excerpts from the book
by Robert A. Dahl
Yale University Press, 1998
It was in classical Greece and Rome around
500 B.C.. that systems of government providing for popular participation
by a substantial number of citizens were first established on
foundations so solid that, with occasional changes, they endured
Greece. Classical Greece was not a country
in our modern sense, a place in which all Greeks lived within
a single state with a single government. Instead, Greece was composed
of several hundred independent cities, each with its surrounding
countryside. Unlike the United States, France, Japan, and other
modern countries, the so-called nation-states or national states
that have largely dominated the modern world, the sovereign states
of Greece were city-states. The most famous city-state, in classical
times and after, was Athens. In 507 B.C.E. the Athenians adopted
a system of popular government that lasted nearly two centuries,
until the city was subjugated by its more powerful neighbor to
the north, Macedonia. (After 321 B.C.B. the Athenian government
limped along under Macedonian control for generations; then the
city was subjugated again, this time by the Romans.)
It was the Greeks-probably the Athenians-who
coined the term democracy, or demokratia, from the Greek words
demos, the people, and kratos, to rule. It is interesting, by
the way, that while in Athens the word demos usually referred
to the entire Athenian people, sometimes it meant only the common
people or even just the poor. The word democracy, it appears,
was sometimes used by its aristocratic critics as a kind of epithet,
to show their disdain for the common people who had wrested away
the aristocrats' previous control over the government. In any
case, democratia was applied specifically by Athenians and other
Greeks to the government of Athens and of many other cities in
Greece as well.
Among the Greek democracies, that of Athens
was far and away the most important, the best known then and today,
of incomparable influence on political philosophy, and often held
up later as a prime example of citizen participation or, as some
would say, participatory democracy.
The government of Athens was complex,
too complex to describe adequately here. At its heart and center
was an assembly in which all citizens were entitled to participate.
The assembly elected a few key officials-generals, for example,
odd as that may seem to us. But the main method for selecting
citizens for the other public duties was by a lottery in which
eligible citizens stood an equal chance of being selected. According
to some estimates, an ordinary citizen stood a fair chance of
being chosen by lot once in his lifetime to serve as the most
important presiding officer in the government.
Although some Greek cities joined in forming
rudimentary representative governments for their alliances, leagues,
and confederacies (primarily for common defense), little is known
about these representative systems. They left virtually no impress
on democratic ideas and practices and none, certainly, on the
later form of representative democracy. Nor did the Athenian system
of selecting citizens for public duties by lot ever become an
acceptable alternative to elections as a way of choosing representatives.
Thus the political institutions of Greek
democracy, innovative though they had been, in their time, were
ignored or even rejected outright during the development of modern
Rome. About the time that popular government
was introduced in Greece, it also made its appearance on the Italian
peninsula in the city of Rome. The Romans, however, chose to call
their system a republic, from res, meaning thing or affair in
Latin, and publicus, public: loosely rendered, a republic was
the thing that belonged to the people.
The right to participate in governing
the Republic was at first restricted to the patricians, or aristocrats.
But in a development that we shall encounter again, after much
struggle the common people (the plebs, or plebeians) also gained
entry. As in Athens, the right to participate was restricted to
men, just as it was also in all later democracies and republics
until the twentieth century.
From its beginnings as a city of quite
modest size, the Roman Republic expanded by means of annexation
and conquest far beyond the old city's boundaries. As a result,
the Republic came to rule over all of Italy and far beyond. What
is more, the Republic often conferred Roman citizenship, which
was highly-valued, on the conquered peoples, who thus became not
mere subjects but Roman citizens fully entitled to a citizen's
rights and privileges.
Wise and generous as this gift was, if
we judge Rome from today's perspective we discover an enormous
defect: Rome never adequately adapted its institutions of popular
government to the huge increase in the number of its citizens
and their great geographical distances from Rome. Oddly, from
our present point of view, the assemblies in which Roman citizens
were entitled to participate continued meeting, as before, within
the city of Rome-in the very Forum that tourists still see today,
in ruins. But for most Roman citizens living in the far-flung
territory of the Republic, the city was too far away to attend,
at least without extraordinary effort and expense. consequently,
an increasing and ultimately overwhelming number of citizens were,
as a practical matter, denied the opportunity to participate in
the citizen assemblies at the center of the Roman system of government.
