One of the morning news stories that recently caught my attention was about the power of the New Finns—a rising Finnish populist party—to change the debate about bailing out Greece and possibly other southern European countries (Financial Times, September 24 2012). The New Finns have pushed the two largest Finnish parties—the Social Democrats and the Centre Party—to harden their line on Greece and led them to demand collateral from Greece and Spain for aid. The governing parties, the article suggests, hope that their harder line has taken the wind out of the True Finns’ sails and brought them in line with the 54% of the Finnish electorate who support taking a tougher stance toward their Mediterranean partners. The story catches my attention not only because I am visiting in Sweden, Finland’s neighbor, but also because I have just finished reading Jack Knight and Jim Johnson’s powerful and tightly-reasoned treatise, The Priority of Democracy: The Political Consequences of Pragmatism.
Knight and Johnson defend democracy as the most desirable mode of governing society against other possible claimants to that role–markets, courts, and bureaucracies. Yet the book is hardly a paean to democracy, lauding the wisdom of the common man or woman. Instead, they present a “realist” perspective on the value of democracy, defending it as the best way of managing political conflict. This is not a new argument, but the interest of the book is in how Knight and Johnson defend democracy. They argue that democracy is not necessarily superior to markets, courts, or bureaucracies as a “first-order” mechanism for achieving social coordination or making authoritative decisions. But democracy is uniquely suited to enabling society to select and experiment with a very wide range of different institutional forms that might be used to govern society. In Knight and Johnson’s language, the priority of democracy arises from its ability to translate the diversity of societal preferences, via voting and political argumentation, into the choice of effective institutions. The Finnish demand for collateral has to be taken as one instance of this process of democratically-guided institutional experimentation.
Populism, of course, often provides a pretext for anti-democratic rhetoric. In Greece, populism is blamed for the crisis in the first place. Greek political parties are charged with acting irresponsibly by overpromising public benefits to voters that the state could not ultimately deliver. Meanwhile, the True Finn’s nationalistic and anti-immigrant vitriol is sending shock waves through Finnish and European politics. In this context, markets, courts, or bureaucracies that insulate “rational” thinking and action from the hurly-burly of politics may seem like a very desirable alternative. While no defenders of Greek clientelism or Finnish nationalism, Knight and Johnson might point out that the attempt to insulate such decisions from politics is hardly apolitical. Giving primacy to markets, courts, or bureaucracies is likely to lead to different outcomes, but not necessarily to universally welfare-enhancing results. They might also point out that the True Finns are not unilaterally deciding the fate of Europe. They operate in a democratic context that allows their political arguments to influence, but not dictate, Finnish and European policy. While ungenerous, the True Finns’ populist demands express the authentic outrage of a sizeable segment of the Finnish public and their influence may ultimately produce institutional experiments unimagined by markets, courts, or bureaucracies. Knight and Johnson might argue that only democracy can transform a diversity that includes the perspective of the New Finns into an institutional strategy for governing the Greek debt crisis.
As their book’s subtitle suggests, Knight and Johnson draw inspiration from Pragmatist philosophy. I share this inspiration and have recently published my own account of how this philosophical tradition might shape our democratic strategies. In Pragmatist Democracy: Evolutionary Learning as Public Philosophy (Oxford 2011), I address a number of the same themes as Knight and Johnson. Although we interpret the Pragmatist philosophical tradition in quite different ways, we arrive at many of the same conclusions. Both of us understand Pragmatism to greatly value the role of institutions in mediating political life and to embrace the inevitable pluralism of institutional life. We also share a Pragmatist commitment to acknowledging the fundamental diversity of society and the need to discover, through experimental means, institutional strategies for managing difference. Both of us regard political argument as a critical element of democratic reflexivity and the capacity to exercise voice as an essential property of democracy. Their defense of democracy and their Pragmatist account of democratic authority and political obligation help to give voice to many of my own Pragmatist intuitions.
