The central argument of The Priority of Democracy, as I understand it, is that democracy does not have a claim to be the sole justifiable means by which all decisions should be made in a modern political community. Instead, its primary role is to enable citizens (on free and equal terms) to select, implement, and maintain the institutions regulating first-order decision-making by means of voting and political argument. Though I find this quite compelling, I did wonder about the conception of democratic legitimacy underlying the theory, and wanted to push Knight and Johnson to say a bit more.
In Chapter 9, Knight and Johnson hold that the pragmatist justification of democracy is as follows: “the conditions of causal efficacy are the same as the conditions of normative legitimacy,” which they regard as the “lesson of tempered consequentialism.” (262) On this version, freedom and equality are justified insofar as they “enhance the effectiveness of the democratic process.” (262) The burden of justification, as they see it, is to demonstrate that “democracy does a better job of coordinating our social interactions than competing institutional forms” (95). The challenge that they set for themselves is to demonstrate that democracy is – in principle – up to this task. They do so (in my view convincingly) primarily through appeal to the benefits of distributed knowledge, and in particular to the institutions that enable diverse ideas and beliefs to enter into a competition marked by ongoing and reflexive experimentation and testing.
So democracy has a claim to legitimacy only insofar as these mechanisms of aggregating and assessing disbursed information operate effectively. But here the difficulty begins to arise: how do we assess “causal efficacy” or “effectiveness”? Is it simply ascribed to the democratic procedure, or is it a substantive criterion, which democracy could succeed or fail to achieve? My impression from the account of “tempered consequentialist” account Knight and Johnson sketch, as well as the assertion that the conditions of causal efficacy are those of legitimacy, is that it is not a purely procedural account, because “the key to establishing political obligation is the effective operation of democratic institutions” (272). That is, only insofar as democratic procedures generate “good institutional choices” are they obligatory. (273)
Yet one challenge Knight and Johnson pose to epistemic democrats, those who seek to justify democracy in terms of its truth-tracking capabilities, is the question of whether in most political disputes there is a “fact of the matter waiting to be discovered.” (154) In their words, “the assumption that any such procedure-independent standard exists seems deeply implausible, in general.” (158) This is surely a fair objection. But it is not obvious to me that the standard of “causal efficacy” evades it – that is, is it procedure-independent?
Now, Knight and Johnson might reply that the assessment of causal efficacy is itself ascribed to democratic procedures because of their reflexivity – indeed, this is why reflexivity is so critical to their account. But if this is the case, I wonder whether their concept of legitimacy is, at its core, equivalent to David Estlund’s epistemic proceduralism.
In Democratic Authority, Estlund holds that democratic laws are legitimate because they are produced by procedures with a tendency to make correct decisions; though these procedures are fallible, their outcomes are binding even when they fail. Estlund affirms that this is not a pure proceduralist account, but neither is it as epistemically demanding as a “correctness theory,” in which case only those outcomes that are correct are legitimate. I’d like to ask whether Knight and Johnson are committed to a similar stance. The obligatory force of democratic outcomes derives from their capacity to be reasonably good at selecting and evaluating first-order institutions and policies. Even when these procedures fall short, the outcomes are nonetheless obligatory because, in general, they tend to do well, and no procedure will be infallible – and an attractive feature of democracy on this score is its self-correcting nature.
This does have a potential liability. Knight and Johnson insist, again, that the pragmatist justification of democracy is given by democracy’s capacity to solve some set of political problems – again, the assignment and monitoring of first-order institutions – better than its possible rivals. That means, naturally, that if what David Estlund has termed “epistocracy” – rule by the educated – were to prove itself superior in its capacity to assign and monitor first-order institutions, democracy would have no legitimate claim to rule. Estlund holds that because the educated group may be biased along certain demographic lines, this may generate countervailing and weakening dimensions of their judgment. Corrected for demography, though, Estlund seems to concede that it is possible that epistocracy could well be justified.
Because Knight and Johnson do an excellent job of supporting the claim that democracy will tend to be causally effective in the way they suggest, such a fear may be unwarranted. Yet imagine, for instance, that the outcomes of a democracy at some point in time seemed to be systematically ineffective, giving institutional responsibilities to bodies that were incompetent or subject to capture by sinister interests. On Knight and Johnson’s account, there is no reason to grant democracy any special priority in such a case; its legitimacy derives from its causal efficacy, and when that falls short, a rival might and probably ought to take its place. The challenge is whether a democracy defended in terms of its tendencies to produce better outcomes will be able to withstand challenges at moments at which these outcomes seem reasonably to be deficient – or at least when a substantial part of the population wants to suggest that another second-order institutional arrangement might be superior. And perhaps it should not. But if so, then, it seems that the link between pragmatism and democracy, drawn so convincingly by Knight and Johnson, may begin to fray.