It was rather as if American citizenship had been conferred on
the people in the various states as the country expanded, even
though the people in the new states could only exercise their
right to vote in national elections by showing up in Washington,
Although the Romans were a highly creative
and practical people, from their practice of electing certain
important officials in citizen assemblies they never developed
a workable system of representative government based on democratically
Before we jump to the conclusion that
the Romans were less creative or capable than we are, let us remind
ourselves that innovations and inventions to which we have grown
accustomed often seem so obvious to us that we wonder why our
predecessors did not introduce them earlier. Most of us readily
take things for granted that at an earlier time remained to be
discovered. So, too, later generations may wonder how we could
have overlooked certain innovations that they will take for granted.
Because of what we take for granted might not we, like the Romans,
be insufficiently creative in reshaping our political institutions?
Although the Roman Republic endured considerably
longer than the Athenian democracy and longer than any modern
democracy has yet endured, it was undermined after about 130 B.C.B.
by civil unrest, war, militarization, corruption, and a decline
in the sturdy civic spirit that had previously existed among its
citizens. What little remained of authentic republican practices
perished with the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. After his assassination
in 44 B.C.B., a republic once governed by its citizens became
an empire ruled by its emperors.
With the fall of the Republic, popular
rule entirely disappeared in southern Europe. Except for the political
systems of small, scattered tribes it vanished from the face of
the earth for nearly a thousand years.
Italy. Like an extinct species reemerging
after a massive climatic change, popular rule began to reappear
in many of the cities of northern Italy around 1l00 C.B. Once
again it was in relatively small city-states that popular governments
developed, not in large regions or countries. In a pattern familiar
in Rome and later repeated during the emergence of modern representative
governments, participation in the governing bodies of the city-states
was at first restricted to members of upper-class families: nobles,
large landowners, and the like. But in time, urban residents who
were lower in the socioeconomic scale began to demand the right
to participate. Members of what we today would call the middle
classes-the newly rich, the smaller merchants and bankers, the
skilled craftsmen organized in guilds, the footsoldiers commanded
by the knights-were not only more numerous than the dominant upper
classes but also capable of organizing themselves. What is more,
they could threaten violent uprisings, and if need be carry them
out. As a result, in many cities people like these-the popolo,
as they were sometimes called- gained the right to participate
in the government of the city.
For two centuries and more these republics
flourished in a number of Italian cities. A good many republics
were, like Florence and Venice, centers of extraordinary prosperity,
exquisite craftsmanship, superb art and architecture, unexcelled
urban design, magnificent poetry and music, and an enthusiastic
rediscovery of the ancient world of Greece and Rome. What later
generations were to call the Middle Ages came to a close, and
that incredible outburst of brilliant creativity, the Renaissance,
Unhappily for the development of democracy,
however, after about the mid-1300s the republican governments
of some of the major cities increasingly gave way to the perennial
enemies of popular government: economic decline, corruption, oligarchy,
war, conquest, and seizure of power by authoritarian rulers, whether
princes, monarchs, or soldiers. Nor was that all. Viewed in the
longer sweep of historical trends, the city-state was doomed as
a foundation for popular government by the emergence of a rival
with overwhelmingly superior forces: the national state or country.
Towns and cities were destined to be incorporated into this larger
and more powerful I entity, thus becoming, at most, subordinate
units of government.
Glorious as it had been, the city-state
DEMOCRATIZATION: ON THE WAY, BUT ONLY ON THE WAY
Looking back with all the advantages of
hindsight, we can easily see that by the early eighteenth century
political ideas and practices had appeared in Europe that were
to become important elements in later democratic beliefs and institutions.
Using language that is more modern and abstract than people of
the time would have employed, let me summarize what these elements
Favored by local conditions and opportunities
in several areas of Europe-notably Scandinavia, Flanders, the
Netherlands, Switzerland, and Britain-the logic of equality stimulated
the creation of local assemblies in which free men could participate
in governing, at least to an extent. The idea that governments
needed the consent of the governed, initially a claim primarily
about raising taxes, was gradually growing into a claim about
laws in general. Over an area too large for primary assemblies
of free men, as in a large town, city, region, or country, consent
required representation in the body that raised taxes and made
laws. In sharp contrast to Athenian practice, representation was
to be secured not by lot or random selection but by election.
To secure the consent of free citizens in a country, nation, or
nation-state would require elected representative legislatures,
or parliaments, at several levels: local, national, and perhaps
provincial, regional, or other intermediate levels as well.
