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Robert Dahl’s “On Democracy” Essay

Early in Dahl’s book he answers the question “what is democracy?” by enumerating a list of five criteria that must be met in order for a government to be recognized as fully democratic. These criteria involve all citizens having equal and satisfactory opportunities to participate in the steering of policy. To realize all of these criteria would mean that it has achieved ‘ideal’ democracy, but Dahl concedes that it is not practical to expect a perfect democracy given the realities of the world we live in. The criteria are: 1) Equal and effective participation in stating one’s views and preferences in regard to policy 2) Equal and effective opportunity to vote on policy-making where all votes are counted as equal 3) Equal and effective opportunity for citizens to learn about alternate policies and their potential consequences (‘enlightened understanding’) 4) Equal and effective opportunity for each citizen to determine how, and which, policy matters are to be place on the policy agenda 5) Equal opportunity for all adult permanent residents of a polity to have full rights in regard to the first four criterion listed above.

Dahl distinguishes between ancient republics and democracies by pointing out that that are both essentially the same in that they are merely forms of popular government. The Romans chose the word ‘republic’ and the Greeks chose the word ‘Democracy’, although they both had very similar governments. Both lacked elected representatives, both lacked popular locally elected governments that answered to a national government, and both were presided over by a minority of participants. Indeed, most were usually men of some means.

Commoners, women and ethnic minorities were not part of the equation. Thus, though the word ‘republic’ loosely translates to “affairs of the people”, it might better have been called ‘resdivitum’ which loosely translates to “affairs of the rich”. Dahl coined the term ‘polyarchy’ in 1956 and in “On Democracy” he defines it as rule by the many. Specifically, he notes that he uses the term in reference to any “democratic government on a large-scale or nation state or country” and having six crucial components. These are:

1) Elected officials
2) Free, fair and frequent elections
3) Freedom of expression
4) Alternative sources of information
5) Associational autonomy (freedom to assemble, create new political parties, etc.)
6) Inclusive citizenship (no permanent resident may be denied the above rights) Dahl then answers the question “why democracy?” by presenting a list of ten positive outcomes of practicing democracy. This list of advantages includes: averting tyranny, the institution of essential rights, general freedom, self determination, moral autonomy, human development, the protection of personal interests, political equality, peace-seeking, and prosperity. Dahl argues that democracy is not merely a system of government but is also inherently a system of rights for citizens. This is because the five criteria, or standards, necessary for a true and full democracy are reliant upon on the granting of rights (to participate, to vote, etc.) to the citizenry in practice. To draft a constitution and grant rights to citizens without ensuring that those rights are protected is to perpetuate a faux democracy. The issue of ‘moral autonomy’ is another important point that Dahl addresses in laying out the advantages of democracy.

By ‘moral autonomy’ he means that citizen-participants in a democracy have a right to make their opinions known in regard to which laws should be enacted. In essence, citizens choose their own laws by which to be governed. In order to realize this self-determination of laws, citizens are also guaranteed the right to negotiate, deliberate and compromise in regard to these rules as they see fit. In the end, while there will be few instances of unanimous decision about whether a law should be enacted, in a democracy the majority will see their opinions carry the day. As a vocal critic of the bank bailouts and a member of ‘Occupy Hong Kong’, of most interest to me while reading the book was the chapter discussing the economic inequalities that result from market-capitalism and how this harms democracy.

Interestingly, although in Chapter 13 Dahl held that a modern market economy is integral to the making of favorable conditions in which democracy can thrive, in Chapter 14 he laid out some dangers that a market economy can present to democracy. Dahl wrote that market-capitalism without strict government oversight, regulation and intervention. He wrote that market-capitalism cannot be self-regulating and while he is generally correct, I thought immediately of the thousands of investment bank lobbyists who do in fact present changes to existing banking regulations law to politicians who need campaign finance money.

Dahl argued that the economic inequality that results from market-capitalism creates another inherent problem- the limitation of democratic potential by the creation of inequality in the distribution of political resources. In essence, financial success in a market-capitalist society very often comes with a high degree of influence over politics, legislation, and even the judiciary. Money talks and this, I fear, will continue to be the greatest challenge facing American democracy in the future. If, for example, the ever-growing power of corporations continues to afford them influence over our government, I do think it will have a serious detrimental effect on many of the rights that we now enjoy.

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[ 1 ]. Dahl, Robert Alan. “What is Democracy?” On Democracy. 1995. Reprint. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 38. Print. [ 2 ]. Dahl, Robert Alan. “What Political Institutions Does Large-Scale Democracy Require?” On Democracy. 1995. Reprint. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 85. 92. Print. [ 3 ]. Dahl, Robert Alan. “Why Democracy?” On Democracy. 1995. Reprint. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 45. Print.


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