Document Sample
pathologies-of-modern-governance Powered By Docstoc
					                      Complexity and Democracy:
                   Pathologies of Modern Governance
                                               Paul Babbitt

                                     Southern Arkansas University

     Prepared for delivery at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science
                         Association, August 30-September 2, 2012

                    ©Copyright by the American Political Science Association

Draft: Please do not cite or circulate without author’s permission.

        It is unlikely the assertion the world is becoming more complex will raise eyebrows.

Rapid changes in technology, potential for catastrophic environmental changes and

increased economic interdependence are among the challenges confronting policymakers.

It is commonly asserted that in the face of such challenges, democracy needs to step aside

and allow experts and bureaucrats increased discretional power—technocracy is viewed as

the only solution to governance in times of complexity. Alas, a casual observation of how

things are going in the world reveals that technocrats are not capable of dealing with those

challenges. The economic collapse of 2008, one caused almost entirely by technocratic

decision makers in and out of government, and the subsequent failure to do much to rectify

the situation is but one recent example of the failure of elites.1 Under such circumstances, it

might be reasonable to conclude that the world has become ungovernable. However,

1There is much more to be said about the role of elites in the economic collapse. See, for example, Shapiro
2011, 18-19. It does not seem to be a coincidence that the problems with the Euro are so intractable and that
the European Union often seems to be nothing more than an attempt to implement a technocratic
government not directly accountable to voters.

properly understood, democracy can address many of the problems arising from governing

a world increasing in complexity.

       In some respects, this paper is offered as a rejoinder to common criticisms of

democracy and public opinion—the ignorance of the people, the instability of public

opinion, and an irrational public, but one that is also rationally ignorant. Despite the well-

documented shortcomings of the public, the decision to move away from democracy

demands a comparison with the proposed alternatives. It is important to compare the

performance of democracy with the performance of actual experts, not abstract experts

endowed with perfection knowledge. Of course democratic governments make poor

decisions. But so do non-democratic governments. The historical record is clear—

democratic governments tend to outperform non-democratic governments on almost any

reasonable measure. Thus, advocating democracy may not require a tradeoff between a

less efficient but more just government. Democracy works. Not perfectly, of course, and not

all the time everywhere, but most of the time. Moreover, the expansion of democracy in the

last two decades also suggests that the conditions necessary for democracy are less

stringent than many have thought. Again, the important point is not that the nascent

democracies in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and now parts of the Arab world are

perfect or even admirable. The point is that installing democracy has not made any of these

nations less well-off.

       Technocracy is government by modern day guardians. These modern guardians are

not just making choices about the means to reach democratically determined ends, but

have substantial influence over ends as well. Sometimes, in the case of modern theocracies

or on the other end of the spectrum Marxist inspired governments, the moral leadership is

explicit. In modern liberal democracies, the moral claims are perhaps less explicit but still

exist. Generally, the technocrats follow some form of utilitarianism and make decisions to

maximize some good or set of goods. At base, choosing among goods is a moral choice.

Tradeoffs among collective goods are complex decisions. Pluralism is another factor that

adds to moral political complexities. Thus, even if technocrats make claims about their

moral neutrality, in the end, they make moral choices. There are good reasons to suspect

the superiority of public opinion over technocracy in making moral choices: “In spite of the

limited information at their disposal, many simple men are often wiser than their

governments; and if not wiser, then inspired by better or more generous intentions.”2 No

doubt, public opinion has from time to time favored horrific injustices. But no elite has ever

been immune from committing injustice. In addition, even if there is a conceptual

distinction between means and ends, maintaining such a distinction in practice is

impossible. In any event, unraveling all this exposes a profoundly complex moral universe,

even when there is widespread agreement regarding fundamental values.

          The defense of democracy offered here is of democracy as currently practiced, full of

short sighted rationally ignorant self-interested individuals. Thus, this paper presents an

account of democratic theory at odds with much that underlies the “deliberative” or other

demanding models of democratic theory. The advantages of democracy for dealing with

complexity are consistent with representative pluralist democracy, provided certain basic

conditions regarding free exchange of information and public influence on policy are met.

Abandoning unreachable standards of citizen competence and civic virtue does require

2   Popper, 468.

lowering expectations for democratic outcomes. Under current conditions, public opinion

may be at times wrongheaded and foolish. Second, such democracy will often entail little

more than the aggregation of individual or local interests rather than the communal pursuit

of some common good. However, a democratic government has greater capacity for self-

correction than ideologically constrained experts. Thus, rather than being antagonistic or

in tension with one another, democracy is well suited to provide governance under

conditions of increasing complexity and interdependence. To make appropriate

adjustments, it is important to understand the specific elements that are conducive to

effective democracy under conditions of complexity.

       Conventionally, much democratic theory holds that simplicity is more conducive to

democracy than complexity. Rousseau and Montesquieu saw small, homogeneous

communities as the only place where democracy was likely to thrive. However, by

connecting democracy to the “general will” what small-state theories of democracy are in

fact doing is creating the possibility where the “public good” would be obvious, and dissent

would simply be irrational. In short, the account of democracy is one that would produce

much the same kind of decisions as a monarchy or aristocracy. In conditions of complexity,

by contrast, it is precisely the absence of any knowable objective public good that makes

democracy necessary. James Madison turned this account on its head, and argued that in a

large republic, majority factions that threatened liberty would be less likely to form. Thus,

Madison saw that in large republic, popular government was less a threat to liberty than in

small communities. In any event, the potential for democracy does depend in part on scale.

But if democracy is seen as an instrumental good, rather than a good in itself, then

participatory limitations of large complex democracies are not necessarily a problem as

long as the opportunities for participation are sufficient to preserve the advantages of

democracy for dealing with complexity.

