Dahl: After the Revolution

I’ve been re-reading Robert Dahl’s 1990 book and a section struck me as particularly relevant to some of the debate on this forum:

Perhaps the greatest error in thinking about democratic authority is to believe that ideas about democracy and authority are simple and must lead to simple prescriptions. . . . if you think there are simple prescriptions, then we cannot hope to understand one another. (p.73)

Dahl’s approach, as always, offers a rich combination of historically-informed theoretical analysis, comparative political science and pragmatic policy proposals. From the political theory perspective, he argues that democracy involves a trade-off between personal choice, competence, economy, and the principle of affected interests. Although ‘primary’ (assembly) democracy is generally viewed as the gold standard, considerations of scale mean that other ostensibly non-democratic mechanisms will often lead to a form of democracy that better manages the trade-off than an attempt to approximate the ideal. Polyarchy may well be a poor approximation of ideal democracy but it’s descriptively accurate and a lot better than actual historical alternatives (various forms of oligarchy and dictatorship).

The error of thinking about democracy as a a single form has led to catastrophe in the past; I fear it will lead to disaster in the future.

Dahl’s historical examples include the excesses of the Athenian demokratia, Jacobinism and the attempts to introduce ‘real’ democracy in the former Soviet Union — where the supposed rule of the people’s soviets in effect meant the dictatorship of the leaders of the vanguard party. From the perspective of the future, Dahl spends longer considering sortition (pp. 122-5) than the mere half page in Democracy and Its Critics, but his treatment is cautious — participation by lot should be restricted to selecting advisory councils for elected officials. This is because sovereignty by sortition would contravene principles of personal choice, competence and economy. In coming to this conclusion he ignores the Greek distinction between magistrates and juries and also fails to capitalise on the dual role of polyarchic officials (policy advocacy and judgment), thereby ignoring the potential of sortition in the latter function without undermining his three principles.

P.S. Andre [or any other Rousseau scholar]: Dahl claims (p.139, footnote 10) that Rousseau ‘strongly objects to the selection of representatives by lot’. Is this true? One might well deduce that this was the case, in that he insisted that all citizens should participate in the sovereign assembly, but did he anywhere actually consider sortition for the legislature? Dahl argues that Rousseau’s throwaway suggestion for spatial rotation in Social Contract Ch.XIII (moving the capital alternately from one village to another) was incompatible with his hostility to sortition in the legislative assembly, but to my mind the possibility of spatial rotation would mean that a statistically-representative assembly would not be ruled out as a matter of principle. After all the Greeks did not see any incompatibility between law-making by assembly vote (5th century) and law-making by the vote of an allotted subset (4th century) — the latter was no less democratic than the former.

Robert A. Dahl, After the Revolution? Authority In a Good Society. Revised edition (1990), Yale University Press.


6 Responses

  1. *** In Social Contract, book III, chapter XIII, Rousseau considers the case of a State including various towns. He is against the idea itself (for him the ideal State is a town and its countryside), but accepts reluctantly to give an advice. I quote: « Nevertheless, if the State cannot be reduced to right limits, there remains still one resource; this is, to suffer no capital, to put the seat of the government by turn in each town, and likewise to assemble by turn in each the Estates of the country. » “Estate” (“état” in French) has here the political sense of « gathering of a social body, or its representatives ». In Social Contract context, “estates” includes the basic “estate” in Rousseau’s political model, i.e. the assembly of the sovereign people.
    *** Even if Rousseau is clearly over-optimistic about the material possibilities of assemblies, this idea implied a small State (I think Rousseau had in mind some Italian States).
    *** I don’t think Rousseau had ever the idea that in a State including several towns, an assembly of one town inhabitants could by turn « represent » the entire civic community.
    *** Rousseau did consider seriously sortition as a political device, but apparently never as a way to create mini-publics exercising sovereignty. We must see that the idea of « representative sample » was not in his mind, that he had much more knowledge of Roman history than Greek one, as generally the Enlightenment intellectuals, and that especially the Second Athenian Democracy model was unknown (Athens was the Periclean Athens – which Rousseau disliked for many reasons).
    *** Sovereignty by minipublics was an idea very difficult for Western intellectuals until very recently. I mentioned the case of the French historian Vidal-Naquet, with a strong leaning towards dêmokratia and a strong knowledge of Greek history, who suggested modern use of sortition in the political system – but, as far as I know, never went until the idea of democratic sovereignty through minipublics.
    *** Rousseau was not against sovereignty by minipublics ; he was not a supporter of it; the model was foreign to his mind.


  2. Andre:

    >Rousseau was not against sovereignty by minipublics ; he was not a supporter of it; the model was foreign to his mind.

    So Dahl is wrong in his claim that Rousseau ‘strongly objects to the selection of representatives by lot’, he simply inferred this from Rousseau’s overall objection to representation in the legislature. But if Rousseau was (reluctantly) prepared to accept that the citizens of Lille should accept the sovereign will of the citizens of Rouen (just as long as each city took it in turns to divine/determine** the general will), then he should not have objected to the rule of a statistical subset of all citizens. Or is his suggestion a) that laws determined by the citizens of Rouen should only apply to themselves or b) that representatives of all cities should assemble in each city in turn? If the latter then how should these representatives be selected and how would this differ from the despised English model of parliamentary representation? What difference does it make where the assembly is located for the tallying of votes as no deliberation takes place? Surely he can’t have meant that all citizens from all towns should attend this travelling road-show? In practice this would have limited attendance to the leisured classes and/or political anoraks.