These European political ideas and practices
provided a base from which democratization could proceed. Among
proponents of further democratization, accounts of popular governments
in classical Greece, Rome, and the Italian cities sometimes lent
greater plausibility to their advocacy. Those historical experiences
had demonstrated that governments subject to the will of the people
were more than illusory hopes. Once upon a time they had actually
existed, and had lasted for centuries to boot.
What hadn't been achieved. If the ideas,
traditions, history, and practices just described held a promise
of democratization, it was, at best, only a promise. Crucial pieces
were still missing.
First, even in countries with the most
auspicious beginnings, gross inequalities posed enormous obstacles
to democracy: differences between the rights, duties, influence,
and power of slaves and free men, rich and poor, landed and landless,
master and servant, men and women, day laborers and apprentices,
skilled craftworkers and owners, burghers and bankers, feudal
lords and tenants, nobles and commoners, monarchs and their subjects,
the king's officials and those they ordered about. Even free men
were highly unequal in status, wealth, work, obligations, knowledge,
freedom, influence, and power. And in many places the wife of
a free man was regarded by law, custom, and practice as his property.
Then as always and everywhere the logic of equality ran head-on
into the brute facts of inequality.
Second, even where assemblies and parliaments
existed they were a long way from meeting minimal democratic standards.
Parliaments were often no match for a monarch; it would be centuries
before control over the king's ministers would shift from monarch
to parliament or a president would take the place of a king. Parliaments
themselves were bastions of privilege, particularly in chambers
reserved for the aristocracy and higher clergy. Representatives
elected by "the people" had at best only a partial say
Third, the representatives of "the
people" did not really represent the whole people. For one
thing, free men were, after all, men. Except for the occasional
female monarch, half the adult population was excluded from political
life. But so were many adult males-most adult males, in fact.
As late as 1832 in Great Britain the right to vote extended to
only 5 percent of the population over age twenty. In that year
it took a tempestuous struggle to expand the suffrage to slightly
more than 7 percent. In Norway, despite the promising appearance
of popular participation in the Tings of Viking times, the percentage
was little better.
Fourth, until the eighteenth century and
later, democratic ideas and beliefs were not widely shared or
even well understood. In all countries the logic of equality was
effective only among a few and a rather privileged few at that.
Even an understanding of what a democratic republic would require
in the way of political institutions was all but nonexistent.
In speech and press freedom of expression was seriously restricted,
particularly if it was exercised to criticize the king. Political
opposition lacked legitimacy and legality. "His Majesty's
Loyal Opposition" was an idea whose time had not yet come.
Political parties were widely condemned as dangerous and undesirable.
Elections were notoriously corrupted by agents of the Crown.
The advance of democratic ideas and practices
depended on the existence of certain favorable conditions that
did not yet exist. As long as only a few people believed in democracy
and were prepared to fight for it, existing privilege would maintain
itself with the aid of undemocratic governments. Even if many
more people came to believe in democratic ideas and goals, other
conditions would still be required if further democratization
were to be achieved ...
... democratization did not proceed on
an ascending path to the present. There were ups and downs, resistance
movements, rebellions, civil wars, revolutions. For several centuries
the rise of centralized monarchies reversed some of the earlier
advances-even though, ironically, these few, monarchies may have
helped to create some conditions that were favorable to democratization
in the longer run.
Looking back on the rise and decline of
democracy, it is dear that we cannot count on historical forces
to insure that democracy will always advance-or even survive,
as the long intervals in which popular governments vanished from
the earth remind us.
Democracy, it appears, is a bit chancy.
But its chances also depend on what we do ourselves. Even if we
cannot count on benign historical forces to favor democracy, we
are not mere victims of blind forces over which we have no control.
With adequate understanding of what democracy requires and the
will to meet its requirements, we can act to preserve and, what
is more, to advance democratic ideas and practices.
CRITERIA FOR DEMOCRATIC PROCESS
Within the enormous and often impenetrable
thicket of ideas about democracy, is it possible to identify some
criteria that a process for governing an association would have
to meet in order to satisfy the requirement that all the members
are equally entitled to participate in the association's decisions
about its policies? There are, I believe, at least five such standards.
Before a policy is adopted by the association, all the members
must have equal and effective opportunities for making their views
known to the other members as to what the policy should be.
When the moment arrives at which the decision about policy will
finally be made, every member must have an equal and effective
opportunity to vote, and all votes must be counted as equal.
