PLSC 118: The Moral Foundations of Politics

Lecture 23

 - Democracy and Majority Rule (II)


Majority rule and democratic competition serve as the focus of this second lecture on the democratic tradition. What is it about majority rule that confers legitimacy on collective decisions? Is there any validity to a utilitarian justification, that catering to the wishes of the majority maximizes the happiness of the greatest number? Does majority rule reflect what Rousseau called the general will? What is the general will? Does Arrow’s paradox indicate that the results of voting are arbitrary? Is majority rule just an exercise in realpolitik? Professor Shapiro makes the point that crosscutting cleavages discussed in an earlier lecture are the key to unlocking majority rule and limiting the possibility of domination. Although one may be in the majority today, the possibility of being in the minority tomorrow prevents tyranny. Several models of democracy are discussed: the public choice model of Buchanan and Tullock, Rae and Barry’s critique of this model, Schumpeter’s marketplace model, the Hotelling-Downs median voter theorem, and Huntington’s two turnover test.

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PLSC 118 - Lecture 23 - Democracy and Majority Rule (II)

Chapter 1. Introduction: Majority Rule and Democratic Competition [00:00:00]

Professor Ian Shapiro: So today we’re going to talk about majority rule and democratic competition. Whenever we think about democracy there is this automatic almost reflexive impulse to associate democracy with majority rule. We saw last time that was one of the things that frightened Madison and his contemporaries that they wanted to limit the power of majority factions as he called them. Limit the power of majority rule.

But we think today, reflexively, that majority rule confers legitimacy of some sort on collective decisions. And what our agenda today is to dig into why it is that anybody might think majority rule has some important normative property. Anyone have any suggestion as to why it might? Why should we care? The endless recounts in Florida in 2000 to see who really had the majority, what’s the big deal about majority rule? Why should we care? Any takers? Yeah?

Student: I guess it’s like a somewhat utilitarian flavor to that.

Professor Ian Shapiro: A somewhat what?

Student: A utilitarian flavor.

Professor Ian Shapiro: A utilitarian flavor, so that’s interesting. There might be a utilitarian justification for majority rule. Just say a little more about what you have in mind.

Student: Because if the majority of the society consents to a certain policy or approves of a certain person it’s kind of like they’re making the judgment that having this person or having this policy would increase their happiness or their satisfaction with society the most.

Professor Ian Shapiro: So maximizing government by majority rule might in some sense maximize utility in the society. That’s certainly an interesting hypothesis, and I’ll revisit it in this lecture. Any other suggestions about majority rule, no? Going once, twice, gone. All right, we’ll revisit this utilitarian thinking because I think it’s a very good observation to make because although it’s not explicit in much of the discussion of majority rule I think it is implicit and we’ll come back to that. The traditional justification for majority rule was that it somehow identified the will of the people. That democracy reflects, embodies, expresses the will of the people, but of course that just puts it one-step further back. What is the will of the people? How do you know the will of the people when you trip over it?

One of the canonical formulations of this idea is in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract where he says, “There is often a great difference between the will of all [what all individuals want] and the general will; the general will studies only the common interest while the will of all studies private interest, and is indeed no more than the sum of individual desires. But if we take away from these same wills, the pluses and minuses which cancel each other out, the balance which remains is the general will.”

We take away from the individual wills the pluses and minuses which cancel each other out, the balance which remains is the general will. So people have spent hundreds of years trying to figure out whether that makes any sense, whether this notion that you find in Rousseau of pluses and minuses canceling one another out makes any sense.

And what sense could it make? How would we know? As I said, how would we know the general will if we fell over it? And it’s often been the case that people have tended to associate the general will with the idea of the will of the majority. But going all the way back to the eighteenth century there has been the contrarian impulse first noticed by a philosopher called Condorcet at the end of the eighteenth century, but that has since preoccupied many theorists of democracy, and that is that, well, actually majority rule doesn’t even necessarily reflect the will of the majority.

