Democratic Legitimacy and Democracy’s Priority

by Melissa Schwartzberg on February 12, 2013

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.

{ 21 comments }

1

david 02.12.13 at 4:12 pm

The move toward constitutionalism and judicial review would seem to suggest support for a degree of technocracy and limited popular oversight.

2

William Timberman 02.12.13 at 4:13 pm

The problem I see is that pragmatism as a justification is — and will probably always be — of more interest to precisely those people who are in a position to break eggs and make omelets without any serious negative consequences to themselves. This may not always lead to something like Stalin’s indifference to the fate of the Kulaks, or Obama’s to the fate of the children at the receiving end of his drones, but historically it has been often enough for me to be generally wary of consequentialist argumentsl.

I may be a sentimental old fool, but I don’t think we take the fate of the victims of our causal efficacies as seriously as we ought to.

3

Shelley 02.12.13 at 4:24 pm

With corporate power and income inequality, it’s hard for me any more to even see the word “democracy” without struggling for definitions….

4

djw 02.12.13 at 6:21 pm

Excellent post; I, too, am eager to see Knight and Johnson’s response.

5

Bruce Wilder 02.12.13 at 7:26 pm

Having read only this post, I am wondering what the object of knowledge is, for this epistemic inquiry, which is democracy, and, by extension, what the criteria of “effectiveness” might be.

Should we imagine, as a standard, that a Mr. Spock, a calculating engine able to suppress all emotion (and by implication of that, narcissistic self-interest), and so, operating with eyes wide open, to the physics of the world, but, blind as a statue of Justice to personal interest and identity, even his own? Does “democracy” require a veil of ignorance for inspiration?

The Mr. Spock of bad television drama is incisive and decisive, but I suspect that being cut off, whether by a biological accident (or a stringently maintained, philosophical veil of ignorance) from a felt awareness of self-interest would condemn an individual — or a committee of such individuals — to a near-fatal paralysis of analysis.

Surely, there are no questions of value, by which to judge pragmatic effectiveness, which can be reduced to wholly objective, abstract criteria: in the final analysis, “good” reduces to the subjective “good” of living beings, as they conceive of that good, and experience and enjoy that good. Utilitarianism is wrong to try to make individual good commensurable, but it was not wrong to condemn projections onto the Will of God or the needs of the State.

If democracy — that never-ending argument — has any claim on epistemic effectiveness, surely it must rest on the notion that “value” cannot be alienated from the individual as a locus of feeling and experience. Democracies force argument over general principles in making decisions. The “first-order” institutional choices are principled choices, arrived at deliberately, in acknowledgement of conflict over individual interests, and expressed and justified by reasoning about those principles. That requires serious effort, just in energy terms, which a more expedient procedure might avoid.

I’m wondering if that’s the direction the argument goes in, to establish an epistemic superiority for democratic governance. Or, are they actually arguing that democracy does a better job of discovering the principles of physics (college of science and all that)? a better architecture for a central bank or an air traffic control system?

6

LFC 02.12.13 at 10:14 pm

@Bruce Wilder

As I understand it, Knight & Johnson argue, w/r/t any particular “first order” question — say, should environmental protection/regulation be done by an agency, by Congress, by the courts, by the market, or by some combination of all the above? — that the best way to answer that question is by voting and political argument, where “best” means “most likely to lead to effective institutional choices,” and where that means, in this example, “to lead to effective environmental regulation.” That’s not a purely ‘objective’ yardstick but not purely ‘subjective’ either. (Maybe this is a bad example, in which case sorry.) Basically, they are indeed arguing, to use your words, that democracy “does a better job of discovering … a better architecture for a central bank or an air traffic control system,” not directly perhaps, but because, when democracy works properly, it facilitates a process by which society experiments with different architectures for a central bank or whatever until it comes up with one that seems to work more-or-less well. (Is this how things work in “the real world” of even a social democracy like Finland or Sweden? Maybe, but I tend to doubt it. But that’s a separate issue.)