        Empirical studies of democracy complement this idea, presenting a public ill-

informed and thus not competent to handle the business of governing. Much empirical

work in political science has documented piles of evidence of the incompetence. Charges of

incompetence have also penetrated popular discourse, though often the charge of

ignorance has more to do with disagreement than knowledge levels. These studies have

identified voters seriously deficient in even the most basic knowledge of politics and public

affairs. Their opinions on policy issues often appeared arbitrary and unstable, so much so

they were often considered “non-opinions,” statements made only because the citizen was

asked a question in a survey. The research faulted most Americans not only for their

ignorance of “basic political facts” but also for their lack of “ideological constraint” that is

they failed to follow the ideological patterns widely used by political elites. Indeed, it

seemed to the researchers that their opinions failed to follow any discernible pattern at all.

        Many theorists are unsurprised by these findings. Joseph Schumpeter and Walter

Lippmann argued that democracy in the sense of a government of the people is impossible

and the best that can be hoped for is a competition among elites for popular support.3

Public opinion could in no way be used to guide public policy. Other theorists imagine

popular government posing a threat to individual liberty and private property.4 On the

other side of the political spectrum, other theorists posited that democracy failed to serve

3 See Schumpeter, 250-283 and Lippmann, 51-53.
4 The list of theorists here is substantial, but prominent examples would include F.A. Hayek, J.K. Rowley,
James Buchanan, and Gordon Tullock. A recent sustained argument along these lines can be found in Caplan,

the interests of the people because the people were duped by some kind of hegemony.5

Despite their ideological variations, what these criticisms share is that they begin from a

certain preferred outcome—a more aggressive foreign policy, a socialist revolution, or an

acquiescence to free market capitalism and note ways in which democratic governments

fail to provide those outcomes. The fault lies with democracy, not the preferred policy of

the author. In the case of civil liberties, there is evidence that public opinion sometimes

falls short of protecting groups particularly disliked is often cited as evidence of the

necessity of a something along the lines of judicial review, to protect the masses from

themselves. In the United States at least, judicial review’s record of protecting civil liberties

is decidedly mixed.6 Moreover, the distinction between elites and the public in support of

civil liberties is smaller than the distinction among elites competing in a democratic


        Theorists more sympathetic to democracy have also noted the paradox of the

growth of democracy that coincides with the impotence of democratic governance.

According to Norberto Bobbio’s paradoxes of democracy, democracy appears ill-suited to

govern a modern world of large, complex, states and yet at the same time it is precisely in

the context of such states that demands for democracy are most insistent. Indeed,

historically, bureaucracy and democracy developed and grew simultaneously.8 Looking at

the same conditions, John Dunn argued that in fact the growth of democracy was largely a

5 I have in mind here Gramsci. But any argument premised on the notion of false consciousness would apply
6 Dahl 1956, 105-112. To be sure, Dahl’s account is old. But the basic point remains—for most of its history,

the US Supreme Court has not been especially counter-majoritarian when it comes to protecting civil liberties
and civil rights.
7 Sniderman, et al 353.
8 Bobbio, 68-70.

fiction, standing not for government by the people, but instead, for the ruler’s “good

intentions”. Despite these good intentions, modern democracy is an oxymoron and in fact

modern states concentrate more power at their center than ancient or medieval states

could even imagine.9 As the world becomes increasingly complex, the capacity of the public

to manage with rapidly changing conditions is strained. The only possible form of

democracy therefore is some version of elite democracy where the people cede the power

of government to one or another of competing elites. In addition to the problem of

technocratic failures, reconciling a system where the technocratic elite—a modern

“guardian” class—threatens democratic governance.10

        Despite this, increasing numbers of people throughout the world are living in

democratic nations. Yet as non-democratic forms of government receded in respectability,

elite democracy emerged in contrast to what is unflatteringly called mass democracy. The

idea of mass democracy was perhaps best articulated by Col Rainborough at Putney in

1647: “The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore

truly, Sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by

his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man

in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to

put himself under.”11 Elite democracy gives the people some say in which elites govern. But

in so doing, the role of the public is thus reduced to that of a rubber stamp, lacking even

real veto power. Thus, elite democracy is hardly to be considered democracy at all, and has

more in common with rule of the one or the few, rather than the rule of the many. Even if

9 Dunn, 12.
10 Dahl, 335.
11 Puritanism and Liberty, 53.

elite democracy is still considered a form of democracy, its pathologies are different from

the pathologies of mass democracy, and have very different origins.

          The pathologies of elite democracy have grown acute over the last several decades

as elites struggle to cope with increases in complexity and the technical demands of

governance. I want to suggest the inverse of this common account. Rather than being

unsuited to modern complexity, mass democracy is the only form of government capable of

coping with the challenges of complex policy issues. Characteristics of the politically

sophisticated, particularly the ability to think in increasingly abstract or theoretical

categories, are especially ill-equipped to deal with increasing levels of complexity. In a

complex world, “ideological constraint” or dogmatism is especially ill suited to even

acknowledge rapidly changing conditions and can be recognized as one of the causes of our

current political malaise. It turns out that in the United States at least, the public is much

less ideological extreme than the elites, and that the increased polarization of the elites has

led to a “disconnect” between public opinion and policy.12 Thus, ideological constraint has

become antagonistic to democracy. There is at least some evidence that ordinary people

think about politics in nuanced and sophisticated ways not easily uncovered by public

opinion research. The link between the structure of public opinion and the success of

democracy is obscure to say the least and depending on how the researcher approaches the

question, can lead to contradictory results.13 I argue that the absence of ideological

constraint is not a weakness of mass democracy, but rather a strength. Ideology is but one

12   Fiorina, xix.
13   Hochschild 188.

heuristic among many human beings can use to form consistent positions on many issues.14

The insights from these accounts of public opinion have direct bearing on evaluating the

value of various normative accounts of democratic theory. Central to this relevance is the

way in which ambivalence and uncertainty in the face of complexity and unpredictability is

a most reasonable response. Furthermore, it is a response that provides support for

political liberty. Liberal democracy only makes sense in a complex uncertain world,

otherwise, we would do better to follow the one true path to paradise.

           Rather than analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals who make up a

democratic system, it may be better to account for its success (and its limitations) by

looking at the system as a whole. That is, public opinion, democratic competence, and civic

virtue cannot be considered in isolation. Rather, the system as a whole is what matters.

