Democracy and Its Critics

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Democracy and Its Critics is a book in American political science, written by Robert A. Dahl.

Quotes[edit]

  • What we understand by democracy is not what an Athenian in the time of Pericles would have understood by it. Greek, Roman, medieval, and Renaissance notions intermingle with those of later centuries to produce a jumble of theory and practices that are often deeply inconsistent. [...] To develop a satisfactory theory of democracy will require us to excavate the assumptions in the shadow theory, subject them to critical examination, and try to recast the theory of democracy into a reasonably coherent whole. In identifying and exploring the assumptions on which to build a coherent democratic theory, the arguments of critics of democracy, both adversarial and sympathetic, are invaluable.
    • Introduction

Ch. 1 : The First Transformation: To the Democratic City-State[edit]

  • In the Greek vision of democracy, the citizen is a whole person for whom politics is a natural social activity not sharply separated from the rest of life, and for whom the government and the state—or rather the polis—are not remote and alien entities distant from oneself. Rather, political life is only an extension of, and harmonious with, oneself. Values are not fragmented but coherent: for happiness is united with virtue, virtue with justice, and justice with happiness.
  • At its simplest, what happened was that several city-states, which from time out of mind had been governed by various undemocratic rulers, whether aristocrats, oligarchs, monarchs, or tyrants, were transformed into systems in which a substantial number of free, adult males were entitled as citizens to participate directly in governing, Out of this experience and the ideas associated with it came a new vision of a possible political system, one in which a sovereign people is not only entitled to govern itself but possesses all the resources and institutions necessary to do so. This vision remains at the core of modern democratic ideas and continues to shape democratic institutions and practices.
    But modern democratic ideas and institutions consist of far more than this simple vision. And since the theory and practices of modern democracy have resulted not only from the legacy of popular government in ancient city-states but also from other historical experiences, both evolutionary and revolutionary, they are an amalgam of elements that do not fully cohere. As a result contemporary democratic theory and practice exhibit inconsistencies and contradictions that sometimes result in deep problems.
  • Citizens are more heterogeneous body than the Greeks thought desirable. In many countries, in fact they are extraordinarily diverse. […] These diversities inevitably disrupt the harmony envisioned in the Greek ideal; political conflict, not harmony, is the hallmark of the modern democratic state. […] Greek democracy was inherently limited to small-scale systems. … Consequently the Greeks were finally united not by themselves but by their conquerors, the Macedonians and the Romans.

Ch. 2 : Toward the Second Transformation: Republicanism, Representation. And the Logic of Equality[edit]

  • Thanks to events in Britain and America, the eighteenth century also saw the development of a strain of radical republicanism that was in some respects at odds with the older tradition.
  • In the aristocratic republican view, even though the people, the many, ought to have an important role in government, because they are more to be feared than trusted their role ought to be a limited one. […] In the emergent democratic republicanism of the eighteenth century, by contrast, the element most to be feared is not the many but the few, not the people but the aristocratic and oligarchic elements. […] While aristocratic and democratic republicans agree that concentration of power is always dangerous and must always be avoided, their solutions to that problem diverge. Aristocratic or conservative republicans continue to emphasize the solution of a mixed government that balances the interests of the one, the few, and the many, and thus seek to reflect those interests in the monarchy, the aristocratic upper chamber, and the lower house for the commons. To democratic republicans, however, the idea of representing different interests in different institutions is increasingly more dubious and unacceptable.
  • As more and more citizens lived at too great a distance for them easily to make the journey to Rome, the assemblies were gradually transformed (in fact if never in theory) into “representative” bodies; but to use, a later expression, for most citizens representation was “virtual” rather than actual, and it was badly though somewhat haphazardly biased in favor of those who could manage to attend. [...] Thus from classical Greece to the seventeenth century, the possibility that a legislature might properly consist not of the entire body of citizens but of their elected representative remained mainly outside the theory and practice of democratic or republican government—difficult as this fact may be for a contemporary democrat to understand.
  • The transformation of democratic theory and practice that resulted from its union with representation has had profound consequences.[...] Modern democratic governments have not been created by philosophers or historians familiar with Greek democracy, the republican tradition, or the concept of representation. Whatever independent influence ideas like these may have had, and however complex the interplay of ideas and action may be, we know that democratic theories are not self-fulfilling.
  • The members believe that no single member, and no minority of members, is so definitely better qualified to rule that the one or the few should be permitted to rule over the entire association. They believe, on the contrary, that all the members of the association are adequately qualified to participate on an equal footing with the others in the process of governing the association.
    I am going to call this idea the Strong Principle of Equality.
  • These historical experiences reveal two important features of the Strong Principle. First, belief in something like the principle, and the development of at least a rude democratic process, have often com about among people who had little or no acquaintance with Greek democracy or the republican tradition or the eighteenth-century discovery of representation. […]
    These and other historical experience reveal another important point about the Strong Principle: It need not necessarily be applied very broadly. On the contrary, more often than not it has been interpreted in a highly exclusive way.