What Condorcet noticed was a very simple fact which is suppose you have a society where there are three voters and each voter has a preference over three different policies. So in this example voter number one prefers A to B and B to C. Voter number two prefers C to A and A to B, and number three prefers B to C and C to A. What Condorcet noticed was you get a paradoxical result because you have a majority for A over B. You have a majority for B over C, but then you have a majority for C over A, and that seems like a contradiction because if you dial back through your notes to when we were discussing basic properties of rationality, remember when we were talking about indifference curves and all of that, this seems to violate the principle of transitivity because you have a majority for A over B, you have a majority for B over C, and then you have a majority for C over A.

So it seems like our individual preferences can be rational our collective preferences might be irrational in the sense that they contradict themselves. And so several things follow from this, or are thought to follow from this at least. One is that, this Condorcet noticed in the eighteenth century, but a famous, indeed, Nobel Prize winning economist called Kenneth Arrow proved a theorem in 1951 in a little book called Social Choice and Individual Values that this is a perfectly general result. And so if you have modest pluralism of preferences which we were assuming — remember when we talked about crosscutting cleavages on Monday we were assuming it’s important for democracy, diversity of tastes and preferences, then you can always get this result with majority rule.

So that has a number of unsettling implications because there’s no general will identified by the majority. On the contrary, if things are put in one order you’ll get one result, but if things are put in a different order you’ll get a different result. So the way parliamentary committees often work you have a motion and then you have amendments to the motion. You always vote on the amendments first and then the final motion last. So another important theorem proved by somebody called Gerald Kramer about twenty years after Arrow basically says, “If you let me determine the order of voting, i.e. what the amendments are and what order we’ll vote on them, I can get any outcome. All I have to do is know your preferences and control the order of voting, and I can get a majority to appear to support any outcome.” So this suggests that majority rule can be manipulated.

Now you might say, “Well, when millions of people are voting nobody’s really controlling the agenda in that specific a sense, and nobody has all of that information about everybody’s preferences, so people can’t manipulate the outcome.” That might be true as well, but it also suggests that there shouldn’t be much moral authority attaching to the outcome if we know — yeah, nobody manipulated that C wins, but if things had been done in a different order B might have won, or A might have won in this circumstance, so why should we attach any particular moral authority to the idea that C won? We shouldn’t. It’s just an arbitrary result.

So footnote to this, one important takeaway from Arrow’s theorem is you should always be the last person to interview for a job, because if there are cyclical preferences among the interviews over the candidates you want the others to bump each other off and then you come along at the end. So don’t say you didn’t learn anything useful today. You certainly learned that. They call you for an interview say, “Well, could I come in three weeks? Why don’t you interview your other candidates first?”

So majority rule. If there is such a thing as the general will, majority rule doesn’t seem to identify it. And the public choice literature that came out of economics in the 1950s and 1960s basically converged on that proposition. It said, “There is no such thing as a social welfare function,” which is just econ-speak for saying there is no such thing as a general will, or if there is a general will we don’t know what decision rule would identify it. And a huge amount of ink has been spilt in trying to figure out what decision rule might identify unambiguously something that we would feel morally comfortable calling the general will. And I don’t think anybody has succeeded definitively at that task.

Chapter 2. Locke on Majority Rule [00:11:38]

Locke, we always come back to Locke in this course. Locke has a somewhat different defense of majority rule. Now you might think that’s weird because most people think of Locke as somebody who defended rights. If you go and read about the debates on The Constitution the Lockeans versus the Republicans, those of you who have taken the history course, the Lockeans were the people who wanted to create the Bill of Rights, defend against the majority and so on, but in fact if you go and read Locke what you find is that he’s a staunch defender of majority rule.

He says, “For when any number of Men have, by the consent of every individual, made a Community, they have thereby made that Community one Body, with a Power to Act as one Body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority.” It doesn’t say why. “For that which acts any Community, being only the consent of the individuals of it, and it being necessary to that which is one body to move one way; it is necessary the Body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: or else it is impossible it should act or continue one Body, one Community[.]”

So he’s saying it’s necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority, or else it’s impossible it should continue to act one body or one community, which the consent of every individual that’s united into it agreed that it should, and so everyone is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority. “And therefore we see that in Assemblies impowered to act by positive Laws where no number is set by that positive Law which impowers them, the act of the Majority passes for the act of the whole, and of course determines, as having by the Law of Nature and Reason, the power of the whole.”

