13 January 2008

Defending Democratic Competition

"Competition skews the balance, and threatens real democracy. More fundamentally, it fails to comprehend freedom’s true character. In the human balance, given that we are creatures of nature and artifice, of both rivalry and love, we normally live in parallel, mutually intersecting worlds of competition and cooperation, if not quite as grimly or definitively as Ruskin imagined. Competition . . . as the law of the marketplace and the radically individualistic people who populate it, . . . distorts and unhinges our common lives and slights the necessary role of cooperation and community in securing liberty. In construing ourselves exclusively as economic ­beings—­what the old philosophers used to call homo economicus—we account for ourselves as producers and consumers but not as neighbors and citizens. We shortchange real liberty."
A few days ago I posted on the anti-democratic nature of bi-partisanship and the crucial importance of competition for democratic institutional arrangements. Yesterday afternoon I came across the essay by Benjamin Barber from which I've lifted the passage above. Barber takes virtually the opposite view to the one I espouse, condemning competition by insisting that it is somehow purely conflictual, identifying it with 'the market,' and insisting that it is anti-democratic, and so forth. Barber's argument is wrong on some many points that it is truly difficult to know where to start.* I will give it a go nonetheless:

First, even in the marketplace competition is not 'zero-sum.' In a properly functioning market (exchange under specifiable conditions of freedom & equality) each party to a transaction or exchange is better off by their own lights. Otherwise the transaction will not occur. In market exchanges agents make choices parametrically, meaning they can neither influence nor be influenced by the actions of others. Even in imperfect markets, parties to a transaction may be better off than if they did not exchange. Markets are ways of structuring competition, of coordinating our interactions. As such they are useful for certain sorts of things, not for others. Barber's broadside is simply that too broad and sweeping to be useful. Since he seems to be peddling a new book criticizing markets, I will recommend several competitors: Charles Lindblom The Market System (Yale UP,2001), Joseph Heath The Efficient Society (Penguin Canada, 2002) and any of the terrific papers written by Debra Satz on the virtues and limits of markets. None of these competitors is terribly technical. But each advances arguments that are infinitely more subtle than what Barber is trying to sell you.

Second, in strategic settings, that is, in circumstances of interdependent action where, unlike markets, what any given agent can attain depends on what she expects others will do, the degree of conflict ranges from zero-sum to pure coordination. Barber is simply willfully ignorant here since Tom Schelling, his colleague at the University of Maryland, made his point nearly a half century ago. Virtually any sort of coordination will involve conflict and competition insofar as the very notion of coordination presumes that there are multiple possible ways to coordinate. That is true of all human social interactions not just those that transpire in markets.

Third, Barber tries to recruit John Dewey to his case for cooperation. This seems, at best, a stretch. Insofar as Dewey is committed to "inquiry" and "experimentalism," he understands fully well the competitive nature of that undertaking. And insofar as Dewey either draws an analogy between inquiry and/or experimentalism and democracy or thinks the former must inform the latter (which of those options is true of Dewey is unimportant here) competition must play a crucial role in democratic interactions.

Fourth, Barber seems to think that proportional representation schemes somehow dispense with competition and conflict. I agree with him that plurality, first-past-the-post systems are far from ideal. But in any proportional scheme, parties compete for votes and then for seats. The rules for defining "proportional" are always contestable and often actually contested. And, in the absence of a majority there are all sorts of nasty shenanigans involved in putting together political coalitions. None of that can be eliminated from schemes of proportional representation in the name of "cooperation." The politicians and parties coordinate in various ways but typically they do so because they believe doing so is to their advantage, not out of some commitment to the "common good."

Fifth, on another point, it seems to me that Barber is not so much wrong as incoherent (or, as the saying goes, 'not even wrong'). Here is his pronouncement:
"Contrast electoral politics in our representative democracy with citizen politics in a participatory democracy, where the aim is not to win but to achieve common ground and secure public goods—a model of politics in which no one wins unless everyone wins, and a loss for some is seen as a loss for all. The very meanings of the terms “commonweal” and “the public interest” (the “res publica” from which our term “republic” is derived) suggest a system without losers."
Well, the notion that there is a commonweal without conflicting material interests, incompatible ethical commitments or clashing cultural attachments is not recognizably human. Moreover, the notion that "participatory democracy" presumes that we transcend or set aside all those differences in our question for commonality is an extreme view, that survives neither empirical scrutiny or theoretical argument. My former colleague Jennie Mansbridge revealed that in her analysis-assessment of participatory democracy many years ago. Again, Barber seems to willfully neglect what have for some time been commonplaces of democratic theory.

Finally, Barber seems to think he has some notion of what "real liberty" involves. He is correct, of course, that liberty presumes some scaffolding of practices and institutions. Unfortunately he neglects to offer either an analysis or an argument for what that involves. Instead he proceeds by persuasive definition, insisting that liberty presumes "cooperation and community." And he insists that "it is law that secures the conditions for ­freedom."

Cooperation and community sound like really nice things. But neither cooperation nor community operates without monitoring and "losers", those folks and groups who (intentionally or otherwise) end up on the short end of normas and practices, decisions and policies often provide the impetus for calling the terms of cooperation and the underlying conditions for community into question. They have competing ideas about how things might work. They press them forward - even in a democracy! - advancing them as competitors to those ideas and rationales that might already govern the affairs or circumstances in question. And they hope, in the process, to supplant what they take to be unfair, unjust, erroneous views and the institutions they sanction. They try, in other words, to win.

Likewise, it sounds very principled to speak of law. But not only are legal proceedings adversarila (read 'competitive') but legal frameworks that coordinate our social, political and economic interactions are themselves are the outcome of competitive, conflictual processes of politics, even - perhaps especially - in democracies.

The frustrating thing about arguments like Barber's is that they give those of us who are indeed quite skeptical of various neo-liberal and libertarian nostrums a bad name. His arguments, such as they are, are so implausible and overblown that no one need take them seriously.
* I will set aside Barber's attempt to invoke an evolutionary view in which mechanisms select nice cooperative outcomes. This is a view common on the Left and it seems to me to be merely an unfortunate update of the way too optimistic views of 'human nature' on which leftists have habitually tried to ground their arguments. One need not subscribe to the contemporary vogue for 'evolutionary psychology' to have a less sanguine view of evolutionary processes. All that, though, is an argument for another day.

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