The line between political science and philosophy is not always clear. Sometimes I find I pretend I am a political philosopher, while other times I imagine I am a political scientist. Political theory is perhaps a delicate balance between the two. And yet there are some who focus more on philosophy and others who rely on political science. A.C. Grayling is an established philosopher. He already has an immense catalog of books published under his name. His sources are largely philosophical, but his ideas belong to the tradition of social science. Let me explain…
The challenge for Grayling is “the idea of democracy involves a dilemma, and solving it is complex… On the one hand, there is the right of the people to choose and authorize the government under which they live. On the other hand, there is the people’s right to have government performing its functions, at least adequately and, one hopes, better than adequately, in the service of their interests.” His dilemma is between democratic government and good government. This is the same technocratic challenge Dahl considers which he refers to as guardianship. For those who missed the reference, it is a nod to Plato.
Grayling’s answer embraces technocracy without abandoning democracy. He says, “government, once formed, must as far as possible transcend politics…” Ultimately, he believes institutions must be designed to discourage political machinations, so its focus is on governance. He vociferously argues against the Westminster first past the post (FPTP) style of elections which he believes fosters poor governance and undermines democracy. It fosters poor governance because it emphasizes the political. But it is also undemocratic because it leaves many voters unrepresented. This argument becomes largely institutional despite the fact his primary idea is cultural.
The book offers a fierce challenge to the Westminster system. He embraces a consensual form of governance where power is largely divided between multiple institutions and voting is proportional. But he never cites Lijphart. It is also odd how he cites Ian Shapiro multiple times without recognizing Shapiro’s recent defense of the Westminster system. It is surprising how unaware Grayling seems of many fundamental classics of political science. It is surreal when he refers to the Schumpeterian definition of democracy through Shapiro. He never mentions Schumpeter nor recognizes this is Shapiro’s original source.
There is a strong trust within the strength of institutions. He draws significant inspiration from the American founding fathers who wrote extensively about institutions during the development of its constitution. He respects their recognition of the necessity to split the executive from the legislature. But ultimately finds the American constitutional system deficient because it relies on a first past the post method of elections and a Senate which gives undue weight to smaller states. Grayling believes institutions define the nature of political governance. He rejects the recent thesis of Levitsky and Ziblatt who argue political norms define the nature of democracy. It is a surprising approach because his main thesis is largely cultural. He wants governance to transcend politics, yet he earnestly believes institutions are the means to bring this ideal about.
Grayling does write like a master in his field. He has a strong command of political philosophy. But he veers into the realm of political science in his focus on institutions. It continues to surprise me that he does not consider some of the classics of political science from Dahl or Lijphart nor does he refer to the recent classic Competitive Authoritarianism. He places an emphasis on good governance but does not reference the works of Huntington or Fukuyama who wrote about the strength of the state. These are not empty classics designed to make the writer sound educated. These books have critical ideas which might have influenced his conclusions.
He places a greater focus on the challenges in the United States and the United Kingdom than countries who already have the institutions he desires. France has both proportional representation and a strong Presidency but has its own problems with populism in the form of the Yellow Jackets and Marine Le Pen’s political success. Proportional representation does not remove politics from governance as evidenced by the failure to form governments in Israel, Spain and Italy over the past year.
In the end, I am not opposed to many of his ideas. Proportional representation has advantages over single member districts. It might make sense to lower the voting age to sixteen. And Presidential systems do offer a form of horizontal accountability so long as there is a strong sense of institutional identity. But institutions rely on a series of political norms to give them meaning. The debate between institutions and norms is like the debate between strategy and execution. Leaders spend significant time on strategy, but it is the relentless focus on proper execution which offers the most consistent path to success. Institutions fail when their informal rules do not reflect the spirit of the original design.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com
Follow me on Twitter @DemParadox