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Elster: The market and the forum

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Elster. 1986. The market and the forum: Three varieties of political theory. In Foundations of social choice theory, ed. Elster and Aanund Hyland, 103-32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elster critiques three general approaches to understanding politics: (1) social choice, (2) rational deliberation, and (3) politics as participatory citizenship.

Critique of Social Choice

Social choice is a category broadly defined. It includes all the conceptions of politics that view it, essentially, as a means of aggregrating citizens' exogenous preferences into a societal decision. Schmumpeter clearly fits into this category, along with most theories that attempt to equate politics with economics.

Problems with this view, according to Elster:

  1. Can't assume that expressed preferences coincide with people's real preferences;
  2. Real preferences may depend on what is available (e.g. "The grass is always greener on the other side"--your preferences are shaped by what you can and can't have).
  3. Conformism may change expressed preferences (e.g. if you have a preference for conforming).

The main complaint is that politics is not like the market: "The task of politics is not only to eliminate inefficiency [as in markets], but also to create justice--a goal to which the aggregation of political preferences is a quite incongruous means" (since it requires something more than self-interest) (111). In other words, markets create efficiency, but politics should create equity.

Critique of Rational Deliberation

Rational deliberation views preferences as endogenous to the political process. Politics is the method by which, through long, rational deliberations, all citizens come to a unanimous decision about what is good for society. At its core, this draws on two premises: (1) public debate requres self-censorship of blatant self-interest (i.e. nobody can openly argue for selfish goals), and (2) as people argue for the public good, they will come to believe in it.

Elster lists seven objections to this line of argument:

  1. Since not everybody will deliberate, this suggests restricting the franchise to those who will--and at worst, those who will may simply be those trying to get into power.
  2. Rational argument will never bring unanimity in underlying values.
  3. Time constraints (to decide issues in a reasonable period) would prevent coming to a unanimous agreement in most cases.
  4. Sometimes, having only SOME discussion (due to constraints) may be worse than having no discussion at all (see test, 115).
  5. Group consensus won't always be better than what individual preferences would bring (e.g. groupthink, witch hunts; pg 116).
  6. Conformist behavior means unanimity might not be all it's cracked up to be. Sometimes, it would be better to have an opposing minority (to which conformists could also join--pg 117).
  7. Rational debate about the common good won't eliminate self-interest--different approaches to the common good benefit different groups, so some groups might pretend to advocate the common good (or even believe their story) when what they are advocating would really just help them.

Critique of Participatory Democracy

Participatory democracy views the by-products of politics as its greatest benefits. Rather than focusing on politics as an instrumental process (by which we come to some solution, as in the two methods above), it is an end unto itself. It is through debate, voting, movements, jury duty, and other activities that we develop self-respect and an understanding of ourselves as citizens. These processes provide us with our greatest education.

Elster has many objections to this third approach. Basically, it puts the cart before the horse. It says, we should debate not for the instrumental purpose of solving a dispute, but for the intrinsic value of the debate--it educates us and makes us more complete as citizens. Yet this argument forgets that if it were not for the immediate need to solve the dispute, these residual effects would never occur. See Elster's major attack on page 124-5, especially at the bottom of 126.

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Elster, Jon (author)Political TheorySocial ChoiceDemocracyDeliberative DemocracyParticipationDownsian Model

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