Ch. 3 : Anarchism[edit]

  • In sum, the following judgments seem reasonable:

    1. In the absence of a state, highly undesirable forms of coercion would probably persist.
    2. In a stateless society, some associates might in any case acquire sufficient resources to create a highly oppressive state.
    3. A degree of social control sufficient to avoid the creation of a state appears to require that an association be highly autonomous, very small, and united by multiple bonds.
    4. Creating such associations on a significant scale in the world today appears to be either impossible or highly undesirable.

    These judgments support the conclusion that it would be better to try to create a satisfactory state than try to exist in a society without a state.

  • Although the anarchist critique of democracy is unconvincing, it is important to recognize its strengths. As we saw, several of its assumptions are widely shared, among others by advocates of democracy. Moreover, in portraying the possibility of society without a state, anarchism reminds us that, as a form of social control, coercion by law is marginal in most societies most of the time and in democratic orders always.
  • In a dialogue with a thoughtful anarchist, a democrat might also add something like this: … In my view, the best possible state would be one that would minimize coercion and maximize consent, within limits set by historical conditions and the pursuit of other values, including happiness, freedom, and justice, Judged by ends like these, the best state, I believe, would be a democratic state.

Ch. 4 : Guardianship[edit]

  • The idea of guardianship has appealed to a great variety of political thinkers and leaders in many different guises and in many different parts of the world over most of recorded history. If Plato provides the most familiar example, the practical ideal of Confucius, who was born more than a century before Plato, has had far more profound influence over many more people and persists to the present day, deeply embedded in the cultures of several countries, including China, where it offers a vigorous though not always overt competition to Marxism and Leninism for political consciousness.
  • Demo: But in my judgment most people understand their own interests better than your guardians are likely to!
    Aristo: A base and baseless dogma. But if you'll allow me. I'd like to proceed. Even if ordinary people adequately understood their own interests, they would still not be fully qualified to govern. Since it would be utterly useless if people knew the right ends--whether their own interests or some other good--but failed to act to achieve them, those who govern should also possess a strong disposition actually to seek good ends. … To be qualified to govern, rulers … must actively attempt to bring it about.
  • Aristos: Well, I’ve tried to help you to see another vision than democracy. Mine is a vision of a well-qualified minority, whom I call the guardians, experts in the art and science of governing, who rule over the rest, governing in the best interests of all, fully respecting the principle of equal consideration, indeed perhaps upholding it far better than would the people if they were to govern themselves. Paradoxically, then, at its best such a system might actually rest on the consent of all. In this way, a system of guardianship might attain one of the most important ends of both anarchism and democracy—but by very different means.
    Demos: I admit that it is a powerful vision. It has always been the strongest competitor to the democratic vision and remains so today, when so many nondemocratic regimes—left, right, revolutionary, conservative, traditional—justify themselves by appealing to it for legitimacy. If democracy were to decline and perhaps even to disappear from human history in the centuries to come, I think its place would be taken by hierarchical regimes claiming to be legitimate because they were governed by guardians of virtue and knowledge.

Ch. 5 : A Critique of Guardianship[edit]

  • Lofty as guardianship may appear as an ideal, its extraordinary demands on the knowledge and virtue of the guardians are all but impossible to satisfy in practice. Despite the example of the Republic of Venice and a few others that an advocate might offer as proof that guardianship is a genuine historical possibility, it cannot be reasonably defended, I think, as superior to democracy either as an ideal or as a feasible system in practice
  • It is true that a democratic regime runs the risk that the people will make mistakes. But the risk of mistake exists in all regimes in the real, and the worst blunders of this century have been made by leaders in nondemocratic regimes. Moreover, the opportunity to make mistakes is an opportunity to learn. Just as we reject paternalism in individual decisions, because it prevents the development of our moral capacities, so too we should reject guardianship in public affairs, because it will stunt the development of the moral capacities of an entire people. At its best, only the democratic vision can offer the hope, which guardianship can never do, that by engaging in governing themselves, all people, and not merely a few, may learn to act as morally responsible human beings.

Ch. 6 : Justification: The Idea of Equal Intrinsic Worth[edit]

  • To live together in an association, then, people need a process for arriving at governmental decisions: a political process.
  • The persistence and generality of the assumption of intrinsic equality in systematic moral reasoning could be attributed to the existence of a norm so deeply entrenched in all Western cultures that we cannot reject it without denying our cultural heritage and thereby denying who we are.
  • This is simply that, when the idea of democracy is actively adopted by a people, it tends to produce the best feasible political system, or at any rate the best state taken all around. In this view, many of the philosophical justifications offered for democracy may be true. But they speak to political ideals rather than directly to human experience. A hardheaded look at human experience, historical and contemporary, shows that among political societies that have actually existed, or now exist, those that most nearly satisfy the criteria of the democratic idea are, taken all around, better than rest.

Ch. 7 : Personal Autonomy[edit]

  • Democracy—rule by the people—can be justified only on the assumption that ordinary people are, in general, qualified to govern themselves. For it seems self-evident that people ought not to govern themselves if they are not qualified to do so. … Yet the assumption that people in general—ordinary people—are adequately qualified to govern themselves is, on the face of it, such an extravagant claim that critics of democracy have rejected it ever since the philosophical idea and practice of democracy appeared among the Greeks over two thousand years ago.
  • If the good or interests of everyone should be weighed equally, and if each adult person is in general the best judge of his or her good or interests, then every adult member of an association is sufficiently well qualified, taken all around, to participate in making binding collective decisions that affect his or her good or interests, that is, to be a full citizen of the demos.

