From the category archives:
We’d like to start by thanking the crew at Crooked Timber for hosting this conversation and Henry Farrell in particular for coordinating it. It is reasonably rare to have a baker’s half dozen smart people offer critical commentary on your work. So we appreciate the willingness of our interlocutors to participate in this discussion. That said, while we are tempted to rest content with the opening superlatives the discussants offer, we instead will take the opportunity to respond to the various qualms they have expressed. These, we think, fall fairly neatly into three categories: (1) questions regarding the relation of our enterprise to the sorts of ‘ideal theory’ exemplified by Rawls and those who have written in his wake; (2) doubts about operational problems with our argument – stated in terms of whether the conception of pragmatist democracy we advance is coherent or stable; and (3) questions about the sorts of learning and inquiry our arguments presuppose. We address each of these sets of qualms in turn even though, as will become clear, they intersect in important ways.
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.[^important] [click to continue…]
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. [click to continue…]
Knight and Johnson have produced one of the most profound books in recent memory dealing with the questions of political structure and the processes that are necessary to reconcile our differences and to learn to live better together. They begin with the profound recognition of our deep differences in beliefs, personality, talents, and circumstances, and yet acknowledge that we must find a way to coordinate our activities to realize the social gains from cooperation. The answer is to be found in the institutions within which we interact with one another. Ultimately, they provide a fresh argument for the strong claim in political economy— that being, while people no doubt populate the political landscape, effective social change isn’t about people, but about the proper institutions. Institutional problems demand institutional solutions. [click to continue…]
Jack Knight’s and James Johnson’s book is fascinating, interesting and compelling. It is not the kind of book on which I could write deep or far-reaching criticisms, so I fear that I will have to limit myself here to quibbling about what could perhaps be seen as details – and that is their criticism of Rawlsian-style normative political theory. [click to continue…]
One of the arguments that Knight and Johnson make is that standard ‘epistemic’ accounts of democracy do not provide a good foundation for understanding what democracy actually does. Such accounts argue that democratic institutions can do a good job at capturing and aggregating the knowledge of citizens, so that the collectivity can make better decisions than any individual. For example, Condorcet shows that if everyone is slightly more likely to be right than wrong, and if they make their judgments independently, then the more people who vote on a question, the more likely that they will collectively reach the right decision. [click to continue…]
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. [click to continue…]
One of the morning news stories that recently caught my attention was about the power of the New Finns—a rising Finnish populist party—to change the debate about bailing out Greece and possibly other southern European countries (Financial Times, September 24 2012). The New Finns have pushed the two largest Finnish parties—the Social Democrats and the Centre Party—to harden their line on Greece and led them to demand collateral from Greece and Spain for aid. The governing parties, the article suggests, hope that their harder line has taken the wind out of the True Finns’ sails and brought them in line with the 54% of the Finnish electorate who support taking a tougher stance toward their Mediterranean partners. The story catches my attention not only because I am visiting in Sweden, Finland’s neighbor, but also because I have just finished reading Jack Knight and Jim Johnson’s powerful and tightly-reasoned treatise, The Priority of Democracy: The Political Consequences of Pragmatism. [click to continue…]
Over the next several days, we’ll be running a seminar on Jack Knight and Jim Johnson’s recent book, The Priority of Democracy. The participants:
Chris Ansell is a professor of political science at UC Berkeley. He works on pragmatism and Western European politics, and is the author of Pragmatist Democracy: Evolutionary Learning as Public Philosophy.
Henry Farrell blogs here.
Ingrid Robeyns blogs here.
Cosma Shalizi is Associate Professor of Statistics at Carnegie Mellon University, and a former guest-blogger here at CT.
Melissa Schwartzberg is an associate professor and political theorist at Columbia University. She has a forthcoming book under contract with Cambridge University Press, Counting the Many: The Origins and Limits of Supermajority Rule.