Skip to main content

The Economic Basis of Deliberative Democracy*

  • Joshua Cohen (a1)

There are two principal philosophical conceptions of socialism, corresponding to two interpretations of the notion of a rational society. The first conception corresponds to an instrumental view of social rationality. Captured by the image of socialism as “one big workshop,” the instrumental view holds that social ownership of the means of production is rational because it promotes the optimal development of the productive forces. Social ownership is optimal because it eliminates the costs of coordination imposed by the conduct of economic activities in formally independent enterprises, and, more generally, overcomes fetters on development that result from the control of resources by individuals whose particular interests (in profit) imperfectly correspond to a general interest in productive advance.

Hide All

1 These two philosophical conceptions correspond to two variants of Marxism, the first of which has its most powerful systematization in Cohen, G.A.'s Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), the second of which has been elaborated by Jürgen Habermas. For a discussion of the two variants, see Habermas, , Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. Jeremy, Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), chs. 2,3,5. For the purposes of this paper, I am putting to the side philosophical conceptions of socialism which appeal to more substantive conceptions of the good life. For a recent account, see Elster, Jon, “Self-Realization in Work and Politics: The Marxist Conception of the Good Life,” eds. Ellen, Paul, Miller, Fred D. Jr., Jeffrey, Paul, and John, Ahrens, Marxism and Literalism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), pp. 97126.

2 For different variants of the extension of democracy conception, corresponding in part to different conceptions of democracy, see V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution in Lenin, , Selected Works in Three Volumes (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), vol. 2, esp. p. 352; Kautsky, Karl, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1971); Luxemburg, Rosa, Reform or Revolution (New York: Pathfinder, 1970); Walzer, Michael, Radical Principles: Reflections of an Unreconstructed Democrat (New York: Basic Books, 1980), chs. 15, 17, and Spheres of Justice (Basic Books: New York, 1983), pp. 291–303; Cohen, Joshua and Rogers, Joel, On Democracy (New York: Penguin, 1983); Dahl, Robert A., A Preface to Economic Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Bowles, Samuel and Gintis, Herbert, Democracy and Capitalism: Property, Community, and the Contradictions of Modern Social Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1986); Unger, Roberto, Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), vol. 2 (False Necessity), pp. 480508; Bobbio, Noberto, The Future of Democracy: A Defense of the Rules of the Game, trans. Roger, Griffin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), chs. 1, 4.

3 Following Alec Nove, I assume that a conception of feasible socialism should not depend on the premise of abundance, should avoid making wild assumptions about human beings or social possibilities, must assume the existence of a state, and must institutionally address tendencies to the abuse of power. See his The Economics of Feasible Socialism (London: George Allan and Unwin, 1983), p. 197.

4 The clearest version is in Dahl, Robert, A Preface to Economic Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), ch. 4. See also Bowles and Gintis, Democracy and Capitalism, ch. 3; Walzer, Radical Principles, chs. 15, 17, and Spheres of Justice, pp. 291–303.

5 Any particular system of self-management would need to settle such important issues as which workers have the relevant rights (whether a “residency requirement” is permissible), precisely how those rights should be protected, what methods of debt financing are consistent with self-management, and how to render self-management consistent with such concededly permissible forms of “outside” regulation as rules regulating product safety and the release of pollutants into the environment. But the fact that these are open questions which would almost certainly be answered in different ways in different cases is not a problem for the parallel cases argument. Similar questions always arise for local jurisdictions within a state.

6 On structural constraints, see Przeworski, Adam, Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), ch. 4; Adam Przeworski and Michael Wallerstein, “Structural Dependence of the State on Capital,” American Political Science Review, forthcoming; Lindblom, Charles, Politics and Markets: The World's Political-Economic Systems (New York: Basic Books, 1977), ch. 13; Cohen and Rogers, On Democracy, ch. 3.

