Unhappy families: Three ways of thinking about imperfect political regimes

Traditionally, political philosophers and theorists (from Plato and Aristotle to Montesquieu) not only systematically distinguished a greater number of political regimes than we are accustomed to distinguish today (identifying several varieties of democracy and non-democracy, according to several normative criteria) but also used these distinctions for specifically evaluative purposes: distinctions among political regimes corresponded to the degree to which a political regime facilitated important values (e.g., the common good, the good life, freedom, etc.). Questions of evaluation often took priority over questions of justification. Contemporary political theory, by contrast, with some exceptions, has mostly operated within the restricted distinction between (liberal) democratic and non-democratic regimes, and has failed to attend to the morally significant differences among "imperfect" or "less justified" political regimes. Questions of justification have mostly taken priority over questions of evaluation. In this paper, I explore the possibilities for constructing an evaluative theory of imperfect (or not fully justified) political regimes. I argue that a political regime is a system for the division of the labor of political decisionmaking that can (and has historically been) evaluated from three different perspectives: the perspective of the decisions made through it, the perspective of the interests promoted and protected through it, and the perspective of its stability in regards to the kinds of characters it fosters and through which it is sustained. Each of these perspectives provides their own criteria for evaluation: the idea of a well-organized regime for the "decisions" perspective, the idea of a public-goods producing regime for the "interests" perspective, and the idea of a "resilient" regime for the stability perspective. Nevertheless, I also show that these criteria are not necessarily congruent with one another, and that a fully justified regime need not be ideal along any of these dimensions. I suggest that this problem is unavoidable insofar as political regimes facilitate the pursuit of more than one central value.
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