People, at least compared with technocrats, are generalists rather than specialists. This,

however produces virtues essential to a democracy: “tolerance, capacity to cope with

ambivalence, openness, and a willingness to learn.”15 Democracy is a “self-organizing

system.” Since democracy involves more than government, but both formal and informal

organizations of every imaginable type, some deeply engaged in politics and some not at all

engaged, it reflect the world in which it exists. The self-organizing nature of democracy in

fact suggests democracy is most suitable for complex. societies, and complex societies are

most suitable for democratic governance.

14   Sniderman, et al 428.
15   Moon, 221

                                         What is Complexity?

        In science, complexity is related to chaos theory. A formal description of chaos is any

set of interactions where small differences in initial conditions yield large differences in

outcomes.16 Chaotic systems can be entirely deterministic but are difficult or impossible to

predict.17 Complexity, however, resists formal definition. In terms of politics a working

account of complexity involves multiple interactions among known and unknown agents.

Furthermore, complexity is also involves the types of interactions and agents. As the

number of interactions and agents increase along with their types, complexity increases.

Given that politics may or may not be deterministic, and given its complexity, reliable

predictive models are likely to be elusive.

        Integrating insights from complexity theory is not unknown to political science, but

seems to be at odds with both behaviorism and rational choice approaches to politics. In

public policy, complexity increases epistemological uncertainty, which raises serious

problems for linear approaches to public policy.18 Herbert Simon was a pioneer in

describing complexity in general and made contributions in this regard in political science.

He describes complex systems as one “made up of a large number of parts that interact in

non-simple ways.”19 Though somewhat tautological (for what else is non-simple but a

synonym of complex?) this description suggests understanding complex systems as any

system where reductionist accounts fail. The practical advantage of this account is that it

describes complexity in terms of the capacity of various models used by policy makers,

16 Mitchell 20.
17 Mitchell 33.
18 See Sanderson 2009 and for a response, Little 2012.
19 Simon, 1962 468.

social scientists, and other experts. The disadvantage is that the description is not objective

or easily operationalized. Complexity is understood in terms of the problem at hand and

the tools available to deal with that problem.

           Some political theorists have considered the impact of complexity on politics as

well. Danilo Zolo identifies four characteristics of complexity relevant to political theory,

specifically, democratic theory. First, complexity increases as the number of options

increase and the number of variables that must be considered increase. Second, complexity

increases along with the interdependence of those variables. Third, complexity results in

instability, or rapid change. Finally, people in a complex environment recognize that and

realize that the environment will resist prediction.20 Given that over history, society has

grown more complex in the sense that there are more entities interacting with each other

at an ever higher velocity, it is easy to see how chaos has increased from the time when

people largely lived in isolated villages, when travel and communications were slow, and

much of the world could be safely ignored most of the time.

           Complexity is often conflated with advanced technology. However, they are two

distinct issues. The problems that advanced technology poses for modern political societies

are different in important ways from complexity. To determine the safety of a nuclear

power plant is safe or not is a relatively straightforward problem for nuclear engineers.

The problem of how to incorporate that kind of expertise into a democratic system is well

known and has attracted considerable commentary. The confusion between complexity

and technological sophistication generates the idea that a technocratic elite, necessary for

20   Zolo, 3-4.

developing and administering advanced technology, are also best suited for dealing with

complexity. But some of the more challenging problems for public policy do not really

involve technology in the conventional sense. Rather, the problems are better understood

as problems of complexity—problems where multiple entities interact over time in

numerous ways. Even if the behavior of each entity is well understood, the ways in which

multiple simple entities interact are often chaotic.

       To be sure, technological advances in communication, information storage, retrieval

and processing, and transportation are causes of increased complexity. But in isolation,

their effects are not really complex in the formal sense. Whether I use the internet or a cell

phone, a text message, or a regular phone to communicate with a colleague, the result is

more or less the same even if the volume has increased. That is, the initial conditions do not

make much difference in the outcome. Rather, complexity emerges because lots of people

are able to communicate with lots of other people rather rapidly, and no one can reliably

anticipate the results of such communication. In politics, this has raised a number of

interesting questions regarding the impact of social media on politics, the way in which it is

on the one hand more difficult for governments to keep secrets but on the other hand it

appears to make government monitoring easier, the decline of professional journalism and

the rise of amateur blogs, among many others. Though there is an obvious rise in

complexity, it does not stem from the growth of sophisticated technology per se but rather

the increased complexity of communication networks the technology makes possible.

       One premise behind this work is that government and corporate bureaucracies and

technocracies are increasing ill-equipped to cope with complexity. To an extent, the

empirical evidence this of seems obvious. The reasons why are less so. Again, consider the

continuing worldwide economic malaise. Economists have used a number of abstract

models to recommend policy changes that they predict will lead to economic growth. But

while economics may be up to the task of explanation, it is not clear that it is able to predict.

In short, the public may be correct to disagree with the widely held views of economists.21

Even after the fact, causality is impossible to demonstrate given the epistemological

problem of counterfactuals. The bail out of investment banks in 2008 may have prevented

all out economic catastrophe, but no one knows for certain. Or, the economic stimulus of

2009 may have saved a number of jobs, but maybe it did not. It seemed to be disappointing

to those who promoted it.

           Technocratic and bureaucratic organizations deal with complexity with hierarchy

and specialization. Democracy, by contrast, remains a system without formal hierarchy or

specialization. Even the informal hierarchies described in the empirical literature featuring

opinion leaders and the like are flat relative to the hierarchies of bureaucracy. And

democracies provide a kind of specialization as well—call it geographical specialization,

where individuals are intimately familiar with people and events in their immediate

environment. Hierarchies based on expertise may be an appropriate way to deal with

technological sophistication. Doctors, engineers, and the like are well qualified to deal with

the specific problems for which they have been trained. They have an important role to

play in the policy making and evaluation process as well. But they have no authority to

govern. Even if some have greater expertise in an area relevant to public policy than others,

21   Gaus, 397.

it does not logically follow that they should govern.22 Like the craftsmen in Plato’s

“Apology,” their expertise in those areas does not qualify them for ruling others.

