Thursday, June 3, 2021

The Third Chapter of My Hornbook of Democracy Book Reviews


My review of Adam Jentleson's new book on the evils of the U.S. Senate, its leaders, and, in particular, its Filibuster is now up at 3:16 AM. It can be found here

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Second Chapter of My Hornbook of Democracy Book Reviews is on Constitutional Idolatry


My review of Brian Christopher Jones' 2020 book on constitutional idolatry has just been published as the second chapter of my Hornbook of Democracy Book Reviews at 3:16 AM: Chapter 2.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

A Hornbook of Democratic Book Reviews


Richard Marshall has generously offered me a place to review books on democratic theory at his 3:16 AM site. My first review, of Lee Drutman's Two-Party Doom Loop is now up.

I expect the next three (in some order or other) will be Brian Christopher Jones' Constitutional Idolatry and Democracy, Yascha Mounk's The People vs. Democracy, and the forthcoming  Huemer/Layman "debate book" on whether government authority is an illusion. And, while it's not strictly a book on democracy, I'm thinking I might not be able to resist writing something on Peter Graham's Subjective vs. Objective Moral Wrongness.

Keep an eye out!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Can Non-partisan Electoral Systems Produce Coherent Policies that are Responsive to the Electorate?

In my book I take the position that a bipartite voting system is necessary to get a good sense of what the people in any group want. And I offer up something like the Mixed-Member Proportional Representation system used in New Zealand and elsewhere. It is a bit different from MMP, however, since I specifically call for single-member elections using Approval Voting and proportional representation using the Single Non-Transferable VOTE (SNTV). I don’t discuss to what extent (if any) elections utilizing my proposals should be partisan or non-partisan, however, and to the extent that strong parties are making exclusive lists of candidates in the PR elections, SNTV voting--where everyone votes for one favorite candidate--becomes equivalent to an open party list system in which the parties set forth the only candidates that anyone may vote for. I am agnostic on this matter, but have been thinking about it quite a bit lately. I therefore put these musings—which are a bit out of my wheelhouse-- on this blog with the hope that those with more knowledge in this area may comment and enlighten me.

 Why should anybody think that parties are important in the first place? What value can they add? In his Why Parties: A Second Look (2012) John H. Aldrich writes,


“Parties are intermediaries that connect the public and the government. Parties also aggregate these diverse interests into a relatively cohesive, if typically compromise, platform, and they articulate these varied interests by representing them in government. The result, in this view, is that partis parlay those compromise positions into policy outcomes, and so they—a ruling if nonhomogeneous and shifting government majority—can be held accountable to the public in subsequent elections. The diversity of actors in the party lead to an equally diverse set of party arrangements….These diverse structures make possible the key concepts of the party in this view: interest articulation and aggregation and electoral accountability. 


This idea is fleshed out a bit in the paper “A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands and Nominations in American Politics” (2012), by Kathleen Bawn, et al. The authors there consider a society in which there are various interests such as those who want to protect local wool production, those who want to spend money on school buildings and teachers, those who want to enforce blue laws, and several other groups—including some that coalesce (like of low-taxers, consumer groups or bar owners) specifically to defeat the other groups. Then the authors try to make the case that without deal-making between these interest groups, nothing like a coherent public policy is likely to result. Obviously, their little society greatly simplifies the real world. I believe, however, that it is still too complex to fathom. In this entry, I will try to provide an even simpler scenario and attach quantitative support to each interest in order to see whether it’s really the case that every sort of voting scheme requires a fairly robust party system in order for a coherent policy that is responsive to the desires of the voting public to be produced.



The jurisdiction has a population of 1,000,000 and has three seats for representatives.

500,000 are generally uninterested in matters of public policy or “politics.” The remaining 500,000 do have first priorities they want their representatives to focus on and may also have second priorities, but no one has any public matters they care about, beyond a second priority.