Ch. 8 : A Theory of the Democratic Process[edit]

  • Democracy means literally, rule by the people. But what does it mean to say that the people rule, the people is sovereign, a people governs itself? In order to rule, the people must have some way of ruling, a process for ruling. What are the distinctive characteristics of democratic process of government? …
    To answer these questions it is useful to proceed in three stages. First, since democracy is a political order it is useful to set out the assumptions that justify the existence of a political order. Second, we need to specify the assumptions that justify a democratic political order. … Third, we need to describe the essential criteria of a democratic political order and indicate how these follow from the assumptions.
  • One might object, I suppose, that enlightenment has nothing to do with democracy. But I think this would be a foolish and historically false assertion. It is foolish because democracy has usually been conceived as a system in which “rule by the people” makes it more likely that the “people: will get what it wants, or what it believes is best, than alternative systems like guardianship in which an elite determines what is best.
  • What criteria, then, will be uniquely consistent with our assumptions and thereby provide us with the distinguishing features of a democratic process?

    Effective Participation: Throughout the process of making binding decisions, citizens ought to have an adequate opportunity, and an equal opportunity, for expressing their preferences as to the final outcome. They must have adequate and equal opportunities for placing questions on the agenda and for expressing reasons for endorsing one outcome rather than another.[…]

    Voting Equality at the Decisive stage: At the decisive stage of collective decisions, each citizen must be ensured an equal opportunity to express a choice that will be counted as equal in weight to the choice expressed by any other citizen. In determining outcomes at the decisive stage, these choices, and only these choices, must be taken into account.[…]

    Enlightened Understanding: […] Each citizen ought to have adequate and equal opportunities for discovering and validating (within the time permitted by the need for a decision) the choice on the matter to be decided that would best serve the citizen's interests.[…]

    Control of the Agenda: […] The demos must have the exclusive opportunity to decide how matters are to be placed on the agenda of matters that are to be decided by means of the democratic process.

  • The argument for the Strong Principle of Equality would appear to support the conclusion that everyone subject to the laws should be included in the demos, Everyone? Not quite: not children, for example, the Presumption of Personal Autonomy applies to adults. As we saw earlier, Athenian democrats did not find it anomalous that their demos included only a minority of adults.
  • The criteria for a democratic process, ... do not specify a decision rule.
  • Advocates of guardianship contend that any process by which ordinary citizens rule is unlikely to achieve the public good, since ordinary citizens lack both the necessary knowledge and the necessary virtue. However, even advocates of democracy sometimes argue that no process is sufficient to ensure that the public good (the public interest, the good of all, etc.) will be achieved.
  • Inevitably, whenever democratic ideas are applied to the real world, actual democracy falls significantly short of ideal standards.
  • Finally, then, what can we reasonably conclude as to the limits and possibilities of democratization, particularly in a world that does not stand still, where the limits and possibilities may be changing as profoundly as they did when the nation-state supersedes the city-state as the locus of democracy? And what about the nondemocratic governments that now prevail and may continue to prevail in a majority of countries of the world?

Ch. 9 : The Problem of Inclusion[edit]

  • A political order that met the four criteria described in the last chapter would be fully democratic in relation to its demos. But the demos might include all the members or range downward to an infinitesimally small proportion of them. In the extreme case, would we want to say the political order was a democracy? If not, what requirements can we lay down, and how would we justify them? The problem is difficult, and democratic theory and ideas have by no means provided a satisfactory solution. The problem is, in fact, twofold.
    1. The problem of inclusion: What persons have a rightful claim to be included in the demos?
    2. The scope of its authority: What rightful limits are there on the control of a demos? Is alienation over morally permissible?
  • Locke and Rousseau appear to have advanced two different principles on which a claim to citizenship might be grounded. One is explicit, categorical, and universal, the other is implicit, contingent, and limiting:

    Categorical Principle: Every person subject to a government and its laws has an unqualified right to be a member of the demos (i.e., a citizen).
    Contingent Principle: Only persons who are qualified to govern, but all such persons, should be members of the demos (i.e., citizens).

  • The only defensible ground on which to exclude children from the demos is that they are not yet fully qualified. the need to exclude children on this ground was of course perfectly obvious to early democratic theorists. … The example of children is sufficient to show that the criterion of competence cannot reasonably be evaded, that any reasonable bounding of a demos must, by excluding children, necessarily exclude a large body of persons subject to the laws, and that any assertion of a universal right of all persons to membership is a demos cannot be sustained. It might be argued, however, that children constitute a comparatively well-defined and unique exception. Thus, once a distinction is allowed between children and adults, all adults subject to the laws must be included.
  • The categorical principle might then be restated as follows:

    Modified Categorical Principle: Every adult subject to a government and its laws must be presumed to be qualified as, and has an unqualified right to be a member of the demos.

