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Gutmann: Democracy

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.

Gutmann. 1993. Democracy. In A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, ed. Goodin and Pettit. Oxford: Blackwell..

In Brief

What is democracy?

Answers range from (narrow) majoritarianism to (broad) social ideals.

What is the goal of democracy?

Democracy assumes that people "need a process for arriving at binding decisions that takes everybody's interests into account" (411).

Six types of democracy as argued in the literature:

Schumpeterian democracy

A procedural minimalist approach, which, although it makes it easier to classify what is a democracy and what isn't, also leaves us with little reason to care whether we're a democracy because it takes out the ideals. Democracy can exist even with a brutal regime (quoting Dahl here). Schumpeterianism makes plain the "importance of understanding democracy as more than a mere political procedure" (412).

Populist democracy

Besides the importance of Schumpeter's procedures, there is also value in ensuring that rule is popularly based. Thus, to be sure that democratic decisions actually reflect the will of the people, democracy should protect free speech, the rule of law, full enfranchisement, and so forth. Problem: some important constraints, such as independent judicial review, have no place in a truly populist democracy.

Liberal democracy

Popular rule isn't the supreme value; protecting liberties is, especially liberties such as in Rawls's Theory of Justice (1971): speech, though, press, religion, property, vote, hold office, freedom from arbitrary arrest/seizure, and so on. This leaves room for judicial review, checks and balances, and so on to calm the popular will.

Populist and liberal democracy aren't all that different. Populists also want to protect enough liberties to ensure continued populist democracy. Where they might conflict is on issues of "rights" that aren't necessary for political expression. E.g.: hard-core porn. Populist democrats would say it isn't necessary, and thus can be subjected to community standards legislation. Liberal democrats say protecting all speech is vital. Populist democrats would denounce this as minority (rather than majority) rule. Liberal democrats would raise fear of a slippery slope--unbased fears in many democracies, because the populist democrats wouldn't want a true erosion of political freedoms.

Participatory democracy

Giving people freedom to voice their opinions is unimportant if nobody cares. What needs attention is educating people about politics and involving them in it. Participation is necessary to prevent the abuse of power.

Social democracy

"Social democracy extends the logic of liberal democracy to realms that traditional liberals considered private and therefore not subject to democratic principles," like firms and families, motivated by a need for "avoidance of the tyrannical threat over individual lives that accompanies concentrations of power" (416). This means giving workers a voice in firms or putting the democratic state in a position to powerfully regulate firms. In families, it means not only state control of education, but also subsidized child care to keep men from "tyrannically" keeping women in the home.

Deliberative democracy

An integration of populist and liberal ideas. What's important is less popular rule than that people participate in the democratic process by means of argument, evidence, and persuasion of others. This creates a division of labor of sorts: politicians make laws, citizens influence them through the public deliberation.

Two paradoxes of democracy

  1. If a voter believes that a policy is just, but the majority rejects it, the voter is left to believe contradictory things: the policy is justified (for reasons of justice) yet not justified (because the majority opposes it). Gutmann says this is no paradox: the voter can rightly believe that, although he thinks the policy is good, the majority has the right to make wrong decisions as long as they don't hurt the democracy in a long term. Thus, no real paradox.
  2. Downs: cost-benefit analysis makes it irrational for anybody to vote. Too many rational free riders would lead to collapse. Either that, or everybody who votes is irrational. Either outcome would hurt arguments in favor of democracy. Gutmann says that perhaps citizens vote as part of their moral ideals. "Self-interested calculators create a paradox for democracy. Moral deliberators do not" (419).

The disharmony of democracy:

People are likely to disagree, even if they all have good intentions. Yet deliberation can, in the end, lead to "more justifiable public policies" (420)

Research on similar subjects


Gutmann, Amy (author)Comparative PoliticsDemocracyDefining Democracy

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