The Bootstrap Paradox

10 Mar 2012

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.