How does a people decide exactly who should make up the people? The democratic method would be to vote but then who should vote? It can’t be ‘the people’ because who ‘the people’ are is only determined after the vote.
How does a people decide the boundaries of the political, the demarcation of personal from collective decisions? Again, voting can’t be the solution because limiting the domain of the political via collective decision is itself a political action, while voting to increase the political makes vacuous the whole notion of the personal.
How does a people decide on an electoral system? The only reason to choose between electoral systems is if they produce different outputs given the same inputs. Otherwise, the choice is vacuous. But the choice of electoral system itself requires agreement on an earlier electoral system in order for the choice to be democratic. How does a people decide on that?
Each of these three democratic dilemmas is an example of what I call the Bootstrap Paradox. In each case, a democratic solution seems impossible without either unanimous agreement or resort to non-democratic means, and neither of these solutions is attractive to a democrat.
Unanimous agreement is unattractive in two primary ways. Firstly, there is the issue of practicality. Given any level of diversity amongst a people in terms of beliefs, preferences, disposition, resources or circumstances, unanimous agreement seems completely unlikely for any non-trivial issue, even amongst highly homogeneous groups. Secondly, there is a logical issue. Collective decisions are only collective if they are collectively binding. They are made to create rules and regulations and to influence behaviours in particular ways. But unanimous collective decisions are indistinguishable from unanimous individual decisions, offering nothing more and being completely unnecessary in cases where people unanimously but individually agree.
Non-democratic solutions are also unattractive for two key reasons. The seeming inability of democracy to bootstrap itself from internal principles, and resultant reliance on non-democratic principles, indicates that democratic theory is in some way insufficient and inadequate to the task of forming itself. And the worry continues. If some non-democratic principle is required to ground democracy on solid foundations, then can’t this prior principle do much or all the work that democracy is claimed to do, thereby rendering democracy redundant?
But the bigger worry in my view, is that even these non-democratic principles fail to adequately address the problems that the Bootstrap Paradox raises. In the case of the first dilemma, the Boundary Problem, none of the proposed non-democratic solutions such as nationalism, geography, salience, affect or consent have been able to sufficiently address the issue.
Liberalism is often cited as a solution to the second dilemma, yet considerable debate continues over just what the optimal set of liberties for all in a society is, or ought be. Yet liberalism requires collectively binding constraints upon our freedoms in order to demarcate the individual from the collective, and how are we to determine and agree to these if not collectively?
The third dilemma could perhaps be solved by expertise. Differing electoral systems promote different political characteristics such as stability, accountability, diversity and representation. Yet expertise cannot offer us any insight as to which characteristics we should value in our electoral systems. How to collectively agree on which characteristics to values sends us back into another regress of determining how to agree on how to agree.
Can we find a way to bootstrap democracy? I’m unsure but optimistic that it is possible. Yet my intuition is that in order to do so, we will need to recast democracy as a purely instrumental endeavour needed to promote its foundational value - autonomy and equality within collective constraints.
Aristotle had an interesting taxonomy of political forms in his Nicomachean Ethics. In it, he outlines three possible forms of ‘constitutions’ or systems of government: 1
There are three kinds of constitution … monarchy, aristocracy, and thirdly that which … seems appropriate to call timocratic.
— Book 8 Chapter 10
Timocracy literally speaking, means ‘rule by the honourable’. But for those not up to speed on the political organisation of ancient Greece, the term was corrupted to mean a system of government whereby political decisions were determined by wealth, status or contribution. If you owned land producing 500 bushels of wheat, you could be a general or senator. Have oxen worth 100 bushels of wheat and you could be an administrative official. Own very little (but still be white, male and non-slave of course) and you could serve on a jury. 2
Each form has its corresponding corruption:
The deviation from monarchy is tyrany … aristocracy passes over into oligarchy by the badness of the rulers … and timocracy passes over into democracy
— Book 8 Chapter 10
Interestingly, Aristotle claims that Democracy, characterised by the equality of rulers and the ruled, is worse than rule determined by a broadly structured class system or caste. His reasoning for this seems to be his claim that those who have sufficient wealth are self-sufficient and thereby can ‘not look to his own interests but to those of his subjects’ (1160b).
Aristotle’s political taxonomy then, is formed along two dimensions, which we might call diffusion of power, and purpose of power. One the horizontal axis, we have diffusion of power, ranging from the rule of one (autocracy) to the rule of few (oligarchy) to the rule of many (polyarchy). On the vertical axis, we have the purpose of power, contrasting ruling for the ruled (+) with ruling for the rulers (-).
Monarchy — Aristocracy — Timocracy
Autocracy — Oligarchy — Polyarchy
Tyranny — Plutocracy — Democracy
So the monarch, Aristotle’s Philosopher King, who rules with total power but for the good of the people, is the preeminent form of government. When the monarch rules only for himself, he becomes a tyrant.
