The Political Consequences of Learning

by Chris Ansell on February 11, 2013

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.

{ 33 comments }

1

SamChevre 02.11.13 at 4:33 pm

Typo check–are the “New Finns” and the “True Finns” different parties?

2

reason 02.11.13 at 4:58 pm

Collateral?
Santorini and Ibiza?
(Can’t have Mallorca it already belongs to the Germans).

3

LFC 02.11.13 at 5:23 pm

I think the opening paragraphs of this post confuse strategies with institutional forms.

‘Experimenting’ with a particular strategy for dealing with the Greek debt/bailout (collateral, no collateral, whatever) is not really the same as experimenting with different institutional forms for dealing with various problems. A demand for collateral has little to do with “institutional experimentation” as Knight and Johnson use that phrase. (Of course, I’m sure Prof. Ansell will disagree.)

4

LFC 02.11.13 at 5:27 pm

P.s. K&J’s use of “institutional experimentation” is somewhat vague, as I recall (it’s been some time now since I read the book). So I should have said: A demand for collateral has little to do with what I assumed they meant by ‘institutional experimentation’.

5

Barry 02.11.13 at 5:40 pm

Seconding here – this sounds only like a variation on ‘drain and discard’, the standard neoliberal method.

6

Johan Anglemark 02.11.13 at 6:23 pm

@SamChevre: The same party. They are of course called something else in Finnish. It is the English translation of their name that varies, so I wouldn’t call it a typo.

7

dsquared 02.11.13 at 6:48 pm

True Finns?

8

LFC 02.11.13 at 7:51 pm

Having read the post more carefully now, perhaps my comments @3 and 4 were a bit too hasty. Because this sentence from the post — 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 — suggests that the demands for collateral do not in themselves constitute ‘institutional experimentation’ but could lead to it.

More importantly, I agree with this:

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.

By proceeding in this way, K&J miss the chance not only to discuss “how actual democracies…meet or fall short of their vision” but also to consider how actual “institutional experimentation” has (or hasn’t) worked in the past, under conditions of highly varying distributions of “opportunity for political influence.”

9

Josh G. 02.11.13 at 8:15 pm

I think this is all much simpler than everyone is making it out to be. Northern Europeans don’t consider themselves to be part of the same demos as Mediterraneans. Thus, since monetary union can’t work without fiscal union, the two sections of Europe should not have the same currency. The Euro was a bad idea. Time to admit it, disengage as adroitly as feasible, and move on.

10

ponce 02.11.13 at 8:40 pm

“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”

Some government agencies, like Social Security, Medicaid and the VA, are exempt from cuts under the sequester.

Some agencies, like Defense, are getting their budgets wacked 10%.

A rating of the quality of their public interactions?

11

Stephen 02.11.13 at 9:06 pm

Attempted translation of OP:

“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” = given a vote, we can always chuck the scoundrels out.

“Populism, of course, often provides a pretext for anti-democratic rhetoric” = bad idea to give us a vote, it might go the wrong way.

Have I misunderstood you?

12

Tony Lynch 02.11.13 at 9:24 pm

There is one and only one consequential test for democracy – power lies with an undeluded people (Democracy must pass the Critical Theory Test) when that power acts in their interests – and it does that when it redistributes wealth and power from the few to the many. if the redistribution is going the other way, increasingly and seeming unstoppably, then we do not have Democracy, pragmatic or anything else. Talking as if we do is itself either delusion or cheat.

13

FRauncher 02.11.13 at 11:39 pm

The Finnish example perhaps illustrates how Finnish democracy is pragmatically moving toward a consensus which, for the moment, seems satisfying to the Finns, but it is certainly not leading toward any satisfying consensus in the EU as a whole. This actually supports Ansell’s thesis, reminding us that the absence of satisfactory democratic institutions in the EU–and over reliance on bureaucracy– is probably the major impediment to their finding the “reflexivity” necessary to working through their multitude of populist problems.