Despite our substantial agreement, there are also important divergences between our perspectives on democracy. This divergence arises, in part, from the different questions we ask and, in part, from the different ways that we draw on the Pragmatist tradition to address those questions. As the subtitles of our books suggest, Knight and Johnson give pride of place to Pragmatism’s consequentialism, while I stress that Pragmatism is a philosophy of learning. Neither of us would deny, I think, that both perspectives are solidly part of the Pragmatist tradition, but we give them different priorities in our accounts. These differences either reflect or give rise to different intellectual commitments and styles. While Knight and Johnson take consequentialism as support for a rational choice approach to democratic theory, my emphasis on learning is more compatible with an historically-situated view of democracy. I have discussed these commitments at some length in my book and in a short response to book reviewers, The Intellectual Journey of a Pragmatist in (Socio-Economic Review), so I will not try to do them justice here. But I will draw out a few ways our Pragmatist view of democracy differs as a result.
Much of Knight and Johnson’s book is a constructive and critical engagement with social choice theory. They first defend majoritarian voting rules as the fundamental mechanism of democratic interest aggregation. They then argue that political argument adds a reflexive and stabilizing capacity to democratic politics. Stable majorities select institutions and periodic elections allow for the monitoring of these choices. Hence, over time, democracy creates the basis for institutional experimentation. However, they argue that for democracy to engage in effective institutional experimentation, important preconditions must be met. Citizens must have equal opportunity to exert political influence. They point to many possible constraints on this capacity related to inequality and political exclusion, but also to the real possibility of achieving this equal opportunity. Although they do not provide concrete references, it seems to me that European social democracies—like Sweden and Finland—have come closest to providing the capacity for equal opportunity for political influence.
My own interpretation of Pragmatism is that it is a naturalistic perspective that encourages us to engage critically with democracy as it exists rather than through the deductive prism of social choice theory. While Knight and Johnson’s approach has the advantage of abstracting theoretical issues from any particular historical or social context, this is also its limitation. The book never engages with how actual democracies already meet or fall short of their vision of democracy. As a result, much of their theoretical treatise on democracy defends features of democracy that are mostly challenged only by social choice theorists, while giving little attention to the deep challenges faced by actual democracies. The True Finns notwithstanding, our fundamental challenge at present is not whether we should give priority to democracy (though this was the fundamental challenge of an earlier period). The more pressing concern of our age is to figure out how to realize and deepen democracy in the face of challenges like globalization, financial crisis, and environmental degradation.
In the abstract, Knight and Johnson defend the democratic selection of our governing institutions. Yet once selected, the molding of these institutions continues, subject to influence from special interests, the media, and day-to-day governance tasks. Much of the quality of democratic governance is thus determined by influences that go beyond the ballot box. Knight and Johnson are dismissive of alternatives to voting as mechanisms for democratic deliberation, but voting is at best a blunt instrument for institutional development and control. My view is that to realize and deepen democracy, we must go beyond voting to concern ourselves with how institutions operate functionally and politically in democratic society. In Pragmatist Democracy, I argue that the quality of democratic governance critically depends on how public agencies function as organizations and on how they interact with democratic publics. Their capacity to engage citizens and organized groups at the point of societal problem-solving subjects them to the threat of capture, but also makes then capable of discovering and building democratic consent.
I conclude by returning to the issue of consequentialism. While I support Knight and Johnson’s idea of “tempered consequentialism,” I am concerned about the prominence they give it. While Pragmatism is indeed consequentialist, it also stresses the cumulative interaction of ends and means and the way that the selection of means shapes the subsequent choice of ends. This is an important point for a theory of democratic institutions. Institutions are not merely means. They also fundamentally shape our capacity to think and act as a democratic community. Preferences and opinions are learned behavior and institutions are a framework for collective learning. Pragmatism might defend the democratic rights of the True Finns, but would not stop there. It would also require some soul searching about the institutional conditions that give rise to the opinions and attitudes True Finns have learned.