Within reasonable limits as to time, each member must have equal
and effective opportunities for learning about the relevant alternative
policies and their likely consequences.
Control of the agenda.
The members must have the exclusive opportunity to decide how
and, if they choose, what matters are to be placed on the agenda.
Thus the democratic process required by the ... preceding criteria
is never dosed. The policies of the association are always open
to change by the members, if they so choose.
Inclusion of adults.
All, or at any rate most, adult permanent residents should have
the full rights of citizens that are implied by the first four
criteria. Before the twentieth century this criterion was unacceptable
to most advocates of democracy.
WHY DOES DEMOCRACY REQUIRE FREE, FAIR, AND FREQUENT ELECTIONS?
... if we accept the desirability of political
equality, then every citizen must have an equal and effective
opportunity to vote, and all votes must be counted as equal. If
equality in voting is to be implemented, then clearly elections
must be free and fair. To be free means that citizens can go to
the polls without fear of reprisal; and if they are to be fair,
then all votes must be counted as equal. Yet free and fair elections
are not enough. Imagine electing representatives for a term of,
say, twenty years! If citizens are to retain final control over
the agenda, then elections must also be frequent.
How best to implement free and fair elections
is not obvious. In the late nineteenth century the secret ballot
began to replace a public show of hands. Although open voting
still has a few defenders, secrecy has become the general standard;
a country in which it is widely violated would be judged as lacking
free and fair elections. But debate continues as to the kind of
voting system that best meets standards of fairness. Is a system
of proportional representation (PR), like that employed in most
democratic countries, fairer than the First-Past-the-Post system
used in Great Britain and he United States? Reasonable arguments
can be made for both
WHY DOES DEMOCRACY REQUIRE FREE EXPRESSION?
To begin with, freedom of expression is
required in order for citizens to participate effectively in political
life. How can citizens make their views known and persuade their
fellow citizens and representatives to adopt them unless they
can express themselves freely about all matters bearing on the
conduct of the government? And if they are to talk the views of
others into account, they must be able to hear what others have
to say. Free expression means not just that you have a right to
be heard. It also means that you have a right to hear what others
have to say.
To acquire an enlightened understanding
of possible government actions and policies also requires freedom
of expression. To acquire civic competence, citizens need opportunities
to express their own views; learn from one another; engage in
discussion and deliberation; read, hear, and question experts,
political candidates, and persons whose judgments they trust;
and learn in other ways that depend on freedom of expression.
Finally, without freedom of expression
citizens would soon lose their capacity to influence the agenda
of government decisions. Silent citizens may be perfect subjects
for an authoritarian ruler; they would be a disaster for a democracy.
WHY DOES DEMOCRACY REQUIRE THE AVAILABILITY OF ALTERNATIVE AND
INDEPENDENT SOURCES OF INFORMATION?
Like freedom of expression, the availability
of alternative and relatively independent sources of information
is required by several of the basic democratic criteria Consider
the need for enlightened understanding. How can citizens acquire
the information they need in order to understand the issues if
the government controls all the important sources of information?
Or, for that matter, if any single group enjoys a monopoly in
providing information? Citizens must have access, then, to alternative
sources of information that are not under the control of the government
or dominated by any other group or point of view.
Or think about effective participation
and influencing the public agenda. How could citizens participate
effectively in political life if all the information they could
acquire was provided by a single source, say the government, or,
for that matter, a single party, faction, or interest?
... a highly favorable condition for democratic institutions is
a market economy in which economic enterprises are mainly owned
privately, and not by the state, that is, a capitalist rather
than a socialist or statist economy. Yet the dose association
between democracy and market-capitalism conceals a paradox a market-capitalist
economy inevitably generates inequalities in the political resources
to which different citizens have access. Thus a market-capitalist
economy seriously impairs political equality: citizens who are
economically unequal are unlikely to be politically equal. In
a country with a market-capitalist economy, it appears, full political
equality is impossible to achieve. Consequently, there is a permanent
tension between democracy and a market-capitalist economy.
INDIA: AN IMPROBABLE DEMOCRACY
That India could long sustain democratic
institutions seems, on the face of it, highly improbable. With
a population approaching one billion at the end of the twentieth
century, Indians are divided among themselves along more lines
than other country in the world. These include language, caste,
class, religion, and region-and infinite subdivisions within each.
India has no national language. The Indian
constitution officially recognizes fifteen languages. But even
that understates the magnitude of the language problem: at least
a million Indians speak one of thirty-five distinct languages.