The aristocracy, literally ‘rule by the best’, is preferred to Timocracy but when corrupted and only benefiting itself, it becomes rule by the rich for the rich (Aristotle uses the work ‘oligarchy’ but ‘plutocracy’ would be more accurate as oligarchy is generic rule by a few).
Democracy, the corruption of timocracy, is however the least worst form of the corruptions - a sentiment echoed some 2300 years later by Churchill when he remarked democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others we’ve tried.
Aristotle, ‘Nichomachean Ethics’, Translated by W. D. Ross, Adelaide Ebooks, http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/nicomachean/index.html ↩
Timocracy differs from Plutocracy (‘rule by the rich’) in that power is diffused much more widely and typically constrained by a formal constitution. ↩
It’s wrong to inflict avoidable harm upon others. This seems to me like a pretty uncontroversial claim. Sure, there are certain circumstances like self defence, where there might be limited disagreement but even then, one can say that intentionally inflected harm from self-defence-as-a-last-resort isn’t wrong when it is simply unavoidable. Whenever there is a high degree of directness and proximity between our actions and harm to others, then (sociopaths excepted) our moral intuitions seem to keep us in good stead. Call this interactional morality, the direct duties and obligations we hold to other individuals.
But in cases with low degrees of directness and proximity, our intuitions don’t always serve us well. Take climate change as an example. Its abundantly clear that we are having a serious negative impact on the planet and this impact is felt most by the worlds poor and disaffected. Yet very few of us seem moved enough to take concrete individual actions 1, let alone collective ones, to do something to address the issue. Or global inequalities of wealth and income. Again, very few of us even know how best to address the problem to even begin taking actions. When the harm inflicted by us is individually small but incrementally large, indirect and diffused by and over many, it’s actually pretty easy to just ignore it.
But there is another conception of morality, what Thomas Pogge 2 calls institutional morality, which concerns the fundamental principles of justice that apply to institutional schemes. Here, the moral obligations we hold are to institutions, to support, endorse, and participate in. Institutional morality is bounded by our first order duties to other people but are owed to them only indirectly, via institutional frameworks like the state or international treaties and agencies.
Like first order duties to directly avoid harming others, there are some constraints on our institutional obligations. If we don’t know that an institution imposes or enables harm upon others, or if our support of it is unavoidable, then we may be exempted but otherwise we have a duty to avoid supporting unjust institutions. Alternatively, if the institutional harm is known but our support is unavoidable, then we can take compensatory actions to negate the harmful impact of our support.
This distinction is useful because offers us a solid foundation for reconciling the conflict between our moral reason and intuitions. We may dispute that we have an obligation to use natural resources in a more sustainable when our individual action may make no difference if others don’t act in a like manner. Or we may dispute moral comparisons like Peter Singer’s saving a drowning child to donating regularly to Oxfam 3. But what we can’t dispute is our obligation to support institutional frameworks, like CO2 emissions trading schemes, that can correct or limit the injustices of the status quo, whenever viable alternatives are offered.
Pogge, T. (1992) ‘Cosmopolitanism and Sovereignty’, Ethics Vol. 103, No. 1, pp. 48-75 ↩
I’m very sympathetic to John Burnheim’s work on political theory. A single paragraph in the introduction to Is Democracy Possible? was the basis of my Master’s thesis and the starting point for my PhD. But it’s hard not to conclude that his solution to the problems of modern electoral democracy, demarchy, misses the point completely.
The claim that modern electoral politics has become increasingly detached from the will of those it governs is largely uncontroversial. The problem seems to arise not so much from the increasing technical competence required to make sufficiently competent decisions in our highly interconnected world, but more from the detachment of risk and responsibility, between the impact on the rulers and the impact on the ruled, that erodes the exercise of popular sovereignty that lies at the very heart of the democratic project.
Demarchy, Burnheim argues, is the solution to this problem of detachment that is so often manifested in the assent of special interest and lobby groups over the public interest, or the inability of any elected official to properly represent the diverse interests and values of a particular population. If we were to replace democratic control of central authorities based on a system of one vote one value, with one based on statistically representative committees randomly selected from volunteer citizens, then these problems would be largely eliminated.
As a tool for solving the epistemic problem of ‘what policy best meets the need of all affected communities and individuals’, then demarchic citizen committees are a plausible, appealing alternatives to the status quo. They have the right structure of deliberation, incentives and controls to ensure that in general, decisions they reach respect the needs and concerns of all parties.
But as a tool for enhancing popular sovereignty, then they are little better current versions of representative government. When dealing with local issues, demarchic authorities have sufficient skin in the game. The general calculus of special interest, where the individual gain of the few dwarfs the the individual, but not collective, loss of the many, is such that lobbying would simply not be worth it. At the national or global level however, there is ample scope for lobby groups to woo, undermine and corrupt the process in the same way that current supranational bodies and agreements are.