7 Here I summarize the discussion in Przeworski and Wallerstein, “Structural Dependence.”

8 On the psychological support thesis, see Pateman, Carole, Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); Dahl, Preface to Economic Democracy; Mason, Ronald M., Participatory and Workplace Democracy (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982); Elder, J. Maxwell, “Political Efficacy at Work: The Connection Between More Autonomous Forms of Workplace Organization and a More Participatory Politics,” American Political Science Review, 75 (1981), 4358. It is suggested as well in John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Book 4, ch. 7, secs. 4,6. For a skeptical discussion, see Greenberg, Edward, Workplace Democracy: The Political Effects of Participation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), chs. 5, 6, 8. Greenberg's skepticism is, however, consistent with my use of the psychological support argument (see his remarks on pp. 167–68).

9 Mill, John Stuart, Considerations on Representative Government (London: J.M. Dent, 1972), pp. 193, 211–18; Pateman, chs. 2, 3.

10 On the resource constraint argument, see Downs, Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), part 3; Cohen and Rogers, On Democracy, ch. 3.

11 This section of the paper is based on my “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy,” in eds. Alan Hamlin and Phillip Petit, The Good Society (London: Basil Blackwell, forthcoming). For related views, see Elster, Jon, “The Market and the Forum: Three Varieties of Political Theory,” in eds. Jon, Elster and Aanund, Hylland, Foundations of Social Choice Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 103–32; Manin, Bernard, “On Legitimacy and Political Deliberation,” Political Theory, vol. 15 (August 1987), pp. 338–68; Habermas, Jürgen, The Legitimation Crisis of Late Capitalism, trans. T., McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), and The Theory of Communicative Action, trans. McCarthy, T., vol. 1 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984). Apart from its representation in “high political theory,” the notion of deliberative democracy plays a role in the “responsible party” tradition in American political science. I am indebted to Lee Perlman for his lucid explanations of the main elements of that tradition. See his “Parties, Democracy, and Consent,” unpublished. The notion also figures in recent discussions of American public law. See, among others, Sunstein, Cass, “Naked Preferences and the Constitution,” Columbia Law Review, vol. 84 (November 1984), pp. 16891732, “Interest Groups in American Public Law,” Stanford Law Review, vol. 38 (November 1985), pp. 29–87, “Legal Interference with Private Preferences,” The University of Chicago Law Review vol. 53 (Fall 1986), pp. 1129–84; Michelman, Frank, “The Supreme Court, 1985 Term – Foreword: Traces of Self-Government,” Harvard Law Review, vol. 100 (November 1986), pp. 477; Ackerman, Bruce, “The Storrs Lectures: Discovering the Constitution,” Yale Law Journal, vol. 93 (May 1984), pp. 1013–72, and “Discovering the Constitution,” unpublished.

12 For a contrast between this ideal and the intuitive ideal of fairness that Rawls draws on in A Theory of Justice, see my “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy.”

13 The force of the notion of manifestness is indicated in, for example, discussions of campaign finance. In upholding limits on campaign contributions under the Federal Election Campaign Act, the U.S. Supreme Court approved of what they took to be “the Act's primary purpose – to limit the actuality and appearance [my emphasis] of corruption resulting from large individual campaign contributions.” Burckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976). For philosophical discussions of the importance of manifestness or publicity, see Kant, Immanuel, “To Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. Ted, Humphrey (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), pp. 135–39; Rawls, , A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 133 and section 29; Williams, Bernard, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 101–2, 200; Bobbio, The Future of Democracy, ch. 4.

14 The procedure is not an initial choice situation in which principles or institutions are themselves selected. On the distinction between the role of the procedure and the role of a choice situation, see “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy.” This distinction will be important in the later discussion of motivation formation (see below, pp. 34–35).

15 I do not wish to endorse the view that all moral norms have a deliberative justification. The conception of deliberative democracy is, in Rawls's term, a “political conception,” and not a comprehensive moral theory. On the distinction between political conceptions and comprehensive moral theories, see Rawls, John, “The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, vol. 7 (1987), pp. 125.

