Two Risks for Second-Order Democracy

by Adrian Vermeule on February 19, 2013

If democracy is to be justified, it will have to be in consequentialist (or, if we prefer, “pragmatist”) terms; and as it seems prima facie implausible to think that all political and social institutions could or should be democratic in a first-order sense, only a second-order version of the consequentialist case for democracy can succeed. Democracy will have to be justified, if at all, as the best second-order decision procedure for allocating competences among first-order institutions, including institutions that are arguably or partially undemocratic when viewed in isolation, such as the administrative state, markets, and constitutional courts. Such is the core of Johnson and Knight’s argument in The Priority of Democracy, and I won’t stop to explain why it seems to me both correct and important.1

Instead let me press on to sketch two political risks that second-order democracy2 will have to face. The materialization of either one would deeply compromise Johnson and Knight’s project. Now these are just contingent risks, which will be more or less grave under varying political and social conditions; I make no pretense of offering conceptual critiques or analytically necessary arguments. But in a pragmatic spirit, a central task of second-order democracy will have to be risk management. Institutional experiments and ongoing adjustments imply that managing the risks of democracy will be inescapable.

The two risks are that second-order democracy will devolve into non-democracy, and that it will devolve into simple first-order democracy. By simple first-order democracy, I mean a state of affairs in which first-order democrats prove unable to sustain or unwilling to tolerate institutional forms that embody non-democratic, countermajoritarian or technocratic decisionmaking. In either case, non-democracy or simple first-order democracy, the risk is that Johnson and Knight’s complex and carefully balanced two-level structure may topple to one side or the other, as second-order democracy proves unstable.

The first risk, that of a collapse into non-democracy, is straightforward. An old problem in democratic theory is the question whether democratic institutions might end up abolishing themselves, perhaps by a procedurally impeccable (super)majority vote among free and equal citizens who happen to believe, after suitable deliberation, that first-order authoritarianism of some sort is best in the circumstances. Perhaps the second-order democracy is embedded in a brutally competitive military and political environment, or faces an internal threat from antidemocratic forces attempting to subvert the regime, and therefore decides that a temporary suspension of first-order democracy is in order. The hope is presumably that some form of commissarial dictatorship will itself be the best way to preserve democracy in the long run.

The second-order democracy may understand full well that there is a countervailing long-run risk that the dictator will refuse to return to his farm when his tasks are done, but the second-order democracy may see that as a risk worth running, in light of the alternatives. We may assume that in the long run, over time, the epistemically best regime will be a second-order democracy, for all the pragmatic reasons Johnson and Knight give. Even so, at some particular time that very regime – precisely because it is epistemically best – may make a reasonable decision, given the information it currently has, that the long-run risk is worth incurring in order to survive the short run. Of course justifiable decisions may turn out to be erroneous, so the second-order democracy needn’t be right about any of this; indeed its decision may well prove to be a catastrophic blunder. Johnson and Knight are the first to admit that the second-order democracy is fallible, and indeed that fallibility is the precondition for pragmatist virtues such as institutional experimentalism.

This risk of democratic self-abolition is familiar, but I believe that Knight and Johnson face a particularly virulent form of the problem. It is not clear even in principle what they could say to an assembly of second-order democrats who decide that, given the short-run risks, a suspension of first-order democracy looks desirable on balance. The priority of second-order democracy, on Johnson and Knight’s account, is fundamentally epistemic. The second-order democracy is thought to do better than experts — including experts on political science and theory — at assessing the pragmatically best allocation of institutional competences over time. That entails, doesn’t it, that the normative analyst herself should recognize the epistemic superiority of the second-order democracy’s decision to incur the long-run risks of a suspension of first-order democracy — at least so long as standard procedural preconditions (free deliberation, equality of opportunity to influence politics, and so forth) are respected in the making of that second-order decision. The analyst who subscribes to Johnson and Knight’s account has cut out from under herself any epistemic standpoint from which she might object to the second-order democracy’s act of (impeccably democratic) self-immolation.

Here I think Johnson and Knight slide into an inconsistency, when they say both that (1) “democratic governments can legitimately resort to repression” so long as they do so “intelligently” and that (2) “the official reaction to antidemocratic forces … must not be based on emergency powers” (p. 284-85). The second clause seems to be an arbitrary add-on, unjustified by the underlying theory that generates the first clause. If the second-order democracy decides, intelligently and quite pragmatically, that an emergency suspension of first-order democracy is the best course of action all things considered, despite the long-run risk to epistemic democracy, Johnson and Knight aren’t entitled to have any objection. But they are clearly reluctant to let first-order democracy be an entirely contingent property of the regime, one that is entirely at the mercy of whatever decision the second-order democracy makes; so they flinch from the full implications of their approach.

Let me now turn to the second risk, a partial or total collapse into simple first-order democracy. Here the risk is that the demos will be unable to tolerate the existence or authority of non-democratic institutions, even if those institutions have been chosen at the second-order level by wise democrats who seek to bind their own hands against myopia, weakness of the will, blinding passion, or other forms of collective improvidence over time.3 The classical example is the episode of the Arginusae generals, hurried to their deaths in 406 BCE by an ad hoc order of the inflamed Athenian assembly. Although extant second-order rules required a jury trial and thus constrained the first-order decisions of the democracy, a critical mass of the assembly shouted that “it is shocking not to let the people do whatever they wish;”4 and what they wished to do, right then anyway, was to order the execution en masse of a set of specialized military commanders whose innovative tactics had in fact won the naval battle at issue, although a storm had prevented them from rescuing a number of stranded Athenian sailors.

What exactly is wrong with the slogan the assembly shouted? I think there are two ways to understand the problem, one conceptual and one motivational. In the conceptual version, it is a fallacy of division to assume that if a given polity is democratic overall, then every institution and lawmaking procedure within the democratic order must itself be run on democratic lines. On the contrary, some set of non-democratic procedures or countermajoritarian institutions, such as constitutional judicial review, an appointed civil service or a specialized military corps, may be a necessary balance-wheel against unconstrained first-order democracy, precisely in order to sustain second-order democracy over time.5 Yet this fallacy of division is commonly observed in constitutional theory, where people go on endlessly about the “countermajoritarian difficulty”6 posed by particular non-democratic institutions at the first order, even when the relevant institution itself has an impeccable second-order democratic pedigree. It may not be too highfaluting to attribute a similar mistake to passionate first-order democrats like the members of the Athenian assembly, who slip too quickly from the premise that the regime should be democratic to the conclusion that every decision within the regime should be made by the assembled demos.

