Robert A. Dahl

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Power and influence have been the center of the field of the study of politics from the beginning. And what’s more, they are the central elements in all of our lives, our daily lives and our family lives, this interview going on — and they’re enormously complex.

Robert Alan Dahl (December 17, 1915February 5, 2014) was a political scientist.

See Also
Democracy and Its Critics

Quotes[edit]

  • One of the difficulties that confronts anyone who attempts to answer the question, "Who rules in a pluralist democracy?" is the ambiguous relationship of leaders to citizens.
    • Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City (1961), p. 89
  • People can be deceived by appeals intended to destroy democracy in the name of democracy. Dissenters who believe in the democratic creed may unwittingly advocate or legitimists may insist on preserving rules of the game destined to have unforeseen and unintended consequences disastrous to the stability and perhaps the survival of the democracy.
    • Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City (1961), p. 325

After the Revolution? (1970; 1990)[edit]

Ch. 1 : Three Criteria for Authority[edit]

  • That democratization has never closely approached its theoretical limits, either in the government of the state or in the government of other institutions, is revealed in the three great historical movement toward democratizing the state.
  • The democratic process in governing a country is not necessarily enhanced by democratizing subsidiary parts of the process.
  • Even in a democratic country, it appears, nondemocratic forms of authority might sometimes be tolerable, perhaps actually desirable.
  • Democracy in the sense of political equality and majority rule is by no means the most desirable, that is, optimal solution for all kinds of associations.

Ch. 2 : Varieties of Democratic Authority[edit]

  • If a matter is best dealt with by a democratic association, seek always to have that matter dealt with by the smallest association that can deal with it satisfactorily.
  • In considering whether a larger association would be more satisfactory, do not fail to consider its extra costs, including a possible increase in the sense of individual powerlessness.

Ch. 3 : Democracy and Markets[edit]

  • Many of the criticisms of capitalism advanced by socialists were essentially correct. Capitalism is persistently at odds with values of equity, fairness, political equality among all citizens, and democracy.
  • In doing so, socialist, labor, and social democratic parties contributed to -- though they were not the sole authors of -- the development of the mixed economies that exist in advanced countries today. If these mixed economies are a far cry from the centralized systems that were created in Eastern Europe under Leninist rulers, they are also very far from the classical liberal model of a self-regulating market economy. If we look to the most advanced economies for guidance, then we should not allow ourselves to be misled by dogma about "free markets."
  • In addition, a century or more of efforts to arrive at a feasible and politically acceptable mix of market and nonmarket elements has not produced a definitive, stable, or uniform solution.
  • The experience of the democratic countries with the most advanced economies also tells us that no single pattern, or even a dominant one, has emerged; and what has emerged is a product of the special characteristics and the unique history of each country.
  • Actual practices in the advanced democratic countries are, then, far too diverse and complex to be captured by ideologies.
  • It seems obvious, then, that the search for solutions to the problems generated by a predominantly privately owned market-oriented society has been and will continue to be a major element in the political agenda of every democratic country.
  • Because intelligent choices of public policies require both technical understanding and sensitivity to the values involved, in modern democratic countries a form of specialized intellectual activity has evolved that tends to combine both aspects of policy.

Ch. 4 : From Principles to Problems[edit]

  • I have stressed inequalities in wealth and incomes because they reveal how far this country falls short not only of an ideal but of an actual condition of equality that was taken for granted by democrats like Jefferson and Madison in the early years of the Republic. But there is another important reason for particularly stressing incomes. When we attempt to compensate for gross inequalities in incomes by means other than providing income itself, the result is likely to be a patchwork of irritating regulations enforced by bureaucratic agencies.
  • It would be more realistic to think of all economic enterprise as a public service. Thought of in this perspective, a private economy is a contradiction in terms. Every economy is a public or social (not socialist) economy.
  • In a magic show, mystification is a good thing, but it is hardly to be commended in an economic program.
  • Probably nothing strengthened the impetus of socialists toward bureaucratic centralization more than their implacable rejection of economic controls in general and the market in particular.
  • I cannot stress too strongly the importance of external controls, both governmental and economic. I do not see how economic enterprises can be operated satisfactorily in a modern economy, capitalist, mixed, socialist or whatever, without some strategic external controls over the firm.

Democracy and Its Critics (1989)[edit]

A Preface to Democratic Theory (Expanded ed., 2006)[edit]

