions adequately. But it's really hard to specify a good procedure for arriving at a consensus view. (See Christian List's excellent discursive dilemma bibliography.) This seems like the place where the most work is needed get a concept of deliberative democracy up and running.

    I'd also like to hear more about the relationship between reasons and freedom. Suppose my doing X doesn't hurt anybody or impose any significant cost on society, but I have no good argument that X is part of the good life. (There are a lot of activities that could be filled in for X here: performing harmless religious rituals, watching action movies, making action movies, knitting tea cozies, and so forth.) Is there sufficient reason for permitting me to do X?

  6. Richard, I think the fact of people not being allowed to kill eachother because of their opinions is an unshared characteristic of democracy. (meaning there are no crimes of opinion in this system.) So, do I think this good is to be praised and not necessarily democracy? No! I see that if I accept one, I accept the other too.

    And that is the most important thing I see in what we theoretically call democracy (or "x" as you might name it), viz. equilibrium between opposite sides is a necessary condition to it exist.

    Though you say you are talking theoretically here, and I think this is good, yet I need to ask: is it possible that a society in which good reasons prevail arises? I don't think so, and that's because I don't think human beings are naturally good and then inclined to good reasons.

    Democracy therefore is a nice idea since this equilibrium constantly leads to minimal "evil". Or at least that is what I humbly think.

  7. Adriano - I think you're conflating civil freedom and political power. We all like liberal democracy, but that's because we like (civil) liberalism. There's no reason in principle why there couldn't be a liberal oligarchy (indeed, this is arguably what most real-world "democracies" really are), or an illiberal democracy, where 'the people' rule most violently. The connection you point to is merely contingent.

    Oz - I wasn't thinking of any particular formal process of group deliberation. The formal trappings could be much like we presently have, with majoritarian elections of representatives. The more important feature, to my mind, is that we have a flourishing public sphere with open debates that (somehow or other) end up reliably influencing the ultimate decision-makers. I guess you want more detail about that "somehow or other", but it seems to me that this could legitimately work in any number of ways, and the precise details aren't so important.

    On your last question, actions are permissible by default, so there is no barrier of 'sufficiency' that must be met in order to justify freedom. One needs reasons to justify prohibitions, not permissions.

  8. Richard,

    Now it seems to me that your worries are more "aristocratic" (in a good way) than I previously thought. It seems like you're worried about uneducated crowds rulling over an educated minority.

    Let me ask you (if you may answer): are you aware of the ideals of such people as Mortimer J. Adler? Because the ideal of a liberal education, such as that of Robert M. Hutchins, is pretty close to what you call for.

    The difference being they're more classical than actually analytical. But that is only two forms of expressing a close ideal — or not?


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