On the motivational interpretation, second-order democracy suffers from a problem of commitment or time-inconsistency: precisely when and because the demos contains too many passionate first-order democrats, second-order democracy will be unable to commit, over time, to a fully intelligent and pragmatic choice among first-order institutional forms and procedures. In particular, pragmatically desirable countermajoritarian institutions, and technologies of collective self-binding, will be incentive-incompatible and thus out of reach.

Of course all this just identifies a risk, not an iron law, but it is a risk that has materialized over and over again in observed democracies; Johnson and Knight seem sanguine about the stability and incentive-compatibility of whatever institutional decisions the second-order democracy happens to make. The Arginusae episode is dramatic, but the same issue constantly arises on a smaller scale in modern polities. Sensible technocratic decisions by risk-regulation experts, for example, are constantly vulnerable to override by inflamed first-order democratic publics,7 even if second-order democrats would prefer that risk-regulation experts enjoy substantial autonomy from irrational first-order public beliefs and emotions.

The two risks I have identified have a common implication. At bottom, the public psychology of a second-order democracy threatens to be intrinsically unstable. It is not clear whether it can remain both second-order and a democracy; one or the other feature may have to go. The Athenians who (may have) shouted that “it is shocking not to let the people do whatever they wish,” in a first-order sense, are the predictable result of a political theory that endorses democracy in a second-order sense. The endorsement tells the people that they are competent to manage complex questions of institutional allocation, and it is not obvious — even when it is true — why that high level of competence does not also entail competence to make first-order decisions. Anticipating this, officials within the regime, especially elected officials, will shy away from expounding upon the limited first-order competence of the people. Let me give Walter Bagehot the last word on the subject:

A people never hears censure of itself. No one will tell it that the educated minority whom it dethroned governed better or more wisely than it governs. A democracy will never, save after an awful catastrophe, return what has once been conceded to it, for to do so would be to admit an inferiority in itself, of which, except by some almost unbearable misfortune, it could never be convinced.8


  1. For the notion of a “second-order assembly of democrats” designing first-order institutions and allocating powers among them, see Adrian Vermeule, MECHANISMS OF DEMOCRACY: INSTITUTIONAL DESIGN WRIT SMALL 246 (2007). 

  2. “Second-order democracy” is my term, whereas Johnson and Knight refer more elaborately to the “second-order priority of democracy.” I use the former phrase merely as shorthand, for whatever institutional arrangements they envision as instantiating and enforcing the latter. 

  3. For an intrapersonal debate over the feasibility and desirability of collective self-binding, compare Jon Elster, ULYSSES AND THE SIRENS (1984) with Jon Elster, ULYSSES UNBOUND (2000). 

  4. At least in Xenophon’s telling. See XENOPHON, HELLENICA I-IV (Trans. Charleton L. Brownson) (Loeb Classical Library 1968) pp. 71-85. For an overview of the episode and the failure of the graphe paronomon procedure that was supposed to enforce the second-order commitment, see Adriaan Lanni & Adrian Vermeule, Precautionary Constitutionalism in Ancient Athens 19-20 (available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2115570 ). For my purposes it isn’t important whether (1) the episode actually occurred as Xenophon claims, or (2) whether the episode was militarily disastrous for Athens, as the conventional wisdom has it. (For the view that the Athenian democracy partially recovered and managed to create new and stable mechanisms of democratic self-constraint in the 4th century BCE, see Josiah Ober, DEMOCRACY AND KNOWLEDGE: INNOVATION AND LEARNING IN CLASSICAL ATHENS (2008)). Whatever the historical truth about those matters, Xenophon’s version provides a usefully vivid thought-experiment to illustrate one type of risk that afflicts second-order democracy. 

  5. See Adrian Vermeule, THE SYSTEM OF THE CONSTITUTION 50-56 (2011). 

  6. See Alexander Bickel, THE LEAST DANGEROUS BRANCH 16 (1962). 

  7. See, e.g, Timur Kuran & Cass R. Sunstein, Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation, 51 STAN. L. REV. 683 (1999). 

  8. Walter Bagehot, THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION 36-37 (Oxford World’s Classics ed. 2001). 

{ 49 comments }

1

Elf M. Sternberg 02.19.13 at 5:38 pm

Charlie Stross recently identified a third mechanism, which he calls “The Hidden Failure Mode of Democracy“: Political institutions breed professionals with the skills and experience to routinely defeat amateurs. Collective action allows for the aggregation of resources with which to fight political battles, and collective experience of success leads to the creation of political parties. The political professionals become beholden not to accurately representing their constituencies but instead converge on a common set of policies necessary to obtain the wherewithal that sustains their political futures.

Stross ends:

So the future isn’t a boot stamping on a human face, forever. It’s a person in a beige business outfit advocating beige policies that nobody wants (but nobody can quite articulate a coherent alternative to) with a false mandate obtained by performing rituals of representative democracy that offer as much actual choice as a Stalinist one-party state.

This may be a stealth “devolution to non-democracy.”

2

Salient 02.19.13 at 6:53 pm

Here I think Johnson and Knight slide into an inconsistency, when they say both that (1) “democratic governments can legitimately resort to repression” so long as they do so “intelligently” and that (2) “the official reaction to antidemocratic forces … must not be based on emergency powers” (p. 284-85).

That was the moment where my disagreement with Johnson & Knight crystallized. I think of democracy as a valuable and defensible institutional mechanism only insofar as democratic governments cannot legitimately resort to repression, or can only resort to extremely curtailed repressions relative to other systems of governance. Democracy is best because it provides the most effective institutional mechanisms for resisting repression, the least effective institutional mechanisms for imposing repression, and the best institutional receptivity for organized resistance.[1]

I think you’re right that the latter clause (2) seems tacked-on in order to shield themselves from the consequences of their assertion (1). You go on to argue that (2) cannot be supported within the framework that K&J are using to support (1), which to me seems like a compelling reason to reject (1).

On the other hand, the claim you quote Bagehot making is pretty transparently ridiculous. As it describes the polity as an individual, it assumes “the people” speak with one voice, from one mind. It attributes the individual sense of defensiveness to the entirety of the population. I think it would be more accurate to extend that defensiveness only to specific subpopulations. Thus it’s completely plausible that, when faced with a confrontation such as Bagehot describes, the presently vocal subpopulaces will be shamed into quieting down or diverted to arguing amongst themselves, and other subpopulaces will feel inspired to unite and become vocal about the issue.

