Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

What is Democratic Efficiency?

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Easton modelAlex Sparrow has been interested in the idea I’ve been discussing called ‘democratic efficiency.’  He encouraged me to talk a bit more about how to achieve it, and then since has written about this.  His post is well worth checking out, and in many ways parallels my own thinking. But his use of the term democratic efficiency and mine are a different, so it seems worth taking the opportunity to explain my own position a bit more clearly. I also noticed as I looked through my posts that I had been defining democratic efficiency differently – by emphasizing different elements of the idea.  This no doubt adds to the confusion.

Alex defines the idea this way:

Participatory processes are intended to improve the democratic efficiency of representative institutions.  By “efficiency”, we do not mean that the benefits exceed their cost, as we usually might.  Instead, “democratic efficiency” refers to the degree to which the results of the democratic process reflect the will of the people. [my emphasis]  If we conceive of the state as a system, citizens’ preferences are “inputs” and state action is “output”.  The most efficient system would translate citizens’ preferences into an act that accurately reflects those preferences taken as a whole.

His post discusses the ways it does not, and offers some ideas for how to improve that situation.  While we agree on the problem, what I meant to do was to describe and critique a certain way of thinking and talking about politics.

Democratic efficiency, as I’ve used the term, is the belief that one can infer popular beliefs from institutional outcomes because aggregated individual choices are manifested in an unmediated fashion in politics and policy.  By unmediated, I mean that causation runs from the mass of individuals to the functioning of institutions or elite strategies, rather than these things structuring aggregate mass behavior. Individual beliefs, further, are understood as exogenous – produced outside the political system, either logically or chronologically prior to politics, if not both. (In political science, I’ve argued this view involves a naive, oversimplified, implicit version of Easton’s model, pictured above).

So how the political system fails to meet this idea is an important part of the story, I’m also interested in why people believe this, and what work this idea does.

This idea, often implicitly, depends on an economic metaphor.  Voters are consumers, the political system is like a market, parties are like firms.  Voter-consumers have tastes (or preferences) which are given, a product of something prior to the political system.  There is, according to this view, as the economists say, no accounting for taste.  Like in the so-called free market, competition is an all-powerful mechanism for unproblematically translating voter-consumer preferences into outcomes (both elections and the policy that is assume to flow fairly automatically from them).

Whenever one criticizes some aspect of the economy, there will be someone to pop up and insist that any complaints are misplaced unless they focus on the real culprit: the consumer. The fact that some outcome exists is taken as (incontrovertible) evidence that this is what the consumer wants.

The same thing happens in politics.  ‘We’re a democracy,’ someone cries, as if this settles things. ‘If you don’t like it, stop complaining about the elites, your beef is with the (all-powerful) people.’ In both cases, the idea that there is anything that distorts the translation of aggregated individual preferences into outcomes is considered, if possible, an exception to the general rule.  In both, mediating institutions are simply absent – or when noticed, seen as a small or temporary deviation from more fundamental forces.  The central, if not only, causes in politics therefore appear to be voting and public opinion.

Because of the supposed power of competition, this process is seen as automatic.  The parties, ever vigilant to pick up even a small number of votes, are constantly scouring the horizon for issues to address, policies to propose, or constituencies to incorporate.  Agenda setting, as a result, is just a reflection of the important problems facing the country. And activists, if they play any role at all, are concerned with persuading voters.  Agitation is therefore seen as a bit crazy and likely counterproductive. Strangely, this view of politics is quite non-political, and makes a great deal of political activity difficult to make sense of.

It’s interesting that there have been famous efforts to apply the market metaphor to politics explicitly, in ways that were quite illuminating.  Anthony Downs argued that, assuming a normal distribution of preferences, the parties would converge in the middle and seek to obscure their differences. This is not a fair description of the outcomes in American politics, although certainly many people pretend it is otherwise.  And Thomas Ferguson showed that, once we take seriously the analogy of investment, funders will end up having far more power over politics than voters. As the very least, the concerns of the funders should typically set the boundaries of what’s possible in the electoral system, regardless of the preferences of voters. (The exception to this would be if voters were organized in some fashion, such as in unions in the post-War period, that presses back against the interests of the funders, at least for a time.)

My problem is not that there is a vast gap between what voters say they want or care about and what politicians and the media take seriously, let alone what outcomes we end up with. This is true, but it’s only the first step.  My problem is that the market metaphor is not helpful.  This isn’t how economics works, and it certainly isn’t how politics works. Just as we, on the left, would reject the idea that if only we removed ‘distortions’ from the ‘free market,’ then all the negative outcomes of our economic system would disappear, in part because people would be getting what they want, we should reject the same idea when it comes to politics.

