The Priority of Democracy

The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism

Jack Knight
James Johnson
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Priority of Democracy
    Book Description:

    Pragmatism and its consequences are central issues in American politics today, yet scholars rarely examine in detail the relationship between pragmatism and politics. InThe Priority of Democracy, Jack Knight and James Johnson systematically explore the subject and make a strong case for adopting a pragmatist approach to democratic politics--and for giving priority to democracy in the process of selecting and reforming political institutions.

    What is the primary value of democracy? When should we make decisions democratically and when should we rely on markets? And when should we accept the decisions of unelected officials, such as judges or bureaucrats? Knight and Johnson explore how a commitment to pragmatism should affect our answers to such important questions. They conclude that democracy is a good way of determining how these kinds of decisions should be made--even if what the democratic process determines is that not all decisions should be made democratically. So, for example, the democratically elected U.S. Congress may legitimately remove monetary policy from democratic decision-making by putting it under the control of the Federal Reserve.

    Knight and Johnson argue that pragmatism offers an original and compelling justification of democracy in terms of the unique contributions democratic institutions can make to processes of institutional choice. This focus highlights the important role that democracy plays, not in achieving consensus or commonality, but rather in addressing conflicts. Indeed, Knight and Johnson suggest that democratic politics is perhaps best seen less as a way of reaching consensus or agreement than as a way of structuring the terms of persistent disagreement.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4033-5
    Subjects: Political Science, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    • Chapter 1 Preliminaries
      (pp. 1-24)

      Politics, in large part, is a response to diversity. It reflects a seemingly incontrovertible condition—any imaginable human population is heterogeneous across multiple, overlapping dimensions, including material interests, moral and ethical commitments, and cultural attachments. The most important implication of this diversity is that disagreement and conflict are unavoidable. This is, in part, not only because the individuals and groups who constitute any population are diverse in the ways just suggested but because that diversity is irreducible. There simply is no neutral institutional arrangement that will accommodate their competing demands and projects without leaving some remainder over which they still...

    • Chapter 2 Pragmatism and the Problem of Institutional Design
      (pp. 25-50)

      As the title of the book announces, the account of democracy we advance is pragmatist. Having said that, however, is not to have said nearly enough. In this chapter, we explain what we have in mind when we embrace the label “pragmatist.” The commitments we sketch here emerge more fully in the argument we present in subsequent chapters.

      Pragmatism “narrowly conceived” is a philosophical view that consists of “a set of arguments about knowledge, meaning and truth.”¹ That said, pragmatists are an unruly lot. They disagree among themselves about various philosophical and political issues.² We are uninterested here in adjudicating...

    • Chapter 3 The Appeal of Decentralization
      (pp. 51-90)

      Before we turn to our account of the priority of democracy, we need first to address an alternative approach to questions of institutional choice, an approach that has come to dominate contemporary thinking on these questions. Demands for decentralization have long been central to debates over the design and performance of political and economic institutions. They form the basis for justifications of economic institutions such as the market as well as other market-mimicking mechanisms. The appeal of decentralization is, as we will see, among the defining elements of what are perhaps the most common justifications for markets. It influences discussions...

    • Chapter 4 The Priority of Democracy and the Burden of Justification
      (pp. 93-127)

      As an ideal mode of social coordination and governance, democracy may well be “close to nonnegotiable” in contemporary politics, but just what this means remains subject to vigorous and persistent debate.¹ Participants in this ongoing debate articulate a wide range of positions. At one extreme are those who rather grudgingly concede that democracy simply is the best of a bad set of alternatives, emphasizing the ways in which the sorts of centralized arrangements it entails inevitably underperform relative to one or another competing ideal, typically an arrangement consisting of decentralized mechanisms. We have had something to say about such views...

    • Chapter 5 Reconsidering the Role of Political Argument in Democratic Politics
      (pp. 128-166)

      We have argued that when considering democracy, problems of aggregation are unavoidable. In so doing, we have sought both to recognize theproblemsto which aggregation is susceptible and to suggest that despite those problems, and the strenuous efforts of theorists to minimize or decenter the role of voting in democratic politics, it remains central. We also have raised the possibility that political argument might afford a remedy for the persistent problems of aggregation. To that end, we offered a broad sketch of how we understand political argument and how it operates, along with a promissory note regarding the ways...

    • Chapter 6 Refining Reflexivity
      (pp. 167-190)

      Of the three kinds of consequences political argument has for democratic decision making, reflexivity is the most important for the justification of a second-order priority of democracy. All three factors go some distance toward satisfying the burden of justification for democratic institutions. The effects of political argument on the cognitive structure of the issues under consideration, the constraints on dimensionality, are a necessary response to general challenges to the normative significance of democratic decisions. Social choice results illuminate inherent problems of instability and ambiguity in voting that, in turn, highlight significant opportunities for strategic manipulation and, thus, undermine the common...

    • Chapter 7 Formal Conditions: Institutionalizing Liberal Guarantees
      (pp. 193-221)

      Our argument for the priority of democracy is based on a set of claims about the capacity of democratic institutions to facilitate the effective performance of social institutions. On our broadly consequentialist account, institutional effectiveness is the normative criterion for a justification of the legitimacy of democratic institutions. This normative criterion, in turn, is grounded in our commitment to pragmatism. Pragmatists assess the value of their choices and actions in terms of the consequences of those choices and actions. The relevant consequences in most situations are a product of the interdependent choices of many social actors and are affected in...

    • Chapter 8 Substantive Conditions: Pragmatism and Effectiveness
      (pp. 222-255)

      Institutional guarantees of formal participation are a necessary feature of any adequate account of the requirements of freedom and equality in a democratic society. This is about as far as most liberal justifications of democracy take us. Protection from direct interference and procedural equality are clearly important aspects of these requirements. However, these protections alone will not produce the kind of political participation we envision in our pragmatist account of the priority of democracy. This priority rests on the idea that socially beneficial outcomes are a product of democratic processes in which a diverse array of ideas and beliefs compete...

    • Chapter 9 Conclusion
      (pp. 256-286)

      In this final chapter, we do four things. We begin by summarizing our pragmatic justification of democracy. Then we turn to three questions that might be asked about this account. First, to what extent does our argument for the normative priority of democracy provide support for a more general pragmatist theory of legitimate authority and political obligation? Second, to what extent might our argument offer greater appeal to reluctant participants who might otherwise adopt violent or coercive strategies? Finally, to what extent is our conception of pragmatist democracy practical? Conversely, is our argument utopian? In answering these questions, we offer...

  7. References
    (pp. 287-306)
  8. Index
    (pp. 307-324)