Dahl, Robert Alan. Democracy and its Critics. Yale University Press, 1989.
Dahl (1989)’s work is a comprehensive introduction to democratic theories. He has made some strong defenses of democracy and democratic process. For example, he has argued that: 1. No person is more likely than yourself to be a better judge of your own good or interest (p.99); 2. Guardians may not have the necessary knowledge and virtue to govern citizens (p.65-p.76). Therefore, guardianship as an alternative to democracy cannot guarantee people’s liberty rights and there is also risks that guardians will abuse their power. This argument makes sense explaining why guardianship is not better than democracy and it has also clearly pointed out the intrinsic problems of guardianship, which seems unlikely to be fixed in the contemporary world.
Then Dahl (1989) has spent four chapters discussing theories of democratic process, including equality, self-autonomy, and inclusion (ch. 6 to ch. 9). His has managed to illuminate and consolidate the legitimacy of democracy, that democracy can maximize freedom, improve human development, realize self-determination, protect personal interest, and encourage participation. There is no doubt that all of these are the bright sides of ideal democracy or democracy in theory, and there were a significant number of political philosophers such as Rousseau, John Locke, Mill, etc. who have endorsed the legitimacy of democracy. Afterwards, Dahl (1989) has talked about majority rule, arguing that given the fact that majority rule can benefit the majority of people and thereby maximize the utility of the whole society, majority rule is better than “minority rule”. It is true that compared with governed by minority, majority rule is likely to be more conducive to improving the average utility, and this is why democracy based on majority rule seems reasonable in practice.
Nevertheless, there are some questions that Dahl (1989) did not answer. Firstly, regarding guardianship, though guardians may not have sufficient knowledge or virtue to govern the society, the same arguments can be applied to the mass too. Moreover, if we consider guardians as elites, it is likely that they have a better understanding of the society as a whole instead of individuals caring only about their personal interests, which always conflict. It is not to say that guardianship is better than democracy, but there is a possibility that democracy may not tackle the problem existing in guardianship either. Besides, if we need to compare guardianship with democracy, we should compare the best guardianship with the best democracy, the worst guardianship with the worst democracy, the possibility that the best forms of both regimes can be achieved, and the risks and consequences that the worst forms of both regimes may cause. In brief, it is crucial to be practical. Given the fact that in the contemporary world there are very few successful and mature democratic countries, it is reasonable to doubt whether democracy can be considered as a solution to modernity and human society.
Secondly, though Dahl (1989) has claimed that majority rule can maximize the utility of the whole society, he did not answer the question that what if unalloyed majoritarianism may very well favor the needs of the well-to-do against those of the marginalized. According to Rawls (1971), justice as fairness means that the government cannot achieve the greater happiness of a majority by neglecting the rights and interests of a minority. Consequently, though majority rule seems to be the most practical doctrine so far, Dahl (1989)’s arguments have not provided a satisfying way to solve the conflicted interests between the majority and the minority, especially when their interests are well against each other. In addition, the minority are likely to be those who are marginalized with poor resources to make their voices heard. Hence, Tocqueville (1835)s worry about the tyranny of the majority inherently exists in democracy based on majority rule. There is no doubt that minority governing may not be better, but it does not indicate that the problems of majority rule can be neglected.
Third, Dahl (1989) has emphasized on mass actions or collective actions, and the importance of political participation. Still, political participation of the mass is critical and beneficial in terms of improving human development and realizing personal interests, but there are also risks. Le Bon (1897) and Hoffer (1961) have both figured out the danger of mass movements regarding revolutionary parties, nationalism movements, and religious movements. For example, the Weimar Republic’s decaying into Nazi, Communist China’s cultural revolution, military coups in immature democracies of Latin America, are all examples of the possible risks of mass actions. Again, it is not to say that political participation and collective actions have to lead to chaos, but the danger still exists when marginalized, angry, and frustrated people collectively act. Dahl (1989) did not take into account this problem of collective actions, which may undermine his arguments.
Finally, Dahl (1989)’s arguments of the development and sustainability of institutions of polyarchy are to some extent confusing. He has emphasized that possessing a modern dynamic pluralist country (MDP) (p.251-p.254) favors polyarchy, but he has then claimed that an MDP society is not necessary or sufficient for polyarchy (p.253-p.254). In fact, he has listed several conditions whereby a country is very likely to develop and sustain the institutions of polyarchy at the end of Chapter 18, but he has not answered the following questions: 1. Are they together sufficient for polyarchy? 2. Is each one necessary for polyarchy? 3. Are they independent from each other? In other words, can those conditions affect each other? In brief, are those conditions collectively exhaustive and mutually exclusive? Given these questions, Dahl (1989)’s arguments of how a country can develop the institutions of polyarchy cannot be deemed completed. In fact, what is needed here is empirical evidence which can illustrate the relationships between each factor and polyarchy institutions. It is understandable that Dahl (1989)’s work suffers from the lack of quantitative evidence given the book being mostly theoretical and philosophical. However, his arguments could have been more persuasive if quantitative evidence were presented.
To sum up, Dahl (1989) did a good job defending democracy and democratic process because he has successfully illustrated that there is no better alternative insofar. Nevertheless, no better alternative does not necessarily mean other regimes will definitely make their citizens worse off. Furthermore, his work has not addressed the problems of democracy mentioned previously. All kinds of regimes have their own problems, some of which are inherent and almost impossible to overcome. However, it is not fair to compare the advantage of democracy with the disadvantage of other regimes, and ignoring the problem of democracy. By saying this, I am not defending any other regime such as guardianship or authoritarianism. I am just arguing that we should have more choices other than democracy and democracy may not be the only solution of modernity and human world.