What is more, Indians speak about twenty-two thousand distinct
Although 80 percent of the people are
Hindus (the rest are mainly Muslim, though one state, Kerala,
contains many Christians), the unifying effects of Hinduism are
severely compromised by the caste system that Hinduism has prescribed
for Indians since about 1500 B.C.E. Like language, even the caste
system is infinitely divisive. To begin with, a huge number of
people are excluded from the four prescribed hereditary castes:
these are the "outcastes," the "untouchables"
with whom contact is defiling. In addition, however, each caste
is further divided into innumerable hereditary subcastes within
whose social, residential, and often occupational boundaries its
members are rigidly confined.
India is one of the poorest countries
in the world. Pick your number: From 1981 to 1995 about half the
population lived on the equivalent of less than one U.S. dollar
a day. By this measure, only four countries were poorer. In 1993-1994,
more than a third of India's population-more than three hundred
million people-officially lived in poverty, mainly in small villages
and engaged in agriculture. In 1996 among seventy-eight developing
countries India was ranked forty-seventh on a Human Poverty Index,
next to Rwanda in forty-eighth place. In addition, about half
of all Indians over age fifteen, and more than 60 percent of females
over age six, are illiterate.
Although India gained independence in
1947 and adopted a democratic constitution in 1950, given the
conditions I have just described no one should be surprised that
India's political practices have displayed some egregious shortcomings
from a democratic point of view. It has suffered from recurring
violations of basic rights. India is viewed by business people
as among the ten most corrupt countries in the world. Worse, in
1975 India's democratic institutions were overturned and replaced
by dictatorship when the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, staged
a coup d'etat, declared a state of emergency, suspended civil
rights, and imprisoned thousands of leading opponents.
Yet most of the time most Indians support
democratic institutions. In an action that would not have been
taken by a people unqualified for democracy, two years after Indira
Gandhi's seizure of power, she was voted out of office in a reasonably
fair election. Not just the political elites but the Indian people
as a whole, it appeared, were more attached to democratic institutions
and practices than she had assumed; and they would not permit
her to govern by authoritarian methods.
Although Indian political life is highly
turbulent and often violent, somehow the basic democratic institutions,
blemishes and all, continue to operate. This observation seems
to confound all reasonable expectations. How can we account for
it? Any answer to the Indian conundrum must be tentative. Yet
surprising as it may seem, certain aspects of India help to explain
why it manages to maintain its democratic institutions.
To begin with, several of the favorable
conditions I've described do exist in India. Growing out of its
past as a British colony, the Indian military developed and has
maintained a code of obedience to elected civilian leaders. Thus
India has been free of the major threat to democratic government
in most developing countries. In contrast to Latin America, for
example, Indian military traditions provide little support for
a military coup or a military dictatorship. The police, though
widely corrupt, are not an independent political force capable
of a coup.
In addition, the founders of modern India
who led it to independence and helped to shape its constitution
and political institutions all adhered to democratic beliefs.
The political movements they led strongly advocated democratic
ideas and institutions. Democracy, one might say, is the national
ideology of India. There is no other. Weak as India's sense of
nationhood may be, it is so intimately bound up with democratic
ideas and beliefs that few Indians advocate a nondemocratic alternative.
Furthermore, although India is culturally
diverse, it is the only country in the world where Hindu beliefs
and practices are so widely shared. After all, eight out of ten
Indians are Hindus. Even though the caste system is divisive and
Hindu nationalists are a standing danger to the Muslim minority,
Hinduism does provide something of a common identity for a majority
Yet even if these conditions provide support
for democratic institutions, India's widespread poverty combined
with its acute multicultural divisions would appear to be fertile
grounds for the rampant growth of antidemocratic movements powerful
enough to overthrow democracy and install an authoritarian dictatorship.
Why has this not happened? A closer view reveals several surprises.
First, every Indian is a member of a cultural
minority so tiny that its members cannot possibly govern India
alone. The sheer number of cultural fragments into which India
is divided means that each is small, not only far short of a majority
but far too small to rule over that vast and varied subcontinent.
No Indian minority could rule without employing overwhelming coercion
by military and police forces. But the military and police, as
we have noted, are not available for that purpose.