So that’s Locke’s defense of majority rule. It’s not that it identifies some general will. It’s really an argument about power, right? He’s basically saying, “Look, once you have a community somebody’s going to win.” It’s a little bit like Nozick saying, “Once you have those independents out there somebody’s going to force them to join,” just a realpolitik argument that the power of the majority’s going to determine what the community does. And indeed, if we delve more deeply into other things that Locke says he basically says, “Look, if you don’t like what the government does, you can oppose, but if nobody agrees with you, you should (as we discussed earlier in the course), you should expect your reward in the next life. If everybody agrees, or if a majority agrees with you then you can have 1688. You can change the government.”

So this seems to be an argument about the legitimacy of the majority that is a very hardnosed realistic judgment about politics, not a moral claim that the majority has any particular intrinsic property that gives it the right to govern. It’s just saying, “Well, there it is. The majority is going to flex its muscles and if it’s not attended to it’s going to win.”

Now I think that we will see Locke gets, actually, a lot closer to the truth of the desirability of majority rule than Rousseau did or the people who were trying to come up with the notion of the general will, or what modern economists would call a social welfare function. And a way you could think about this argument, particularly in light of the observation about the relationship between majority rule and utilitarianism, is that I think the best way to think of what Locke is doing here it’s a kind of negative utilitarianism, or at least a cousin of negative utilitarianism. We generally think of negative utilitarianism as the doctrine that we should minimize pain as opposed to positive utilitarianism which is, maximize pleasure. We didn’t make that distinction when we talked about Bentham, but it’s there in the contemporary literature. So this is a cousin, I think, of negative utilitarianism in the sense that I think that Locke thinks of majority rule and indeed of resistance to power as a way of limiting the possibility of domination.

Limiting the possibility of domination. And he’s saying you can resist power if power’s dominating you, but you’re only going to win if you’re in the majority, if you have the greater force.

Chapter 3. Why Does Majority Rule Limit the Possibility of Domination? [00:17:24]

But why is majority rule the instrument for limiting the possibility of domination? Why should we think of majority rule as having that propensity? Anyone got a suggestion? Why should we think that majority rule, all things considered, would limit the possibility of domination? This is a hard question. Yeah?

Student: Well, it seems it would go back to the crosscutting cleavages that we talked about the other day, that if you’re going to be in the majority you don’t know if you’re going to be in the minority on other things so you would limit the domination that you put out. You wouldn’t want to be a domineering presence for fear that there’d be other domineering presences in other spheres.

Professor Ian Shapiro: I think that’s exactly right. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. He said, “Well, it’s related to the crosscutting cleavages and one’s not knowing whether or not the policies that get enacted are going to be the polices that you want, or whether you’re going to regard them as being imposed on you and dominating you.”

I’ll come back to your point in a minute, but as background to it and to show, I think, exactly why you’re right and what turns on what you said, think about another prize-winning economist who has theorized about politics. This is a book published in 1962 by the economist James Buchanan and the political scientist Gordon Tullock for which Buchanan got the Nobel Prize in 1986 and Tullock was not happy. The argument was, “Well, we don’t have any Nobel Prize for political science,” so that’s why they gave it to Buchanan. Although you may know that last year, in a slap at their own discipline, in fact for the first time the Nobel Prize Committee did give the Nobel Prize to a political scientist, a woman by the name of Elinor Ostrom at the University of Indiana, but that was then and this is now. In 1986 Buchanan got the recognition and Tullock was not happy as he widely let it be known.

So here’s the intuition. It is behind a veil of ignorance. This book interestingly a long time before Rawls wrote, 1962, but the basic idea is behind the veil of ignorance, how would you think about the decision rules that should govern you? How can you reason about that? And they said, “Well, what you have to think about is two things. One is, how likely is it that the society is going to do something you don’t like, and what can you do about that?”