    There are, however, at least two sources of difficulty with the modified categorical principle. First, the boundary between childhood and adulthood presents some difficulty. … Thus the modified categorical principle runs the risk of circularity by defining "adults" as persons who are presumed to be qualified to govern.
    A second source of difficulty with the modified principle is caused by the presence in a country of foreigners who might be adult by any reasonable standards, who are subject to the laws of the country in which they temporarily reside, but who are not thereby qualified to participate in governing.

  • A categorical principle of inclusion that overrides the need for a judgment is to competence is also unacceptable, for it is rendered untenable by such cases as children, feeble-minded persons, and foreigners of temporary residence, Insofar as Locke and Rousseau advanced a categorical principle, their defense of it is unconvincing., However, evidence suggests that they recognized these objections and never intended their argument to be taken as a rejection of the priority of a criterion of competence.
  • Because a judgment on competence is contingent on weighing evidence and making inferences as to the intellectual and moral qualifications of specific categories of persons, a decision based on competence is inherently open to question. To be sure, a reasonable argument may be presented in behalf of a particular judgment as to the proper boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. But the exact location of any boundary is necessarily a highly debatable judgment, and from Aristotle onward the practical judgments of political philosophers have tended to reflect the prejudices of their times.
  • In adopting the Strong Principle of Equality, we have already takes considerations like these into account. That principle, and the assumptions from which it is derived, provide reasonable grounds for adopting a criterion that approaches universality among adults. It is not only very much less arbitrary than Schumpeter's solution but far more inclusive than the restricted demos that was accepted, implicitly or explicitly, in the classical polis and by Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, or Mill. The fifth and final criterion for the democratic process is, then, as follows:

    The demos must include all adult members of the association except transients and persons proved to be mentally defective.

  • A political process that meets only the first two criteria, I have suggested, might be regarded as procedurally democratic in a narrow sense. In contrast, one that also meets the criterion of enlightened understanding can be regarded as fully democratic with respect to an agenda and in relation to a demos. At a still higher threshold, a process that in addition provides for final control of the agenda by its demos is fully democratic in relation to its demos. But only if the demos were inclusive enough to meet the fifth criterion could we describe the process of decisionmaking as fully democratic.

Ch. 10 : Majority Rule and the Democratic Process[edit]

  • The flaws in majority rule pointed out by Critic do great damage to the contention of majoritarians that the democratic process necessarily requires majority rule in all collective decisions. However, from the unassailable proposition that majority rule is imperfect—perhaps indeed highly imperfect—we cannot move directly to the conclusion that it should be replaced by an alternative rule for making collecting decisions. Before arriving at that conclusion, we would want to know whether a generally superior alternative can be found. As we shall see, the alternatives to majority rule are also deeply flawed.

Ch. 11 : Is There a Better Alternative?[edit]

  • The upshot of our exploration of majority rule, then is this: The quest for a single rule to specify how collective decisions must be made in a system governed by the democratic process is destined to fail. No such rule, it seems, can be found.
    On the other hand, the defects in majority rule are far too serious to be brushed aside. They oblige us to look with the utmost skepticism on the claim that democracy necessarily requires majority rule. Yet we are entitled to be just as skeptical about claims that an alternative would be clearly superior to majority rule or more consistent with the democratic process and its values. For all the alternatives to majority rule are also seriously flawed.
    We may reasonably conclude, then, that judgments as to the best rule for collective decisions ought to be made only after a careful appraisal of the circumstances in which these decisions are likely to be taken. This conclusion is consistent with actual experience in different democratic countries, where people have adopted a variety of different rules and practices.
    In adopting or rejecting majority rule, the people in democratic countries have not necessarily violated the democratic process or the values that justify it. For under different conditions, the democratic process may properly be carried out under different rules for making collective decisions.

Ch. 12 : Process and Substance[edit]

  • A possible defect in almost any process for making decisions is that it may fail to achieve desirable results. Even a just process might sometimes produce an unjust outcome. A process might in principle meet all the requirements set out in the last chapters as fully as may be humanly possible. Yet might it not in some circumstances lead to morally undesirable results?
    The possibility suggests two fundamental objections to the democratic process. (1) It may do harm. (2) It may fail to achieve the common good.
  • Critic: But you do admit that the democratic process hardly exhausts all claims to substantive justice. As you just said, there are other claims, too. If so, isn't it perfectly reasonable to ask that these claims be protected in some way from being violated by decisions made through the democratic process?
    Advocate: Whether it's reasonable to ask for limitations on the democratic process depends on whether you can supply an alternative. That points to a third mistake. Unless you can specify a feasible alternative process that is more likely to produce just outcomes it is wrong to contend that a process for making collective decisions is defective solely because it may lead to unjust outcomes.
  • The supposed failure of the democratic process to guarantee desirable substantive outcomes is in important respects spurious. We need to reject, as Advocate does, the familiar contrast between substance and process. For integral to the democratic process are substantive rights, goods, and interests that are often mistakenly thought to be threatened by it.
  • Viewed in this way the democratic process endows citizens with an extensive array of rights, liberties, and resources sufficient to permit hem to participate fully, as equal citizens, in the making of all the collective decisions by which they are bound. If adult persons must participate in collective decisions in order to protect their personal interests, including their interest as members of a community, to develop their human capacities, and to act as self-determining, morally responsible beings, then the democratic process is necessary to these ends as well. Seen in this light, the democratic process is not only essential to one of the most important of all political goods—the right of people to govern themselves—but itself a rich bundle of substantive goods.

