Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

The Priority of Democracy: A Pragmatist Approach to Political-Economic Institutions and the Burden of Justification


Politics reflects a seemingly incontrovertible condition—any imaginable human population is diverse across multiple, overlapping dimensions including material interests, moral and ethical commitments, and cultural attachments. Such diversity means, in turn, that disagreement and conflict are unavoidable. Under these circumstances politics largely consists in contests over the contours of shared institutional arrangements. Given that there almost always are a number of ways to institutionalize social interaction, any population occupying the circumstances of politics must determine which institutional form or arrangement to rely on in any particular domain. The “priority” of democracy, on our account, derives from its usefulness in approaching this crucial task. This priority derives from features that are, in our view, unique to democracy, namely a level of reflexivity that distinguishes it from other ways of coordinating ongoing social interaction. As we demonstrate, much of the literature on social institutions tacitly and improperly privileges a quite different component of our institutional arrangements, namely markets. We show that once one clarifies the premises and argumentative strategies common to this literature, it simply is not possible to sustain the privilege it accords to markets. In fact, we argue that the analytical models and explanatory strategies that institutionalists deploy actually sustain our case for the priority of democracy.

Corresponding author
Jack Knight is the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government in Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. (
James Johnson is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Rochester. (
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

AlchianArmed A. 1950. “Uncertainty, Evolution and Economic Theory,Journal of Political Economy58: 21121.

BinderSarah, and StevenSmith. 1997. “Political Goals and Procedural Choice in the Senate.” Journal of Politics60: 398416.

DryzekJohn and Christian List. 2003. “Social Choice Theory and Deliberative Democracy: A Reconciliation.” British Journal of Political Science33: 128.

EggertssonThrain. 1990. Economic Behavior and Institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

FreemanSamuel. 2000. “Deliberative Democracy: A Sympathetic Comment.” Philosophy and Public Affairs29: 371417.

GreifAvner, PaulMilgrom, and BarryWeingast. 1994. “Coordination, Commitment, and Enforcement.” Journal of Political Economy102: 74576.

KnightJack. 2001. “A Pragmatist Approach to the Proper Scope of Government.” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics157: 2848.

KnightJack. 1992. Institutions and Social Conflict. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

KnightJack, and JamesJohnson. 1999. “Inquiry Into Democracy.” American Journal of Political Science43: 56689.

KnightJack, and JamesJohnson. 1996. “Political Consequences of Pragmatism.” Political Theory24: 6896.

KnightJack, and JamesJohnson. 1994. Aggregation and Deliberation.” Political Theory22: 27796.

MilgromPaul, DouglassNorth, and BarryWeingast. 1990. “The Role of Institutions in the Revival of Trade.” Politics and Economics2: 123.

MillerGary, and ThomasHammond. 1994. Why Politics is More Fundamental then Economics.” Journal of Theoretical Politics. 6: 526.

NiemiRichard. 1969. “Majority Decision-Making with Partial Unidimensionality.” American Political Science Review63: 48897.

NorthDouglass. 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

RileyJonathan. 1990. “Utilitarian Ethics and Democratic Governance.” Ethics100: 33548.

RortyRichard. 1998. Truth and Progress. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

SatzDebra. 1995. “Markets in Women's Sexual Labor.” Ethics106: 6385.

SchotterAndrew. 1981. The Economic Theory of Social Institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

SenAmartya. 1993. “Markets and Freedoms.” Oxford Economic Papers45: 51941.

SenAmartya. 1966. “A Possibility Theorem on Majority Decisions.” Econometrica34: 49199.

StiglitzJoseph. 2002. “Information and the Change of Paradigm in Economics.” American Economic Review92: 460501.

Stone SweetAlec. 2004. The Judicial Construction of Europe. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stone SweetAlec. 2000. Governing with Judges: Constitutional Politics in Europe. New York: Oxford University Press.

TitmusRichard. 1997. The Gift Relationship: from Human Blood to Social Policy (Expanded and Updated Edition). The New Press.

WaldronJeremy. 1999. Law and Disagreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 6
Total number of PDF views: 59 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 197 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 19th September 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.