Book #61: C.B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy

Along with Robert Dahl, I first read C.B. MacPherson’s book “The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy” in a UW political science course in the mid-1980’s. Unlike Dahl, which made a definite and lasting impression, I only recall being impressed with Macpherson, and have lost the details of his argument. So it was with pleasure that I re-read this slim volume, written in the shadow of 1970’s “stagflation” and the energy crisis. In it, Macpherson outlines four “formal” models of liberal democracy, in historical sequence beginning with Jeremy Bentham and James Mill.

In starting with Bentham, Macpherson argues that “liberal” democracy really has its origins in the early 1800’s, rather than in the England of the 1640’s, or in the American colonies of the 1750’s and 60’s. I find his argument convincing, in the sense that earlier than this, “democrats” had typically been utopian radicals, disinclined to accept people as they are or the economy as it existed, and thus no earlier theory of “pure” democracy can be called “descriptive” instead of speculative. In some ways, even Jefferson’s vision of agrarian democracy advocated a single-class society of “yeoman” farmers which constituted the citizenry, and required Jefferson (and his followers) to repudiate the growing industrial and commercial nature of the American (and Atlantic) economy. By contrast, Bentham’s utilitarian democracy accepts both people and the growing industrial capitalism as givens, and asks what political arrangements could yield the greatest good for the greatest number. His answer, of course, is the distinctly laissez-faire version of liberal democracy that modern libertarians and “market” liberals identify as “classical liberalism” (or at least, a major source and strain of classical liberalism). It is this sense of “liberal” which gives rise to the Liberal parties in the UK and later, Canada, and which serves as the basis for “neo-liberal” economic theory.

Macpherson’s second model is “liberal” democracy in the second, and more modern, sense of the term. John Stuart Mill recognized that the laissez-faire liberalism of Bentham and James Mill was insufficient to the achievement of any goals but “non-interference” (to use Pettit’s term), and that liberal democracy could also function as a moral agent in the improvement of society. This view leads, uncertainly but eventually, to the “social democracy” of the Labour party and FDR’s New Deal, and to the modern welfare state. It is this sense of the term “liberal” to which modern “progressives” feel allegience.

Within his analysis, Macpherson points out that the second model is less descriptive of actual society than the first, and although he doesn’t use the term, it is obvious that model two is largely normative. It is not clear, however, that model 1 is fully descriptive, since Bentham and especially James Mill distorted the descriptive accuracy of their theory in order to avoid its implications for universal suffrage and political participation. Instead, a third consensus model emerges in the mid-twentieth century, from the empirical work of Robert Dahl, Buchanan, and others on voter preferences, rational choice theory, and a market-oriented view of the political process. In model 3, groups of elites compete for the votes of the populace, who do not vote directly on issues but instead ratify choice of party blocs or slates of candidates, who then pursue their own agenda when in office. At some level, one must agree that model 3 is an accurate description of actual politics in today’s advanced democracies. The controversial part of model 3 is normative, however: the idea that the workings of the political “market” actually seek out and deliver the “optimal” solution to the aggregate preferences of voting “consumers.” The latter is a much more controversial statement, and in fact is likely false. On an empirical level, polling data frequently demonstrate that our chosen representatives rarely act in strict accordance with aggregate voter preferences, and any link between voter preference and the acts of elected officials is tenuous except perhaps immediately prior to elections.

A deeper structural problem with model 3, or what we might term “competitive” democracy, is that the assumption that polyarchy provides optimal aggregate preferences to voters is drastically overblown. It only does so in the vastly simplified (and overly linear) models one sees in Dahl and Buchanan’s early works. As research into complex systems and non-linear dynamics have shown, evolving systems are frequently trapped in local, lesser “optima” when the fitness or reward landscape is complex. When decisions are linked and tradeoffs complex, as they invariably are in modern political decision-making, we can expect that the fitness landscape represented by the matrix of available decisions will be very rugged. Idealizations such as Kauffman’s NK model vividly depict the consequences for the overall quality of available solutions — from any particular starting point in such a rugged decision landscape, the probability that a single “vote” or “move” on that decision landscape being optimal is vanishingly small.

Of course, Macpherson’s final model is intended to be a solution to the moral dilemma of model 3. In achieving substantial descriptive accuracy, we essentially have a more accurate version of model 1, but without the morally uplifting normative thrust of John Stuart Mill, the Progressive Era, and the New Deal. Macpherson describes something called “participatory” democracy as his solution, but the model amounts only to layered schemes of “direct” democracy designed to improve overall political participation in specific issues. His discussion is frankly speculative and ultimately unsatisfying.

I don’t recall precisely why I found Macpherson compelling back in 1985, but today the value I find in this book lies in the framework of formal models he provides for thinking about the historical development of liberalism (classical or welfare) and democratic participation. His solution for the future may be unconvincing, but his conviction that our task as liberals must be to blend descriptively accurate models of politics with normatively satisfying goals for the liberal state remains convincing as ever.

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