A Preface to Economic Democracy. By Robert A. Dahl. University of California Press, $14.95. A Citizen Legislature. By Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips. Banyan Tree Books/ Clear Glass, $6 paper.
September 1, 1985        

Writing in 1843, Marx cautioned that “it is not a matter of drawing a great dividing line between past and future, but of fulfilling the aspirations of the past…human kind begins no new work, but consciously accomplishes its old work.” In other words, one way to rouse people is to point out that the values most of us already hold, or profess to hold, imply radical social transformation—rather than, say, inviting people to spurn received values as altogether fraudulent or irrelevant. This is the approach taken in two important books: “A Preface to Economic Democracy” and “A Citizen Legislature”. Both argue from the common premises of American democratic ideology to very radical conclusions about the implications of that ideology for everyday life.

As Robert Dahl points out in “A Preface to Economic Democracy,” the American tradition has always harbored a crucial ambiguity about the relations between freedom and equality. Does “democracy” mean the freedom, restricted only by rules of procedural fairness, to amass unlimited wealth? Or does it imply a right to effective—not just nominal—individual autonomy and to an equal say in collective decisions? One of the historic blessings of American abundance is that this ambiguity has seldom opened into a contradiction. But the contradiction is there; and prolonged economic decline will sooner or later jeopardize the fragile coexistence of capitalism and democracy.

To acknowledge this contradiction, at least in public, is to step outside the circle of academic orthodoxy. For the most eminent political scientist in America to take that step is something of an event. It is admirable that Robert Dahl has seen through the mystique of propertarianism, even more so that he’s gotten there not by renouncing his former intellectual commitments but by deepening them. Unlike most of his colleagues, Dahl takes democracy seriously, and so he has become a radical, albeit the most respectable of radicals. The result is a book that argues quietly, almost pedantically, for a fundamental change in the relations of production.

For nearly 30 years Dahl has been one of the most—perhaps the most—influential students and theorists of American democracy. His early work described American society as a “polyarchy”: a collection of active, self-interested minorities, each lobbying intensely on a few issues of special concern rather than putting forth a public philosophy. That is, pluralism. This sort of analysis seemed to presuppose consensus and an end to ideology: everyone taking for granted the basic organization of polity and economy, while haggling over the details. Given the role of fascist and Leninist ideologies in mobilizing mass support for totalitarian regimes, a theory of democracy that did not appear to insist on mass participation or to emphasize abstractions was welcome in the ‘50s; and Dahl was widely ac claimed as pluralism’s leading exponent.

The theory of pluralist democracy rested on the (usually implicit) assumption that political actors compete on roughly equal terms. As Dahl came to this assumption— that America has a ruling class— the center of gravity of his work shifted leftward. In 1976, Dahl and Charles Lindblom reissued their classic textbook “Politics, Economics, and Welfare” with a surprising new preface that assailed the “incapacities” and “perversities” of capitalist society. “Existing American political institutions will not solve the problem,” they announced, and called on their social-scientific colleagues to find “new mechanisms” for realizing liberal and egalitarian values without the “harsh bias of market innovation.”

“A Preface to Economic Democracy” is Dahl’s response to his own summons. What is democracy, he asks, and when is it morally requisite? He answers that the members of an association are entitled to insist it be governed democratically when these conditions hold: the group must reach some decisions that are binding on all members; discussion and collective decision-making are feasible; membership is stable, i.e., those who make the decisions will be subject to the consequences; and there is a rough equality of competence, i.e., members are capable of judging their own interests and also of judging which decisions they must delegate to experts.

As a definition of political democracy, this is not especially controversial. But Dahl goes on to argue that the conditions hold for corporations no less than for political communities. Is this momentous analogy defensible? One obvious objection is that, unlike laws, management decisions are not binding—employees can quit. The answer to this objection, only a little less obviously, is that in the real world (very different from the world of perfect competitive equilibrium and smoothly clearing labor markets) the costs of renouncing employment are frequently as great as the costs of renouncing citizenship. In a way, they are even greater one is assured of alternative citizenship merely by moving into another community, whereas no one is assured of alternative employment, especially in the face of formal and informal employer black lists or simply of most employers’ notion of proper discipline. Another objection is that management requires special skills, which workers may not possess; Dahl replies that workers are no less capable of hiring and supervising managers than stockholders are, indeed more so. Still another objection, based on Robert Michels’s “iron law of oligarchy,” holds that any sizable association tends to be dominated by those with the most aptitude and ambition; Dahl points out that the same objection applies to political democracy, which no one proposes abandoning on that account.

