Sunday, December 23, 2012

Knight & Johnson on pragmatism and democracy

I've recently finished reading Jack Knight & James Johnson's The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism.  (NB: I haven't read it with the care I would if I were writing a proper review of it; I skipped some of the footnotes and skimmed a few bits of the text here and there. So take this post for several thoughts on the book, nothing more.)

The Priority of Democracy maintains that democracy -- meaning both political argument and voting -- is able to perform certain tasks that other kinds of governance mechanisms cannot. When it comes to "facilitat[ing] effective institutional choice" and "addressing the ongoing conflict that exists in modern society" (p.20), democratic institutions, when operating under the right conditions (an important proviso), have an advantage over markets, courts, and bureaucracies, Knight and Johnson (hereafter K&J) contend.

K&J say that democracy is not necessarily the best way to deal with any given substantive issue, but it is the best way to decide how and through what means particular issues should be addressed. In this sense democracy has what they call a 'second-order priority'. A properly functioning democratic system constantly monitors its own performance and that of its component parts to ensure that they are working effectively. The point of democracy, on K&J's view, is not to bring everyone to the same views but to ensure that contending positions clash productively, over the same conceptual landscape so to speak, rather than talking past each other, and that all sides get a roughly equal chance to be heard. Drawing on Dewey's pragmatism, the authors favor institutional experimentation and argue that good institutional performance depends on effective democratic participation, which in turn requires what they call 'equal opportunity for political influence'.

The book, as might be gathered, proceeds at a high level of abstraction, despite the authors' claim -- not put in exactly these words -- that they are bridging the gap between normative and explanatory theory. They pay virtually no attention to the literature on historical institutionalism and to the actual historical record of institutional performance. Instead their main engagements are with rational-choice models of institutions, on the one hand, and theorists of deliberative democracy on the other. Against Habermas, they maintain that democratic deliberation should aim not to bring people to consensus or agreement but rather to "structure the terms of disagreement." (On the rational-choice point, see the end of this post.)

K&J write that "[t]heoretical analysis can make important contributions to our understanding of issues of institutional performance, but alone it cannot provide definitive answers to questions of actual effect. Such answers can only come from the cumulative experience of using the various institutions at our disposal" (p.165). Despite this statement and others like it, they make, as already mentioned, little or no effort to examine the historical record of such "cumulative experience" to see whether, or to what extent, it might support their argument.

That said, I'm inclined to agree with their critique of markets, which as I understand it boils down to saying that markets require demanding conditions in order to function properly but -- and here is the contrast with democratic institutions -- markets are not good at monitoring their own performance and ensuring that the necessary conditions for their effective functioning exist. In their terminology, markets, unlike democratic institutions, are not "reflexive."

However, like markets, democracy requires demanding conditions -- such as equality of influence -- to work properly, and meeting those conditions is simultaneously a normative imperative and a practical prerequisite of effectiveness and legitimacy, K&J argue. But they don't go into much detail about the kinds of state intervention that would be required to ensure something approaching 'equal opportunity for political influence'. 

The authors view political actors as mostly (though not always) self-interested, rather than as acting from a conception of the public interest (p.281). 'Winners' will seek to keep their advantages, while 'losers' -- the relatively disadvantaged -- will seek to change institutions in their favor. The push-and-pull of such democratic contention involves, they say, "an inherent learning process" (p.281) and presumably conduces to (gradual) improvements -- though the words "progress," "reforms," and "improvements" are not much in K&J's vocabulary, preferring as they do the more antiseptic diction of academic political theory. Note, too, that for 'losers' (i.e. those previously or currently disadvantaged) to play a constructive part in democratic struggles, they have to have resources and influence to begin with (hence the 'equal opportunity for political influence' condition).

The authors' range of reference is impressive and their book is clearly the result of much thought. Those with a professional interest in democratic theory and social choice theory will want to read it if they haven't already.  

However, as someone without such a professional interest, I found the book to be somewhat frustrating. K&J claim to reject the dichotomy between ideal and non-ideal theory, but I think the book is mostly the former, in spirit if not under the technical definition of 'ideal theory'. It makes a good theoretical case for a kind of democracy that does not presently exist, at least not in the U.S., but offers few concrete suggestions about how to bring such a democracy into being. Since the authors never said they would do that, I suppose this amounts to criticizing the book for something it never claimed to do. However, the authors do say that political theorists have explanatory and analytical tasks as well as normative ones, and I think the explanatory part of their argument could have benefited from a more historical and empirical perspective.