16 As Habermas puts it, “no force except that of the better argument is exercised.” Legitimation Crisis, p. 108.

17 For a discussion of this distinction in the context of American constitutional and administrative law, see Sunstein, “Interest Groups,” secs. 4–6.

18 The importance of this qualification becomes clear later. See pp. 37–38, 40.

19 On the need to drop the assumption of unanimity from deliberative views, see Manin, “Legitimacy and Deliberation,” pp. 359–61.

20 See Elster, “The Market and the Forum,” pp. 112–13; Habermas, , Legitimation Crisis, p. 108, and Communication and the Evolution of Society, trans. T., McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), ch. 2.

21 This qualification has implications for the role of deliberation in moving from non-ideal to ideal conditions. See below, p. 37.

22 See “Sour Grapes,” eds. Amartya, Sen and Bernard, Williams, Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 219–38.

23 I should emphasize that the historical evidence shows that Stoic slavery is largely a philosopher's construction. For a discussion of the evidence, see my “The Moral Arc of the Universe – The Case of Slavery” (unpublished).

24 See Elster, “Market and Forum,” p. 119; he suggests that Habermans's view suffers from this defect.

25 ibid., p. 120.

26 ibid., p. 119.

27 For discussion of the connections between democracy and free expression, see Luxemburg, Rosa, The Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), pp. 6672; Meiklejohn, Alexander, Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government (New York: Harper and Row, 1948); Ely, John Hart, Democracy and Distrust (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 9394, 105–16. I believe that the democratic conception can also provide a satisfactory account of the liberty of conscience and the liberties associated with privacy and personhood. As a general matter, one needs to show that other fundamental liberties must be protected if citizens are to be able to engage in and have equal standing in public deliberation without fear that such engagement puts them at risk for their convictions or personal choices. This is a matter for detailed treatment elsewhere.

28 For rejection of the view that it does, see Rawls, Theory of Justice, pp. 270–74, 280–82; Dworkin, Ronald, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), chs. 11, 12.

29 Contrasting views on the problem of “sectarianism” are argued in Rawls, “The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus”; Dworkin, Ronald, A Matter of Principle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), Part 3; Macintyre, Alasdair, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981); and Sandel, Michael, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

30 Thus the account of participation in the Social Contract is presented as part of a discussion about “How Sovereign Authority Is Maintained” (Book III, chs. 12–14). It does not figure in the contractual argument that justifies the sovereignty of the general will (Book I, ch. 6). See Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, On the Social Contract, ed. Masters, Roger D., trans. Masters, Judith R. (New York: St. Martin's, 1978).

31 In the discussion that follows I draw on Cohen and Rogers, On Democracy, ch. 6.

32 Thus I find objections to “rights consciousness” implausible. Representing individuals as having rights provides public expression for the notion of the dignity of citizens, and thus provides a basis for social unity. The classical objection is stated in Marx, Karl, “On the Jewish Question,” ed. Robert, Tucker, Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition (New York: Norton, 1978), pp. 2652; and most clearly in Pashukanis, Evgeny, The General Theory of Law and Marxism, in Soviet Legal Philosophy, trans. H.H., Babb (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951).

33 Here I follow Putterman, Louis, “On Some Recent Explanations of Why Capital Hires Labor,” Economic Inquiry, vol. 22 (1984), pp. 171–72.

34 On the importance of this point, see my “Contractualism and Property Systems: Response to John Gray,” Nomos, forthcoming.

35 By “other non-command forms” I mean to include long-term contracts, joint ventures, and quasi-integration. For discussion of different forms, see Jacquemin, Alexis, The New Industrial Organization: Market Forces and Strategic Behavior, trans. Fatemeh, Mehta (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), ch. 5. For an interesting account of current shifts in forms of collaboration, see Charles Sabel, “The Reemergence of Regional Production: Changes in the Scale of Production,” forthcoming in SSRC Western European Committee volume, Experimenting With Scale.

36 The phrases come from Marx, Karl, Grundrisse, trans. Martin, Nicolaus (New York: Random House, 1973), p. 156, and are directed against the followers of Saint-Simon.