But my issue isn’t just with how this idea misinterprets the political system, but also how it misinterprets human beings. One problem here is the idea that people have pre-existing attitudes, somehow prior (whether chronologically, logically, or both) to their engagement with politics.  That is, that preferences are endogenous.  This is a classically liberal idea, and it’s implicit in the dominant political science approaches, and also makes quantitative analysis on these issues considerably easier.  There is an alternative view, however.

For one, the Founders thought that political activities would shape people’s ideas. Deliberation would mean hearing different ideas and gathering new information, and people’s views would be refined.  Elections weren’t just about allowing people to choose who would rule them, or give an up or down rating on how officials had governed. They were supposed to ensure that officials would have to listen to the people, to interact with them, learn their concerns and bring those back to the capital.  I don’t subscribe fully to this view (which included an unfortunate element of classism, and was marred by how many types of people were left out) it’s an important corrective to the classical liberal view that tends to dominate even those who would not say they subscribe to it.

In addition, economists like Thorstein Veblen and John Kenneth Galbraith did attempt to provide explanations for ‘taste’ in economics. In both cases, they saw institutions as powerfully shaping preferences. But when it comes to politics, we see the same thing. When social scientists actually ask (rather than assume) where people’s beliefs come from, we see they are as much a product of the political system and of their own political activities, as they are the cause of them.  Democracy gets considerably more messy when causation runs in both directions.

Aside from the problematic market metaphor, I also think this belief suffers from a common problem in social science of trying to use legitimations as explanations.  Democracy is a claim made by those who wish to justify political positions and, more broadly, governance or rule.  It is also a normative rhetoric, used to assess the morality of regimes, governing structures, or particular course of action.  But I’ve argued that these things are fundamentally at odds with the goal of empirical explanation. Now, there are times when we might use the same term for all three of these enterprises – for example, I find it unavoidable to do so with the word ‘politics.’  At the very least, if we’re going to do the same with ‘democracy’ it requires a great deal of care. But since the idea that ‘democracy’ provides an all-purpose explanation for American politics, and since our implicit concept of democracy is so impoverished, this gets us into a great deal of trouble.

There are lots of things we could do to have a healthier democracy. We should be talking more about them. But none of them would automatic translation of preferences to outcomes. Politics is always required. That’s why, for me, the idea of democratic efficiency is something to be foregrounded and critiqued but not an ideal.


8 Responses

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  1. All of these are excellent points!

    I do agree that we should not view people as having endogenous or pre-existing preferences that they bring to the voting booth. People are embedded in social relationships and institutions, in positions and roles that shape their preferences, motivations, and perspective. The economic viewpoint that entered political thought as rational choice theory has oversimplified complex social interactions into individuals interacting as atoms in the void.

    In fact, my hope and expectation is that people will be changed by deliberative and participatory institutions. The evidence from the participation literature, including the Baiocchi et al book I cite on my post, is that properly designed participatory mechanisms can improve civil society. Meanwhile, the research on deliberation (Fishkin and such) reveals that people’s perspectives are changed through discussion. On the assumption that some degree of “public virtue” is required for a democratic society, these are desirable transformations of preferences.

    Of course, none of this is obvious in the article that you linked. I am as guilty of oversimplifying the situation myself!

    I used the term “preferences” in the absence of a more fully worked-out conception of how individuals should relate to an institution, in this case, the state institution. However, once complexity is brought in, my positive view of democratic efficiency breaks down. What, exactly, are individuals coming together to transform into collective action? Will? Action? Power?

    None of that is necessary for an empirical understanding of social institutions, of course. But from a perspective of political philosophy, I want to be able to identify the legitimate relationship between the individual and the state.

    My question for you, David, is: do you think that there can be a positive concept of democratic efficiency? Or is it something that can only ever be a myth?

    Alex Sparrow

    February 27, 2013 at 12:29 pm

  2. […] off looking at what political actors actually do rather than imposing an abstract, formal view of democracy on them and asking how well they measure up. The claim of public opinion is the flip side of the […]

  3. […] abandoned by political scientists who often don’t realize how pervasive it once was. But I’ve argued that it implicitly is the foundation of a great deal of political science. Since it was intended as […]

  4. […] 2. What is Democratic Efficiency? […]

  5. […] certainly don’t mind pushing ideas with that level of support. Given our obsession with a civics version of the democratic myth in interpreting politics, it’s not surprising that some, including the Huffington Post, are treating this as bad news […]

  6. […] been talking here about a twin set of concepts, democratic efficiency and oligarchic inevitability. In short, ‘democratic efficiency’ involves the assumption […]

  7. […] understanding of power also called into question my conception of social change. Believing in “democratic efficiency” — the idea that polices in democratic countries are driven by popular opinion rather than […]

  8. […] written here before about an idea I call ‘democratic efficiency‘: the belief that one can infer popular beliefs from institutional outcomes because […]

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