In terms both of its ambitiousness and its rather ponderous and repetitive style, The Priority of Democracy may bear some comparison with Rawls's A Theory of Justice (TJ). Of course The Priority of Democracy is less monumental in length and scope than TJ -- most books are -- and not only its 'project' but its targets are different. The latter fact partly reflects, I'd suggest, the difference in the intellectual climate between the mid-twentieth century, the era of which TJ is a product, and the early twenty-first century. To oversimplify for the sake of contrast, Rawls's main target in TJ was utilitarianism, whereas K&J take aim at what might be called market fundamentalism and, by extension, neoliberalism (though they don't use these terms in the book). Neoliberalism really came to the fore in the late '70s and early '80s, well after TJ was published. And the sources of inspiration are different: for Rawls it was the social contract tradition and (especially) Kant, for K&J it's pragmatists like Dewey, Richard Rorty, and Richard Bernstein. (Note that Dewey's name appears only twice in TJ, both times in a footnote.) K&J also frequently cite Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom and Richard Posner's Law, Pragmatism and Democracy, among others. 

At the beginning of the book K&J criticize Rawls, charging Rawlsian ideal theory with neglecting "the tasks of showing how any institutional arrangement governed by [the] principles [of justice] could emerge or sustain itself" (p.16). But as already indicated, I found their own account of institutional emergence and functioning to be too abstract and not empirical enough.

Finally, since I have criticized K&J for ignoring the literature on historical institutionalism (including the work on path dependency), I should mention that this a conscious choice on their part: they acknowledge that "several brands of institutionalism have emerged in recent years" (p.17) and say that they focus on rational-choice models of institutions for several reasons, among them that such models are usually and mistakenly assumed to "underwrite a robust challenge to democratic theory" (p.18). By making their case on this supposedly unfriendly terrain, they write, "we tacitly assume a rather substantial burden of argument" and, via a "distinct interpretation" of rational choice, "aim to place pressure on advocates of rational-choice approaches to explore more carefully the ways their analytical proofs, their explanatory claims, and their normative pronouncements hang together" (p.18). I haven't gone into this aspect of the book in this post and will leave others to judge whether and to what extent K&J succeed in this particular aim.

Added later: Compare Cosma Shalizi's take on the book, which I read after writing and posting my own. 
Added still later: See also H. Farrell's and C. Shalizi's draft paper (May '12) on cognitive democracy (link via here).
And see my postscript on democracy and individual capacities.                  


Anderson said...

This is all probably far above my head, but I'm puzzled by the "priority of democracy" idea; it seems that democracy has to grow alongside the rule of law, for instance, to succeed. Perhaps the authors you're discussing don't disagree, but then, where's the "priority" come in?

LFC said...

Thanks for stopping by.

The 'priority' comes in when comparing democracy to, above all, markets as mechanisms of "institutional choice" -- i.e. as means for deciding how to deal w specific problems.

Here's a passage that will give at least a flavor of what the authors mean (and of their style). [And if/when the Crooked Timber seminar on the book is held, this will all get hashed out at some length, no doubt. Btw, Henry Farrell is a friend of both authors (I think) and is in the acknowledgments. Hence one reason for CT's interest in the book.]

This is from p.52:
"The appeal of decentralization has been so pronounced in contemporary discussions of politics and institutional choice that...decentralized institutional arrangements like the market have come to enjoy a default priority among the available institutional alternatives. Given this pervasive view -- that we should rely primarily on the coordinate social interactions -- we believe that it is necessary to assess the merits of the decentralization argument as the first step in our argument for the priority of democracy. Pragmatists believe that all institutional choices, including the initial choice of the institutional mechanism for making other future choices, are comparative in nature.... The argument for the priority of democracy is, in significant part, based on a claim that democratic decision making will do a better job of facilitating the various tasks of institutional choice than will decentralized mechanisms like the market."

The book, to be blunt, is verbose and needed a really good editor, which, alas, it didn't have. As Cosma Shalizi wrote (I'm paraphrasing closely): There's a good, short book in here; someone should write it.