Apart from these logical and technical objections, there is a possible moral objection as well: aren’t stockholders entitled to own and control the firms they invest in? The answer is: only if they have a moral right to the spare money they’ve invested. Dahl disposes of this objection with a brief, devastating critique of entitlement theories from Locke to Nozick.

At this point the reader may ask: how, lacking any logical or moral foundation, has the separation between politics and economics become so entrenched in American democratic ideology? Dahl solves this riddle with a fine piece of historical interpretation. At its origin, the United States was an agrarian republic, with an extraordinary degree of equality—at least among white males—in economic, and therefore political, resources. Given the vast quantity of unoccupied (that is, occupied by nonwhites) western land, this rough equality of resources—the ideal precondition of democracy—looked permanent. The agrarian economy generated what Dahl calls a “self- regulating egalitarian order”; so the Framers and the classical American theorists from The Federalist through Tocqueville could afford to worry mainly about the threats that political majorities, acting through the state, might pose to minority rights. The result was an antimajoritarian Constitution and an antistatist popular ideology.

The rise of corporate capitalism changed ‘ “self-regulating egalitarian order” into a drastically inegalitarian one. But in a breathtaking act of ideological piracy, apologists for the new order appropriated the individualist bias of agrarianism and transferred it to corporate capitalism. That is, they succeeded in portraying giant corporations as the moral equivalent of individual farmers, vis-à-vis the state—a success crowned by a famous series of Supreme Court decisions granting corporations the political rights of individuals. The private property of yeomen had been a genuine bulwark against centralized power; it had earned its democratic prestige. The private property of corporations was another matter: it rapidly conquered or co-opted state power—indeed, compared with labor and government, business was centralized power in America. But the connection between property and liberty persisted in law and popular ideology. Here, Dahl argues, lie the roots of Americans’ maddening imperviousness to collective thinking. This analysis offers, implicitly, the most plausible answer I have ever encountered to that venerable question: why has there been no socialism in the United States?

Having established that the economy as well as the polity ought to be democratically governed, Dahl goes on to specify what “democratically governed” implies for our actual economic arrangements. It implies, among other things, the illegitimacy of private, concentrated ownership of the core economy. Dahl’s early work included a conception of “procedural democracy”: a description of the requirements of fair political competition. One of these requirements was that group members have equal access to relevant information about group decisions and equal opportunity to place items on the agenda for decision. “A Preface to Economic Democracy” makes clear that in a society where economic resources translate into political resources, economic inequality must result in political inequality. “Both corporate capitalism and bureaucratic socialism tend to produce inequalities in social and economic resources so great as to bring about severe violations of political equality and hence of the democratic process, and…we ought to consider whether an alternative more congenial to democratic values might be found.” That conclusion may sound tame to some readers, but taken in the context of Dahl’s career and of his place in American academic life, it is poignant and powerful.

Dahl’s “alternative” is a system of self- governing enterprises, owned and controlled by those who work in them, and subject, within broad limits, to the discipline of the market and regulation by the state. Each worker, or “enterprise citizen,” would have one vote and usually (though not always) one equal ownership share in the firm. Large firms would be governed by representative rather than direct democracy; managers and consultants would be hired as needed; the state would regulate externalities and fraud, and perhaps play a role in promoting innovation and allocating credit to new firms; taxation and transfers would correct gross inequalities of income. A transition to this system might be accomplished through something like Sweden’s Meidner Plan or Denmark’s Social Democratic plan, whereby labor, in a (complicated) sense, buys up the private economy.

Would such a system work? Dahl deploys one argument after another, elegantly, rigorously, and with a deft use of the surprisingly rich literature on the subject, to show that worker self-government would be at least as efficient as private ownership by most of the conventional criteria: investment, productivity, flexibility, innovation. And by unconventional criteria—fostering moral responsibility, solidarity, participatory democracy, job satisfaction—it’s likely to be much superior.

“A Preface to Economic Democracy” is a short book and the title is not coy. It really is a preface, concerned primarily with deducing the legitimacy of worker self-government from common American beliefs about political democracy, and secondarily with sketching out a plan for implementing that ideal. Both parts of this project succeed; but what’s most impressive is the ambition. Near the end of his career, John Stuart Mill added a passage to his “Political Economy”, in which he pretty much admitted that he had thought through the moral premises of liberalism and come to the conclusion that workers were entitled to govern themselves economically as well as politically. The quintessential bourgeois liberal declared himself a libertarian socialist. Mill’s magnanimity echoes in Dahl’s quiet manifesto.

