Instrumental Justifications of Popular Rule


Ordinary citizens are rarely charged with making consequential decisions in representative democracies. Almost all consequential decisions are delegated to elected representatives or political appointees. On what basis should we judge whether decisions should be placed in the hands of ordinary citizens or delegated to political elites? I argue that decision-making authority should be allocated in whatever way an assembly of randomly selected citizens would choose, given reasonable beliefs about the consequences of their possible choices. The standard I defend is a variation of the principal-agent model of political representation, in which the people are viewed as a principal and officeholders as their agents. As it is usually formulated, the objectives of the people are defined by the preferences of the majority. I draw on this formulation in chapter 4 to explain why the majority might rationally prefer to delegate authority to a citizens’ assembly instead of an elected legislature and why they might rationally view citizens’ assemblies with distrust, when they are organized and administered by elites. But the standard formulation of the principal-agent model does not provide a coherent standard when the will of the majority is not well-defined. Several chapters on social choice theory explain this problem and why political theorists’ previous responses to it have been unconvincing. In light of this problem, I argue for a revisionary understanding of the principal-agent model, according to which the people and its will are identified not with the preferences of the majority but rather with the decisions of a citizens’ assembly. To motivate this approach I offer a critique of the recent literature on “epistemic democracy,” which describes an alternative form of justification for empowering ordinary citizens. Appeals to expertise and knowledge have historically figured prominently in justifications of political exclusion and hierarchy, but epistemic democrats put them to use in defending participatory forms of democratic politics. Epistemic democrats claim that decision processes in which inexpert, ordinary citizens participate can exhibit greater “collective wisdom” than elite- or expert-dominated decision-making. Chapters 2 and 3 explain why these arguments sit uncomfortably with the nature of disagreements in politics



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Sean Ingham
University of California, San Diego

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