Democratic Authority

Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework

David M. Estlund
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Democratic Authority
    Book Description:

    Democracy is not naturally plausible. Why turn such important matters over to masses of people who have no expertise? Many theories of democracy answer by appealing to the intrinsic value of democratic procedure, leaving aside whether it makes good decisions. InDemocratic Authority, David Estlund offers a groundbreaking alternative based on the idea that democratic authority and legitimacy must depend partly on democracy's tendency to make good decisions.

    Just as with verdicts in jury trials, Estlund argues, the authority and legitimacy of a political decision does not depend on the particular decision being good or correct. But the "epistemic value" of the procedure--the degree to which it can generally be accepted as tending toward a good decision--is nevertheless crucial. Yet if good decisions were all that mattered, one might wonder why those who know best shouldn't simply rule.

    Estlund's theory--which he calls "epistemic proceduralism"--avoids epistocracy, or the rule of those who know. He argues that while some few people probably do know best, this can be used in political justification only if their expertise is acceptable from all reasonable points of view. If we seek the best epistemic arrangement in this respect, it will be recognizably democratic--with laws and policies actually authorized by the people subject to them.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3154-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER I Democratic Authority
    (pp. 1-20)

    Democracy can seem to empower the masses without regard for the quality of the political decisions that will result. Concern for the quality of decisions can seem to lead in an antidemocratic direction, toward identifying and empowering those who know best. Partly for these reasons, philosophical treatments of democracy’s value have often tried to explain why politics should be democratic even though democracy has no particular tendency to produce good decisions. I believe these accounts are weak, and I want to put democratic convictions on more secure footing. My goal is to show how a concern for the quality of...

  5. CHAPTER II Truth and Despotism
    (pp. 21-39)

    Hannah Arendt observes that “from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character.”¹ Some speak of truth, or appeals to truth, as apolitical or antipolitical, or evasions of the political, but they seem really to mean that these lean toward a despotic kind of politics. Their language exhibits a certain commitment about what it would take to make politics morally superior to despotism. The anxiety about truth is that is thought to foreclose dispute, disagreement, and deliberation (three different things). Arendt worries that truth “precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life.”² If politics ought to...

  6. CHAPTER III An Acceptability Requirement
    (pp. 40-64)

    Why not epistocracy? That is a central question throughout this book. As we have seen (in chapter 2, “Truth and Despotism”), the only way to answer such a challenge, since it is certain that there are subsets of citizens that are wiser than the group as a whole, is to appeal to some principle that shows that even though they have these superior abilities, this does not necessarily ground their having authority. After all, from the fact, even granting that it is a fact, that you know better than the rest of us what should be done, it certainly does...

  7. CHAPTER IV The Limits of Fair Procedure
    (pp. 65-84)

    In Plato's dialogueEthyphro, the question is raised whether something is pious because it is loved by the gods, or whether the gods love it because it is pious. The “Euthyphro question” has a form that crops up all over philosophy, and democratic theory is no exception. Many people today think that, at least under certain conditions, good political decisions are those that are democratically made. We do not have to accept the old slogan thatvox populi, vox dei(the voice of the people is the voice of God) to see the parallel to the Euthyphro question: are...

  8. CHAPTER V The Flight from Substance
    (pp. 85-97)

    Fair proceduralism, as we saw in chapter 4, claims not to use any procedure-independent standards of good political decisions, but is committed to such standards after all. It claims to stay with the values of procedure, but is embroiled in substance in the end. We saw that social choice theory, which has deeply influenced much normative democratic theory, is also often misleadingly portrayed as innocent of substance, relying wholly on procedural values. It turns out that social choice theory evaluates actual temporal voting procedures by the procedure-independent standards embodied in the conditions it imposes on the abstract relation between individual...

  9. CHAPTER VI Epistemic Proceduralism
    (pp. 98-116)

    Assume that for many choices faced by a political community, some alternatives are better than others by standards that are in some way objective.¹ (For example, suppose that progressive income tax rates are more just than a flat rate, even after considering effects on efficiency.) If so, it must count in favor of a social decision procedure that it tends to produce the better decision. On the other hand, there is wide disagreement about what justice requires, and no citizen is required to defer to the expertise or authority of any other. Thus, as we have seen, normative democratic theory...