14

Bruce Wilder 02.12.13 at 2:06 am

To have a coherent concept of pragmatic learning through politics, you need the context of a theory of political anacyclosis. At any one moment, institutions may be being invented and built up, be wearing away in entropic drift and corruption, be under assault or in the process of being torn down, or frozen in dysfunctional crisis or collapse. That some phases of these inevitable cycles are more to an individual’s taste than others should not be confused with the changing coloration to governance imparted by the tasks peculiar to particular phases.

There can be times, when technocratic centralization seems the path of progress, and others, when it seems the path of regress. The thing is, the facts don’t speak for themselves, at any time. Pragmatic learning requires an initial heuristic model that channels the efforts of movements and statesman, that defines in dramatic and moral terms, what is “serious” or “right” or “responsible” or “practical” or expected, motivating a series of incremental steps, each partial and incomplete. Some things are decided now, other decisions are left to the future . . . over and over. The meaning of general principles changes, driven by semantic generalization, idealism or cynicism.

It seems significant to me that the U.S. is past the expiration date on WWII/New Deal institutional structures, at the end of a long period of dismantling and disinvesting, guided by the heuristic framework of neoliberalism, and that heuristic framework is viewed cynically by many, as corrupt and empty. In a somewhat similar way, Europe is at the end of a long cycle of institution-building, that began in the 1950s, driven by a mixture of now forgotten ordo-liberalism (sometimes called neoliberalism, oddly) and reformist socialism, and is now being driven onto the rocks by a variation on the same neoliberalism dominating American politics, which in the European context covers a desire to dismantle the corrupt and archaic institutional legacies of populist (and, in southern Europe, fascist) governments, which, somewhat akin to urban machine politics and rural populism in the U.S., have served as social welfare protections.

For an American, like myself, with some understanding of economics, the saga of the Euro crisis is more than a little discordant. I see an abject technical failure in the institutional design of a currency, and wonder what’s being done to assemble a centralized fiscal capacity, create a pool of reliable zero-risk debt, or a union of banking regulation, deposit insurance and the life — technical sine qua nons of a functional, stable, institutional money. And, I see the appalling rates of unemployment and suffering. But, for some of the policy participants, apparently, the technical requirements of an institutional money are by-the-by, while the suffering is at the point of a deliberately wielded, sharp stick, meant to redeem the fallen with sacrifice. Progress in institutional reform is reported, but the institutional reforms, induced by a campaign of destruction that lacks only B-52s overhead, have little to do with building the institutional supports of the Euro, and everything to do with driving down incomes and destroying popular political capacities and claims, including the credibility, apparently, of the mainstream political parties of the peripheral countries.

15

Johan 02.12.13 at 1:11 pm

A more proper translation of “Perussuomalaiset” than ‘New Finns’ is ‘True Finns’.

16

Ken Houghton 02.12.13 at 2:21 pm

In William Goldman’s next book, the Trufinns will always have been at war with the Nufinns.

17

Jim McCollum 02.12.13 at 5:10 pm

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.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Pragmatist model of learning is itself consequentialist in that it is modeled on the scientific experimental enterprise. Real consequences are compared to the hypothesis such that the means themselves are revised. Dewey takes it that concepts and laws of nature are in fact the cognitive means of interpreting and therefore manipulating the environment. Thus, in science the means are revised in the feedback loop of examining consequences. It’s a tragedy for the pragmatist that we haven’t learned by now that ham-fisted reactionary tendencies are not the best means we have for controlling our social and institutional environment, but this is the result of institutions (and cultures) not properly cataloguing the consequences of these types of interventions and therefore not learning.

18

Henry 02.12.13 at 8:02 pm

New Finns changed to True Finns, per a request from Chris …

19

SamChevre 02.12.13 at 8:06 pm

Henry @ 18

Not showing as changed for me @ 3:06 EST.

20

Kevin 02.12.13 at 8:35 pm

Nor for me.

21

Jameson Quinn 02.14.13 at 1:48 pm

I see two things missing from this analysis.