Second, with few exceptions, members of
a cultural minority do not live together in a single area but
tend instead to be spread over different regions of India. As
a consequence, most minorities cannot hope to form a separate
country outside India's boundaries. Whether they like it or not,
most Indians are destined to remain citizens of India. Because
disunion is impossible, the only alternative is union, within
Finally, for most Indians there is simply
no realistic alternative to democracy. None of India's minorities,
by itself, can overturn democratic institutions and establish
an authoritarian regime, count on the military and police support
it would need to sustain an authoritarian government, hope to
form a separate country, or propose an appealing ideological and
institutional alternative to democracy. Experience indicates that
any sizable coalition of different minorities will be too divided
to sustain a takeover, much less an authoritarian government.
Democracy, it seems, is the only feasible option for most Indians.
If we approach market capitalism from a democratic point of view
we discover, when we look closely, that it has two faces. Like
the emblem of the Greek god Janus, they face in opposite directions.
One, a friendly face, points toward democracy. The other, a hostile
face, points the other way.
Democracy and market-capitalism are locked
in a persistent conflict in which each modifies and limits the
By 1840, a market economy with self-regulating
markets in labor, land, and money had been fully installed in
Britain. Market capitalism had triumphed over its enemies on all
fronts: not only in economic theory and practice but in politics,
law, ideas, philosophy, and ideology as well. Its opponents, so
it appeared, were completely routed. Yet in a country where people
have a voice, as they had in England even in those predemocratic
times, such a complete victory could not endure.' As it always
does, market-capitalism brought gains for some; but as it always
does, it also brought harm to others.
Though suffrage was highly restricted,
the other political institutions of representative government
were largely in place. And in due time-in 1867 and again in 1884-suffrage
was expanded; after 1884 most males could vote. Thus the political
system provided opportunities for the effective expression of
opposition to unregulated market-capitalism. Turning for help
to political and governmental leaders, those who felt themselves
injured by unregulated markets sought protection. Opponents of
laissez-faire economics found effective expression of their grievances
through political leaders, movements, parties, programs, ideas,
philosophies, ideologies, books, journals, and, most important,
votes and elections. The newly formed Labour Party focused on
the plight of the working classes.
Although some opponents proposed only
to regulate market capitalism, others wished to abolish it outright.
And some compromised: let's regulate it now, they said, and eliminate
it later. Those who proposed to abolish capitalism never achieved
their goals. Those who demanded government intervention and regulation
As in Britain, so, too, in Western Europe
and the other English-speaking countries. In any country where
governments could be influenced by popular movements of discontent,
laissez-faire could not be sustained. Market-capitalism without
government intervention and regulation was impossible in a democratic
country for at least two reasons.
First, the basic institutions of market-capitalism
themselves require extensive government intervention and regulation.
Competitive markets, ownership of economic entities, enforcing
contracts, preventing monopolies, protecting property rights-these
and many other aspects of market capitalism depend wholly on laws,
policies, orders, and other actions carried out by governments.
A market economy is not, and cannot be, completely self-regulating.
Second, without government intervention
and regulation a market economy inevitably inflicts serious harm
on some persons; and those who are harmed or expect to be harmed
will demand government intervention. Economic actors motivated
by self-interest have little incentive for taking the good of
others into account; on the contrary, they have powerful incentives
for ignoring the good of others if by doing so they themselves
stand to gain. Conscience is easily quieted by that seductive
justification for inflicting harm on others: "If I don't
do it, others will. If I don't allow my factory to discharge its
wastes into the river and its smoke into the air, others will.
If I don't sell my products even if they may be unsafe, others
will. If I don't . . . others will." In a more or less competitive
economy, it is virtually certain that, in fact, others will.
When harm results from decisions determined
by unregulated competition and markets, questions are bound to
arise. Can the harm be eliminated or reduced? If so, can this
be achieved without excessive cost to the benefits? When the harm
accrues to some persons and the benefits to others, as is usually
the case, how are we to judge what is desirable? What is the best
solution? Or if not the best, at least an acceptable solution?
How should these decisions be made, and by whom? How and by what
means are the decisions to be enforced?
It is obvious that these are not just
economic questions. They are also moral and political questions.
In a democratic country citizens searching for answers will inevitably
gravitate toward politics and government. The most easily accessible
candidate for intervening in a market economy in order to alter
an otherwise harmful outcome, and the most effective, is . . .
the government of the state.
Whether discontented citizens succeed
in getting the government to intervene depends, of course, on
many things, including the relative political strengths of the
antagonists. However, the historical record is dear: in all democratic
countries, the harm produced by, or expected from, unregulated
markets has induced governments to intervene in order to alter
an outcome that would otherwise cause damage to some citizens.