This post by Pr. Schwartzberg, as I understand it (and I may not), is asking: what if it turns out that voting and political argument (in which everyone gets a roughly equal chance to speak), are *not* the most ‘effective’ ways to make these ‘second order’ decisions? Should ‘effectiveness’ be the only justifying (justificatory?) criterion for democracy? (See this from the end of the OP: 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….)

Your suggestion/question in yr comment @5 about a veil of ignorance doesn’t come into the Knight & Johnson argument, b/c they assume no such thing. They explicitly assume that most people are going to act out of self-interest most of the time. (I can find the quote from my post on the book if you want.) Knight & Johnson want nothing to do w/ the veil of ignorance and little to do w/ Rawls, whom they criticize, sometimes unfairly in my opinion, at two or three places in the book.

7

LFC 02.12.13 at 10:23 pm

Correction: In the first sentence above, I think I meant “second order” when I wrote “first order.” Just ignore it, I think the comment parses without the 1st order/ 2nd order stuff. If it doesn’t, I’m sure someone will tell me. (They usually do.)

8

LFC 02.12.13 at 11:02 pm

Clarification (last one): Of course, Rawls also assumes that people mostly act out of self-interest but his hypothetical decision situation deprives them of certain kinds of information. There is nothing comparable to this in K&J (and, given what they’re doing, they don’t need it).

9

Scott P. 02.13.13 at 3:04 pm

Interesting. I wouldn’t say that the advantage of democracy over other forms of government is its tendency towards ‘correctness’ (what would that mean?). Rather, the legitimacy of democracy comes from the simple fact that no one is a better judge of a person’s self-interest than that person herself. That doesn’t mean that every person is a perfect judge of their own self-interest, rather that there is no impartial decider who is consistently better. Even if one posits an enlightened oligarchy or aristocracy (in the Greek sense of the term), there will be an inevitable tendency for those philosopher-kings to rationalize what is in their own self-interest as being in the self-interest of the ruled. E.g. “it is good for the rulers to have lots of land, because the rulers are better judges than anyone else (otherwise they wouldn’t be rulers) and it is good for society for those who have merit to have more wealth.” And it snowballs from there.

If one believes that the object of good government is to act in the interest of all of its citizens as best as possible, then government has to be controlled by those who understand the self-interest of the citizens, which is each citizen, individually.

10

Mao Cheng Ji 02.13.13 at 3:46 pm

“If one believes that the object of good government is to act in the interest of all of its citizens as best as possible, then government has to be controlled by those who understand the self-interest of the citizens, which is each citizen, individually.”

This doesn’t sound right. Every individual citizen is probably in a prisoner’s dilemma situation: what their, narrowly understood, ‘self-interest’ dictates is far, very far away from what their collective interest is.

You follow your ‘self-interest’, you lose. And it’s very easy to convince you to follow it, because to give it up you need to trust some people. And you probably don’t have a good reason to trust them.

11

LFC 02.13.13 at 4:09 pm

Every individual citizen is probably in a prisoner’s dilemma situation: what their, narrowly understood, ‘self-interest’ dictates is far, very far away from what their collective interest is.

A prisoner’s dilemma arises mainly because the prisoners can’t communicate with each other (in the classic ‘one-shot’ version of the game). Democratic deliberation obviously involves communication, so when deliberation is operating reasonably well — an important qualification — a prisoner’s dilemma situation shouldn’t arise.

12

Harold 02.13.13 at 4:19 pm

Aristotle famously advocated a “mixed government”, nevertheless
VOX POPULI VOX DEI

The many (hoi polloi), of whom none is individually an excellent (spoudaios) man, nevertheless can, when joined together, be better than those [the excellent few], not as individuals but all together [hôs sumpantas], just as potluck [sumphorêta] dinners can be better than those provided at one man’s expense. For, there being many, each person possesses a constituent part [morion] of virtue [aretê] and practical reason [phronêsis], and when they have come together, the multitude [plêthos] is like a single person (hôsper hena anthrôpon), yet many-footed and many-handed and possessing many sense-capacities [aisthêseis], so it is likewise [like a single person with multiple excellences] as regards to its facets of character [ta êthê] and its intelligence [dianoia]. This is why the many [hoi polloi] judge better in regard to musical works and those of the poets, for some judge a particular part [ti morion], while all of them judge the whole [panta de pantes]. (Politics 3.1281a42-b10. Trans. C. Lord, adapted).