Ernest Callenbach is as far from the academic mainstream as Dahl is central to it. He’s not exactly obscure, though: his ecological utopian novel “Ecotopia” (1975)—in my opinion, the best work of social theory in recent years—has a large European following, especially among the Greens. Along with Michael Phillips, he has written an audacious little book arguing that Congress and state legislatures should be chosen by sortition—by lot—rather than election.

The logic of their proposal is this: in a representative government, the governors ought to be reasonably representative of the governed. This was also the Founders’ opinion. James Madison wrote: “The government ought to possess not only, first, the force, but secondly, the mind or sense of the people at large. The legislature ought to be the most exact transcript of the whole society.” John Adams wrote that the legislature “should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large, as it should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” Now, professional politicians as a group are not at all representative of the people at large. Fifty- one per cent of the adult population is female; 4.8 per cent of the House of Representatives is female. Eighteen per cent of the population is black or Hispanic, com pared with 7 per cent of the House. The average net worth of a Congressperson s greater than that of 95 per cent of the population. And so on.

Furthermore, the “profession” of professional politicians is not making laws but getting reelected. By the authors’ calculation, 50 per cent of the average Congress person’s working time is devoted to nonlegislative activities. In addition, electoral victories can be, and usually are, bought; and as their price increases, campaign funding increasingly determines access to political “representatives.” All this is familiar in outline, but Callenbach and Phillips make its extent and implications vividly clear.

Their solution is a 435-member House of Representatives (the same size as the present one) chosen statistically to yield an ex act cross-section of the adult population (an easy task, with computer assistance), serving staggered three-year terms, of which the first three months would be spent in training at a nonpartisan academy. In this “transcript” (Madison) or “exact portrait, in miniature” (Adams) of contemporary America, one half of the Congress members would be women; one third would be retirees, students, or housewives; one quarter would be blue-collar workers; one fifth would be black, Hispanic, Asian-American, or native American; one tenth would be in voluntarily unemployed. The median in come when chosen would be $19,000 for men, $11,500 for women. There would be nine food-service workers, four farm laborers, three auto mechanics, and one lawyer. There would, at least initially, be majorities for legal abortion, a nuclear freeze, the death penalty, and school prayer; and against busing, open housing, corporate tax privileges and, possibly, many First Amendment freedoms.

Gulp. “A Citizen Legislature” is a moment of truth for radical democrats. It’s hard to disagree with Callenbach and Phillips that “living by the considered will of the people is what democracy is supposed to be about” an that “pure intelligence—if there is such a thing—is certainly not directly related to political wisdom; the only reasonable assumption is that both are broadly distributed through the population.” But what about the 25 per cent of Americans who are (by Jonathan Kozol’s recent estimate) illiterate? Would 25 per cent of a sortition Congress be illiterate; and if not, why not? Doesn’t any criterion of exclusion entail a departure from randomness? And doesn’t that imply acceptance, in principle, of standards of competence, and therefore of competition?

The question of competence is a delicate one. Callenbach and Phillips solicited comments on their proposal and have appended several to the book. One of the respondents quotes Shaw “If you ask me, ‘Why should the people not make their own laws?’ I need only ask you, ‘Why should the people not write their own plays?’ They cannot. It is much easier to write a good play than to make good law. And there are not a hundred men in the world who can write a play good enough to stand the daily wear and tear as long as a law must.” Shaw knew an awful lot about both law-making and play- making and was, after all, a socialist. Might there be such a thing as legislative skill, and might it have some relation to legislative experience or to the study of law and public policy? Then again, the respondent who quotes Shaw is, perhaps significantly, a state legislator.

Clearly the risks and difficulties of a sortition system would be considerable. Would they outweigh the vast incompetence, corruption, apathy, arid cynicism generated by the electoral system? Callenbach and Phillips argue persuasively that the shortcomings of our present arrangement, which is based on the supremacy of money, are not reformable. And they argue plausibly that their alternative scheme would provide many incentives to efficiency, integrity, and public-spiritedness among legislators. They then conclude: “Resistance to the sortition idea comes generally, in the last analysis, from an attachment to hierarchy and a lack of trust in the people themselves.”

Well, perhaps. But what if “the people themselves” share that distrust and that attachment? This is the deepest of democratic dilemmas: all things are possible if the people trust themselves; nothing much is possible if they don’t. But like freedom, self-confidence cannot be conferred.

It may be that the chief value of “A Citizen Legislature” will prove to be heuristic. No reader of this intelligent, offbeat book will ever again take the rightness of electoral democracy for granted. And any democrat who balks at the authors’ rigorous interpretation of that noble commonplace, “government by the people,” will find herself obliged, perhaps for the first time, to formulate an equally plausible one.