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Friday, October 24, 2014


Earlier today, I received an interesting inquiry from Lex Gill, a student at McGill who is taking a course with a distinguished political theorist who recently joined the McGill Law Faculty.  Since it raises a question that may be of general interest to readers of this blog, I have decided to reply in a post rather than by private e-mail.  Ms. Gill has given me permission to use her name.  Here is her entire message:

“Dear Professor Wolff:

My name is Lex, and I'm a student in a class on legal philosophy offered by Prof. Daniel Weinstock at McGill University. I'm writing because I hope you might be able to clarify something in your writing, if you have a moment. Please don't feel under any obligation to respond - I'm sure you're quite busy and it's quite possible my question has been answered elsewhere.  A few weeks ago the class read excerpts from In Defense of Anarchism in the context of a larger conversation about law's authority. My understanding of your argument in favour of unanimous, direct democracy is that any compromise to such a model (i.e., representative democracy or majoritarianism) poses either similar logistical barriers as direct democracy does (a 'strict agency' model of representation) or fails to respect the principle of individual autonomy. 

Something that I didn't understand about this argument in favour of unanimous, direct democracy is maybe put rather crudely here:  what about the problem of a minority veto?  It seems to me that you can easily imagine a political community where an extraordinary vast majority of people share a position, but one or two individuals disagree. In exercising that right to disagree, in your model of unanimity their vote would amount to a veto.  To this end, I don't believe that a system of unanimity actually protects from the kind of marginalization that ends up being a risk in majoritarian democracies. I mean that, in the case of a majoritarian democracy, one could imagine the possibility of a permanent minority. But what about a permanent majority that is nonetheless unable to act in their own interests? What about a situation where a system of unanimity actually does nothing to protect minority interests, but rather privileges an unjust status quo?   Surely some element of the principle of autonomy includes a "freedom to" as well as a "freedom from"? I'm wondering how then, at least in an ideal model, you would accommodate for this problem? 

As I said, it could be possible that you've answered this question elsewhere or many times before, but I spoke to Prof. Weinstock and he was unsure how you would respond so he suggested I send an email.

Thank you for your time and thought on this.  Lex Gill

I am not at all busy, and I am delighted to see that something I wrote forty-nine years ago and published forty-four years ago is still being discussed intelligently.  Mr. Gill raises several important points.  Let me begin by saying that I intended unanimous direct democracy as a limiting case designed to exhibit the impossibility of a de jure legitimate state under any but the most constrained of circumstances.  It is common when making truly rigorous arguments [in logic or mathematics, say] to consider what happens in limiting cases or at the boundaries.  If I may give an example from Classical Political Economy [since that is in my mind just now], the thesis that commodities in a situation of perfect competition exchange at their labor values is true in the limiting case of a zero rate of profit.  The price equations, with π = 0, reduce to the labor value equations and the proposition is trivial.  The reason for showing this is certainly not to suggest that there ever is a zero profit rate in a functioning capitalist economy, but to make it easy to see just exactly why prices deviate from labor values save when there is, in Marx’s terms, equal organic composition of capital.

Analogously, my purpose in arguing that a unanimous direct democracy preserves the autonomy of citizens while establishing the moral bindingness of the laws of the state is to set aside for a bit the problems attendant upon representation and focus rather on the insoluble problems with majority rule or any other way of transforming the will of individual citizens into a unified legislative will of a de jure legitimate state.

That said, it happens that when I was writing In Defense of Anarchism, there was some interesting discussion going on of cases that could be subsumed under the rubric of “unanimous direct democracy.”  For example, the first version of John Rawls’ theory of justice [in his essay, “Justice as Fairness”] analyzed the circumstances under which a community of individuals would arrive at unanimous agreement on a set of principle for settling disputes concerning questions of distributive justice.  Earlier still, modern neo-classical economic theory devoted a good deal of energy examining what could be said about situations in which unanimity partial orderings could be identified under conditions of what came to be referred to as Pareto optimality.  And of course all classical social contract theory sooner or later appeals to an agreement founding a political community whose bindingness on the participants is inferred from a unanimous social contract.

Ms. Gill is of course completely correct that unanimous direct democracy would be utterly unworkable as the decision rule for a real society.  [I believe in the nineteenth century the Polish parliament, made up of nobles, operated on a rule of unanimity.  Needless to say, not much got done.]  By the way, my elaboration of a framework for Majoritarian Direct Democracy – what I called television democracy – was really meant as a bit of Swiftian satire intended to expose the anti-democratic beliefs of political theorists and commentators who pretend to be partisans of Democracy.  But if I am not mistaken, some folks in Canada actually got a grant not long after my little book appeared to try it out.  I have no idea what results they came up with.

It has been forty-four years since Harper Torchbooks published In Defense of Anarchism, all 82 pages of it, and unless I am very much mistaken, no one has laid a glove on the argument in the intervening time, so I think we can take it as an established fact that I was right.  Since it is very rarely the case in Philosophy that anyone is right, I take some pride in that.


Jacob T. Levy said...

18th century. In the 19th century there was no Polish parliament as there was no independent Poland!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

whoops. Thank you. I was just dragging that out of my lizard brain.

E Suraya said...
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