Ch. 13 : Process versus Process[edit]

  • A person's interest or good is whatever that person would choose with fullest attainable understanding of the experience resulting from that choice and its most relevant alternatives.
  • It is misleading to suggest that there is one universally best solution to the problem of how best to protect fundamental rights and interests in a polyarchy.
  • To the extent that a people is deprived of the opportunity to act autonomously and is governed by guardians, it is less likely to develop a sense of responsibility for its collective actions. To the extent that it is autonomous, then it may sometimes err and act unjustly. The democratic process is a gamble on the possibilities that a people, in acting autonomously, will learn how to act rightly.

Ch. 14 : When Is a People Entitled to the Democratic Process?[edit]

  • When one begins to search for general solutions, one's doubts about their utility are likely to grow stronger.
  • Like the majority principle, the democratic process presupposes a proper unit. The criteria of the democratic process presuppose the rightfulness of the unit itself.
  • In the real world, then, answers to the question, what constitutes "a people" for democratic purposes? are far more likely to come from political action and conflict, which will often be accompanied by violence and coercion, than from reasoned inferences from democratic principles and practices. For as we have seen, in solving this particular problem democratic theory cannot take us very far. Democratic ideas, as I have said, do not yield a definitive answer. They presuppose that one has somehow been supplied, or will be supplied, by history and politics.

Ch. 15 : The Second Democratic Transformation: From the City-State to the Nation-State[edit]

  • In the Social Contract (1762), Rousseau still clung to the older vision of a people wielding final control over the government of a state that was small enough in population and territory to enable all the citizens to gather together in order to exercise their sovereignty in a single popular assembly. Yet less than a century later the belief that the nation of the country was the "natural" unit of sovereign government was so completely taken for granted that in his Considerations on Representative Government John Stuart Mill, stating in a single sentence what to him and his readers could be taken as a self-evident truth, dismissed the conventional wisdom of over two thousand years by rejecting the assumption that self-government necessarily required a unit small enough for the whole body of citizens to assemble. Even Mill, however, failed to see fully how radically the great increase in scale would necessarily transform the institutions and practices of democracy. At least eight important consequences have followed from that epochal change in the locus of democracy. Taken together they set the modern democratic state in sharp contrast to the older ideals and practices of democratic and republican governments. As a result, this modern descendant of the democratic idea lives uneasily with ancestral memories that unceasingly evoke the mournful plaint that present practices have fallen far away from ancient ideals. (Never mind that ancient practices themselves hardly conformed to ancient ideals.)
  • Polyarchy is a political order distinguished at the most general level by two broad characteristics: Citizenship is extended to a relatively high proportion of adults, and the rights of citizenship include the opportunity to oppose and vote out the highest officials in the government. The first characteristic distinguishes polyarchy from more exclusive systems of rule in which, though opposition is permitted, governments and their legal oppositions are restricted to a small group, as was the case in Britain, Belgium, Italy, and other countries before mass suffrage. The second characteristic distinguishes polyarchy from regimes in which, though most adults are citizens, citizenship does not include the right to oppose and vote out the government, as in modern authoritarian regimes.
  • More specifically, and giving greater content to these two general features, polyarchy is a political order distinguished by the presence of seven institutions, all of which must exist for a government to be classified as a polyarchy.

    1. Elected officials. Control over government decisions about policy is constitutionally vested in elected officials.
    2. Free and fair elections. Elected officials are chosen in frequent and fairly conducted elections in which coercion is comparatively uncommon.
    3. Inclusive suffrage. Practically all adults have the right to vote in the election of officials.
    4. Right to run for office. Practically all adults have the right to run for elective offices in the government, though age limits may be higher for holding office than for the suffrage.
    5. Freedom of expression. Citizens have a right to express themselves without the danger of severe punishment on political matters broadly defined, including criticism of officials, the government, the regime, the socioeconomic order. and the prevailing ideology.
    6. Alternative information. Citizens have a right to seek out alternative sources of information. Moreover, alternative sources of information exist and are protected by laws.
    7. Associational autonomy. To achieve their various rights, including those listed above, citizens also have a right to form relatively independent associations or organizations, including independent political parties and interest groups.

