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. [click to continue…]