All Men are Liars:
Is Democracy Meaningless?
by Gerry Mackie
St. John's College
University of Oxford
Oxford OX1 3JP
April 18, 1997
Forthcoming in Jon Elster, ed.,
One current of thought within the rational choice
approach to the study of politics asserts that democratic voting and democratic discussion are each, generally, inaccurate and meaningless. 2
will call an emphasis on these descriptive assertions
against democracy "the
Rochester current," because its exemplar, the late William Riker, was long a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, and his work on social choice and democracy influenced many of his students and colleagues th
The Rochester current is heir to a tradition of skepticism against the possibility of democratic politics, most respectably expressed earlier in this century by the economists Pareto and Schumpeter.
In America the skeptical view of democracy is
often accompanied by
a family of arguments to the effect that "most public sector programs . . . are inappropriate, or are carried on at an inappropriate level, or are executed in an inappropriate manner."
The normative recommendation that is supposed
follow from these descriptive assertions is that we are best protected from the absurdities of democracy by liberal institutions that, to the maximum extent feasible, shunt decisions from the incoherent democratic forum to the coherent economic market, an
d that fragment political power so that
ambitious elites circulate and contest in perpetual futility; in other words, that the U.S. Constitution, especially as it was interpreted before the New Deal to prevent political interference in the economy, is one of the best of all
possible political arrangements.
The descriptive assertions against
democracy and that normative recommendation are not necessarily linked, however. There are those...
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