13

Harold 02.13.13 at 4:26 pm

Machiavelli:
Vox Populi Vox Dei
If anyone should hold up to me the example of the ingratitude that the Roman people showed toward Scipio, I will reply that which I discussed above at length on this subject, where it was demonstrated that the People are less ungrateful than Princes. And as to prudence and stability, I say, that a People is more prudent, more stable, and of better judgment than a Prince: And not without reason is the Voice of the People like the Voice of God, for a universal opinion appears that causes marvelous effects in its prognostication, and appears to foresee through a kind of hidden virtú [prowess], evil or good. As to the judging of things, it rarely happens that when they hear two speakers of equal virtú who hold opposite views that the People fail to take up the better opinion, and they are capable of seeing the truth in what they hear. And if (as has been said above) they err in things concerning bravery, or which appear useful, a Prince also errs many times in his own passions, which are much greater than those of the people. It will also be seen that in the election of their magistrates, they make by far a better selection than does a Prince, and a People will never be persuaded that it is better to bring to that dignity a man of infamous and corrupt habits: to which a Prince may be persuaded easily and in a thousand ways. It will also be observed that when a people begin to hold a thing in horror, they remain in that opinion for many centuries, which does not happen with a Prince. And on both of these two things, the testimony of the Roman people will suffice for me, who, in so many hundreds of years, in so many elections of Consuls and Tribunes, they did not make four elections of which they had to repent. And (as I have said) they held the name of Royalty in so much hatred, that no obligation to any of its Citizens who should seize that title would enable him to escape the merited penalty. In addition to this, it will be seen that the Cities where the people are Princes, make the greatest progress in the shortest time and much greater than those who have always been under a Prince, as Rome did after the driving out of the Kings, and Athens did after they were free of Pisistratus. Which would not have happened unless those governments of the People were better than those of the Princes. –Discourses on Livy (1517), Chapter LVIII

14

Mao Cheng Ji 02.13.13 at 4:57 pm

I don’t think communication is enough, you need trust. Are people who collect welfare checks paid by you mostly freeloaders? If you, for example, perceive 47% of the population as freeloaders, then being able to communicate with them doesn’t do you any good.

And there are many models where individual preference leads to suboptimal result for all. For example: people may prefer to live in a racially diverse neighborhood, but they may also strongly prefer not to be a small minority in their neighborhood. Well, it turns out, the most stable equilibrium in this case is a total segregation. Go figure.

15

LFC 02.13.13 at 7:24 pm

@Mao Cheng Ji:
I accept that there are cases “where individual preference leads to suboptimal result for all.” But I’d like to return this discussion to the OP.

K&J argue that when everyone can make his/her voice heard and listened to — where there is ‘equal opportunity for political influence’ — the resulting ‘robust’ democracy will yield effective institutional performance. Short version: what justifies robust democracy is that it ‘works’.

There are at least two problems or questions with that. One problem is: how do you define “effective” and “works”?, which is the issue Bruce Wilder raised in his comment. The second problem, raised by Melissa Schwartzberg’s post, is: What if, on some reasonable definition of “effective,” a robust, inclusive democracy seems not to be so effective? From the OP:

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.

In other words, if you tie the legitimacy of democracy strongly to ‘effectiveness,’ and effectiveness fails, you have a problem, assuming you consider yourself a democrat (small “d”). You need another basis of legitimacy. Scott P suggested that “the legitimacy of democracy comes from the simple fact that no one is a better judge of a person’s self-interest than that person herself.” Another, not necessarily competing, basis of legitimacy might be some notion of individual equality in rights among Enlightenment-style “free and equal rational beings.”

So a question, Mao, would be: what do you propose as the basis of democracy’s legitimacy?