Ch. 16 : Democracy, Polyarchy, and Participation[edit]

  • James: What you and most other advocates of assembly democracy don't seem to recognize is how swiftly your own argument turns against you. I've already agreed that, as the number of citizens grows larger the opportunities for them to participate directly in decisions must necessarily decline. This is because, if nothing else has an upper limit, time does. Elementary arithmetic shows that if ten citizens were to meet for five hours-a long time for a meeting!-the maximum equal time each may be allowed for speaking, for parliamentary maneuvers, and for voting is thirty minutes. Small committees are the perfect example of participatory democracy, or at least they can be Even so, as most of us know from experience people who have other things to do would not look forward to attending many five-hour committee meetings a month. But you and Rousseau aren't talking about committees. You're talking about governing a state for heaven's sake!
    Jean-Jacques: Well, not only states. Other organizations and association might also be democratically run.
    James: That is so, of course. But let's go back to the arithmetic of participation. Once you go beyond the size of a committee, the opportunities for all the members to participate necessarily decline rapidly and drastically. Look. If the length of the assembly meeting remains at five hours and the number of citizens goes up to no more than a hundred, then each member has three minutes. At three hundred members you approach the vanishing point of one minute. The number of citizen. who were eligible to attend the assembly in classical Athens was twenty thousand. according to one common estimate; the best guesses of some scholars are two or three times that with just twenty thousand, if time were allocated equally in a five-hour meeting each citizen would have less than one second in which to participate!
    Jean-Jacques: Now, James, I can do arithmetic. I'm aware of calculations like these. But aren't they misleading? After all. not everyone wants to or has to participate by actually speaking. Among twenty thousand people there aren't twenty thousand different points of view on the issue, particularly if the citizens assemble after days, weeks, or months of discussions going on prior to the assembly. By the time of the meeting, probably only two or three alternatives will seem worth discussing seriously. So ten speakers, say, with about a half hour each to present their arguments, might well be plenty. Or let's say five speakers with a half hour each; that would leave time for brief questions and statements. Let's say five minutes for each intervention. That would allow thirty more people to participate.
    James: Bravo! Notice what you have just demonstrated. Thirty-five citizens actively participate in your assembly by speaking. What can the rest do? They can listen, think, and vote. So, in an assembly of twenty thousand, less than two-tenths of 1 present actively participate and more than 99.8 percent participate only by listening, thinking, and voting! A great privilege, your participatory democracy.

Ch. 17 : How Polyarchy Developed in Some Countries and Not Others[edit]

  • Turning first to theory, it is hardly debatable that the likelihood of polyarchy in a country depends on the strength of certain conditions. The problem is to determine what those conditions are and how variations in them affect the likelihood of polyarchy. The most relevant patterns of development are these:

    1. In a country with a nonpolyarchal regime, favorable conditions develop and persist. Therefore it is highly likely that a transition to polyarchy occurs, that the institutions of polyarchy are consolidated, and that the polyarchal system persists that is, is stable. Thus,
    Given favorable conditions:
    then a nonpolyarchal regime (NPR) → stable polyarchy
    2. In a country with a nonpolyarchal regime favorable conditions do not develop or are weak Therefore it is highly unlikely that a transition to polyarchy takes place and highly likely that a nonpolyarchal regime persists. Thus,
    Given unfavorable conditions:
    then NPR → NPR
    3. In a country with a nonpolyarchal regime, the conditions are mixed or temporarily favorable. If under these conditions polyarchy develops, the likely possibilities are:
    3.a. Polyarchy breaks down within a short time (less than twenty years), a transition to a nonpolyarchal regime occurs, and a nonpolyarchal regime persists:
    Given mixed or temporarily favorable conditions:
    then NPR → polyarchy → NPR
    3.b. As in 3.a. except that the nonpolyarchal regime also breaks down, another transition to polyarchy occurs (redemocratization), polyarchy is consolidated and it persists:
    Given mixed or temporarily favorable conditions:
    then NPR → polyarchy → NPR → polyarchy
    3.c. As in 3 b. except that polyarchy is not consolidated, and the system oscillates between polyarchy and nonpolyarchy:
    Given mixed or temporarily favorable conditions:
    then NPR → polyarchy → NPR → polyarchy → NPR → etc.

Ch. 18 : Why Polyarchy Developed in Some Countries and Not Others[edit]

  • A country is very likely to develop and sustain the institutions of polyarchy
    • if the means of violent coercion are dispersed or neutralized;
    • if it possesses an MDP society;
    • if it is culturally homogeneous,
    or if it is heterogeneous, is not segmented into strong and distinctive subcultures,
    or, if it is so segmented, its leaders have succeded in creating a consociational arrangement for managing subcultural conflicts;
    • if it possesses a political culture and beliefs, particularly among political activists, that support the institutions of polyarchy;
    • and if it is not subject to intervention by a foreign power hostile to polyarchy.

Ch. 19 : Is Minority Domination Inevitable?[edit]

  • Even if we grant that political parties are oligarchical, it does not follow that competing political parties necessarily produce an oligarchical political system.
  • By asserting the existence of a dominant minority, these theories divert us from a realistic assessment of the true limits and potentialities of democracy in the modern world. Either they offer ill-founded hope for an apocalyptic revolutionary transformation that will lead us into the promised land of perfect freedom, self-realization, and full acceptance of the equal worth of all human beings; or else they offer us no hope at all and counsel us, directly or by implication, to give up the ancient vision of a society in which the citizens, possessing all the resources and institutions necessary to democracy, govern themselves as free and equal citizens.