First, there’s the whole issue of game theory and strategy. Plurality (FPTP) systems are nearly inevitably two-party systems (Duverger’s law) and thus they can get stuck in pernicious equilibria where majorities of voters agree on several needed changes, yet a lack of perfect unity combined with the first-mover problem prevents any of these changes from finding effective voice. I’d say that’s pretty much the situation in both the US and UK at the moment (with gerrymandering and the undemocratic filibuster providing an assist in the US case). This fall I start a PhD in which I hope to prove that other voting systems (such as approval voting or majority judgment; IRV is in this sense a dead end) are not subject to such pernicious equilibria.

This analysis has the advantage of actually offering useful advice. If you’re interested in following up on this advice: http://www.electology.org (not affiliated and I don’t endorse everything they say but they have the right basic idea), #endPlurality, #approvalVoting.

Second point in separate comment.

22

Jameson Quinn 02.14.13 at 2:04 pm

Second, democracy is not merely a system for making decisions and fomenting debate. It’s also a system of legitimating a government; in itself, an argument for putting down the guns. This is yet another reason why “stupid people don’t get to vote” is a pointless idea; it robs democracy of its legitimacy. The issue of legitimacy is also a basis for the people to demand better democracy (such as the improved voting systems I discussed above).

Finally: about the stupid people (we know who they are). I’d say that despite all the worries about epistemic closure and demagoguery and other stupidity-enhancing processes, a strong majority are at least “weak learners” if reality hits us upside the head hard enough. That blow can be in the form of either (electoral) defeat or (economic/environmental/civil rights) disaster; obviously, the former is preferable, as it does not extend to those who didn’t earn it. Plurality voting and its pernicious equilibria discussed above postpone defeat, and make disaster more likely.

23

Jameson Quinn 02.14.13 at 2:06 pm

Ooops. The above comments were intended for the thread next door. Um… I’ll go repost them there. Sorry.

24

Jameson Quinn 02.14.13 at 5:09 pm

So now having read this thread, my comments above are not too off-topic after all. The OP speaks of “majoritarian” rules, but plurality/FPTP is not really majoritarian at all; in most anglophone countries, half or more of recent national elections have been won with a mere plurality. Better systems such as approval voting exist; and it is no coincidence that, for good or ill, Finland (with proportional representation) is more democratic than the US or UK.

25

LFC 02.14.13 at 5:46 pm

Second, democracy is not merely a system for making decisions and fomenting debate. It’s also a system of legitimating a government; in itself, an argument for putting down the guns. This is yet another reason why “stupid people don’t get to vote” is a pointless idea; it robs democracy of its legitimacy.

One of the main arguments in Knight & Johnson’s book is that (a properly robust) democracy’s legitimacy stems mainly from its efficacy in solving problems and/or ensuring that institutions perform reasonably well (see M. Schwartzberg’s post and the comment thread). K&J think that if everyone gets to vote etc., effectiveness will be enhanced; but if it won’t be, then on their grounds there is a potential argument for restricting the franchise. That’s why H. Farrell mentions this issue in his post.

26

bianca steele 02.15.13 at 5:10 pm

Me, personally, I’d think that–assuming that knowledge is distributed rather than centralized (which it could be, under various kinds of conditions)–this means democracy would result in a better epistemic condition. The contrary position seems to assume that center/periphery tracks knowledge/ignorance very closely, however–which I admit is probably not plausible–so it’s very possible I don’t understand the objection. (This sounds like a topic that would interest me, but unfortunately (a) I’m not a social scientist, I only took one sociology course, and (b) I don’t have time to read the book right now. So this is off the cuff and possibly not on topic. I’d like to see what Knight & Johnson say, specifically, about the institutions they have in mind.) I would think it rules out any minority’s being able to say, “you guys are idiots,” and thus unilaterally removing their ability to vote. It doesn’t rule out, as LFC and Henry Farrell point out, empirically discovering that everyone, say, outside the center [1] is an idiot and thus no one outside the center should have a vote. But nor does it rule out empirically discovering that everybody with an MBA is an idiot and shouldn’t have a vote. (I think. Isn’t pragmatism mostly pretty closely tied to empiricism?)

