Dissent Is the Health of the Democratic State

by Cosma Shalizi on February 16, 2013

This is a book with some important, even profound, ideas about politics,institutions, the virtues of democracy and what it takes to realize them, but it is written so so very, very diffusely that it will will have next to no impact, which is a shame. Let me try to lay out the main path of argument, which is rather lost amid the authors’ digressions and verbiage.

We live in big, complex societies, which means we are thoroughly interdependent on each other, and that we will naturally have different ideas about how our life in common should go, and will have divergent interests. This means that politics we shall always have with us. It also means that political problems are largely ones about designing and reforming the institutions which shape how we interact with each other. But because political problems are so hard, even if we could agree on what we wanted our institutions to achieve (which we don’t), we can basically never know in advance what the best institution for a given problem is. (That markets should always and everywhere be the default institution is a claim Knight and Johnson carefully examine before rejecting, whereas I would simply mock.) We also can basically never be sure when changed conditions will make existing institutions unsatisfactory. Put this together and what we need is, as they say, experimentation, with meta-institutions for monitoring how the experiments are going, and deciding when they should be changed or stopped.

This is where democracy comes in. It has priority, not as a first-order institution for getting everything done, but as a second-order institution for checking on and revising other institutions. No other organizational form is as well-suited to checking whether an institution is actively working; some (e.g., markets and courts) are positively pessimized for monitoring their own performance. Democracy has, importantly, two crucial parts: voting, or some similar means of aggregating choices, and debate, the arguments which come before and continue after every vote. Democratic voting is a way of making choices. Democratic debate is a tool for cognition, for harnessing the dispersed knowledge of the citizens and their diversity of perspectives and insights. (There are appropriate citations here
to Ober and Page, among others, though not, oddly, of Lindblom[1].) The two together are a centralized competitive mechanism for discovering what to do, and for revisiting those decisions in the light of experience. Democracy does not produce agreement, and doesn’t need to. Instead it gives us, for the most part, a shared understanding of what we disagree about.

This sort of competition is going to work better as we expand the pool of people who can contribute to it. This means not just having a vote, but being able to cast it as their reason, conscience and interests tell them, not according to the threats of their boss, preacher or family. But because debate is crucial to democracy, people also need to be able to participate in that debate effectively: they need to be able to read (or hear or see…) the debate, and write their own contributions. Others must not ignore or, worse, silence them just because of the kind of people they are (men, women, blacks, Jews, Muslims, Baptist, janitors, engineers, artists…), though they might ignore them if they don’t make sense. So Knight and Johnson recover the usual civil liberties — freedom of speech and of the press, universal suffrage through secret ballots, etc. — as conditions for making democracy work.

But remember that democracy is going to work better the more people can and do really (“effectively”) contribute, especially to the debate. To use an analogy Knight and Johnson don’t: in a sense I could run a marathon, since it is not legally or even physically impossible for me to go through those motions. But there are a lot of obstacles in my way: I have a sedentary job which I let consume a lot of my time, and I have a 38-year-long history of not being very athletic and all the habits and physical drawbacks which go along with that. If I really, really wanted to run a marathon, I am young enough that years of dedication would probably get me there, but it would be very hard, and would get easier if I had a very different environment; it would be easier still if I could have had that more favorable environment for a long time already.

To participate in the democratic debate, people need a lot of skills and cognitive tools: literacy; numeracy; knowing what other people are going on about and why it matters to them; the cultural knowledge and rhetorical skill to argue effectively with fellow citizens[2]; knowledge of the world in general. Gaining all these skills and tools takes teachers and time. (Some people learn such things under extraordinarily bad conditions; expecting everyone to do so is like expecting every middle-aged office worker to become a marathon-runner.) Gaining these skills also takes a brain which is not too damaged by malnutrition, lead poisoning, chronic stress, etc., or simply too inflexible with age. Even citizens who have these skills need free time, not taken up by getting a living, if they are to use them. Economic barriers matter too: if the cost of making oneself heard is owning a TV station, effectively we’ve limited debate to the friends and servants of TV-station-owners. But since democracy works better the more minds it can draw on, and the more diverse they are, that is not apt to be a good situation even for station-owners.