Ch. 20 : Pluralism, Polyarchy, and the Common Good[edit]

  • The discussion between Traditionalist, Modernist, and Pluralist breaks off, leaving us with three questions. First, in determining the common good, whose good ought to be taken into account? The answer, it should now be evident, is that in a collective decision the good of all persons significantly affected by the decision should be taken into account. Clearly, however, to apply that answer in practice is enormously complicated by the existence of pluralism within democratic countries, the existence of pluralism among democratic countries, and the existence of persons outside a democratic country who are seriously affected by decisions taken within the country.
    Second, how can the common good best be determined in collective decisions? Pluralism also compounds the difficulties of finding a satisfactory solution to this question. While we have concluded that the democratic process is best for arriving at binding collective decisions, a large political society (a country, to be more concrete) includes different associations and political units or types of units, each of which may lay a competing and conflicting claim that it is a proper democratic unit, and perhaps the only proper democratic unit, for making collective decisions on the matter in question. [...]
    Third, a question to which an answer has proved highly elusive: What is the substantive content of the common good? Once again, the search for an answer is complicated by the pluralism of modern democratic countries, where diversity sometimes appears to reduce common interests almost to the vanishing point or, Modernist might argue, to it. I want to show in the next chapter why in my view this answer, though tempting, is mistaken.

Ch. 21 : The Common Good as Process and Substance[edit]

  • The last chapter left us with three central questions: (1) In determining the common good, whose good ought to be taken into account? (2) How can it best be determined in collective decisions? (3) What, substantively speaking, is the common good?
    As to the first I argued that in a collective decision the good of all persons significantly affected by the decision should be taken into account.
    [...] As we haven seen throughout this and the preceding chapter, pluralism compounds the difficulties of finding a satisfactory solution to the second question because, among other things, it requires us to consider how we are to determine which unit (or type of unit) is proper for making democratic decisions. [...] The unit ought to govern itself by the democratic process. The unit ought also to be justifiable as a relatively autonomous democratic unit, in the sense that it satisfies the criteria for a democratic unit set out in chapter 14.
    As to the third question, it should now be evident that it seems to me misguided to search for the good exclusively in the outcomes of collective decisions and ignore the good that pertains to the arrangements by which they are reached.
  • The criterion of enlightened understanding, I suggested, could now be interpreted to mean that persons who understand their interests in the sense just given possess an enlightened understanding of their interests.
    Following this line of thought, I now propose that an essential element in the meaning of the common good among the members of a group is what the members would choose if they possessed the fullest attainable understanding of the experience that would result from their choice and its most relevant alternatives. Because enlightened understanding as essential also to the meaning of the common good. Still further, the rights and opportunities of the democratic process are elements of the common good. Even more broadly, because the institutions of polyarchy are necessary in order to employ the democratic process on a large scale, in a unit as large as a country all the institutions of polyarchy should also be counted as elements of the common good.

Ch. 22 : Democracy in Tomorrow's World[edit]

  • The democratic process, I have argued, is superior in at least three ways to other feasible ways by which people might be governed. First, it promotes freedom as no feasible alternative can; freedom in the form of individual and collective self-determination, in the degree of moral autonomy it encourages and allows, and in a broad range of other and more particular freedoms that are inherent in the democratic process, or are necessary prerequisites for its existence, or exist because people who support the idea and practice of the democratic process are, as a plain historical fact, also inclined to five generous support to other freedoms as well. Second, the democratic process promotes human development, not least in the capacity for exercising self-determination, moral autonomy, and responsibility for one's choices. Finally, it is the surest way (if by no means a perfect one) by which human beings can protect and advance the interests and goods they share with others.
  • Insofar as the idea and practice of democracy are justified by the values of freedom, human development, and the protection and advancement of shared human interests, the idea and practice of democracy also presuppose three kinds of equality: the intrinsic moral equality of all persons; the equality expressed by the presumption that adult persons are entitled to personal autonomy in determining what is best for themselves, and following from these, political equality among citizens, as this is defined by the criteria for the democratic process.

Ch. 23 : Sketches for an Advanced Democratic Country[edit]

  • It would be a mistake, [...] to conclude that the economic order of democratic countries with MDP [modern, dynamic, pluralist] societies poses identical problems for democratization or requires identical solutions. Nonetheless, it is possible to suggest some common elements of a satisfactory solution.
  • The theoretical vision of democracy focuses on men as citizens—more lately men and women as citizens. By contrast, the standard theoretical interpretation of the economy so rigorously extolled in classical and neoclassical economics focuses on men and women as producers and consumers of goods and services. To be sure, the democratic perspective cannot ignore the elementary fact this citizens are also producers and consumers; and implicitly or explicitly the standard economic perspective recognizes that producers and consumers exist ion a political system of some kind, ideally perhaps as citizens in a democratic order. Yet each perspective gives central emphasis to the one aspect rather than the other. [...] Thus are the first small seeds of discord between democracy and capitalism scattered by the winds of doctrine. What consumers are free to spend depends on their income, and if they are distributed unequally, then how can citizens be political equals? And if citizens cannot be political equals, how is democracy to exist? conversely, if democracy is to exist and citizens are to be political equals, then will democracy not require something other than a market-oriented, private enterprise economy, or at the very least a pretty drastic modification of it?
  • Whatever form it takes, the democracy of our successors will not and cannot be the democracy of our predecessors. Nor should it be.