And related to that, you have to think how much do you care, because some decisions are much more important to you than other decisions. Why does it matter how much you care, because being involved in decision-making takes up time, effort, energy that you could spend doing other things. So if it’s some utterly trivial decision you’re not going to want to spend a lot of time on it, but if it’s a really important decision then you’ll be willing to spend time on it in order to make sure your rights are protected.

So they make a distinction between, first of all, what they call external costs, and the idea here is that as the number of people in the society goes up, the chances that you’re going to have some decision imposed on you that you don’t like also goes up because there are all kinds of decisions that people could make. On the other hand there are decision making costs too, and as the number of people in the society goes up the decision making costs increase as well because there are more people to talk to, to negotiate with and so on.

And so what you have to think about is the sum of those two things. How important is it to you? How important is it to you to participate in decision-making is going to be, how much do you care about the result, and how much time are you going to have to spend on the result. And what they said in a kind of utilitarian calculus they said, “What you’re going to want to do is add them up,” so you’re going to want to minimize the sum of the external costs and the decision-making costs. You’re going to want to minimize that. So when a decision is completely unimportant to you then you won’t want to spend a lot of time, but when a decision is really important to you, you will be willing to spend time.

And so then they said, “Well, so how should we think about the organization of society?” For questions that people think are really important we should have something like unanimity rule because, after all, unanimity rule is a veto of one. If you have unanimity rule it’s like the Pareto principle. Anybody can veto. Everybody’s agreement has to be gotten in the limiting case. If you had absolute unanimity rule you can’t do anything without that.

Whereas for less important decisions, this point here when you’re minimizing the sum of external costs and decision-making costs, what would be something less than unanimity rule? It might be a two-thirds rule, and even less important things you might say majority rule, and even less important things than you might say, “Let the bureaucrats decide. It’s just not worth my time.”

So for Buchanan and Tullock, there’s no presumption that there’s any particular importance attaching to majority rule. On the contrary, we should say for the most important things we should start with unanimity rule and then we can come down the ladder or we can think about steadily declining supermajorities as things become less important to us. And so the argument was that for constitutional questions it should be something very close to unanimity rule, and we should have entrenched or semi-entrenched clauses that are virtually impossible to change.

They’re telling a story that more or less reflects the structure of the American Constitution, where amending the Constitution does take very hard to get super majorities, but regular legislation takes a lot less. And it’s simply this calculation, this self-interested calculation that leads you to often be willing to go with majority rule and there’s nothing more to be said about it than that.

Chapter 4. Majority versus Unanimity Rule [00:25:55]

So now we come to your observation, and your observation is basically the observation that Buchanan and Tullock are wrong; that Buchanan and Tullock are wrong because they confuse unanimity as a state of affairs in the world where we all agree about something with unanimity as a decision rule. And your observation was first made by Brian Barry, who sadly died last year, in a very good book called Political Argument and was developed by Douglas Rae, who teaches here in SOM, in two important articles in the American Political Science Review.

And what Barry and Rae pointed out was exactly what this gentleman here pointed out a few minutes ago, which is the whole Buchanan and Tullock story assumes we have agreement at the baseline. The whole Buchanan and Tullock story assumes that everybody’s happy with the initial state of affairs. And so then we say, “Well so.” We started at that baseline and then we say, “The things that are most important to you from that baseline we’ll create unanimity rule and give you, everyone in the room, essentially a veto, but then we’ll work down from that.”

But what Rae and Barry said was, “Well, what if we say that behind this veil of ignorance we don’t know whether we’re going to like the status quo or not. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t, but if you don’t want to give any special status to the status quo, then you shouldn’t bias decisions to the status quo, because maybe it’ll turn out that you don’t want the status quo and then you’re stuck with something that’s impossible to change.”

And so what Barry and Rae showed was, well, actually if you assume behind a veil of ignorance that you’re as likely to be against the status quo as in favor of the status quo then you would choose majority rule or something very close to it. So if the number of people in the society is even you would choose N over two plus one or N over two minus one. If you were wanting to minimize the probably that a decision’s going to be imposed upon you, not knowing whether or not it was the decision favored by the status quo.