37 For discussion of instability theorems and their relevance for democratic theory, see Riker, William, Liberalism Against Populism: A Confrontation Between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1982), chs. 5–7; Coleman, Jules and Ferejohn, John, “Democracy and Social Choice,” Ethics, 97 (October 1986), pp. 625; Cohen, Joshua, “An Epistemic Conception of Democracy,” Ethics, 97 (October 1986), pp. 2638.

38 On the model of bureau-dominance, see Niskanen, William, Bureaucracy and Representative Government (Chicago: Aldine, 1971). For criticism focusing on the special assumptions that fuel Niskanen's view, see Miller, Gary and Moe, Terry, “Bureaucrats, Legislators, and the Size of Government,” American Political Science Review, vol. 77 (1983), pp. 297323; Moe, Terry, “The New Economics of Organization,” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 28 (1984), pp. 765–72; Conybeare, John A.C., “Bureaucracy, Monopoly, and Competition: A Critical Analysis of the Budget-Maximizing Model of Bureaucracy,” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 28 (August 1984), pp. 479502.

39 An especially clear statement of this view can be found in Keynes, John Maynard, General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1964), ch. 24 (“Concluding Remarks on the Social Philosophy to Which This Theory Might Lead”). The remarks in the rest of the paragraph summarize Keynes's discussion.

40 ibid., p. 378.

41 For a discussion of broadly parallel political arguments for capitalism in its early development, see Hirschman, Albert O., The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), esp. Part 2.

42 See Stephen Holmes, “Gag Rules, Or the Politics of Omission,” unpublished, for an interesting account of reasons for putting issues off the agenda, and the many devices that serve that end.

43 Unger, Politics, vol. 2, pp. 491–500, 505–6.

44 For some evidence, see Stephen, Frank, ed., The Performance of Labor-Managed Firms (New York: St. Martins, 1982), esp. chapters by Oakeshott, Estrin; Gunn, Christopher Eaton, Worker's Self-Management in the United States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), pp. 87, 119, 167, 180; Dahl, Preface to Economic Democracy, pp. 105–7.

45 See Bowles and Gintis, Democracy and Capitalism, pp. 75–79, for a discussion of the alleged advantages.

46 See Kornai, Janos, “The Hungarian Reform Process: Visions, Hopes, and Reality,” Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 24 (December 1986), p. 1699 (Table 3). Kornai emphasizes that firm size in Hungary is considerably larger. But since Hungarian socialism is not the socialism advocated here, I do not draw what may seem to be the obvious conclusion.

47 For a discussion of the ways that divisionalization aids transactional efficiency and self-management, see Sacks, Stephen R., Self-Management and Efficiency: Large Corporations in Yugoslavia (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983).

48 For a recent analysis of trends in the scale and organization of production that reinforces both points in the paragraph, see Charles Sabel, “The Reemergence of Regional Production.”

49 See John Gray, “Contractarian Method, Private Property, and the Market Economy,” Nomos, forthcoming; and my “Contractualism and Property Systems.”

50 The phrase was suggested to me by Joel Rogers.

51 See Unger, Politics, vol. 2 for extended discussion of this Legal Realist thesis; also C, Thomas, Grey, , “The Disintegration of Property,” eds. Pennock, J. Roland and Chapman, John W., Property: Nomos 22 (New York: New York University Press, 1980), pp. 6985.

52 It is consistent with this second procedure to arrive at the normative conclusion that the property bundle ought to be retied. The objection here is only to letting the unified conception serve as a premise in political argument.

* This paper develops some ideas that Joel Rogers and I presented in On Democracy: Toward a Transformation of American Society (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983). esp. ch. 6. I am very much indebted to Joel, both for the joint work that issued in On Democracy and for his insightful advice on this paper. I would also like to thank the editors of Social Philosophy and Policy for very helpful criticisms of the first draft.

Recommend this journal

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

Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 131 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 945 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd April 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.