                               Democracy and Self-Organizing Systems

           The study of complexity examines how self-organizing systems emerge. The idea of

a self-organizing system is simple enough—a system that functions with no direction from

above. The individual units organize themselves into patterns. Examples include the way

neurons in brain result in a unified consciousness and how evolution has produced multi-

celled organisms, and the way the immune system works. In the social sciences, the idea of

self-organizing systems is most familiar in economics. For instance, in the work of F.A.

Hayek, markets organize themselves without (or in spite of) policy planning. These

processes have certain common elements—for instance, trial and error is an important

element in how these systems work. However, there are important differences as well. For

instance, the organizations in question solve difficult problems—the distribution of

resources or the defending an organism from dangerous infections. But other examples,

such as consciousness or the evolution of multi-celled organisms, appear to be an

epiphenomenal by-product of a complex process.

           In economics, the basic idea is that the market produces allocations of resources

more efficiently than could be accomplished by bureaucratic planning. The nature of this

process is not mysterious. Economic choices are made by human beings who are pursuing

their self-interest. In doing so, as Adam Smith noted, they serve the public interest: “Every

22   Estlund 3.

individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment

for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, and not that of society,

which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily

leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society.”23 Markets

are simply the result of a sum of individual decisions and economic transactions. From

these uncoordinated individual acts, a market emerges, and in general, the more these

decisions are made by individuals themselves, the more productive the economy. Part of

the reason for this is epistemology: “Far from being appropriate only to comparatively

simple conditions, it is the very complexity of the division of labor under modern

conditions which makes competition the only method by which such coordination can be

adequately brought about.”24 A minimal condition for democracy is political competition.25

An opposition has an incentive to expose corruption as well as policy failures.26 One need

not accept the free market implications of the notion of the market as a spontaneous

organization to recognize the application of this idea to democracy.27 In like manner,

citizens pursuing their self-interest can produce collective choices for governing

themselves that work better than choices imposed on them by the technocratic elite.

23 Adam Smith, 454.
24 Hayek, 95.
25 I consider contested elections a minimal condition for democracy. Thus, where there are elections but only

one viable candidate, or where a single party tends to dominate electoral results and competition for the
party’s nomination is minimal as undemocratic. It should not be surprising that under such conditions we
would find corruption and other indications of poor policy performance.
26 Shapiro 2003, 63.
27 Hayek himself, like many free market economics, disavows the democratic implications of his free market

economics when democracies vote to regulate markets. For instance, see The Road to Serfdom 109-111 and
The Constitution of Liberty 176.

       In seeing democracy as a self-organizing system, it is important to see it as a

political system, not just how government is organized. 28 That is, political actors under

democracy need not be directly involved with government. They need not even vote. The

distinction between democracy and authoritarianism is that in democracy, citizens act even

as they are acted upon. Furthermore, boundaries between ruler and ruled in democracy are

porous or non-existent; they are contingent. In some respects, then, democracy is

spontaneously organized like science or a free market economy.29 Democracy however is

distinctly cooperative, and benefits from a kind of division of labor in acquiring

knowledge.30 Individuals who possess the knowledge can spontaneously share it and reap

epistemological advantages.31 The self-organizing nature of democracy can also be

recognized in ways in which parties and other organizations respond to various issues that

emerge. Grass roots mobilization frequently begins with demands that a problem be

recognized. In policy terms, agenda setting ought to be democratic so the most urgent

problems become part of the political landscape. Parties and other political entrepreneurs

similarly compete for voters and public support in part through proposing responses to

these concerns. Organizations and ideas that fail to resonate in the public mind fall by the

wayside. All of this happens without any central authority organizing it. That is, it happens


28 diZerega 756.
29 diZerega 764.
30 Bohman 603-4.
31 Estlund, 177.

                                         Democratic Practice

          The potential of democratic problem solving is not restricted to abstract and

speculative theory, but can be observed in political practice. The accounts that follow

reflect diverse approaches to the study of politics and uncover different kinds of ways that

people can govern themselves competently, if not wisely. In evaluating democracy, it is

important to keep in mind the standard against which it should be judged is not perfection,

and no one reasonably expects citizens to be omnicompetent in all, or even a few areas of

policy importance. Furthermore, evaluating actual democracy against one composed of a

small number of homogenous and deeply committed citizens fails to recognize the

advantages of real democracy.

          In The Rational Public, Page and Shapiro describe how despite the many

shortcomings of individual knowledge, collective public opinion is stable, presents real

policy preferences, and responds to changes in circumstances in predictable ways.

Moreover, given good information, the public’s preferences will in fact result in good public

policy.32 It does so in part because the collective cancels out random errors in individual

policy preferences. If say 1 percent of the public holds the correct position on a given

policy, and the rest of the public chooses their position randomly, then 50.5% of the people

will hold the correct opinion. However, in practice, there are all kinds of ways errors could

be systematic and biased. Thus, the wisdom of the crowd will also be systematically biased.

Real world democracies can overcome systematic error over time, because as unfavorable

results come in, public opinion shifts away from the systematic error and the public

32   Page and Shapiro 1992, 17.

corrects itself. This does require a functioning democracy—Page and Shapiro lay the blame

for the dysfunction of democratic governance not on the defects of the people but on the


          Manipulation and propaganda can influence public opinion in ways which diminish

its capacity for government. But there is no reason to believe that elites would fare any

better. There is no doubt that information needs to be widely dispersed and circulated in

order for democracy to result in wise policy. However, there are limits to the effectiveness

of propaganda and manipulation, at least in an open society. A functioning democracy

presents a further challenge to propaganda and manipulation, because in addition to the

multiple sources of information available given freedom of expression, and opposition

party has an incentive to provide information to counter the information presented by the

party in power. Of course, there are no guarantees—both the party in power and the

opposition may be equally deceptive. That limits the effectiveness of democracy.34 But

ultimately, the results of the policy alternatives will limit the effectiveness of propaganda.