16

Mao Cheng Ji 02.13.13 at 8:00 pm

I don’t know. I don’t even know what ‘legitimacy’ means in this context. Or, for that matter, ‘democracy’. You are presented with two establishment candidates and you pick one for 2, 4, or 6 years, and they do whatever they want? Or you vote in a referendum for every decision, including whether a new tram line should be built or not, like in Switzerland? Intuitively, the latter certainly seems more ‘legitimate’, whatever that means. And, empirically, more ‘effective’ too.

17

Salient 02.14.13 at 8:46 am

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.

It feels like “systematically ineffective” is a little ambiguous, in that it’s not clear to me how bad things would have to get before we identify the democratic process of election, rather than a particular sequence of elected governments, to be the problem. I guess there’s some kind of presentism underlying my feeling that we’re pretty much already there, but setting that feeling aside, I’m left completely clueless about where the threshold might be.

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.

I’m not so sure. You usually get the best social-welfare-improving changes, and always get the best social-welfare-maintaining resistances to change, from a government that would be scared to do anything less. (My use of ‘would be’ feels pretty important, since it accommodates situations such as a newly-voted-in party, flush with new power, determined to make sweeping welfare-improving changes; those folks might not be consciously experiencing any fear/apprehension as they recraft policy, but they would be afraid of deserting their supporters and their cause, if for some reason they contemplated the possibility. Without the verb-tense pedantry, I’d have to swap out ‘scared’ for ‘motivated’ or something.)

The strange thing to me is that this fear-based assessment implies activists are up against government agents hostile to welfare, but the underlying principle still seems to be true even when each individual government agent has a strong genuine interest in promoting social welfare, is reasonably receptive to activists’ guidance, etc.

Democracy at least sets a floor for this scaredness, giving a constant thing to be scared by (getting voted out of power). So even if you’re not getting welfare-improving or welfare-maintaining policy from democracy, democracy still gives you some (nonviolent) leverage to scare policymakers with. Would any other form of governance set a floor (guarantee some nonzero minimum amount of leverage) in that way?

18

Salient 02.14.13 at 9:06 am

Democratic deliberation obviously involves communication, so when deliberation is operating reasonably well — an important qualification — a prisoner’s dilemma situation shouldn’t arise.

Not necessarily, I don’t think, unfortunately. A good counterexample is the paradox of thrift–even if we communicate with one another plenty, and even if we all completely understand that a lot of private saving is a crippling economic drag in the aggregate, we’ll still go ahead and save pretty much the same amount (what we can afford and feel comfortable with). Valuing wealth at any social cost would be pathological, but we can hardly fault people for valuing their personal safety and protection from ruin.

Even once we recognize there’s a paradox-resolving solution achievable by state policy (I dunno, a public relief fund to replace the need for private savings), we have to make sure that (sufficiently many) policymakers feel it is necessary for them to make the change and provide that policy. If not enough of those policymakers feel personally responsible for seeing the change through, it still won’t happen (even if the policymakers feel inclined to support the policy).

And crap, ‘feel personally responsible for’ is much better than ‘scared to do less than’ at conveying the need for individual state agents to overcome the institutional inertia imposed by the Iron Law of Bureaucracy, or whatever

19

dk 02.14.13 at 1:06 pm

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”

That is the most complicated way of saying “the ends justify the means” that I have ever encountered.

20

LFC 02.14.13 at 3:59 pm

In light of the objections to my comment about communication and the prisoner’s dilemma, I will retract it. (It was sort of off on a tangent anyway.)

21

LFC 02.14.13 at 7:40 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @16
I don’t even know what ‘legitimacy’ means in this context. Or for that matter, ‘democracy’.

I started to try to write a decent response to this and then I decided I don’t have the time, the energy, or perhaps the requisite ability. (I also don’t have The Priority of Democracy in front of me any more, because I returned it to the library. I did not buy it, which I’m sure will please the authors. [Sorry, bad humor.]) When a thread begins to feel like a cross between a maze and a treadmill, it may be time to check out. I note that the posters aren’t participating in the threads, which may or may not mean something, but I’m out of this thread.

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