Nathan Goodman provided an interesting criticism of my post on democracies not being states. His argument requires a lengthy discussion to address properly. Further, the discussion format on this site seems to hate paragraphs, so such a response would be far more readable if it appeared formatted as a blog entry. Consequently I repost Nathan’s comments as well as my response here.
“At first I suspected I would find myself agreeing with this post, as I tend to find many democratic institutions outside the state, such as worker cooperatives, spokes councils, and the wide range of decentralized democratic institutions people form to help manage common resources.
“But frankly, it strikes me as bizarre to treat the US Congress as an example of “democracy.” As Noam Chomsky has argued many times, the US is not governed democratically. While a democratic voting process operates within the legislature, legislators are largely beholden to perverse public choice incentives and wealthy campaign donors.
“Moreover, when electing representatives, citizens are not engaged in democratic decision making about how their community or the government will operate. As Karl Hess puts it:
“‘In politics a person is not a citizen if the person’s only function is to vote. Voters choose people who, in turn, act like citizens. They argue. They establish the forms within which people live their lives. They make politics. The people who merely vote for them merely make politicians. People who argue for their positions in a town meeting are acting like citizens. People who simply drop scraps of paper in a box or pull a lever are not acting like citizens; they are acting like consumers picking between prepackaged items. They had nothing to do with the items. All they can do is pick what is. They cannot actively participate in making what should be.’
“So, while Congress may be internally democratic, it rests largely on the broader public not exercising their democratic rights. In this sense, it is still very clearly a hierarchy of rule. It is simply a hierarchy of rule whose upper echelons contain a relatively large group that behave democratically among themselves while ruling over the public at large.”
I respond to Nathan
Part III of the essay series, “Democracy as a spontaneous order,” provides a broad response to Nathan’s comments, but it does not address his specific points, so I will below.
There are two dimensions of this issue here Nathan, and they need to be clarified. On the one hand you have the abstract description of the spontaneous order process, and how it differs from a organization. Interestingly, an analogous issue applies to markets as spontaneous orders. By starting with the spontaneous order of the market I think I can clarify the same points regarding democracies.
The rules of the market and the rules of a democracy differ fundamentally from the hierarchical and teleological logic of an organization.
At the same time, any actual example of a market or a democracy reflects its historical and contemporary context, including how it evolved and the efforts of organizations within them to control and dominate them. With respect to markets I have written, and plan to write a lot more, about how American and other market economies reflect the authoritarian and oligarchic customs and powers that dominated the societies in which they arose. They do so especially in their authoritarian work relations and their definitions of property rights
In the link above I contrast these market orders with the Spanish Mondragon worker owned cooperatives as examples of the wide range of possibilities within a market order. The differences are important to human beings and all but universally ignored in orthodox libertarian thought. They turn Chomsky’s criticisms of democracy on their head with respect to markets, and make the problems invisible theoretically and belittled practically.
In contrast to most calling themselves libertarians, I argue the magic words “markets” and “spontaneous orders” do not come close to guaranteeing the good society. They are necessary requirements for a good society more complex than a Hutterite community, but they ‘only’ provide basic foundations, nothing more. Very important questions about power, justice and ethics still remain to be addressed. Increasingly unpleasant as American capitalism is in many respects, it is still basically a market order guided by price information, not a centrally planned economy.
The same point holds with democracies.
Political parties and other organizations will want to influence or control the democracy within which they function. Our democracy is sorely tried at the moment by a number of serious threats that might turn it into an undemocratic state. One is the long term effect of empire and war, which replace the democratic discovery process with a hierarchy of ends subordinated to the military. This is probably the country’s biggest threat.
Another is the ability of two parties to freeze out competition. Formal political freedom is a smokescreen when the concrete circumstances where this formal equality exists makes it meaningless. This is true for democracies and markets. This is also why I endlessly urge progressives to push initiatives in states that have them to replace plurality elections with majority elections.
Another serious threat is the ability of the best connected to use the law-making process to give themselves advantages over others. Locally Main Street businesses often make sure ordinances exist that ban street vendors and the like. This is a fairly benign version of the same thing happening with large businesses at the state and national level. This threat is made worse because when there are only two parties and both depend on private funds for their existence those with the most funds will dominate the parties. Both parties have been corporatized, though it is worse among Republicans than Democrats.
Finally, deeply authoritarian sub-cultures can strive to win elections and then impose their rule. The Nazis in Weimar Germany and the NeoConfederates today in the US are examples. Both have contempt for free societies and use their rules and customs to undermine them, seeking total power.
All four threats are prominent in America’s democratic order and all four undermine that order, potentially turning it into a state, a hierarchical instrument of rule. The peril is genuine.
But it has not happened yet. Freedom of political organization still exists. The initiative process exists and can be used. Primaries make it possible for candidates to challenge incumbents and it is possible for grass roots funding to sometimes overcome big money especially in congressional districts, which are smaller than most Senate constituencies. (Of course authoritarian subcultures can also have an impact here, as we see with Tea Party nihilists.) The press is overwhelmingly corporate, but the web is still a very free and effective means for free communication. States comprise political entities to some significant degree able to challenge Washington, and the states are more accessible to popular influence and a healthier democratic process than is Washington. Progressive reforms weakening the power of both parties and bureaucrats succeeded in becoming law in some states.
The American system is extraordinarily corrupted, but its dynamics are still not those of a state. That people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren can hold major office suggests this is true. That the Tea Party can override the power of corporations on important issues for the right wing, as with the shut down, and do so through their domination of primaries, suggests we are far from a simple hierarchy of power, be it corporate or military.
One more issue
There is another dimension to your criticism that I want to address: your point about democratic decision making.
As I use the term democracy involves the entire process of discovering what values the community will choose to manifest or discourage. Once discovered and adopted, in the US the executive branch then implements it. The executive branch is essentially the state- a hierarchy for administering and enforcing the law. But here the executive branch does not rule. It is subordinated to the legislature.
Democracy is not simply voting, it is an ongoing process of discussion and organization that culminates in voting, and in large complex democracies voting is usually for representatives who supposedly reflect the values of their constituents. Sometimes initiatives and recalls also exist. But the moment of the vote is no more what a democracy is than the moment of purchase is what a market is. Both are crucial elements in processes of extraordinary intricacy that Hayek correctly calls a discovery process that never ends.
So a democracy can only exist stably within a civil society because it is within civil society that most of the democratic process takes place. If such a society is weak, the democracy will be weak or fail because it will not have deep cultural roots. Just as if property rights are weak there will not be much of a market.
A final point. My first book, Persuasion, Power and Polity: A Theory of Democratic Self-Organization, argued that for most purposes what I called residential or citizen cooperatives were a better institution for manifesting democratic processes than traditional political institutions. The book was never reviewed, even by libertarians, despite it being the first application of Hayekian concepts to political theory, probably because it argued the sainted market was not the cure all for every issue of concern. Not even so-called ‘anarchists’ reviewed it! In my view traditional governments are not always the best institutional format for democracy to exist. But sometimes I believe they are because there is an irreducible minimum of decisions that need to be made that must apply to all but where all will not agree. In that case non-coercion must refer to fair rules, and not unanimity on outcomes. The analogy is a game where with fair rules in any given case there are winners and losers, but everyone has a fair chance to win.