[1]This does assume, correctly I think, that the non-institutional mechanisms for resisting repression are more or less constant between systems of governance. Those mechanisms’ efficacy depends mostly on the intrastate military capability of the state, relative to the resistance capability of the general populace. I do think democracy provides the best opportunity to resist intrastate militarization of the state, but…

3

Pat 02.19.13 at 7:54 pm

Three points, of which the first is trivial and the last likely confused:

Careful with Bickel. His quip on the “countermajoritarian difficulty” is institutionally specific and shouldn’t be extrapolated to any non-democratic institution. (He likely had no such objection to legal intrusions into the rights of the paterfamilias, for instance.) The problem with the Supreme Court acting as an antidemocratic institution is that its pedigree is far from “impeccable.” The fellows who wrote the constitution, for instance, neglected to allocate to that body the power of judicial review. In contrast to Article II’s specific procedures for a president to overrule legislative action—and the equally specific outline for how that veto may be overridden—Article III’s silence on the question is the source for this difficulty. (The answer that two hundred-some years of popular acquiescence is enough to legitimate the court is likely sufficient.)

Second, I enjoy this symposium greatly, but it is not obvious to me why this is approached philosophically rather than empirically. There may be a problem of philosophy—or of “public psychology”—to second-order democracy, but the long arc of history has tended to bend toward the examples of it being comparatively stable. Perhaps this needs the proviso that parliamentary democracies are stable—in contrast, ahem, to my own American experiment—but with it, it seems a pretty sturdy argument.

As to whether “it is not obvious — even when it is true — why that high level of competence does not also entail competence to make first-order decisions” — Is this not the question to which Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance provides the readiest answer? Competence does not imply impartiality.

4

Mao Cheng Ji 02.19.13 at 7:58 pm

It seems a bit tendentious to call this political arrangement a “second-order democracy”, as if it (with its professional politicians, all-powerful president, supreme judges assigned for life, and so on) is just slightly removed from the Athenian democracy. And then just one little step farther suddenly turns it into an evil “commissarial dictatorship”, yeah? Wtf? When you have a system with a demos, clever gosplan experts, and the vanguard party that cares about you in ways you are unable to comprehend, why not call it a “second-and-a-quarter-order democracy”?

5

shah8 02.19.13 at 9:22 pm

Just wait now, in the real world, no democracy would default to a permanent authoritarian regime because a majority thought authoritarianism is great. The transition usually happens because the authoritarians have the guns and police on their side, and use the hoary tactic of patron-backed public disorder or orchestrated demonstrations like the cacerolazo protests preceding military rule in Latin America. Sometimes there is one genuine electoral victory, which is converted to president for life or single party for life. No body of people would ever, as a majority, really agree on authoritarian rule, and the slight exceptions are military dictators that would win legit elections anyways, eg Nasser. Even so, there was always ferment at the lower levels of governments.

And the Athenian generals are a bad example for the usual reasons. Politicians doing their duties or seeking glory goes off to military glory while their political enemies seize their chance to throw them out of power. And it’s generally recognized that the civil disorder and unconstitutional maneuvering was fermented by elites, and they eventually died or fled as the consequences for killing competent generals (and the threat posed by actually going off to war and not minding your back is made evident).

Salient’s point at #2 is rather muscular, here.

6

LFC 02.19.13 at 11:14 pm

from the OP:
It is not clear even in principle what they could say to an assembly of second-order democrats who decide that, given the short-run risks, a suspension of first-order democracy looks desirable on balance.

I think Prof Vermeule perhaps should have written here “a suspension of second-order democracy,” which would entail a devolution into non-democracy. He’s talking here about a second-order democracy abolishing itself, which means a second-order democracy abolishing second-order democracy, leaving no democracy. However, the OP invites perhaps some confusion by using both the phrases “first-order democracy” and “simple first-order democracy.”

7

burritoboy 02.20.13 at 12:04 am

“Just wait now, in the real world, no democracy would default to a permanent authoritarian regime because a majority thought authoritarianism is great.”

Isn’t this both historically inaccurate and effectively a tautology? I.E. if a majority thought that [authoritarian policy X] was great, it would then no longer be an authoritarian policy, since it had been accepted by the majority?

I think you’re using “authoritarian” incorrectly as a sort of variation on “injustice”, which doesn’t work well.

8

Random Lurker 02.20.13 at 10:34 am

I didn’t read the book, but after reading those various articles I’m increasingly dubious about this point:
“If democracy is to be justified, it will have to be in consequentialist (or, if we prefer, “pragmatist”) terms”
and my doubt is, I think, strongly related to the two problems rised in thi post.

The first conceptual problem is that, to justify X in “consequentialist” terms, one has to claim that the outcomes of democracy will likely be better than those of other forms of government on some value scale. But value scales are very subjective and vary depending of personal points of view; to make a consequentialist claim on the effectiveness of democracy we have to presume that everyone’s value scale has the same value (instead of, say, the king’s value scale being more important than the subjects value scale).

For example, Mussolini became the dictator of Italy and, as long as it lasted, that was presumably a very good outcome from his point of view, and a very bad outcome from the point of view of his opponents. Who says that we should adopt the point of view of his opponents and not that of Mussolini?
If we can’t give an answer to this question we can’t say that fascist Italy sucked, and as a consequence we can’t say that democratic Italy is better.

If on the opposite we accept that everyone’s value scale has the same weight, we are already conceding “equality of rights”, and democracy is the only form of government that reflects equality of rights. At this point, we don’t need anymore any consequentialist defence of democracy, we already have an a priori case for democracy as “equal political rights”.

The case for democracy as “equal political rights” is much stronger against the two problems highlighted in this post because:

- For the first problem, if democracy descends from equal political rights, as a consequence it can’t destroy the equal political rights that are its foundation. So no majority has the legal power to remove basic political rights to anyone.

- For the second problem, it becomes evident that present constituencies cannot overrule future constituencies, so that, to use an example that is relevant today, if the democratic government of country A incurs in some public debt, nothing can stop a new government of the same country to renege all of its obligations (I don’t understand why the author used the example of the Athenian generals, as the example sounds bad because the generals were killed, not because we think that the government cannot change generals).

9

Mao Cheng Ji 02.20.13 at 11:16 am

Consequentialism deals with the aggregate happiness, so Mussolini’s own preference won’t affect it that much. On the other hand, if enough people value the trains running on time highly enough, then the logic of consequentialism might just favor a fascist dictatorship, assuming it’s the only way to enforce the schedule (and let’s face it: it probably is). Even if everyone’s preference is given the equal weight. And if they keep caring a lot – and forever! – about the train schedule, then fascist dictatorship it will be; the liberal minority is out of luck.