Making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in democracy would be very demanding, and we are very far from doing so. We are even far from making sure everyone has some non-farcical minimum of opportunity. We can and should move towards spreading those opportunities, and make democracy more of a reality and less of a mere promise.

This, then, is the main path of thought in The Priority of Democracy; I find it extremely attractive. I have left out a lot of detail, and a lot of side-roads, such as the discussion of institutional economics (drawing on Knight’s earlier book), and everything about philosophical Pragmatism. It obviously matters a great deal to Knight and Johnson to see themselves as heirs to Dewey, and what they have to say about Pragmatism is interesting to me, but I don’t see how it makes any difference. Someone who thought the whole Pragmatist tradition was rubbish from beginning to end could still accept all of Knight and Johnson’s substantive arguments about politics, institutions, and experimental democracy. (They are after all very close to Karl Popper’s ideas in The Open Society and Its Enemies; naturally, Popper is not mentioned.) On top of this, they spill a lot of ink in disputes with fellow political theorists and/or capital-P Pragmatists, and generally using five words instead of two.

None of this takes away from the value of what they’ve done. But all of this makes it harder to get to that value, and reduces the impact the book will have. (If I pressed it on friends or students, almost none of them would actually read it.) There is a good short, pointed book in here; someone should write it.

[1]: I mean not Lindblom’s later books on the market system, which they do cite, but his earlier ones on democracy as decision-making through “partisan mutual adjustment”, especially A Strategy of Decision (with David Braybrooke, 1963), and The Intelligence of Democracy (1965). These emphasized the impossibility of designing “optimal” solutions from scratch for actual social or political problems, which are instead dealt with by making multiple steps, in many senses “partial”, and often correcting the results of earlier steps taken under the direction of other aims or other understandings. In doing this, persistent disagreement about values and priorities can be not just inevitable but a positive boon. I will venture to quote a somewhat long passage from The Intelligence of Democracy:

Looking at complex problem solving as a strategy, one can wonder whether serial and remedial methods are enough to provide reasonable assurance that adverse consequences and policy failures will be straightened out. One can easily imagine a decision maker who can return in later policy steps to no more than a few of a variety of neglected adverse consequences resulting from an earlier policy step. This possibility points directly to the need for a multiplicity of decision makers and, more than that, to a multiplicity marked by great variety of attitudes and interests, so that no one line of adverse consequence fails to come the attention of some decision maker.


The great multiplicity of decision makers in, say, American public policy making can be seen, therefore, as a great strength where problem solving cannot be synoptically accomplished but must be strategically pursued. Multiplicity copes with the inevitability of omission and other errors in complex problem solving. Were there no decision makers with a stake in international trade, we might wonder whether farm policy might not put strains on international trade to which farm-policy decision makers might themselves be inadequately sensitive; but we know that, if the strains appear, those decision makers who have a stake in international trade will attack them as their own problem. Were it not for decision makers with an interest in parks and recreation, we might wonder whether an urban redevelopment board could be trusted to make decisions on the relocation of commercial houses within a city.


If, through multiplicity, decision makers mop up the adverse consequences of each other’s inevitably imperfect decisions, multiple decision makers will, in addition, compelling call to others’ attention aspects of the problem they cannot themselves analyze. Moreover, just as the single decision maker will sometimes anticipate adverse consequences that he must nevertheless treat as separate problems for fear of making his existing problems unmanageable, so also other decision makers can anticipate what they either cannot anticipate or cannot attend to. They can then treat the anticipated adverse consequences as their problems, even attacking them simultaneously with their attack on the initial problem. [pp. 151—152]

Lindblom was, to be fair, rather complacent about how well America was doing at making sure diverse values had a say in the political process in the mid-1960s, but that’s another story. ^