So there’s a kind of veil of ignorance logic in the Rae and Barry critique of Buchanan and Tullock which says that the presumption should be in favor of majority rule or something very close to it unless we want to bias the whole system toward the status quo, and we don’t actually have any ultimate good reason for doing that, because even if somebody at some constitutional convention preferred to entrench whatever it is, the right the bear arms two hundred years later we might not take the view that we want to entrench that, but now it becomes impossibly hard to change. So if you say behind the veil of ignorance we’re going to be as likely to oppose as to support there does seem to be a kind of negative utilitarian logic which says if I want to minimize the likelihood of having decisions I don’t like imposed upon me, I would prefer majority rule to the going alternatives.

Well, that’s all very well, and I think that the Barry and Rae argument is pretty robust. It’s certainly stood up for what now; close to half a century. It’s regarded as conventional wisdom on this point. Still in all it doesn’t tell us a lot about the dynamics of actual politics. How does competitive democracy play out when we’re thinking about how actual political systems, actual democratic systems operate?

Chapter 5. Schumpeter: Non-dominant and Pluralist Competition [00:30:32]

And you’ll recall that from Monday’s lecture I said to you that Robert Dahl was the most important democratic theorist of the second half of the twentieth century, but I didn’t talk about the first half of the twentieth century. And I think the most important democratic theorist of the first half of the twentieth century, who in many ways Dahl built upon, was actually an economist by the name of Joseph Schumpeter. Economists had a lot of influence in democratic theory in the twentieth century.

Schumpeter wrote a book called Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy which he published in 1942, eight years before his death. And most of that book is actually completely unremarkable. Most of that book is a long and rather tortured critique of Carl Marx, but the piece of it we’re focusing on are those two little chapters called The Classical Theory of Democracy and Another Theory of Democracy. And I should say that those two little chapters may be the most influential writings about democracy in the real world that have come out of the twentieth century.

Now it should also be said just as a prefatory matter that the title of the first chapter of those two chapters is misleading, because what he calls the classical theory of democracy is actually a neoclassical theory. It is Rousseau’s idea of the general will, which we now know to be chimerical, but you know from Monday’s lecture that Rousseau’s idea of the general will was actually a neoclassical adaptation, because the ancient Greek idea was ruling and being ruled in turn. So Schumpeter’s critique of what he calls the classical theory of democracy we should remember as actually a neoclassical eighteenth-century idea.

But he starts from the proposition that the critique of the idea of the general will is valid. There is no such thing. There is no social welfare function, as an economist would put it. But he, Schumpeter, says, “Let’s think about democracy in a fundamentally different way. Let’s define it as follows. ‘The democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.’”

And now he’s going to develop this idea in that second little chapter with an analogy to the market. He’s going to think about democracy as shopping. Schumpeter says, “Look, think about democracy, think about the polity as an analog of the economy.” What do we have in the economy, and what do we have in the polity? Well, one thing we have in the economy is consumers, and what is the political analog of consumers? Any guesses? What’s the political analog of consumers?

Student: Voters.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Yeah, voters. Another thing we have in the economy is firms. What’s the political analog of firms? Anybody? You have the mic, guess.

Student: Various candidates for positions?

Professor Ian Shapiro: Yeah, parties. That’s good enough. Firms make profits. What is the political analog of profits?

Student: Whoever wins the election?

Professor Ian Shapiro: Close. What do they get? How do they win?

Student: They get votes.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Exactly. So firms want profits, parties want votes. Then firms produce products. What is produced in the polity?

Student: Various party platforms.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Platforms, yeah and legislation. And so when we think of the doctrine of consumer sovereignty in economics what would the political analog of it be? This won’t leap out at you immediately, but okay. It’s the idea of democratic legitimacy; it’s the equivalent. When we say this consumer sovereignty in markets there’s democratic legitimacy in the polity. And so we have this basic parallel between the economic system where firms are competing, firms are competing for profits, and they engage in a competitive struggle for the consumer’s dollar, to paraphrase Schumpeter, and parties are competing for votes and they engage in a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.

