Corruption of and by democracy

My article “Cognitive Corruption and Deliberative Democracy” has now been published in the journal Social Philosophy and Policy, in an issue dedicated to corruption.

I may be wrong, but I believe it’s the first thing to defend deliberative democracy with the argument that citizens “take off their party hats”. In other words, if we have a random cross-section of (say) 200 or so citizens, debating the pros and cons of a policy, they are more likely to try to argue the merits of the case, rather than being driven by what their party would like, what would put opposing parties in a difficult position, and so on.


Picture (unrelated): Sándor Molnár, “Dragon Slayer” (1966), in the Hungarian National Gallery (from my recent trip to Budapest)

When he read this paper, Mike Munger – a classical liberal/libertarian opposed to deliberative democracy – said “I don’t like this paper, because it makes me think positively about deliberative democracy”. Praise indeed!

The article also redefines corruption, not as “misuse of public office for private gain”, the standard definition, but “neglect of public duty for non-public gain” – a broader idea which also includes many historical understandings which the standard definition excludes. (“Office” comes from the Latin officium, meaning duty.)

The article is partly historical, looking at ideas of what I call “cognitive corruption” (corruption of judgement) in the work of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bentham and Mill. They have some really juicy insights.


A key idea is that many commitments – including commitments to parties – can corrupt our impartiality. Parties are probably inevitable in modern democracies, at least for the time being, but in some respects they seriously weaken democracy and rationality.

Here’s eight key ideas from the paper:

1) cognitive corruption—the corruption of judgment;
2) auto-corruption, and impartiality potentially being corrupted by having a
stake in something;
3) corruption not as misuse of public office for private gain, but neglect of public
duty for non-public gain;
4) corruption for party gain;
5) a system of party corruption;
6) the arbitrariness of party policy positions, with decisions often made on inauthentic
grounds rather than being driven by the force of the better argument;
7) deliberative democracy as a non-hierarchical method of making decisions
where citizens remove their party hats; and
8) the importance of getting the right dispositions, not just the right institutions/

The paper is in the Winter 2018 issue of Social Philosophy and Policy, but was only published recently.


Robert Dahl (1915-2014)

Robert Dahl has passed away, aged 98.


Here are five things that stand out for me in Dahl’s work.

  1. We don’t have democracy, we have polyarchy (see Polyarchy, 1971).
  2. The parts of the US constitution which are the least democratic are the parts which are the hardest to change (see How Democratic is the American Constitution?, 2002 pp. 154-5).
  3. ‘In a rough sense, the essence of all competitive politics is bribery of the electorate by politicians’ (A Preface to Democratic Theory, 1956 p. 68).
  4. ‘My commitment has been to democracy, to liberty, and to a kind of equality …. [E]conomic institutions for me … are seen as quite instrumental; it’s like choosing a Ford or a Toyota, where I have about that much emotional investment in one or the other, whereas I have a deep emotional investment in the nature of the political system and the sort of freedoms that exist in it’ (in Ian Shapiro and Grant Reeher, eds., Power, Inequality, and Democratic Politics, 1988 pp. 158-9).
  5. Dahl’s definition of power was more or less right. Steven Lukes’s vastly overrated critique confuses Dahl’s concept of power and how Dahl studied power. There’s no reason to reject the former just because of the significant problems with the latter.

And here are four points about how Dahl studied democracy:

  1. ‘I have always tried to formulate what I’m doing … in the form of a question. Most of my books open with a question in the first paragraph. … This technique so focuses the mind on what’s to follow that I’m astounded when other people don’t use it’ (in Gerardo Munck and Richard Snyder, eds., Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics, 2007 p. 136).
  2. It helps to combine ‘the normative and empirical aspects of democracy … in a single theoretical perspective’ (Democracy and its Critics p. 6).
  3. Dahl’s case for democracy, in Democracy and its Critics, is both negative and positive – negative, because despite democracy’s flaws the alternatives are worse, and positive, because it involves a commitment to moral equality. This is better than the Churchill defence, which is too negative.
  4. Revealingly, Dahl called the book Democracy and its Critics, and tries to make his critics’ case as strong as he can, rather than attacking caricatures or weak versions. Compare Benjamin Barber, who prefers to go for the straw jugular.

In an interview published in 2007, Dahl said:

the writers who had the most impact on my thinking were people with whom I disagreed, but who were more than worthy political opponents. They were giants, and because they were giants they set down a challenge I could struggle with my entire life [e.g. Plato, Marx, Schumpeter]. … I think of it as an imaginary dialogue. The most productive dialogues are not adversarial in the sense of trying to win points, like in a tennis game. I think of it as dialectical in the Platonic and Hegelian sense. I start here, my adversary is over there. I move over a little bit, then they move to a new position, and so forth. Conversations like that are rare. When you have one, you come out of it feeling great (in Gerardo Munck and Richard Snyder, eds., Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics, 2007 pp. 116-9).

I believe that most of the key developments in democratic theory in the last 30 years have come from philosophers, not political theorists. But political theorists like Robert Dahl, Jane Mansbridge and David Beetham are exceptions.

Nadia Urbinati and Bryan Garsten ‘Liberalism and Democracy’ conference at QMUL, Jan 10


I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s conference on recent work by Nadia Urbinati (Columbia) and Bryan Garsten (Yale) at Queen Mary, University of London.

Nadia Urbinati

Nadia Urbinati

Bryan Garsten

Bryan Garsten

The conference focuses on Nadia Urbinati’s forthcoming book Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People (Harvard University Press, 2014), and Bryan Garsten’s ongoing work on liberal religion and modern liberty.

The speakers are John Dunn (Cambridge), Mónica Brito Vieira (York), Gareth Stedman Jones (QMUL), and Georgios Varouxakis (QMUL), with responses from Nadia Urbinati and Bryan Garsten at the end.

The programme is here. You can book a place here.