    Assuming that the state includes all the towns and the same laws apply to all citizens, then if the role of the legislature is to divine/determine the general will rather than to express their own preferences then, as Kant put it, this would only require a handful of people, or even just one. The only reason that all citizens should attend was on account of perceived legitimacy — it’s harder to reject the majority view of the assembly if you attended and voted in person (even though your individual vote would not have affected the outcome either way).

    ** This formulation is on account of the ongoing controversy as to whether the role of the assembly is to discover the (preexisting) general good, or whether the positive act of voting creates the general will. Rousseau’s text is open to both interpretations.


  3. *** Keith says « Surely he can’t have meant that all citizens from all towns should attend this travelling road-show? In practice this would have limited attendance to the leisured classes and/or political anoraks. »
    *** Yes, Rousseau meant that, that is the clear meaning of the text, and I acknowledge it was not realistic, except in a small State with some towns not far one from another – as in some contemporary Italian States Rousseau did know and was interested by.
    *** Let’s consider that in the ancient static world Rousseau theorizes about, the meetings of the Assembly of the People, with legislative function, could be not frequent.
    *** Let’s consider than anyway Rousseau ideal State was a town , with possibly countryside – as his native Geneva or the City-States of the Ancient World. He did not write for big States, and the one “orthodox” Rousseauist model for countries as France or England should have been to convert them into confederacies of hundreds of small republics.


  4. Thanks for the clarification Andre, I was under the impression that Rousseau was arguing for spatial rotation in the sense of “rule an be ruled in turn”, but that was clearly wrong. But Dahl was also wrong to claim that Rousseau “strongly objects to the selection of representatives by lot” although it’s true that he had strong objections to the selection of representatives per se. I wonder, though, what he might have thought of the argument made on this forum that statistical representation does not, under certain strict conditions, involve an alienation of sovereignty. The loss of natural freedom appears to be his overriding concern, so if the case for stochation (it makes no difference who is included in the sample, the result would be the same) carries, then no freedom is alienated. It’s the only solution for large states — his argument for federation was clutching at straws.


  5. *** Keith Sutherland, considering Rousseau’s thought, writes : « if the role of the legislature is to divine/determine the general will rather than to express their own preferences then, as Kant put it, this would only require a handful of people, or even just one. »
    *** The idea of Rousseau is a proto-statistical idea. The vote of a citizen corresponds to what he should have voted (his ideal vote, corresponding to “the general will”) affected by an error corresponding to individual bias (autocentric moral and material interests). The median vote (if the deliberation is right) is a tendencially good estimate of the ideal vote; it corresponds to the peak of the Gauss curve. These are not Rousseau’s words, sure, but it is the idea. See Social Contract, book 2, section 3 : the vote corresponds to the « sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences. »
    *** Let’s consider a comparison (it is mine, not Rousseau’s); I am in a place with twelve clocks, giving different times, most slightly different, some rather outlying. How to have the best estimate of true time? Two solutions (considering only the simple ones). The selective one: you choose the clock you think the best (a much known Swiss trademark). Second solution, the democratic one: you choose the median indication. Rousseau’s citizens are systems measuring the general will with random errors.
    *** The citizen, when he has to obey to the “general will” – or, practically, to its estimate the median vote – obeys to his ideal will, the one he would have if he could overcome his individual bias; therefore he enjoys a kind of freedom, as he does not have to submit to something foreign to him.
    *** All the reasoning suppose that the individual wills deviate from the “general will” mainly by a “noise” – and it is easily argued that Rousseau, even if he explains the necessary rejection of factions, does not take into account the strength of sub-civic collective sets.
    *** But accepting the the Rousseau’s concept, it is clear the median vote of an allotted jury could be considered as good an estimate of the “general will” that the median vote of the general assembly. Rousseau did not ever consider the model of democracy-through-minipublics, but his idea of “general will” is not contrary to this model.


  6. Thanks Andre, that confirms my own interpretation. I had relied on Rousseau’s acceptance of spatial rotation (the legislature meeting in turn in different towns), but misunderstood that — much better to rely on the stochation implicit in his model (the pluses and minuses cancel out). But I think we can both agree that Dahl was wrong in his claim that Rousseau ‘strongly objects to the selection of representatives by lot’. The only basis I can see for this claim would be his overriding fear that citizens would only submit to the general will if they participated themselves in discovering it, so it’s a matter of perceived legitimacy/social control. This should be a concern that Kleroterians should share, that’s one reason for my suggestion to demonstrate experimentally that it makes no difference who is included in the sample(s), the outcome would be the same. Theoretical understanding of stochastic systems would not be enough to ensure the perceived legitimacy of legislative juries — it has be demonstrated experimentally.

    But I think it’s very valuable if we can argue that the arch-enemy of political representation would have accepted the selection of representatives by lot. However Rousseau would have insisted that the representatives voted purely on the basis of their conscience, he certainly would not have agreed to discussion in the jury room. He would also have been unhappy with our proposals for teams of advocates, but it’s hard to see how, in the absence of balanced information/advocacy, the vote would be anything other than the tallying of uninformed prejudice. In the sort of polities Rousseau had in mind legislation would be a very occasional practice and over fundamental issues of principle; not so in the case of large social democratic states that seek to micromanage the lives of their citizens. If citizens are going to determine the outcome of legislation in the latter case they need to be properly informed. Although Rousseau would have hated large modern states, his work on the government for Poland indicates that he was prepared to compromise.


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