          An example of this might be US public opinion towards the Iraq war. Public opinion

was initially favorable to the Iraq war, arguably because it had been systematically misled

by propaganda (regarding both the reason for the war and the promise that the war would

be brief and inexpensive like the first Gulf War). In addition, elites widely believed Saddam

Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, and Hussein himself seemed to act

as if he had them. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that Iraq had no such weapons.

Opinion toward the war turned negative as it became clear the war would not deliver the

33   Page and Shapiro 1992, 387.
34   Page and Shapiro 1993 62.

promised outcome and the cost was far higher than the Bush administration promised. Had

democracy prevailed, the US would have withdrawn from Iraq earlier than it did. Had the

public had better access to information, the US may never have started the war in the first

place. A similar pattern can be found with public support for the war in Viet Nam. Public

opinion shifted decisively against the war with the Tet Offensive in 1968.35 Of course, it is

precisely this tendency of public support for military activity to wane as war drags on that

many people cite as a reason for curtailing the influence of public opinion on policy. This

was certainly a central part of Walter Lippmann’s criticism of democracy in The Public

Philosophy. Lippmann asserted that the wars of the first half of the twentieth century

illustrate the failure of democracy.36 However, even if Lippmann’s analysis is correct (and it

seems to me that most of the responsibility for the horrors of that era can be laid at the feet

of the elites who marched Europe towards disaster in the First and Second World Wars)

the evaluation of the performance of democracy cannot be made in a vacuum. It has to be

compared to something. Perhaps one could argue that it was right for the Union to persist

in fighting to preserve the Union during the US Civil War. But history is unlikely to look so

favorably on elite persistence in defiance of opposition in the Viet Nam war or the recent

wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Elites in support of those actions insist that continuing to

fight is justified by the fact that so much has already been sacrificed—more than a sunk

costs fallacy, but a tragedy. Indeed, it seems that democracies are far better than elites in

avoiding sunk cost fallacies at least when it comes to war. Sometimes the rational thing to

do is abandon a project. Finally, how well public opinion towards the Vietnam War or the

Iraq War demonstrates democratic competence depends a great deal on perspective. At

35   Page and Shapiro 1993, 50.
36   Lippmann, 8-13.

least in the case of Iraq, public opinion at first embraced a dubious project and only turned

against the war after much blood was shed. On what basis should we judge the

performance of public opinion? Did the public learn fast enough? And compared to whom?

The answer to these questions are in the end moral judgments.

          One key to the effectiveness of democratic governance stems from the unique

information available to ordinary people. In addition, democracy provides incentives to the

government to provide effective policy. These two principles lie at the heart of Amartya

Sen’s finding that famine does not occur in democracies.37 The role of democracy in Sen’s

analysis is limited to providing information to bureaucrats. Sen does not propose that

democratic processes could replace technocrats. But he does argue persuasively that

democracy can be essential to prevent disasters that emerge from misguided policies. That

is, political incentives are at least as important as economic incentives in delivering

effective government policy. It seems appropriate given that we are in New Orleans to note

that a similar kind of analysis could be applied to understand what went wrong (and

perhaps what went right) with the government response during Katrina.

          Famines need not be complex, and the ways in which democracy provides some

protection from famine itself does not suggest that democracy is most suited to complex

societies. The central point from the perspective of this paper is the way in which

democracies provide essential information to policymakers. This assumes, as Sen notes,

that democracy includes a free press. In addition, Sen does not go into specifics regarding

democratic procedure. All that is necessary is that information moves freely and that

37   Sen, 180-181.

government officials have incentives to pay attention to public opinion. As complexity

increases, the role of information on the ground and its transmission to those in a position

to do something becomes even more important. Since complexity makes predicting policy

outcomes more difficult, it is necessary for policy makers to pay attention to the

information provided by democratic mechanisms. Even if the recent financial crisis stems

from an economic system so complex that even experts do not understand it, and ordinary

people are in the dark about the complexities of the financial transactions that swirl around

there head, there is still a parallel with basic information concerning mortgages and

inflated real estate prices and conditions on the ground during a famine. The real problem

with the foreclosure crisis was the ineffectiveness of incentives in preventing bad loans.

Thus, it may make sense to implement procedures specifically designed to inform the

policy making process. Such procedures would include active and ongoing consultation

with affected populations as well as incentives for policy makers to use that information. At

a minimum, these policies would involve consulting with people affected by the policy at

each step in the policy making process.

       Something even more profound lies at the heart of Elinor Ostrom’s findings

regarding self-government’s potential in addressing on of the most elusive problems in

public policy, governing the commons. Ostrom’s work shows that self-government can

sometimes solve challenging policy problems, specifically common pool resources

problems. Resources held in common, that is not owned by any particular individual, are

often subject to depletion because it is rational for each person to take as much of the

resource as possible. This is widely known as the tragedy of the commons. In many cases,

assigning individual ownership in such situations is difficult or impractical. Examples

include fisheries, grazing areas, forests, and irrigation systems. The common solution to

these problems involve privatization of the resource, which is intended to give owners an

incentive to preserve the resource, and regulation, which uses various coercive measures

to limit exploitation of the resource. Democratic management presents an alternative, and

Ostrom cites examples of how this works. Similarly to Sen, local knowledge is essential, and

accounts for superiority of community management over central government regulation.38

Also, similarly to Sen, the way in which incentives are arranged is critical.

        One critical element in Ostrom’s cases is that the institutions in question have

evolved over time and adapted to changing circumstances.39 That is, they are self-

organizing. Ostrom herself is rather cautious about applying insights from her examples to

other situations. Her cases seem to depend on the existence of particular circumstances,

and attempts to implement similar models elsewhere would need to proceed cautiously.

Most specifically, Ostrom predicts that self-government solutions to common pool resource

problems will most likely be successful if the community shares common judgments

regarding the unsustainability of current practice, changes in rules will affect members

similarly with no one gaining or losing a great deal, exit is not viable strategy, and the

group is small and socially cohesive.40 It goes without saying that these kinds of solutions

should not be imposed in a top down fashion. However, it does provide a powerful

argument that central regulators and other outsiders ought to leave functioning systems

alone. More importantly, her work shows that self-governing institutions can arise

spontaneously and handle complex resource management tasks.