105,000 are Pro-Choice (These care most about a woman's right to have an abortion without interference)

100,000 are Protectionists (These care most about putting tariffs on goods coming from outside this jurisdiction)

100,000 are Laborites (These care most about union rights and raising minimum wages)

75,000 are Anti-Protectionists (These care most about preventing tariffs)

75,000 are Anti-Laborites (These care most about stopping unions and preventing minimum wage hikes)

45,000 are Anti-choice (These care most about the right to life of unborn prenates)

Of the 105,000 Pro-choice Advocates:

21,000 are secondarily pro-protection

21,000 are secondarily anti-protection 

21,000 are secondarily pro-labor

21,000 are secondarily anti-labor

21,000 have no secondary public interest

Of the 100,000 Protectionists:

20,000 are secondarily pro-labor 

20,000 are secondarily anti-labor 

20,000 are secondarily pro-choice 

20,000 are secondarily anti-choice laws 

20,000 have no secondary public interest

Of the 100,000 Laborites:

20,000 are secondarily pro-protection 

20,000 are secondarily anti-protection 

20,000 are secondarily pro-choice 

20,000 are secondarily anti-choice 

20,000 have no secondary public interest

Of the 75,000 Anti-Protectionists:

25,000 are secondarily anti-labor 

25,000 are secondarily pro-labor 

10,000 are secondarily pro-choice 

10,000 are anti-choice laws second

5,000 have no secondary public interest

Of the 75,000 Anti-Laborites

25,000 are secondarily anti-protection 

25,000 are secondarily pro-protection 

10,000 are secondarily pro-choice 

10,000 are secondarily anti-choice 

5,000 have no secondary public interest

Of the 45,000 Anti-Choice Advocates:

10,000 are secondarily pro-protection 

10,000 are secondarily anti-protection 

10,000 are secondarily pro-labor 

10,000 are secondarily anti-labor 

5,000 have no secondary public interest




Let us start by assuming that the electorate will vote only for all and only those candidates who back what is most important to them (this will be changed below). If the three candidates for the three seats in this imaginary district are to be elected via a system that both (i) allows voters to vote for as many candidates as they like, and (ii) gives seats to the three candidates receiving the most votes, then Pro-choicers (with their 105,000 backers will win all the seats. If electors may vote for no more than three candidates, the Pro-choicers will be certain to win all three seats only if they put up no more than three candidates. Obviously, one way of assuring that result in an election of this type is for the pro-choice advocates to organize a party with the power to determine which candidates with its priorities may pull papers. If those with other first priorities understand the situation, they may try to arrange a merger with any pro-choice party that forms, in order to pick up one seat by a member with a different first priority who favors choice as a second priority, or to at least make sure that at least two of the seats are taken by candidates who share their views as a second priority.


In a system where voters may pick only one favorite (with the top three vote-getters winning seats), it will again be difficult without the intervention of strong parties to ensure either the victory of more than one representative with any particular first priority, or even the victory of more than one representative having either a first or second priority of any one (or two) particular interests. Securing such results would seem to require the intervention of entities making on possibly quite complicated deals involving both what members may and may not publically support and who will be allowed to run for office.


What happens if we vary our assumption requiring that each member of the electorate will vote for all and only those candidates who back what is most important to her by assuming instead that each elector will vote for all the candidates that she minimally approves of. Now, everyone will vote for all candidates espousing EITHER their first or second priority. Would we still need parties? Let's see. Given this changed assumption, if electors may vote for as many candidates as they want, and everyone who is interested in politics goes to the polls, we can expect the following results: 1 Pro-choice winner, 1 Laborite winner, and 1 Protectionist winner. So long as each interest group has at least one candidate in the race sharing its first priority, it won’t matter how many additional candidates having that first priority also run. For simplicity then, let us just assume that each of the groups listed above has only candidate with that same first priority on the ballot.


Approval Election Results

The Pro-choice candidate will receive 105K + 20K + 20K +10K + 10K + 165,000 votes

The Protectionist candidate will receive 100K + 21K + 20K +25K + 10K = 176,000 votes

The Laborite candidate will receive 100K + 21K + 20K + 25K + 10K = 176,000 votes

The Anti-Protectionist candidate will receive 75K + 21K + 20K + 25K + 10K = 151,000 votes

The Anti-Laborite candidate will receive 75K + 21K + 20K +25K + 10K = 151,000 votes

The Anti-Choice candidate will receive 45K + 20K + 20K + 10K + 10K = 105,000 votes


Will we therefore have a government that enacts Pro-choice, Protectionist, Laborite policies? Not necessarily. In spite of the first priorities of these three candidates, we cannot assume that the policies created by the three representatives will end up being Pro-choice, Protectionist, and Laborite. Why not? Without party intervention, the second priorities of the winners will be randomly distributed, so we cannot simply assume that, e.g., the Pro-choice winner will be amenable to labor or protection proposals. Similarly, we cannot simply assume that the Protectionist representative will be pro-choice or pro-labor. Thus, if the three-member legislative/executive representatives require a majority to do anything, they may be unable to go forward on any front. Alternatively, one (or two) of the voter-supporter positions may move forward…but there may be no way to tell which one(s) ex ante. Perhaps detailed polling and interviews with all the candidates would be helpful here, but it seems they'd be so only if these candidates are completely forthcoming—and it’s not clear what their interest would be in getting into secondary matters if they don’t have to, since such disclosures may hurt their electoral chances.