And democracy is not about participation, or deliberation, or all of the things that people try to identify with, it’s essentially, as I said, it’s about shopping. You shop for politicians and policies in just the same way as you shop for iPads and Maseratis or whatever it is you buy. This is how we should think about democracy.‚

Hugely influential, hugely influential. And what disciplines the elites, what disciplines the elites that creates the democratic legitimacy, or maybe I should have put democratic accountability there, is the fact that the voter can kick the bums out. Gordon Brown’s worrying about this for the next few weeks. The British voters can heave him out. That is what disciplines the political elites. That is what prevents them ultimately from exercising domination.

And so we think about a competitive system driven by politicians who are competing for votes. Turns out there’s a big tradition in American political science of studying this that goes back to, again, another economist, kind of depressing all these economists but there it is. In 1929 Hotelling, who wrote a paper trying to explain why is it that if you look at a town, any town, you’ll find Target and you’ll find — what’s another? You’ll find Shaw’s and Stop & Shop right next to each other on Main Street.‚

And Downs developed this into a political argument. Basically he said imagine you’ve got a continuum here from left to right, so the people with ideological — this is ideology. People on the left are here. People on the right are here. Well, we should think the population is more or less normally distributed, so most people are in the middle and some people are at the two extremes.

Well, if you have two political parties where are they going to head for? They’re going to head for the median voter because that’s where most of the votes are. So you might have differences of opinion within the parties, I’ll come back to that in a minute, but basically — oops, where are we? We’re getting too far ahead of ourselves here. Parties are going to head for the median voter because that’s where the votes are. When they asked whoever it was, “Why did you rob banks?” Because that’s where the money is. Politicians are going to go for the median voter. That’s where the votes are.

Now, of course, they could be wrong. They’re going to guess. So for example, 1964 Goldwater running for president thinks that the median voter is way over here, but he’s wrong so he loses. Then 1980 Ronald Regan basically runs on exactly the same platform that Goldwater had lost on in 1964 and everybody says, “This crazy right-wing nut’s going to be creamed. We saw that in 1964,” but either because he knew something, or because he was lucky or some combination, it turned out that between 1964 and 1980 the median voter had moved and Jimmy Carter was wrong about where the median voter was. So generally speaking, other things equal, the parties would converge to the median voter, or at least where they believed the median voter is and the people who get it right will win.

Now that seems to have the implication that particularly as polling gets better and better, so you don’t make the kind of mistakes the Democrats made in 1980 or the Republicans made in 1964, the parties are going to start offering exactly the same policies. And indeed, if you look at the — I don’t know how much attention you folks are paying to the British election, but basically they’re offering the same policies. They’re both saying the others are going to lie to you about what they’re going to do, but we’re going to keep the National Health Service. We’re not going to cut this. We’re not going to cut that. We’re not going to do this to taxes. Because they’ve done all the polling they know what the median voter wants, and so they’re basically offering the same policies. I’ll come back to what that means for political competition in a minute.

But if they’re competing, if they’re basically offering the same policies, what are they competing over? What are they putting in front of electorate? If they’re basically both doing the same thing, they’re going to compete over things like character assassination. They’re going to say, “He’s a liar. Vote for me because he’s a liar. He says he won’t cut the health service but he will.” The other one will say, “He says we won’t raise taxes, but he will. He’s dishonorable. He was involved in this, that, and the other scandal.” That’s what they’re going to do. They’re going to compete over personalities, right?

Now one way you could imagine something that would change that is if there were other variables that kept these parties apart. So, for example, we have primaries now in the U.S., and of course the primary voters on the Democratic Party are over here probably normally distributed, and the primary voters in the Republican Party are here. If you have to win the primary first then you’re going to get pulled down here, and the Republicans are going to get pulled over there, and so what happens is if you have some other force that pulls the parties apart, then you might get competition over policy.

Some people say, “Oh, it’s bad to have primaries because if you have primaries the activists get control of the parties and extremists in both parties, you know, the unions control what the Democratic Party does and the far right controls what the Republican Party does.” It’s true, but the flipside of that is that when the general election comes, you actually have competition over policies because the parties have been pulled apart by the fact that they had to win these primaries first.

Now there are other bad sides of primaries, but part of the point here is you need to see that what it is that parties compete over can change. So when we put in the general election the parties have been pulled somewhat apart. So if you have something in the structure of political parties, it could be primaries, it could be a strong control of the party selection process by the leadership or something like that, then you will get competition over policy.

