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.