The problem then, is that demarchy frames politics primarily as tool of knowledge, an instrumental epistemic account, there to determine the best policy or right path forward. But it’s not. Politics at its core, is about authority. It’s about the justification of making others conform to one’s own will.
Democracy, even our failing, non-ideal version of it, has succeeded largely due to the fact that it recognises the primacy of popular sovereignty, a notion intrinsically linked to human dignity. Demarchy misses the point because it misses this point. It fails to recognise the fundamental importance of individual autonomy by imposing itself on those who may disagree and sets it self up for abuse and manipulation just like our current system of government does. What we need is more popular sovereignty, not less.
Political cosmopolitanism is an appealing, if largely nebulous idea. At it’s core is the simple premise that we are all citizens of the world, that we all belong to a single moral community - humankind. Its appeal is clear. The concept of a global moral community is a seductive thought for anyone wanting to transcend the parochial concerns of the day to day. It hints to those higher, nobler notions of humanity best invoked in the republican motto of ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’.
Yet cosmopolitanism is as slippery as it is appealing. It seems that every writer on the subject has something different in mind when they invoke the term. Some having in mind a thick version of cosmopolitanism whereby duties to humanity override all other concerns. Others have in mind a thinner version, where duties to humanity are just one of many considerations. Some call for a global state to solve our currently international dilemmas while others merely propose more international cooperation. Common to all however, is an argument against the current prioritisation of the nation-state in political considerations, and it’s this I want to dwell on for a while.
The typical cosmopolitan argument runs something like this:
The major emergent challenges of the last century: globalisation, environmental degradation, growing inequalities, increasing power of trans-national corporations etc; are not being adequately addressed by the existing system of nation-states.
Global problems require global solutions.
Therefore, we need some form of global state or international federation.
While I have my doubts about the first premise, it’s the second premise that I find myself really objecting to. For many, it seems like a tautology: “Global problems require global solutions, duh!”; what could be more self evidently true?
But to think so is a causal fallacy. Just because the current system of nation-states hasn’t adequately dealt with these problems doesn’t mean that it can’t, or that it is the reason for failing to deal with them. If we examine these problems more closely, we see that they all have something in common: they are erosions of local autonomy resulting from the decoupling of risk and responsibility.
Globalisation, the increasing interdependence of systems around the world, isn’t a problem per se. It is negative shocks that it amplifies, like a banking collapse in Europe affecting farm employment in Africa, that are problematic. Globalisation equally amplifies the good as well as the bad. Thanks to globalisation, truth & transparency can flow around the world in milliseconds.
Environmental degradation is problematic primarily because those doing the degrading rarely feel the consequences. If our consumption was only causing local degradation, we’d have no one to blame but ourselves, and in all likelihood, would quickly change our ways. The problem is when our consumption degrades the environment in other countries, and those who bear most of the costs have little recourse. So too with inequalities and TNCs.
The problems we are facing are not the result of bad national governance, they are the result of bad governance simplicitor. A global democracy with the same structure as our current national democracies, would not solve these problems either. It would in fact be orders of magnitude worse. Today, powerful global interest groups need to lobby hundreds of national governments to get their way. Under a global state, the lobbying power of special interests would be concentrated into a single point.
Of course the cosmopolitan may retort that we need a global state and better governance. But if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be simpler to just argue for better governance in our current system of nation-states?
In the Morality of Freedom 1, Joe Raz argues that linguistic analysis is somehow lacking as a tool for examining concepts in political philosophy. Take freedom for example. He offers us the following cases:
Raz claims both 1 & 2 are morally alike for him and most philosophers. 3 is not relevant to political freedoms whereas 4 is highly relevant. Thus, linguistic analysis is unsuitable for the task at hand because there doesn’t seem to be any relevant linguistic differences between the cases.
But Raz has missed something very important here. All four cases involve a person with a choice they would rather not make. In all four cases, the person had alternatives but chose the least worst option for them. 1 could have chosen to starve or steal; 2 could have fought back and risked death; 3 could have called his father and dealt with the guilt; and have tested the air or ignored the liar.
But all four are not morally equivalent. 2 & 4 involve wrongs to the subject while 1 & 3 are simply unfortunate. 1 & 2 are most definitely not morally equivalent as Raz claims. What’s the difference?
An often overlooked distinction between coercion and consent in unfortunate situations is whether or not the person imposing the undesirable choices has an independent moral right to do so.2 The key difference between 1 & 2 is that the gunman has no independent moral right to threaten the subject. The same in 4 where the liar has no independent moral right to lie.
This poses a dilemma for consent based justifications of the state. Government’s want justification for the coercion of those who disagree with it. Break our laws & you go to jail. But imposing the costs of non-consent - arrest, jail, deportation etc - are not independently moral rights of the state because those costs are exactly what the state is trying to justify in the first place. It’s circular.
Or to put it another way. If the state imposes costs of non-consent, then I can never consent to the state’s authority over me (even if I want to) until those costs of non-consent can be independently justified. So much for consent theories of authority :(