[1] Yes, I am reading The Dispossessed at the moment. Why do you ask?

27

bianca steele 02.15.13 at 5:12 pm

And I apologize if that was on the wrong thread.

28

LFC 02.15.13 at 6:14 pm

@bianca steele
It doesn’t rule out, as LFC and Henry Farrell point out, empirically discovering that everyone, say, outside the center is an idiot and thus no one outside the center should have a vote.

If you re-read Henry Farrell’s post and my comments on these threads, I think you will find that neither of us suggests that one might “empirically discover that everyone outside the center [whatever the "center" means exactly] is an idiot and thus no one outside the center should have a vote.”

Henry wrote that if a substantial chunk of the population doesn’t,e.g., think global warming is a problem, then that poses an issue for democracy’s problem-solving capacities. His suggested solution involves looking to (unspecified) “knowledge-formation institutions” and how they interact w the democratic process. Henry did not suggest depriving people who don’t believe in global warming of the right to vote. Nor do I suggest it.

I don’t think anyone here is advocating restricting the franchise. The issue M.Schwartzberg raised has to do w whether K&J’s rationale or justification for democracy might under certain conditions be open to the charge that it cd support restriction of the franchise, even though that’s a result no one — K&J included — supports.

29

LFC 02.15.13 at 6:20 pm

P.s. to previous comment
Henry wrote in his post:

If one is so badly misinformed, or confused, or intellectually warped that one’s perspective systematically detracts and distracts from the search for some underlying insight, then one’s participation in argument hurts rather than helps the democratic search for better understanding.

But unless I missed something, he did not advocate depriving such people of the right to vote. Rather he is concerned w how to ensure that people are not “so badly misinformed” that their participation in the dem. process hurts rather than helps.

30

Mao Cheng Ji 02.15.13 at 7:06 pm

I get the impression that it is assumed here that the democratic institutions are the foundation of society, but they are not. They play a role, but within limits. And it’s not so much the special interests that shape them, it’s the basic concepts: property, rights, obligations. In Cuba, they have committees for the defense of the revolution. In the States, they have chambers of commerce, but no committees for the defense of the revolution.

31

bianca steele 02.15.13 at 9:18 pm

@LFC
If I go back and re-read everything, I won’t ever get to write a comment. In fact, now that my blood sugar has rebounded, I’m wondering why I posted the one I did.

If K&J are arguing that any system that gives good results is good, that’s one thing. The idea I got from this post is that K&J begin from the idea that distributed discussions and distributed decision making give good results. That may be in part because of preconceptions I have about Pragmatism.

The argument you’re alluding to seems to be that making a consequentialist defense of democracy is dangerous because anyone who defends such a defense is leaving an opening for those who want to make a consequentialist attack on democracy, and may only be half-hearted about democracy themselves.

The comments about Machiavelli etc. seem to be addressing the second point. I thought Schwartzberg was addressing the first one (Estlund thinks distributed decision making doesn’t give good results).

32

bianca steele 02.15.13 at 9:27 pm

And I don’t know what “institutions” are included here, I thought possibly more than just the vote? Argumentation was mentioned, that’s different from the vote. In general, though, I don’t know exactly what models of political argument and voter formation people have in mind, I think Henry Farrell alluded to this and maybe Cosma Shalizi will say more?

33

LFC 02.15.13 at 10:20 pm

@bianca s.
The argument you’re alluding to seems to be that making a consequentialist defense of democracy is dangerous because anyone who defends such a defense is leaving an opening for those who want to make a consequentialist attack on democracy

Yes, except that this puts it too strongly for me: I’d substitute “may be problematic” for “is dangerous.”

The comments about Machiavelli

I’m afraid I don’t recall any comments about Machiavelli in this discussion. But amid the multiple posts and threads, I probably just missed them. No matter.

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