In a country famous for its commitment
to market-capitalism, the United States, national, state, and
local governments intervene in the economy in ways too numerous
to list. Here are just a few examples:
* unemployment insurance;
* old age annuities;
* fiscal policy to avoid inflation and
* safety: food, drugs, airlines, railroads,
highways, streets; public health, control of infectious diseases,
compulsory vaccination of school children;
* health insurance;
* the sale of stocks, bonds, and other
* zoning: business, residential, and so
on; setting building standards;
* insuring market-competition, preventing
monopolies, and other restraints on trade;
* imposing and reducing tariffs and quotas
* licensing physicians, dentists, lawyers,
accountants, and other professional persons;
* establishing and maintaining state and
national parks, recreation areas, and wilderness areas;
* regulating business firms to prevent
or repair environmental damage; and belatedly,
* regulating the sale of tobacco products
in order to reduce the frequency of addiction, cancer, and other
And so on. And on, and on.
To sum up: In no democratic country does
a market-capitalist economy exist (nor in all likelihood can it
exist for long) without extensive government regulation and intervention
to alter its harmful effects.
Yet if the existence in a country of democratic
political institutions significantly affects the operation of
market-capitalism, the existence of market-capitalism in a country
greatly affects the operation of democratic political institutions.
The causal arrow, so to speak, goes both ways: from politics to
economics and from economics to politics.
4. Because market capitalism inevitably
creates inequalities, it limits the democratic potential of polyarchal
democracy by generating inequalities in the distribution of political
Words About Words
Political resources include everything
to which a person or a group has access that they can use to influence,
directly or indirectly, the conduct of other persons. Varying
with time and place, an enormous number of aspects of human society
can be converted into political resources: physical force, weapons,
money, wealth, goods and services, productive resources, income,
status, honor, respect, affection, charisma, prestige, information,
knowledge, education, communication, communications media, organizations,
position, legal standing, control over doctrine and beliefs, votes,
and many others. At one theoretical limit, a political resource
might be distributed equally, as with votes in democratic countries.
At the other theoretical limit, it might be concentrated in the
hands of one person or group. And the possible distributions between
equality and total concentration are infinite.
Most of the resources just listed are
everywhere distributed in highly unequal fashion. Although market-capitalism
is not the only cause, it is important in causing an unequal distribution
of many key resources: wealth, income, status, prestige, information,
organization, education, knowledge. Because of inequalities in
political resources, some citizens gain significantly more influence
than others over the government's policies, decisions, and actions.
These violations, alas, are not trivial. Consequently, citizens
are not political equals-far from it-and thus the moral foundation
of democracy, political equality among citizens, is seriously
Market-capitalism greatly favors the development
of democracy up to the level of polyarchal democracy. But because
of its adverse consequences for political equality, it is unfavorable
to the development of democracy beyond the level of polyarchy.
For the reasons advanced earlier, market-capitalism
is a powerful solvent of authoritarian regimes. When it transforms
a society from landlords and peasants to employers, employees,
and workers; from uneducated rural masses barely capable of surviving,
and often not even that, to a country of literate, moderately
secure, urbanized inhabitants; from the monopolization of almost
all resources by a small elite, oligarchy, or ruling class to
a much wider dispersion of resources; from a system in which the
many can do little to prevent the domination of government by
a few to a system in which the many can effectively combine their
resources (not least their votes) and thereby influence the government
to act in their favor-when it helps to bring about these changes,
as it often has and will continue to do in many countries with
developing economies, it serves as a vehicle for a revolutionary
transformation of society and politics.
When authoritarian governments in less
modernized countries undertake to develop a dynamic market economy,
then, they are likely to sew the seeds of their own ultimate destruction.
But once society and politics are transformed
by market capitalism and democratic institutions are in place,
the outlook fundamentally changes. Now the inequalities in resources
that market-capitalism churns out produce serious political inequalities
Whether and how the marriage of polyarchal
democracy to market-capitalism can be made more favorable to the
further democratization of polyarchy is a profoundly difficult
question for which there are no easy answers, and certainly no
brief ones. The relation between a country's democratic political
system and its nondemocratic economic system has presented a formidable
and persistent challenge to democratic goals and practices throughout
the twentieth century. That challenge will surely continue in
the twenty-first century.