This quite simple scenario seems to me to suggest that with no pre-election coordination, it may well occur that there will no movement on any issue post-election. But I do not know how or whether the coordination required for program enactments can occur absent the construction of parties and the subsequent presentation of party candidates. Deal-making of the required sort would seem quite difficult to obtain in an setting in which interest groups--parties--are not important players. It thus seems to me that if one believes (as I do) that for a government to be authentically responsive to the sort of electorate imagined in this example, a relatively strong party system may be required.


I'm not sure about this, though. And, again, I hope those with more experience in this field will comment and correct me where they believe I need it!

Monday, February 15, 2021

How a Procedural Democrat Can Respond to Critics of "Responsiveness"


In my book, I argue that, as it is intrinsically good for an individual to get what she or he wants, so it is also good for a group. And, as I take democracy to be, at root, a political system that is designed to fairly, accurately, and frequently determine what the people within it want and then attempts to deliver it to them, I hold that obtaining a democracy is also intrinsically good. 

There is no shortage of investigators,* however, who do not accept one or both of the following claims:

1. Democracies are best evaluated by their responsiveness to (how closely they reflect) the "will of the people."

2. Responsiveness is measurable in some universally approved, satisfactory way. 

That is, while it may be thought even by someone who agrees that  weighing responsiveness to the desires of the electorate is a sensible way to determine how democratic a system is, there's no good way to do it. Not only are there deep divisions about what sort of voting methods would accomplish this mirroring, it is also insisted that it would be impossible for elections to do anything like that, even if they could be made perfect. 

So, other measures have been considered instead. Perhaps the key to being a good democracy is thought to be how many people vote, or how well the poorest cohort is doing, or how generally peaceful and prosperous the place is, or how high the level of "workers' rights" is. Whatever evaluative measures are chosen, those are pushed instead of responsiveness, either as a way to determine how democratic a place is or as a substitute, because they are thought to matter more than any supposed "level of democracy" ever could. In addition, the critics may demand that more focus be placed on the "getting" and less on the "wanting." For they may point out that people may not only disagree on whether some implementation is really what they have asked for, but can also change their minds at any point subsequent to an election. 

These issues are discussed at some length in my book, but it may be well to take a minute to summarize some reasonable responses to the responsiveness critic here. To simplify, let's not quibble about what should be meant when one uses the term "democracy," but rather simply agree that at the very least it has to require something like the majority "getting what it wants." Of course, if I make that simplifying move, I will have to allow that democracy might not "really" be such a good thing for the people said to be "enjoying" it. There's a trade-off that one must be willing to make here--where no analysis of well-being is provided. In my book, while I accept a definition of "democracy" that involves responsiveness, I also try to show through an analysis of what it means for persons or groups to be well-off, how improvements in group well-being are essentially connected with increases in democracy. 

To answer objection 2 above, it is necessary to have a theory of what votes are and what can make elections the best way to determine what groups want. So, I also attempt that in the book, and I will not try to replicate those arguments here. There is more. To move forward here we will also have to suppose that we've reached some sort of basic agreement on how to make appropriate assessments of what an electorate wants at any given time: that is, we must be all set with the voting rules, the frequency of elections, ease of ballot entry, campaign finance--all the procedural items. (I well understand that all of those matters are controversial!) 

One other thing we'll have to do to make any progress is settle on the fact that in any modern state we'll have to be talking about a representative system, not any sort of direct free-for-all. Only the smallest "city-states" can actually be governed directly, although levels of citizen participation can certainly vary a great deal in representative systems. Finally, if what we've stipulated to so far is to make any sense at all, it must be understood that some sort of rule of law is required. There's no point in saying that voting must be like this or that or that representation must have certain characteristics unless there are at least some rules that simply must be followed. And that in turn requires some area where final, unappealable judicial or other review cannot be undone--even by large majorities. 