10

Tim Wilkinson 02.20.13 at 11:17 am

At this point I don’t think it’s seemly any longer to ignore the question: why has the CT demos reacted with such marked lack of enthusiasm to this book event? I suspect that the ultimate reason might be that the book is not really that good. At least that’s the provisional conclusion I drew after skimming http://www.yale.edu/law/leo/052005/papers/knight2.pdf , a conclusion that has been confirmed by reading all the posts and comments and some parts of the book itself, courtesy of Google).

As a not-entirely-unrepresentative member of that demos, I’m finding it very hard to see why it should be described as both ‘profound’ or ‘important’ and basically right. Here are my reasons, which are not necessarily mutually distinct nor novel.

1. All the stuff about pragmatism and something called ‘tempered’ consequentialism (where ‘tempered’ seems to mean ‘thorough’ or ‘non-stupid’) seems philosophically pretty weak, and – pace Cosma Shalizi’s post – basically irrelevant.

2. That a justification for democracy (a reason for preferring it) must be consequentialist seems either obvious (if like me you think that all justification is ultimately based on, or excavatable down to a bedrock of, consequentialist concerns – not intemperate ones, of course) or highly dubious (if you don’t want to excavate that far). Because actually, the justification for democracy is that no-one has a right to rule over anyone else, end of story. (Though in fact I could go on. And, I hardly need add, on and on.) [Update - a similar point has been made by Random Lurker]

3. The argument “Democracy is to be justified on the basis that it works, therefore it works, but it doesn’t work very well at making ordinary decisions, so the thing it works at must be something else – so democracy must be really good at designing institutions” seems pretty weak. What exactly are these institutions, which are designed by ‘democracy’? How? And, of course, where is this democracy that we are speaking of?

4. The claim that democracy is uniquely good at solving some issues, or achieving some underspecified kind of ‘good governance’ or even achieving ‘stability’ (which seems to mean going on forever; not a good thing in itself, nor at all realistic) seems implausible and if put forward, ought to be substantiated by some serious empirical research. It also requires that we are clear on what we mean by democracy, and on how it is that it designs these institutions etc.; but more importantly I think, though interrelatedly, we need some idea of what the alternatives under consideration are, which do so much worse at these tasks. In the paper, anyway, the main alternative seems to be ‘market’ and closely analogous automagical/perfect-procedural forces. Markets are criticised, though in rather mild terms for my tastes; where institutional genesis in particular is concerned, assymetric-power ‘bargaining’ – i.e. the law of the jungle – is also considered. Maybe the main point of the article (and book?) is to argue against a preponderant market-mythological approach in the literature: this would no doubt be pro tanto a good thing. The trouble is that to outsiders of a non-market-fundamentalist persuasion the interlocutor is inaudible and invisible.

5. All this 1st and 2nd order business just seems to get a bit confused and tangled in ways I’m not going to try and untangle here – I’d just note that I’m not really clear on what the lowest-order problem space is supposed to be, exactly, nor why there are only two orders of problem involved. It’s not really clear to me that talking of first and second -order decisions, institutions, or whatever (that is, a thingy and a meta-thingy, where metathingy:thingy::thingy:its object) even makes much sense here. Quotidian operations of government agencies, organisational managerial and administrative functions within government, executive policy powers, delegated legislation, various levels of primary legislation, constitutional provisions, specific norms of electoral democracy, the ultimate ideal of democracy itself, and interleaved throughout, various courts – how does all this resolve itself into two levels?

6. The claim that democracy – unlike alternatives – is reflexive, that is, it can monitor and presumably reform itself, needs some explanation, and at times seems to be confused with the claim that dem’cy is good at monitoring and reforming other things (which also needs explanation). In both cases, if this appears to be so, it might just be because democracy – or rather the demos – is (supposed to be) the highest authority, thus, uniquely, authoritative over everything else including itself. I don’t really see why, by the standards of this this twilight world between the speculative and the empirical, that is not just as plausibly asserted of monarchy or any other -archy or -cracy. Note too that whether a system of govt is regarded as reforming itself or as being revolutionised, thus superseded by something else (and unstable!) will depend on the scheme for classifying these entities (monarchy vs the Plantagenet monarchy;

7. In general, the whole thing seems to be airily abstract just when it should be getting down to brass tacks, and to rely on allusion to actual concrete reality just when it should be defining its terms. Examples: of the former, talk of all the things ‘democracy’ achieves; of the latter, the notion of democracy itself.

8. The account given of how democratic deliberation is supposed to work (it seems, at times anyway, that this is meant to describe the actual world) is pretty unconvincing and AFAICT doesn’t seem to be supported by evidence or even some ‘rational choice’ confection. Here, ‘AFAICT’ is doing a lot of work, though.

Though I suppose I could have tried to be more diplomatic, instead I’ll just reiterate that these are only intended as reports of my opinion, arrived at without reading (much of) the book itself. These issues combine and intertangle so as to make the whole thing seem more trouble than it’s worth. While reading the paper I felt a constant nagging impatience, born of an unholy union of ‘unh?’ and ‘so what?’. It’s quite possible that, as suggested above with reference to markets, my perplexities are due to lack of familiarity with the literature – as well as ‘not having read the book’-type issues, of course.

11

Mao Cheng Ji 02.20.13 at 11:33 am

“Because actually, the justification for democracy is that no-one has a right to rule over anyone else, end of story. “

But democracy is a system where a majority rules over a minority. To your platonic ideal it should be just as unacceptable as one person ruling over a million.

12

Tim Wilkinson 02.20.13 at 12:02 pm

Well, first that’s majoritarian ‘democracy’; second, none of the people in the majority vis-à-vis a given vote, nor the collection/set/organic-unity of those particular people, has a right to rule. The problem of actually getting at what is going to count as democracy proper is obviously in play here. Fixed-term dictatorship by lot? I dunno.

I admit that the sentence is probably wrong – it is at least short, though, and Also, Salient has something along (very broadly) similar lines, which could explain why (when we excavate a bit) no particular person or group is to be trusted with a right to rule. And Random Lurker puts it in terms of equal political rights, which is pretty similar.

But then there’s the possibility that the relevant alternative to democracy is meant to be automagicality (as in Hayekian ‘markets are the real democracy’) – this isn’t in fact excluded by political equality/lack of personal right to rule, so a rider needs to be added to the effect that we don’t believe in magic.

13

Salient 02.20.13 at 12:15 pm

But democracy is a system where a majority rules over a minority. To your platonic ideal it should be just as unacceptable as one person ruling over a million.

Democracy gives more people more agency, relative to monarchy. It’s completely reasonable and consistent to on the one hand idealize the balanced nature of interpersonal interactions between parties with comparable agency, and on the other hand highly value social institutions that give more agency to more people, in a broad relative sense.