[2]: It’s easy, on this basis, to argue for compulsory education strongly focused on assimilating all children to a single common culture. In other words, put this aspect of Knight and Johnson together with Ernest Gellner, and you easily get not multiculturalism
but E. D. Hirsch. There’s even a formally parallel argument for eugenics, but it’d be much weaker. (It’d be far more intrusive than melting-pot schooling, there’s no diversity-preserving equivalent of bilingualism or code-switching, and, most of all, we have no idea of how to do it.) ^

{ 11 comments }

1

Stephen 02.16.13 at 9:00 pm

Dead right. Now, as for what happens to dissent in the revolutionary or utopian state …

2

Harald Korneliussen 02.16.13 at 9:08 pm

A question about this book: Does it do a good work of distinguishing between politics as a means of establishing goals, and as a means to establish methods?

Because it’s a point my friends at Equality by lot make a lot (no pun intended) that to know what you want, you don’t necessarily have to have a 100% nourished literate brain free of lead poisoning. Ideally, you shouldn’t even have to be a good debater. Any concessions we make to such things, for the sake of efficiency or practicality or whatever, we’re sacrificing accurate representation of interests and values.

3

William Timberman 02.16.13 at 10:30 pm

Now, as for what happens to dissent in the revolutionary or utopian state …

Surely they’ll wake us when we get there…if we get there…. ;-)

4

breviosity 02.16.13 at 10:37 pm

Is this the first time Crooked Timber has wondered if democracy is both incompatible with multiculturalism and may require high national cognitive ability and even eugenics?

5

thomas 02.17.13 at 3:20 am

@Harald: While I agree that people get to be authoritative about their own interests and values, they aren’t necessarily authoritative about their preferences over states of the world. Sometimes you don’t know whether you want something if you don’t know what it’s like. You might even think you know, but be wrong. I will readily concede that this line of argument is routinely misused, and it may be too dangerous to be useful in politics, but the phenomenon is real.

A trivial example: Cosma and I have similar lack of taste in genre fiction, so I find the book recommendations on his blog to be very helpful. Before reading a recommendation I may not know that I want to read the book; afterwards I do know. This is a change of goals, accomplished by education, but without a change of underlying preferences.

There are less trivial examples in medical decision-making. In deciding whether cancer chemotherapy is worthwhile, both preferences for states of health and probabilities need to be taken into account, and it’s fundamental to medical ethics that the patient’s preferences are the ones that matter. But in any situation where the decision is difficult, it matters not just that chemotherapy sucks, but exactly how badly it sucks, and the typical patient doesn’t really know in advance. That’s the point behind quality-of-life research that tries to assess and describe how much treatment sucks for other patients. This research may or may not be effective, but I don’t think anyone would suggest that it intrinsically reduces patient autonomy.

This argument doesn’t say that you get to force education on people who don’t want it, but it does say that if you help people acquire the tools and skills Cosma talks about, they might well change their goals, and these changes could well improve, rather than sacrifice, the accurate representation of their interests and values.

6

chris 02.17.13 at 1:27 pm

This is where democracy comes in. It has priority, not as a first-order institution for getting everything done, but as a second-order institution for checking on and revising other institutions. No other organizational form is as well-suited to checking whether an institution is actively working; some (e.g., markets and courts) are positively pessimized for monitoring their own performance.

This sounds a bit like Sagan’s argument in _The Demon-Haunted World_ about the resemblance between democracy and science. But science, famously, is not a democracy. The facts are in charge, and thou shalt not defy them. (Dispute, yes. But only when armed with conflicting facts.)

Partly this is possible because of the norms of scientific culture, but partly, I think, it’s because scientists usually have less personal stake in the outcome of their research. That sounds odd, as if scientists don’t care what they’re doing, but compared to, say, an oil company’s stake in national energy policy, I think it’s true. Scientists maintain their professional standing by being seen to be doing science competently, but they would (usually) rather reach any honest answer, even an unfavorable one, than be caught lying. The specific answer they find isn’t going to put them out of business and it usually isn’t going to make them rich either.

Demonstrably, this is not true of the oil companies’ participation in democratic determination of energy policy. The types of issues entrusted to democracy have such high-stakes impact on people’s (and organizations’) personal interests that a large number of people would rather reach the result favorable to themselves than participate in a rigorous search for truth. (Some of them may believe their own wishful thinking, rather than consciously lying. I’m not sure how much of a defense this is.) The concept that someone’s incentives influence their conclusion is so unremarkable in democracy it’s completely taken for granted and even accepted.

So how can democratic accountability be relied on to make an institution work better when some substantial fraction of the people have a strong interest in making it stop working at all? (Wall Street regulation comes to mind, but also the EPA, and even education.)

Traditionally, I think, this circle is supposed to be squared by the belief that what a majority believes to be good for themselves *will* be good for the country, with some special protections for minorities. But I think this breaks down in the face of the effectiveness of professional liars. What actually is good for the majority may be good for the country, but a minority that can fool the majority can advance its interests at the expense of everyone else’s.

7

Bruce Wilder 02.17.13 at 7:40 pm

how can democratic accountability be relied on to make an institution work better when some substantial fraction of the people have a strong interest in making it stop working at all?

I think one of the underlying rationalizations for egalitarianism as an element of democracy was a belief that democracy requires the maintenance of conflicts and the resulting competition of rival interests. The idea that employer and employee had comparable and symmetric rights is basic to a democratic governance of employer-employee relations, and was supported by the idea that unions or professional associations of employees were legitimate and powerful participants in the democratic process.

I think that democracy has often rested on a diversity of business interests, as well, and this was promoted by populist sentiments, back in the day, when populism was the ideology of many small farmers, merchants and artisans. “Monopoly capitalism” was a phrase that inspired well-justified fear.

It isn’t that long ago, when we had insurance companies, stock brokers, commercial banks, investment banks, savings & loans, and credit unions, in their hundreds and thousands, each an organized group of firms with diverse forms of ownership and corporate organization, and interests in conflict with the others. Now, we have five big banks. Just feel the efficiency!

It isn’t that long ago, that we had a diverse media, of broadcasters, newspapers, book publishers, magazine publishers, with various, often local ownership structures and interests, and rules, for example, that prevented television networks from owning television production companies, or municipal newspapers from owning local television broadcasters. Now, not so much.

The increasing political disability of democracy is the outcome of political choice to permit economic concentration of interests and capture of economic rents. The critique of politics by public choice economics wasn’t a diagnosis, it was a blueprint.

8

LFC 02.17.13 at 8:07 pm

On top of this, they spill a lot of ink in disputes with fellow political theorists and/or capital-P Pragmatists, and generally using five words instead of two.

The second part of this should be emphasized. The book is verbose. Though the authors must shoulder most of the blame for this, some should be placed on the publishers, Princeton University Press and the Russell Sage Foundation, which failed to provide a good copyediting job.

9

geo 02.17.13 at 9:23 pm

A very fine essay, Cosima. One quibble: I think E.S. Hirsch makes a pretty strong argument for “compulsory education strongly focused on assimilating all children to a single common culture” as a prerequisite for democracy. See http://www.georgescialabba.net/mtgs/1997/04/up-from-progressivism.html.

10

Russell 02.19.13 at 10:03 am

Isn’t this what the founding fathers had in mind when they excluded so many in their vision of an educated and participant democracy?

11

chris 02.20.13 at 1:28 am

The increasing political disability of democracy is the outcome of political choice to permit economic concentration of interests and capture of economic rents. The critique of politics by public choice economics wasn’t a diagnosis, it was a blueprint.

There’s considerable truth in this, I think, but consolidation of the actual ownership isn’t strictly necessary to allow an industry to exert concentrated (and disproportionate) influence on the political process, especially as regards a particular issue salient to the industry. That’s what PACs and trade associations are for.

For example, every gun owner is a separate person capable of separate opinions and there are (AFAIK) quite a few different gun manufacturers and dealers, but that doesn’t mean the NRA’s political power is fragmented and ineffective.

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