So, that is the list of stipulation items that I am forced to request here, and in this blog entry I'll give no additional defense of any of them. I'm afraid, however, that none of this will have been to any avail. For this is the point at which I'd expect the critic of responsiveness to reply, "All these stipulations will do you no good whatever. You won't be able to gauge whether a polity is producing what is wanted because of the huge number of unclarities and ambiguities surrounding your attempt--even given the items you've asked for here. For example, you insist that the electorate may not be against majoritarianism in the first place, and on the contrary, you hold they may not oppose constitutionalism entirely by claiming that majorities should be able to get whatever they want. These seem like nothing more than empirical falsehoods. Again, maybe the people want the secure-from-majorities protection of various basic rights that the radical democrat does not allow for, or maybe they lean in the other direction and just want a dictator! Well, so be it--it's your game to make what rules you want for. Even then, it will remain the case that you don't tell us what we should infer when voters change their mind after an election. And you don't say what you take to be an acceptable lag time between an election and a requested result--or even how we can tell whether what some government has provided really does satisfy the electoral demands. Are satisfaction polls supposed to be taken? What is worst of all, of course, is that, on your view an extremely poor, unhappy--indeed miserable!--populace can be said to be getting precisely what they want, even when they all insist that they aren't!"

These sorts of objections are also discussed at some length in my book, but some short answers are that if we disallow initiative petitions and focus on the choosing of representatives, questions about whether election results have really produced what is wanted disappear the moment those victors are sworn in. And the concern that the newly minted officials may not actually do what is wanted of them can be handled by the proceduralist by requiring the easy availability of recall of officials, of referendums for repealing enacted laws, and (in limited areas) a way in which the electorate can reverse judicial decisions. Short, renewable terms for officials and campaign finance reforms will, of course, also be necessary. In this way, if the electorate really doesn't like something that its government is doing or has done, they will be provided easy opportunities to undo it. (Not any impeachment nonsense like we've seen twice with respect to Donald Trump, for example). The authentic democrat will say, in a word, that no other sorts of measurements of success are needed.

To continue, exaltation of (responsive) democracy does not allow for the undoing of democratic principles like majoritarianism or free and fair elections even by the people. That is an ineliminable constraint or there will be no democracy. So, contrary to one of the above complaints, authentic democracy does require certain "rights"--the political ones, like speech, assembly, association, and press. Indeed, it also requires equal protection of all the people and prohibitions against unfair discrimination. All of these simply follow from our democratic axioms: we can't really know what the people want without these prohibitions firmly in place. It should not be suggested that the authentic democrat is entirely opposed to "rights" protections, just because it endorses a smaller list of them than the traditional liberal. If a group wants additional constraints against "majority tyranny" they can vote for representatives who they believe will enact them, but later majorities must be given the power to effectively disagree and repeal them--though that power can apply to those additional "rights" only. 

It cannot be denied that such a polity may be poor, cruel, or even unhappy according to some measures.  But democracy, even exalted as I think the authentic democrat must exalt it, has never been claimed to be a panacea. All it can be correctly be said to do is get the people what they want (at least in the way of representation)--and for exactly so long as they want those it. Getting such procedures in place is the most important first step to authentic democracy. And, in my view, pressing for additional requirements--or for the diminution or elimination of those the democrat advocates--do not involve democracy at all, but other things those theorists happen to endorse--like wealth equality or prosperity. I don't deny that such ends may be lovely--I may want them myself--but they are often not democratic ends. They may, in fact, be extremely anti-democratic. At any rate, I have more modest interests myself when I theorize in this area. I say only that if you provide real democracy, though I may personally want other things too, I will promise to declare: Ich habe genug! 

* For an excellent discussion of these matters, see Andrew Sabl, "The Two Cultures of Democratic Theory: Responsiveness, Democratic Quality and the Empirical Normative Divide," Perspectives on Politics, 2015. A summary of earlier literature on these matters can be found in Andrew Roberts, "The Quality of Democracy," Comparative Politics, 2005.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Buy Cheap...

The price for the e-book version of Democratic Theory Naturalized is down to the (almost reasonable) $45. Dunno if it'll stay there or not.

What's real democracy?

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Interview by Richard Marshall for 3:16 AM


I was just honored to be interviewed by "philosopher whisperer" Richard Marshall, late of 3 AM Magazine and now publisher of the independent 3:16 AM. You can read it here: 

Democracy Naturalized from end-times-series