The ideal isn’t as farfetched as it may seem to be, it’s really just a dash of Rawls — agency between parties is comparable if they could trade places with each other, mutatis mutandis, and feel pretty comfortable with the decisions, duties/responsibilities, and consequences that they agree to. (Whether this condition holds as one-directional or two-directional is a good-but-not-great litmus test for whether or not exploitation is happening.) Extending to whole populations, the relative scale would quantify each person’s unease and the number of people made uneasy — not exactly quantitatively computable or even metrizable, but serviceable for the purpose of making broad comparisons (democracy > monarchy).

14

Mao Cheng Ji 02.20.13 at 12:59 pm

“Democracy gives more people more agency, relative to monarchy.”

Hmm, how; what does it mean? In a monarchy I could choose to obey or to fight the monarch, and each would be (at least in these times, since the enlightenment) a legitimate choice. But in a democracy, I’m told, fighting is not an option: vox populi, vox Dei.

15

Random Lurker 02.20.13 at 1:54 pm

@Mao Cheng Ji 9
“Consequentialism deals with the aggregate happiness”

Here you are already conceding that everyone has the same “right to happiness” (because you are aggregating happiness, implying that each singular happiness has the same weight). Why do everybody have an equal “right to happiness”?
If the reason is that everybody has more or less the same rights, then you are already advocating that everyone has the same right to govern, hence the “just” form of government is some sort of democracy.

Also, in your example in 9, “And if they keep caring a lot – and forever! – about the train schedule” that would be a fascist democracy.
The historical Mussolini actually used violence to prevent people to vote against him, and for this reason we call it a fascist dictatorship (note that this works well with my definition of democracy as “equal political rights”).

There is also the separate (but very relevant in the real world) aspect that governments act on people who are out from their borders, and in this case even if the government is “democratic” inside it cannot be considered “democratic” from the outside (for example if a democratic country chooses to bomb another country, from the point of view of the bombed ones the choice is never democratic). This also applies to people inside the borders but who have not voting rights (like immigrants). Ideally, the only “real” democracy would be a one world democracy.

16

Mao Cheng Ji 02.20.13 at 2:40 pm

“The historical Mussolini actually used violence to prevent people to vote against him, and for this reason we call it a fascist dictatorship (note that this works well with my definition of democracy as “equal political rights”).”

You’re right. I was thinking about it over lunch, and realized that it would have to be a fascist democracy, not fascist dictatorship. Something like Switzerland, where they’ll arrest you for flushing the toilet after 10pm, but most people are happy with it. Since it’s a majority oppressing minority (of late toilet flushers), it is a democracy.

17

William Timberman 02.20.13 at 3:10 pm

Tim Wilkinson @ 10 may be a little grumpy, but he has a point. When attacked at this level of abstraction, the argument over democracy seems to consist largely of the dubious (the justification for democracy must be consequentialist) or the obvious (management and governance are not the same) with very little in between. More concrete manifestations of the argument are messier (the 230+ years of struggle over the U.S. Constitution, for example), but somehow more satisfying, and they deal much better, if rarely more openly, with the origins and effects of power relationships. They also scale better, as one can follow them all the way from clan to post-industrial oligarchy without losing the thread.

To consider just one example, I think Bruce Wilder and his version of anacyclosis provide richer insights into why we might want democracy, what it takes to get some, and how to recognize it when we do get it, than anything else seen so far in this seminar. In particular, the idea that the political playing field is lumpy, with a roster of institutions which may simultaneously include decaying, static, or vigorously competitive vessels for collective governance, is very much to the point. In this analysis, as in many others, the concrete has virtues that the process of abstraction overlooks at peril to the very conclusions it hopes to come to in the end.

18

LFC 02.20.13 at 3:49 pm

TW:
At this point I don’t think it’s seemly any longer to ignore the question: why has the CT demos reacted with such marked lack of enthusiasm to this book event?

One of several reasons might be that none of the posters has bothered to interact w the commenters.

This the first time I’ve read the book before the ‘event’. I bought Red Plenty but only dipped into it here and there, didn’t really read it. This time I thought reading the bk beforehand would make the ‘event’ more interesting/satisfying. Basically I was wrong. I don’t think reading the bk turned out to make that much difference. Btw it’s not a bad bk, but it’s a not an esp. well-written bk, which might also have something to do w the phenomenon TW notes; I don’t know.

19

bianca steele 02.20.13 at 4:45 pm

I don’t know whether reading the book would help, in my case, I suspect I’d spend a lot of time figuring out the choice theory etc. I take it, however, the argument is based on (the following things that seem plausible to me), at a minimum: (1) consequentialism is important at the margins, for improving institutions or choosing among them, (2) democracy is important at the margin w/r/t consequentialism because anti-democratic decision-making is likely to mean decision making that ignores consequences, (3) a preference for democracy doesn’t mean non-democratic institutions necessarily all have to be transformed either in the long term (political theory ought only to deal with the ideal, that is, perfectly democratic) or in the short term (bugging people involved in them every time they act in an undemocratic way). With some exceptions these have struck me as positions that aren’t shared by the larger part of the CT commentariat.

20

LFC 02.20.13 at 5:00 pm

Clarification: When I said reading the bk turned out not to make that much difference, I meant: not that much difference to my enjoyment (for lack of a better word) of the ‘event’. Obvs. it made a difference in that I was able to follow the posts more easily than I otherwise would have.

@biance steele: I doubt the problem, in terms of the reaction, is primarily that their positions aren’t shared by the CT commentariat (not that I find your summary of their positions esp. clear, but that’s a separate issue). The problem is, I suspect, more the quite abstract character of the bk, as suggested by T Wilkinson above.

21

Wonks Anonymous 02.20.13 at 5:38 pm

It seems to me that the possibility that the inhabitants of a second-order democracy might decide it is not the best of all systems, and then vote to abolish it, is itself an argument in favor of it. This is assuming some degree of uncertainty about what the best system is, which is reduced with experience. An economist would reference “option value”.

22

Henry 02.20.13 at 5:56 pm

This is a more theoretical book than most of the books that we’ve discussed over the years. This in turn means that many CT readers are likely to find fewer hooks that they can use to bring the book’s arguments to bear on their own knowledge or experience, and vice versa. In this sense, the seminar is like some of the more abstractly political philosophical individual posts that we’ve published over the years. However, the converse of this is that the quantity of discussion, especially on posts like this, is only very weakly correlated with their quality and intrinsic interest. In general, we get lots of discussion on posts where either (a) the OP talks about stuff that lots of people feel qualified to offer an opinion on, or (b) where the thread wanders off and takes on a life of its own. The reason why I volunteered to put this seminar together is because this really is an important book, which challenges the ways in which most political theorists think about democracy at a quite basic level. This is indeed acknowledged in Cosma’s post – he doesn’t like how the book is written, but thinks that the ideas are important, and possibly profound. If, instead of thinking about why democracy is attractive in terms of rights and so on, we think about what it is useful for, we do put a lot of important questions to one side. But equally, we raise new ones, which people have barely begun to think about yet.