Quotes about Democracy and Its Critics[edit]

  • Dahl's theory leads to a way of reconciling a limited form of judi­cial guardianship with democracy, but it rejects any broad form of judicial policymaking. In this respect, Dahl's political theory provides a foundation for a theory of judicial review similar to that found in John Hart Ely's Democracy and Distrust, a work which Dahl himself cites. Judicial review is justified when it is properly used to maintain the democratic process; it is not justified as a substitute for a democratic policymaking process. Thus, giving the judiciary the authority to strike down laws that violate rights of free speech or free assembly does not necessarily contravene the democratic ideal. However, permitting unelected judges to make substantive policy decisions under the guise of constitutional or statutory interpretation clearly raises serious problems for democratic theory.
    • Cary Coglianese, A review of Robert A. Dahl's Democracy and Its Critics, Faculty Scholarship (1990)
  • My best, clearest, and most complete formulation is, I believe, in Democracy and Its Critics.
    • Robert A. Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (Expanded ed., 2006), Foreword : Reflections on A Preface to Democratic Theory
  • Now my depression deepens much more than it ever did when reading Mill, for now we see one of the best minds in American political theory quite unwittingly confirming the worst things that have been said by critics of the kind of theory he practices.
    • Philip Green, A review essay of Robert A. Dahl's Democracy and Its Critics, in Social Theory and Practice (Summer 1990)
  • On reading Dahl's muted encomium to polyarchy, his term for representative government, I have the same sinking feeling. Although he begins his discussion of "the democratic process" with a reference to Aristotle, this firmly establishing his argument along the practical/utopian continuum, even the ideal "criteria for a democratic process" are already a long way from what the Greeks called "democracy," since they have nothing to do with direct popular rule, or popular participation of any kind. These criteria include, at a minimum, the opportunity for something called "effective participation," which is defined as the adequate and equal (my emphasis) opportunity for "expressing preferences," including "adequate and equal opportunities for placing questions on the agenda...," and voting equality. This is the democratic process "narrowly" construed. Later Dahl added to this narrow sense two broader criteria: first, what might be called equal opportunity for enlightenment, and second, "final control of the agenda by the demos."
    Aside from voting equality, none of this is remotely within the realm of possibility in polyarchies as presently constituted, and Dahl is aware of this. [...] The institutions of polyarchy (in a nutshell, competitive elections and civil liberties), he says later, should then be thought of as the necessary but not sufficient precondition to "the highest feasible attainment of the democratic process." However, nothing Dahl says thereafter leads the reader to think that the feasibility level of this attainment, in any degree, is very high.
    • Philip Green, A review essay of Robert A. Dahl's Democracy and Its Critics, in Social Theory and Practice (Summer 1990)
  • Here, clearly "democracy" has become some kind of flattering verbal gloss applied to every invocation of what began as the distinct conception, polyarchy; and to every mention of the actual nations that most of Dahl's readers live in. If you have followed Dahl's descent from the ideal to the real closely, you won't expect very much from that gloss; and you won't get it.
    • Philip Green, A review essay of Robert A. Dahl's Democracy and Its Critics, in Social Theory and Practice (Summer 1990)
  • To begin with, as the defense of "democracy" against "its critics" descends very quickly to the "real world" of polyarchy, the many contemporary critics of polyarchy who conceive themselves not as critics of democracy but as its advocates receive short shrift at best. Plato, Lenin, and MacIntyre are handily dispatched; Milbrand, Bachrach, Domhoff, Cohen and Rogers, Mansbridge, and Barber, to name just a few of polyarchy's well-known critics, are virtually ignored. Dahl's treatment of C. Wright Mills is indicative: once again an empirical democratic theorist trots out the criticism that "elite theorists" fail "to provide much evidence on the chain of control from these elites to the outcomes—for example, beliefs, agendas, or government decisions—over which they presumably dominate." If elites, whoever or whatever they are, do not dominate over beliefs, agendas, and government decisions, then why can't the criteria for the democratic process be met? If contribution to the agenda, for example, is random, then surely we have "equal opportunity;" that is what the phrase means. Contrarily, in the absence of equal opportunity what else have we but elite domination?
    • Philip Green, A review essay of Robert A. Dahl's Democracy and Its Critics, in Social Theory and Practice (Summer 1990)
  • Traditionally, both critics and supporters of majority rule, from Madison to Marx, assumed that absolute majoritarianism inevitably meant domination of the well-to-do by the working class, or debtors, or the poor, or however the "bottom part" of society might be defined. But that is no longer the case. Generalized need has been replaced by marginalized need, and electorates as a whole, through their representatives, now seem to respond sluggishly or not at all to the needs of the marginalized. [...] In some polyarchies, then, unalloyed majoritarianism may well favor the needs of the well-to-do against those of the marginalized.
    Dahl ignores this difficulty. It is indicative that neither "race" nor "poverty" appears in his Index, nor anywhere in his text: this in 1989. "Pluralism" for him, as for empirical democratic theory generally, takes on an abstract quality, as when he makes it a condition of stable polyarchy that "the conflictive potentialities of subcultural pluralism (must be) maintained at tolerable levels." Tolerable for whom?
    • Philip Green, A review essay of Robert A. Dahl's Democracy and Its Critics, in Social Theory and Practice (Summer 1990)

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