38 Ostrom 20.
39 Ostrom 58.
40 Ostrom 211.

           Both Sen and Ostrom observe people who are more or less motivated by self-

interest rather than civic virtue or some other high ideal. The other commonality is the way

in which these structures take advantage of local knowledge. These conditions for citizen

competence are not rare, nor do they require an extraordinary degree of education or even

commitment to an abstract notion of a common good. That is not to say that they will work

at any time under any set of circumstances. What it does suggest though that the conditions

for successful self-government are less particular than many political scientists think.41

Furthermore, they both provide reasons why self-government works when other systems

of government will not. In the cases described above, it is important to recognize that

democracy or self-government is not a panacea. However, the empirical evidence

demonstrates that democracies can perform quite competently in a range of different

environments and under many different circumstances. Understanding the importance of

how incentives work--something all too often missing from much democratic theory—is

also central to recognizing why democracy results in effective government. Linking these

findings to those of public opinion discussed at the beginning of this section suggests that

tying public policy more closely to public opinion may, at least under certain

circumstances, have beneficial effects.

                                    Real Limits to Democratic Competence

           Though much of literature concerning democratic competence misses the mark by

either overstating the ability of experts or evaluating the citizen competence in

41   South Africa presents another interesting case. See Shapiro 2011, 80-81.

inappropriate ways, it would be silly to pretend there are not real limits in the ability of the

people themselves to address policy challenge that are especially relevant in a complex

world. In addition to practical problems of implementation, two particular challenges are

posed by the cost of good information and the limits of policy experimentation. In addition,

delegation seems to be inevitable, and thus how democracies are to delegate authority to

experts and yet remain democratic also needs to be addressed. What follows in this section

is far from a complete account of all the limits to democratic competence and is little more

than a sketch that suggests other possible responses to real limits. It remains important to

distinguish between real limits to democratic governance and irrelevant limitations.

Information costs

           Even those theories of democracy that hold people are capable of forming

reasonable opinions about policy recognize that those reasonable views depend on access

to good information. Critics have no problem demonstrating that such information is not

readily available and even where it is, it competes with all manner of propaganda for

attention. There is also no reason to believe that good information is significantly more

“believable” than bad information. Also, there is substantial evidence that people are not

only more willing to believe claims that confirm their prejudices than true claims; they are

also motivated to seek out claims that confirm their prejudices. Research on cognition may

present further challenges to democratic competence. Again, though it is important to note

that experts can suffer from their own cognitive shortcomings.42

42   See Tetlock.

           A frequent criticism of the potential of democratic processes yielding effective

policy outcomes stems from the idea of rational ignorance. The basic idea is that the

marginal utility of being well-informed about public policy is effectively zero. However, in

some respects, staying ignorant is impossible—some information is unavoidable. Other

information is available at very low cost. Information technology brings down the cost even

further in some ways. The strength of a self-organizing system is that people will not need

to seek political knowledge. They will encounter it as a matter of course. Indeed, they will

have access to information unavailable to anyone else.

           Conditions of complexity mean that at least as far as their own condition is

concerned, people have the best information of their individual specific circumstances.

There is no other source that comes close to it. Such an observation is beyond obvious

perhaps, except that it is precisely in their individual conditions that complexity reigns.

That is, democracy overcomes the problem of complexity of individual conditions through

aggregation. The aggregation of individual assessments of their own condition taken from

the ground is bound to be more reliable than elite assessments taken from the

mountaintop. This same mechanism functions at the policy evaluation stage. As a policy is

implemented, the only test of its effectiveness is how it improves the lives of individuals.

One of the cornerstones of liberalism has been an the individual’s exclusive ability

understand his own interest: “If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common

sense, his own mode of laying out his existence is best, not because it is best in itself, but

because it is his own mode.”43 The idea that individual are best at assessing their own

43   Mill [1859] 1988, 135

condition is a necessary condition for this account of liberty to make sense. However, the

idea democracy also rests on the principle when applied to groups of people.

       Much is made of the difference between individual perceptions and collective

reality. There is a difference between the aggregation of individual evaluations of

circumstances and what is actually happening. Individual evaluations are based on

mediated impressions. The public’s over-estimation of crime is a well-known example.

People tend to perceive a more dangerous world not so much because of their experience

of crime but rather because they have been exposed to more news accounts of ever more

horrific crimes. Such accounts may be better understood as limitations of individual

assessment of global conditions. Such errors are less likely at the individual level.

Information sharing among individuals can help lift the fog of war. More importantly,

aggregating individual assessments may be limited at identifying critical needs that exist

among a minority of the population. It may be necessary to frame assessments properly.

Most people in the United States have health insurance, and are not facing a catastrophic

illness. Thus, from their perspective, there really is no crisis that they are experiencing at

an individual level. However, if the issue is framed as individual vulnerability, the numbers

will surely become rather different. Most people stand to lose health insurance if they lose

employment, and anyone may suffer a catastrophic illness. Recognizing vulnerability then

seems well within the capability of most citizens.

Trial and Error

       Another limitation to the self-organizing concept of democracy is that it works

largely on the basis of trial and error. Strictly speaking, a self-organized democracy would

implement policies which would then be abandoned or modified randomly until a

satisfactory solution is found. The scale of time in evolution is billions of years, a time frame

that is politically unacceptable. While self-organizing systems in biology occur through

random changes, self-organizing social systems do not. Rather, individuals who make

decisions are guided by their own intelligence. A near infinite number of approaches to

public problems will be excluded because they are ridiculous or because no one imagines

them. Thus, trial and error will involve a limited number of plausible solutions. Even so, it

may be far too slow a process to deal with any public policy.

          However, not all policy challenges are amenable to this solution. In some cases,

experts really do know better than the public what to do in a given situation. It would be

useful if a reliable way of determining when experts really know best could be determined.

There has been some provocative research in this direction. For instance it appears that

environments that are regular and one where experts can develop a great deal of

experience will lend itself well to expert analysis.44 On the opposite end of the spectrum,

crises that demand an immediate response seem to require a non-democratic response.