  10. CHAPTER VII Authority and Normative Consent
    (pp. 117-135)

    Epistemic proceduralism is an account of, among other things, how democratically produced laws can be authoritative and legitimate. In this chapter I step back from democracy to offer an account of the basis of political authority in general terms. In the next chapter I will link this general account to my epistemic approach to democracy in order to explain the authority of democracy. For now, though, I consider the basic idea of political authority.

    Moral obligations can simply befall us. Sometimes we are morally required to help someone in need, or to tell the truth, or to undo some damage...

  11. CHAPTER VIII Original Authority and the Democracy/Jury Analogy
    (pp. 136-158)

    We have seen the structure of epistemic proceduralism in chapter 6, and a general nonvoluntaristic approach to political authority, the normative consent approach, has been laid out in chapter 7. In this chapter I will argue that an epistemic proceduralist account of democratic authority can be grounded in normative consent. I try to bring together several promising considerations from the excellent literature on political obligation and then link them up with the theory of normative consent. I believe the resulting account avoids many of the most important difficulties for previous attempts to account for political authority.

    It will be helpful...

  12. CHAPTER IX How Would Democracy Know?
    (pp. 159-183)

    In this chapter, I will outline a way of thinking about how democratic political decision making could have the epistemic value that epistemic proceduralism relies on for its theory of authority and legitimacy. I argue that only an extreme skepticism would deny the underlying epistemic capacities and mechanisms that are needed. However, for those minimal epistemic capacities and mechanisms to lead to good democratic decisions, things must be arranged in a certain way. Democratic theory that emphasizes the value of public deliberation is often criticized just at this point. The prescribed arrangements are held to be utopian, or inappropriate, or...

  13. CHAPTER X The Real Speech Situation
    (pp. 184-205)

    Public political deliberation lies at the center of many recent normative theories of democracy, as we’ve seen. Everyone knows, however, that politics is not, and probably could never be, mainly a matter of the impartial exchanging of reasons. How are these two things compatible? How can deliberation belong at the center of normative democratic theory even though it is by no means the predominant form of political activity even in favorable conditions? We have seen how the idea of a model deliberative situation might, in principle, be central to the theory even without being central to practice—how our epistemic...

  14. CHAPTER XI Why Not an Epistocracy of the Educated?
    (pp. 206-222)

    It is natural to think that the wise ought to rule, and yet it is now universally denied. One reason for this is that many people think that ruling arrangements ought to be justifiable in a generally acceptable way. I have adopted that viewpoint in one specific form, the qualified acceptability requirement. Given so much reasonable (qualified) dispute about who counts as wise in the right way and other matters, it might seem doubtful that rule of the wise could meet this standard. On the other hand, a decent education, including, say, some knowledge of politics, history, economics, and so...

  15. CHAPTER XII The Irrelevance of the Jury Theorem
    (pp. 223-236)

    There is a long tradition, at least since Aristotle, extolling the wisdom of groups. This, of course, exists alongside the long tradition denigrating the intelligence of common people. Aristotle gives early voice to both ideas when he says that common individuals are not very bright, but that collectively they are at least better, and possibly wise enough to rule politically.¹ In our own time, we have volumes of sophisticated demonstrations both of the ignorance of voters in modern democracies and of the variety of ways in which collectivities can make better decisions than the individuals they comprise.² In this chapter,...

  16. CHAPTER XIII Rejecting the Democracy/Contractualism Analogy
    (pp. 237-257)

    In the last chapter I argued that epistemic claims for democracy cannot be supported by appeal to Condorcet’s jury theorem. In this chapter I criticize a second influential way of arguing that democracy could have epistemic value, specifically on questions of right or justice. The approach I have in mind asserts what I shall call ademocracy/contractualism analogy. Justice is understood along contractualist lines, to be explained later. Then outcomes of proper democratic arrangements are held to track justice (call this thetracking claim), and to do so because they have a structural similarity to the hypothetical choice situation posited...

  17. CHAPTER XIV Utopophobia: Concession and Aspiration in Democratic Theory
    (pp. 258-276)

    As we have seen, political theorists often try to avoid epistemic or instrumental accounts of the value of democracy. Sometimes it is in order to avoid the philosophical commitment to external standards, a strategy I have criticized. But even if there are external standards for political decisions, there are other worries about epistemic accounts of democracy, and it is easy to see why. The level of talent, knowledge, virtue, and motivation that the average citizen brings to the task of voting is low. If there are good reasons in favor of democracy, then, it might seem that they must be...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 277-294)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 295-302)
  20. Index
    (pp. 303-309)