Now some people would say that’s better because people get a clear choice as opposed to just character assassination and that sort of thing. It’s actually better for them to compete over policies. Notice, though, if you do have strong parties that are kept ideologically apart, and you have competition over policy, you can get results like in Britain, the British Railways have been nationalized and denationalized three times in the twentieth century, because Labor comes in and nationalizes them and then the Tories come in and denationalizes them. So you get policy alternation and that could be good or bad, but it’s a different thing to compete over.

So you can have competition over personalities, you can have competition over policies, and of course you can have, as we do in our system, you can have competition over pork. If you have a system in which you have individual constituencies like we do in the U.S., you have congressional constituencies and then you have states, each representative is really looking for, not the national median voter, but the median voter in their district or in their state. That’s who they’re serving. And so there’s a lot of literature about whether it’s better to have proportional representation where you have basically one national constituency, or whether you should have a system in which politicians compete with one another as to who’s going to bring more pork back to our district.

So I mention these things only so that you’re aware that once we talk about political competition we haven’t settled what it is that parties compete over. But Schumpeter didn’t address these because Schumpeter ultimately didn’t care. He didn’t care, really, whether they were competing over personalities, policies or pork. The point was that they were competing, and they wanted to throw one another out.

This is the system, to hearken back to Monday’s lecture, in which ambition really counteracts ambition, whereas separation of powers and all that, for the reasons Dahl gave, doesn’t really work. There’s no mechanism, but this creates a mechanism for ambition to counteract ambition. So Schumpeter and Dahl are much more sympathetic to the idea of pluralism and crosscutting cleavages, and a competitive struggle for the people’s vote than they are to institutional checks and balances to discipline elites.

Of course there are problems with Schumpeter. I’ll just mention them briefly because we’re running short of time, and you can pursue them in section. But one is, you’re going to have two parties, or maybe three parties, or four parties; it’s oligopolistic competition. It’s not a very thoroughgoing form of competition, so that’s one thing to think about.

Secondly, this whole thing doesn’t address the role of money in politics. We’ll see this in sharp relief in the state of Connecticut in the next eight months where the likely Republican nominee for Chris Dodd’s Senate seat has already announced she’s going to spend fifty million dollars of her own money on her campaign. And so Attorney General Richard Blumenthal who’s the likely Democrat has to raise a lot of money. So it’s not necessarily competitive struggle for the people’s vote, but rather struggle for money and that has implications which you should think about.

Notice third that this Schumpeterian story completely devalues participation. After all, it buys into the Buchanan and Tullock definition of the problem where we saw participation was defined as a cost. If you have to spend time participating in politics it’s time you could be spending driving your Maserati and you’d rather be doing that. That’s the assumption. How good an assumption is that? Maybe participation is inherently valuable then you have to think about that.

And then finally it really is a minimal conception of democracy. Now some people have operationalized Schumpeter to say, and this is true in the comparative politics literature about new democracies, that we can’t call a system a democracy until the government has twice lost an election and given up power. This is sometimes called the Schumpeter two turnover test. Famous Harvard political scientist who recently died called Samuel Huntington came up with the two turnover test. We can’t call something a democracy unless there’s been this turnover at least twice. In one way that’s a stiff test. Japan didn’t meet it until very recently. The U.S. didn’t meet it until 1840. India didn’t meet it until recently. South Africa which people crow about as a new democracy has yet to meet it. We don’t know what would happen if the ANC lost an election. Would they give up power, maybe, maybe not?

So in one respect it’s a robust test, but people criticize it as being minimal saying really there’s more to democracy than that, and we’ll come back to that question next week, but what I want you to take away is I think the enduring insight of the Schumpeterian model that really starts with Locke’s linking. Locke was very prescient; he saw three centuries ahead. Linking of majority rule to this idea of resisting domination, that non-domination, this idea of resisting domination, however you institutionalize it and operationalize it and all of that, that is the basic animating ideal of democracy. We’ll pick up from there on Monday.

[end of transcript]

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