Even in the crisis situation, democratic responsiveness can vastly improve the effectiveness

of the intervention. In novel, non-crisis situations, however, incremental approaches may

take advantage of some of the elements of trial and error. Second, policy experimentation

can often occur simultaneously. One alleged strength of federalism in the United States is

that it provides “laboratories of democracy” where different localities can use different

approaches to solve policy problems and other localities can adopt those that appear

successful. An emphasis on local problem solving where possible can take advantage of the

44   Kahneman, 240.

strengths of democratic problem solving. When the problem at hand was a global problem

such as global warming or climate change any policy choice will be irrevocable. What is

done cannot be undone. Such situations encourage a bias towards incrementalism, which

would allow democrat feedback that might limit the damage stemming from inappropriate



           Almost any imaginable political system in the contemporary world will require

delegation. Even if a public is committed and energetic, and the community simple and

small enough for a town meeting system to handle legislative tasks, the executive functions

will still need delegation. Both representatives and technocrats are delegates of a sort.

Though the problems of representation for democracy have substantial relevance for the

subject of this paper, most of my emphasis here has been on the problem of technocrats. As

long as elected representatives are responsive to voters, representative democracy can

perform as a self-organizing system. Current political trends in the US and Europe indicate

a decline in responsiveness.45 Though no certain conclusion can be drawn, this suggests

that the decline in democratic responsiveness has been a cause of recent political

dysfunction in the US and Europe. A pluralist system may provide adequate avenues for

democratic participation. In short, representative democracy is democracy. In addition,

there is no necessary asymmetry between representatives and those who elect them—they

are ordinary people who represent other ordinary people—in theory at least, nearly any

citizen has the basic qualifications to serve as a representative. Technocrats, however,

45   Fiorina, 24-48.

because of their expertise, are different. But some authority will have to be delegated to

them. Given the asymmetry between the knowledge of experts and the knowledge of

ordinary people, technocrats may be able to exercise power of those they are supposed to


           The limitations strongly suggest that there are important arenas of policy where it is

appropriate for a democracy to delegate its authority to experts. Delegation can be done in

a way that preserves democracy however, as long as decisions regarding delegation are

made democratically and the people reserve the right to revoke or overrule the delegates.46

The argument of this paper suggest that the ability of ordinary people to overrule the

technocrats should be extensive in order to preserve democracy, and that such an

extensive ability does not threaten the effectiveness or efficiency of government. The

challenge remains of how ordinary people are to evaluate the competence of the experts

who serve them. Results are imperfect, as one needs to measure results against reasonable

expectations. However, in order to serve the people, the onus is on the experts to persuade

the people of their competence.

                          Conclusion: Evolution, Markets, and Justice

           Problems of complexity are not unique to politics and policy. More often than not,

the solution to these problems is non-hierarchical. Evolution, for one, has addressed

(“solved” would imply a degree of stasis inapplicable to the kinds of problems described

here) the problem of survival through undirected or non-hierarchical methods. The link

46   Robert Dahl, 114.

between complexity and evolution is to understand evolutionary processes as

computational. That is, the process yields a solution to a problem. This is easy to see in

economics—markets solve the problem of resource allocation. Democracy solves the

problem of allocation of authoritative values or more simply who gets what. Its advantages

in complexity make it possible to incorporate and “process” a great deal of information

from a wide number of sources. The possibility this paper explores is that of democracy is a

computational process that aggregates not just individual preferences, but processes

information in order to develop an effective public response to public problems. The main

reason for looking at this possibility is that democracies function at least as well as any

system of government, despite the apparent ignorance and foolishness of individuals that

make up this system.

       A problem with all this is that political behavior is deliberate rather than automatic.

Individual behavior is not computational. People act politically with a kind of intention that

differs from evolutionary processes in nature. There is also a difference between how

human beings approach their role as an economic actor and their role as a political actor.

Specifically, in nature and in markets, individuals are pursuing individual goals—survival

or the accumulation of resources—and some kind of spontaneous order that was not

anyone’s intention results. In politics, by contrast, people are often pursuing collective

goals—the order that results is often precisely the point of political activity. Furthermore,

the psychology of political behavior (and perhaps its biological and neurological

foundations) is incompletely understood. Nevertheless, there still seem to be reasons to

consider democracy at least as a related process. In the first case, it is still a process that

involves the transmission of complex information. Doing so of course means going beyond

voting as a form of political participation. Indeed, in this respect, voting may not be

considered all that democratic—choosing among a very limited set of options (yes or no;

party a, b, or c) seems rather limited. However, the competition for votes is another matter

altogether. From this perspective, there is a resemblance to formal models of democracy.

Care must be taken to avoid the reductionism common in formal modeling to maintain the

advantage of understanding democracy as a process of managing and processing complex


       Most importantly, in political activity, there is an exercise of authority and coercion.

Political decisions are not always, perhaps not even usually, about self-interest. They are

about many things—coercion, moral judgment, and identity to name but a few. Thus,

politics does not just allocate goods, it also determines what is good. The history of political

philosophy shows that there is no agreement about what is good, what is just, among elites.

Liberal democracy is a solution to this problem that has distinct advantages. It is not purely

procedural, because it entails a commitment to liberal goods. But liberal goods, as Mill

points out, allow for a wide range of individual choices in how they pursue their lives. The

account of democracy presented here has some important implications for democratic

practice. As Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek among others argued that markets require their

participants to embrace important mores to function well, so it is for democracy as well.