23

bianca steele 02.20.13 at 6:00 pm

(not that I find your summary of their positions esp. clear, but that’s a separate issue)

Fair enough, especially given that they were just a list of positions that I gathered, from the posts, were associated with the positions taken in the book, and which I’ve gathered, over the years, are pretty strongly disputed by the larger part of the commenters here. I realize that if I read the book, or even spent more time with the posts here, I’d realize I’d mistaken something.

But I’m puzzled by your saying that (as I understand you) you think most of the commenters would agree with the positions taken in the book, and your statement is in fact a little cryptic, but feel free to explain what this means (and what implications you’re making w/r/t Tim W. and the other commenters here), if you wish to. Are you saying their overt statements are useless because they’re simply fearful of the poli-sci branch of 4chan? Or what?

24

LFC 02.20.13 at 6:39 pm

Henry @22
I meant the bk is ‘abstract’ not mainly in the sense of being theoretical, but in the sense of being uninterested in coming to grips in any sustained way w empirical realities, contemporary or historical (as a couple of the posters, or at least C. Ansell, implied). Could still be v. important in the ways you indicate, and I agree it contains some important ideas, but I think the quality just mentioned somewhat reduces its usefulness. (That, plus, as Cosma said, the writing style.) As to quantity of comments, there are prob. a number of theoretically inclined readers who cd have chimed in on the threads but, for whatever reason, chose not to.

@bianca: I don’t know whether most of the ‘universe’ of CT commenters wd agree w the positions in the bk. Obvs a number of commenters who did express themselves in the threads had, at least, severe doubts. I’ll leave it at that.

25

LFC 02.20.13 at 6:44 pm

p.s. There’s of course nothing wrong w writing a highly theoretical bk, and admittedly it is v difficult to combine highly theoretical material with empirical material in the same bk. Difficult, but not impossible.

26

Tim Wilkinson 02.20.13 at 7:22 pm

Henry – I certainly agree that very long threads are often not particularly valuable. A more, er, tempered version of my comment might well have come out quite close to yours, in putting the low comment rate down to a high level of abstraction along with an unfamiliarity with the context in which these ideas are important.

I didn’t really mean to sound quite as ‘grumpy’ as I did, but since I have no standing or influence to speak of, I assumed it wouldn’t really matter if I just said what I (tentatively) thought without editing particularly heavily for tact. Having spouted off in a borderline insulting kind of way does at least give the opportuinity to express my appreciation of the CT staff’s dedicated effort over the years. The non-alliterative ones anyway.

I do take issue with the dichotomy between rights-based and usefulness-based assessments of democracy, though – rights are generally asserted for reasons, and those reasons are going to involve some kind of usefulness, or as one might say, ‘utility’.

27

Tony Lynch 02.20.13 at 10:38 pm

Random Lurker @15 – you don’t understand utilitarianism. Sure everyone’s pleasure/pain gets counted (or whatever), but everyone being counted in is not the same as everyone counting equally. The Stoic is not equal to the screamingly (over)sensitive. This is one reason why Bentham said rights talk was “nonsense on stilts”.

28

Random Lurler 02.21.13 at 1:37 am

@Tony Lynch 27
As far as I understand utilitarianism everyone pain/pleasure is counted equally, but people will feel different quantities of p/p for different reasons.
For example a glutton will feel more pleasure from a chocolate cake than a non glutton , and this is counted, but a nobleman doesn’t get to have his pleasure counted more than the pleasure of a peasant. Hence utilitarianism already implies equal dignity (if you don’t like the word rights)

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Lawrence Stuart 02.21.13 at 3:49 am

That modern democracy exists between the danger of ochlocracy on the one hand, and the threat of a technocratic oligarchy on the other, is no doubt roughly true. That there is an oscillation between these poles, leading to a structural instability, also seems to ring true.

But is stability really the point of democracy? I’d argue that the instability is probably a good thing, and a good deal of tension, and a constant shifting movement of balance between the two poles, is the sign of a healthy democracy. To use a naval metaphor, the ship of state that is stable in calm waters is often easily overturned in stormy seas. What defines a good ship is not necessarily its initial stability, but its righting moment: the ability to recover from being pressed hard over (on either beam) without foundering.

Of course, ‘ rough seas’ in the case of the ship of state are not simply the vagaries of the indifferent universe. So many (most?) human problems are just that — human problems. So it might be that the righting moment metaphor is of limited usefulness. Even so, I think it does have a certain utility, if only because I can challenge this: “Democracy will have to be justified, if at all, as the best second-order decision procedure for allocating competences among first-order institutions…”. Because while democracy might produce instability while doing this, the instability is not a glitch. It is a feature. What justifies democracy is not structural stability, but an ability to accommodate a high degree of structural dynamism. It is a structure that likes to boogie.

I’d add that the allocation of competencies is important, but the production and allocation of legitimacy is even more important. If I were looking for a justification for democracy, I’d start with how legitimation happens, because I think it is in the way democracy does this that the source of the high righting moment is to be found.

30

Charles Peterson 02.21.13 at 5:09 am

Though James Madison worried a lot about ochlocracy, and a technocratic oligarchy might be a possibility, it appears most actually existing democracies, and especially the USA, have another reactive pole that has been far more visible in recent years: plutocracy. It’s pretty easy to see how this starts as a function of wealthier people being able to participate more than others, but then beyond that they have the ability to speak louder than others, and get others to do their bidding, then change the rules to restrict the capabilities of others. And then there may also be a pole toward class or military oligarchy. Those seem a lot more visible and persistent than ochlocracy and technocratic oligarchy, so much so people often fondly hope for ochlocracy and technocratic oligarchy instead of what we actually have.

31

Mao Cheng Ji 02.21.13 at 10:13 am

“It’s pretty easy to see how this starts as a function of wealthier people being able to participate more than others, but then beyond that they have the ability to speak louder than others, and get others to do their bidding, then change the rules to restrict the capabilities of others.”

But that’s a feature, not a bug. That, I suspect, is what “intelligent and pragmatic” is all (or at least partially) about, contrasted against “irrational first-order public beliefs and emotions”, that certainly include the extremely dangerous “leveling spirit” described by Madison.

32

Tim Wilkinson 02.21.13 at 10:39 pm

BTW, Bentham said talk of natural rights was nonsense, but this was a bit of hyperbole – he had just offered a perfectly good semantics for natural rights in terms of legal rights and reasons, which he did believe in. In the paragraph below, ‘rights’ means ‘established legal rights’:

In proportion to the want of happiness resulting from the want of rights, a reason exists for wishing that there were such things as rights. But reasons for wishing there were such things as rights, are not rights;—a reason for wishing that a certain right were established, is not that right—want is not supply—hunger is not bread.

Bentham seems to be saying that what people call ‘natural rights’ are in reality something like (reified) “reasons for wishing there were such things as [actual legal] rights” – he complains that these reasons “are not [actual legal] rights”. This may well be to deflate pretences to self-evidence or divine command (though not for the RCs, who say that divine commands are independently deducible by the good ole natural light of reason). But it is quite the opposite of showing that there’s no sense in the term ‘natural rights’, which come out as being something like ‘rights which ought to be enshrined in positive law’. If one could show that there are some such reasons which apply under a sufficiently wide range of circumstances, then I don’t see why one shouldn’t be allowed to say one has specified a natural right. No doubt to do so is incredibly difficult and may well turn out to be undoable, but that’s not to say it’s nonsensical to try.

In the following two paragraphs, the first of those being the one containing the famous phrase, Bentham’s in effect ends up relying on the substantive criticism that he doesn’t believe there are any such universally applicable reasons for instituting some specified one-size-fits-all set of legal rights. Which is a perfectly standard challenge to any particular theorist of natural rights, and nothing to do with anything being ‘nonsensical’ – it’s just to boldly assert that the justificatory reasons supplied by natural rights theorists aren’t ever going to be adequate.

That which has no existence cannot be destroyed—that which cannot be destroyed cannot require anything to preserve it from destruction. Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense,—nonsense upon stilts. But this rhetorical nonsense ends in the old strain of mischievous nonsense: for immediately a list of these pretended natural rights is given, and those are so expressed as to present to view legal rights. And of these rights, whatever they are, there is not, it seems, any one of which any government can, upon any occasion whatever, abrogate the smallest particle.

So much for terrorist language. What is the language of reason and plain sense upon this same subject? That in proportion as it is right or proper, i. e. advantageous to the society in question, that this or that right—a right to this or that effect—should be established and maintained, in that same proportion it is wrong that it should be abrogated: but that as there is no right, which ought not to be maintained so long as it is upon the whole advantageous to the society that it should be maintained, so there is no right which, when the abolition of it is advantageous to society, should not be abolished. To know whether it would be more for the advantage of society that this or that right should be maintained or abolished, the time at which the question about maintaining or abolishing is proposed, must be given, and the circumstances under which it is proposed to maintain or abolish it; the right itself must be specifically described, not jumbled with an undistinguishable heap of others, under any such vague general terms as property, liberty, and the like.

33

Fu Ko 02.23.13 at 8:24 pm

I haven’t read the book, so I don’t feel qualified to speak about whether or not it presents ideas that are “important” or “profound”… but if the core idea is to present a way to think about democracy as “useful,” or as a mechanism for producing “better choices” — then I think the idea is dangerously wrong-headed.

Democracy is not trying to solve the problem of how to make the best choices (as if there is some kind of universal “best”), but to solve the problem of how different people with conflicting interests can settle their conflicts fairly (or, at the very least, without direct violence). In any given conflict, one side is probably more capable of making wise choices than the other, and yet still it is folly to give all power to this side, because inevitably they will use it to promote their own interests. The dictator might well make better choices than the mob, but still can’t be trusted to be benevolent. The dictator’s interests will be served whenever they conflict with anyone else’s (and they will conflict). The reason that we “put it to a vote” is never to make the best, wisest choice possible, but to make the most fair, most disinterested choice that is possible (given the inevitability of conflict). The vote functions not just to decide whose interests will prevail, but to do so in a way that is accepted as legitimate to the loser.

To conceive of voting as merely a mechanism for deciding what’s best is to adopt a willful blindness to conflicts of interest. Not having read it, I’m in no position to judge this book guilty of that blindness, but it’s far from a rare phenomenon. Perhaps someone who did the reading can say definitively whether this is really its perspective.

34

LFC 02.23.13 at 8:46 pm

Fu Ko @33
Their argument is that a properly working democracy (i.e. voting plus deliberation) is uniquely flexible and self-correcting, or what they call ‘reflexive’. Over time that should result in ‘better’ choices about which institutional mechanisms to use to address particular problems (so the argument goes). You can get the gist by looking at their post above.

35

Mao Cheng Ji 02.23.13 at 9:39 pm

“The vote functions not just to decide whose interests will prevail, but to do so in a way that is accepted as legitimate to the loser.”

Why should it be accepted as legitimate by the loser? I see no reason whatsoever. I suppose it might happen occasionally, when nothing serious is at stake, and maintaining unity and stability seems more important than winning (this, however, works for a dictatorial rule just the same), but otherwise it would seem logical for the loser to fight, or try to split off. Or both. Like, say, Kurds in Turkey.

36

Cranky Observer 02.23.13 at 10:01 pm

= = = Mao Cheng Ji @ 9:39 pm
Why should it be accepted as legitimate by the loser? I see no reason whatsoever. I suppose it might happen occasionally, when nothing serious is at stake, and maintaining unity and stability seems more important than winning (this, however, works for a dictatorial rule just the same), but otherwise it would seem logical for the loser to fight, or try to split off. = = =

I’m truly curious here. You have posted many similar comments on the last 10 threads here discussing forms of government (although not, IIRC, in the last discussion of Hobbes). What form of government do you recommend (or if you refuse to recommend, prefer for yourself and your family) for a modern technological state of any significant size? Why? Thanks.

Cranky

37

Mao Cheng Ji 02.23.13 at 10:22 pm

Look, #10 says: ” no-one has a right to rule over anyone else, end of story”, and I agree.

Now, as a practical matter, it doesn’t look like any anarcho-communist paradise is on the horizon, so, at least at present and in the foreseeable future, coercion is inevitable. Most of us do put up with it (we pay taxes, for example, that are mostly spent on weapons and wars), because we don’t want to get arrested. But I really don’t think ‘legitimate’ is the right word here.

38

Cranky Observer 02.24.13 at 2:59 am

= = = Mao Cheng Ji @ 10:22 pm
Look, #10 says: ” no-one has a right to rule over anyone else, end of story”, and I agree.
Now, as a practical matter, it doesn’t look like any anarcho-communist paradise is on the horizon, so, at least at present and in the foreseeable future, coercion is inevitable. Most of us do put up with it (we pay taxes, for example, that are mostly spent on weapons and wars), because we don’t want to get arrested. But I really don’t think ‘legitimate’ is the right word here. = = =

That’s an interesting set of observations, but it doesn’t really touch on my question. If we abandon modern technological civilization the human population will decrease by at least 95% – even Jefferson’s imagined utopia of yeoman farmers was already backed, in 1789, by substantial heavy industry in upstate New York, Manchester, Dresden, etc. If we don’t abandon modern civilization then we have the problem of what happens when I move in next door to you, build a steel mill in my back yard, and start exhausting coke battery gas into your living space. The latter choice is going to require some form of government; you seem highly critical of all proposed here but unwilling to synthesize a superior option.

Cranky

39

Fu Ko 02.24.13 at 3:00 am

LFC, I did read the post above, but of course a summary of a book can’t suffice to show the book is missing something. What I’m wondering is if it really does (as the summary suggests) conceive of democracy as nothing more than a mechanism used by a group of people with a single unified interest (a single unified concept of “best” or of “good governance”) to make decisions. That is, does it conceive of society as sharing a single unified interest, which political institutions merely seek to discover. If so, this is a serious mistake.

Political institutions at their core are mechanisms for deciding between irreconcilable interests — deciding in conflicts who will be the winner and who will be the loser. Talk of an “epistemically best regime” is meaningless in almost all of the areas where democracy makes sense; the question political institutions actually decide is: best for whom?

40

LFC 02.24.13 at 4:57 am

does it conceive of society as sharing a single unified interest, which political institutions merely seek to discover

No, I don’t think they even come close to saying “single unified interest”; they’re very big on the line about democratic deliberation’s point being to “structure disagreement” not produce consensus. If they don’t emphasize consensus, it wd follow, ISTM, that they don’t see a single unified interest. In fact they start out by talking about the plurality of interests as a basic feature of any “complex” society.

The post I meant to refer to was not the post to which this comment thread is attached but Knight and Johnson’s post “Defending The Priority of Democracy” which I haven’t bothered to finish yet, but even from the first third or so it shd be pretty clear that they don’t see all interests as reconcilable or think of society as having a single unified interest. (Now they may think there is some viable notion of a “public interest” which implies something less than “a single unified interest”; but in any case I don’t remember a whole lot of discussion of that in the book. My recollection of the details becomes less clear as time goes on.)

41

LFC 02.24.13 at 5:04 am

From the post I referred to:

…we start by characterizing the “circumstances of politics” as constituted by persistent disagreement over not just interests and attachments but also by difference generated by diverse moral and ethical commitments

That wd seem to be the answer: they see “persistent disagreement over…interests”.

42

Mao Cheng Ji 02.24.13 at 9:55 am

“unwilling to synthesize a superior option”

First of all, I’m very skeptical about the framing. 100 million people electing a president who decides what each of them will eat for lunch would be a democratic institution (and 50 million of them may be happy with this arrangement), but I could easily imagine an undemocratic one that I might prefer.

Your example is a good one, actually. NIMBY seems to be an example of a democratic failure that might be better addressed by libertarian (rather than democratic) means, by courts. So there.

Let me ask you something. In 1962 federal troops entered the state of Mississippi, to end the practice of racial segregation, supported by a majority of the population there, and by the duly elected democratic government of that state. Before that, the federal government passed various Fugitive Slave laws, forcing democratic states of the North (though women couldn’t vote) to capture and return runaway slaves. How do you sort this out? What is democratic, and what is not; how do you categorize these things, to make sense of it?

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Cranky Observer 02.24.13 at 8:21 pm

= = = Mao Cheng Ji @ 9:55 am
“unwilling to synthesize a superior option”
[...]
Your example is a good one, actually. NIMBY seems to be an example of a democratic failure that might be better addressed by libertarian (rather than democratic) means, by courts. So there.
[...]
= = =

So, the magic libertarian court system that appears whole cloth and in perfect form from nowhere, requires no supporting or checking governmental institutions, and is free of the bias of wealth, class, and raw physical power [1]? Somewhat similar to the court system the Koch brothers are purchasing for themselves in Kansas and Sinqufeld in Missouri? Ah, OK.

Cranky

[1] Ref the Icelanders’ Althing ca 1000 AD

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Mao Cheng Ji 02.24.13 at 10:04 pm

A court system can be established by a king, clergy, any authority, really. They seem pretty authoritarian to me. Do you see it as an inherently democratic institution? I would like to hear more.

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Mao Cheng Ji 02.24.13 at 10:08 pm

…I’m probably missing the point of your last comment. What is the point?

46

Cranky Observer 02.24.13 at 10:19 pm

I think my point is fairly well expressed at my 10:01 and 2:59 comments, but for the record:

I’m truly curious here. You have posted many similar comments on the last 10 threads here discussing forms of government (although not, IIRC, in the last discussion of Hobbes). What form of government do you recommend (or if you refuse to recommend, prefer for yourself and your family) for a modern technological state of any significant size? Why? Thanks.

You’ve been consistently posting comments on the ‘form of government’ threads criticizing all possible government formation processes based on movement toward mass franchise and some form of representation. There are direct arguments against representative democracy (or indeed any form of representative government), but you haven’t been making them – just criticizing every analysis thereof. I’m genuinely curious as to (a) what you’re after (b) what you recommend. But you are quite adept at dancing around those questions.

Cranky

47

EricD 02.25.13 at 12:10 am

@12 “…automagicality (as in Hayekian ‘markets are the real democracy’)…”

I take it that you’ve read neither Hayek’s Law, Legislation, and Liberty nor other works of his that address the role of democratic institutions and abstract, non-market rules in the structure and evolution of liberal social orders. His distinction between abstract law and concrete command is, in my view, fundamental to questions of first- and second-order relationships between democracy and the exercise of power.

Hayek isn’t the cartoon figure drawn by his popular followers and casual critics, and shouldn’t be lumped together with Friedman and the market fundamentalists. By current libertarian standards, the man was a flaming socialist.

He was quite wrong about Keynes, of course.

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Mao Cheng Ji 02.25.13 at 7:23 am

Cranky, what I recommend is to be more skeptical, and less triumphalist about democracy. For example, several people suggested that it makes coercion ‘legitimate’, but I disagree. If I had a better (realistic) model to offer, I wouldn’t be doing it here.

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Tim Wilkinson 02.26.13 at 12:25 pm

EricD: if you’d like to supply a substantive objection with sufficient particulars to permit of refutation without my having to do a load of reconstructive guesswork first, I’ll be happy to respond.

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