  • To what extent do the views of Madison justify the specific constitutional arrangements that came out of the Convention together with the political practices and doctrine that followed? I am now inclined to think that the connection was much looser than l indicated in my chapter on Madisonian Democracy.
    • Foreword : Reflections on A Preface to Democratic Theory
  • Does Madison's belief that separation of powers is necessary to prevent tyranny necessarily require a presidential system or even judicial review? As I pointed out, this reading makes Madison silly, or at least a casualty of historical developments, since almost all other democratic countries have rejected the first and some the second. Of course, like all others of his time Madison had to make judgments about constitutional arrangements with very little directly relevant historical experience to go on. Hindsight gives us the advantage of nearly two centuries of later experience, during which most of the stable democracies adopted a parliamentary system, only a few chose a presidential system, and none adopted the American presidential system.
    • Foreword : Reflections on A Preface to Democratic Theory
  • I concluded also that Madison bad more confidence in majorities than I gave him credit for; or more accutely, that he was somewhat less distrustful and hostile to majority rule than I had supposed.
    • Foreword : Reflections on A Preface to Democratic Theory
  • Every attempt to develop systematic democratic theory has to confront the elementary fact that democracy can be, and in practice has been, interpreted as an ideal political system, perhaps (or probably, or certainly) unattainable in full, and also as an actual, historically existing system, a set of political institutions or processes that are attainable at least under some limiting conditions.
    • Foreword : Reflections on A Preface to Democratic Theory
  • If the Madisonian democratic republicans had been able to foresee the later experience with constitutions in democratic countries, including the experience of the United States, would they have made the choices they made in 1787? I very much doubt it.
    • Foreword : Reflections on A Preface to Democratic Theory

A Conversation with Robert A. Dahl (2009)[edit]

Robert A. Dahl and Margaret Levi, "A Conversation with Robert A. Dahl", Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 2009.

  • I think [my experience] gave me—without I think ever romanticizing (because these were people you romanticize as somehow super people), it gave me a very deep and lasting respect for the common sense and the abilities of human beings, adults. At the same time, it increased my awareness of the importance of information and the challenge that that posed, therefore the challenge of education. And the great gap between what people need to know in order to protect their own self-interest and what they do know, which of course in some Platonic and other theories is filled in by those who believe that they know best, a view which as you know I’ve always greatly distrusted.
  • I had this sense that ideas about democracy, theories of democracy which I had learned about of course from graduate school on, from Aristotle and Plato onward, that they were inadequate. I don’t want to diminish them; I have always retained a great respect for classical and medieval and eighteenth-century theory, but meanwhile a whole new kind of political system emerged to which the term democracy became attached, and for which democracy remained an ideal, even though classical democracy as an ideal was so far removed from reality. The gap between that ideal and the actual political institutions that had developed, particularly from about the sixteenth, seventeenth century on, was just enormous. And what we didn’t have enough of, had very little of, was an adequate description of what the actual institutions of so-called democracy, modern democracy, representative democracy, were.
  • We have to include a wider array of institutions—to distinguish democracy from authoritarian governments, and even there we need a scale to do so. But it means not just elections, indeed free and fair elections; I think it’s come in the twentieth century to mean a universal electorate, male and female, moving the age down a bit, that’s now just standard. Political parties and political competition and free and fair elections, and something that I’ve tried to add on, without, I suppose, a great deal of success in the real world or elsewhere: the ultimate popular control over the agenda.
  • I think that it’s important always to retain awareness of what you call core ideas, including those in the tradition of political philosophy. I think keeping in touch with those earlier political philosophers, being aware of them as part of our training, I think that’s still quite worthwhile. I know, or I would guess less and less of that may be taking place. But at the same time, I think that we should try to remain aware of the richness and complexity of the world that we deal with out there, and how much more, in a way—[laughing] it’s always been complex, but how much more complex it’s grown. Especially the field of democracy now, in just the sheer number and varieties.
  • Power and influence have been the center of—this is not necessarily an argument in favor of keeping it, but power and influence have been the center of the field of the study of politics from the beginning. And what’s more, they are the central elements in all of our lives, our daily lives and our family lives, this interview going on—and they’re enormously complex.

Quotes about Dahl[edit]

  • The first thing I encountered in Dahl’s class was his calm smile and his genuine pleasure at all manner of questioning, criticizing and arguing. The first thing I learned in his class was that “democratic theory” was challenging, and interesting, and here was a place where I could really engage the topic with one of its foremost experts. The second thing took a bit longer to learn: That this guy asked really hard questions and was possessed by a depth of thinking and an extraordinary range of knowledge that defied the label “pluralist.” The third thing I learned came rather quickly: This world famous “expert” put on no airs, claimed no intellectual privileges and was extraordinarily down to earth. This guy was no “corporate liberal” (another pejorative of my youth). He genuinely seemed to walk the talk of “democracy,” in the classroom, in the world of Brewster Hall where the political science department he helped to create was housed, and in the world.
    • Jeffrey Isaac, "Robert Dahl as mentor", The Washington Post (February 11, 2014)
  • In many ways, Dahl created the field of modern political science. To be sure, the scholarly study of politics goes back to at least the ancient Greeks. Dahl was no Plato, Aristotle, or Thomas Hobbes, but he added something new to the armchair reflection leavened by illuminating anecdote that had characterized the enterprise for millennia: the systematic use of evidence to evaluate rigorously stated theoretical claims. Generations of Dahl’s successors have developed both theories and empirical methods in multiple directions since he produced his innovative works in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes in ways that he found less than congenial. Few would deny that they stood on Dahl’s shoulders.
    • Ian Shapiro, "Democracy Man: The Life and Work of Robert A. Dahl", Foreign Affairs (February 12, 2014)

External links[edit]

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