Constitutionalism is one of many ways democracies regulate themselves, though a

constitution may be rigid enough, or implemented in such a way that it itself threatens

democracy.47 But commitment to a constitution implies a commitment to certain normative

principles. More specifically to the issues presented here, citizens need to be able to access

quality information and citizens also need to be able to communicate their preferences in

meaningful ways through decision making processes. There is at least one other

commitment democratic citizens need to make. Conventionally, democratic theory

proceeds from a set of normative assumptions. That is, democracy is conceived as having

something to do with legitimacy—principles like consent of the governed, political equality,

and non-dominance are among the justifications of democracy. But its legitimacy also

depends on its ability to generate effective policy.48 In addition, in many normative

accounts of politics, democracy itself must be under the law in order to protect minority

rights or prevent the abuse of power. In short, citizens under democracy need to be


        The account of democracy presented here is a procedural one—an evolutionary

process is by its nature anti-teleological. But any account of democracy that preserves

freedom is going to be procedural. Citizens participating in democracy must be free to

decide for themselves what should be done. Creating an ideal citizen who puts the good of

the public ahead of her own assumes in advance the direction politics should take and as

such is not really democratic. In this regard, while there may be a tension between the

individual liberty of liberalism and democracy, they are not incompatible. Constitutions

that enshrine individual liberty may limit what democracies can do, but their force requires

widespread acceptance of the principles they articulate. Popular acceptance and perhaps

47 The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court is an example. The problem with the decision is not that
a democratic decision was overturned, which may be consistent with constitutional democracy, but that the
implications of the decision itself threaten democratic practice.
48 Estlund, 8.

even enthusiasm for the principles of liberal democracy may seem to be a sandy foundation

for liberty and democracy. However, Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek recognized that

functioning free markets ultimately rested on similar foundations. Corruption then remains

an ever present danger. No democracy is immune from serious error, and it may be that

certain cultural or institutional arrangements make a democracy more or less susceptible

to error. Over time, as a population gains experience in governing itself, the results from its

democracy may improve.

           Linking democracy to epistemology may seem to risk cutting the normative legs out

from under what is widely perceived as one of the great moral achievements of recent

times—the idea that all governments that aspire to justice also aspire to democracy. The

question of whether citizens are competent enough for self-rule seems to be a different

question from whether people have the right to govern themselves. Further, basing

democracy on citizen competence rather than rights subverts the moral case for

democracy.49 Historically, however, the embrace of democracy in part has its roots in the

success of democracy. And that success requires some explanation. Furthermore, if

democracies regularly produced undesirable results, the moral claim would have no

standing no matter how elegant and persuasive the claim might be. Democracy would

cease to be a political theory and would become little more than a utopian ideal. Moreover,

appeals to justice do little or nothing to address the paradoxes of democracy and the

attempt to exclude democratic procedures from ever wider areas of policy.

49   Dahl, 126.

       Knowing why democracy works is important in order to understand its limits and

its potential as well as how to address its deficiencies and failures. If a theory is to be

political, it must have political relevance. Some of the limits are discussed above; there are

certainly others. Understanding those limits may provide insight in how to address those.

Information flows and belief formation are essential elements in the functioning of any real

democracy. It will be interesting to see how innovations in information technology and

social media influence democratic behavior. In any event, those who are committed to

democracy ought to seek to understand how it really works before they consider how it

might be made to work.

Works Cited
Bobbio, Norberto. Which Socialism. Edited by Richard Bellamy. Translated by Roger Griffin.
       Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Bohman, James. "Democracy as Inquiry, Inquiry as Democratic: Pragmatism, Social Sciences, and
     the Cognitive Division of Labor." American Journal of Political Science, 1999: 590-607.

Dahl, Robert. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

—. Democracy and its Critics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

diZerega, Gus. "Liberalism, Democracy, and the State: Reclaiming the Unity of Liberal Politics." The
       Review of Politics, 2001: 755-782.

Dunn, John. Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future. New York: Cambridge University
       Press, 1979.

Estlund, David M. Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework. Princeton: Princeton University
       Press, 2008.

Fiorina, Morris. Disconnect. Normon, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.

Gaus, Gerald. "Is the Public Incompetent? Compared to Whom? About What? ." Critical Review,
       2008: 291-311.

Hayek, F.A. The Constitution of Liberty. Edited by Ronald Hamowy. Chicago: University of Chicago
       Press, 2011 [1960].

—. The Road to Serfdom. Edited by Bruce Caldwell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007

Hochschild, Jennifer. "Disjunction and Ambivalence in Citizens' Political Outlooks." In Reconsidering
      the Democratic Public, by George E. Marcus and Russell L. Hanson, 187-210. University Park,
      PA: Penn State University Press, 1993.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Little, Adrian. "Political Action, Error and Fialure: The Epistemological Limits of Complexity."
         Political Studies, 2012: 3-19.

Mill, J.S. "On Liberty." In Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and Considerations on Representative
          Government, by J.S. Mill, edited by H. B. Acton, 69-185. London: Everyman's Library, [1859

Mitchell, Melanie. Complexity: A Guided Tour. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Moon, J. Donald. "Theory, Citizenship, and Democracy." In Reconsidering the Democratic Public, by
        George E. Marcus and Russell L Hanson, 211-222. University Park, PA: Penn State University
        Press, 1993.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Instituions for Collective Action. New York:
      Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Popper, Karl. "Public Opinion and Liberal Principles." In Conjectures and Refutations, by Karl
       Popper, 467-476. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Sanderson, Ian. "Intelligent Policy Making for a Complex World: Pragmatism, Evidence, and
       Learning." Political Studies, 2009: 699-719.

Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Shapiro, Benjamin I. Page and Robert Y. The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans'
       Policy Preferences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Shapiro, Ian. The Real World of Democratic Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011 .

—. The State of Democratic Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edited by R.H.
        Campbell A.S. Skinner and W.B.Todd. Vol. I. II vols. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1981.

Sniderman, Paul M., Joseph F. Flethcer, Peter H. Russell, Philip E. Tetlock, and Brian J. Gaines. n.d.

Sniderman, Paul M., Michael G. Hagen, Philip E. Tetlock, and Henry E. Brady. "Reasoning Chains:
       Causal Models of Policy Reasoning in Mass Publics." British Journal of Political Science, 1986:

Tetlock, Philip E. Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Princeton: Princeton
        University Press, 2005.

Woodhouse, A.S.P., ed. Puritanism and Liberty. London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd, 1992.

Zolo, Danilo. Democracy and Complexity: A Realist Approach. Translated by David McKie. University
        Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1992.

Shared By: