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11/13/2005

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Miss Lonelyhearts

Posner's last rebuttal is disingenuous for lack of subtlety. Democracy is indeed a political system 'in which the principal officials are forced to stand for election at regular intervals.' But this formula leaves a great deal unsaid: for instance, the meaning of election. One thing we assume from the word on its face is that it is free from both coercion and the arbitrary exclusion of any one class (exclusion of the homeless is not arbitrary). Neither of these are materially affected by campaign spending.

But another thing we assume is that the constituency has equal access to information about each candidate. Democracy, one would hope, implies at least this kind of equality. Yet unlimited campaign spending on unequal budgets impairs the implication by increasing or decreasing the preponderance of information available for either side.

Berlusconi's control of the media in Italy has not made that country more democratic, even if elections continue on schedule. And an official need not personally own the media to influence it as Berlusconi can. Democracy is impaired so far as the partiality of the press is impaired, hence the current rage about liberal or conservative bias in the media.

The right to free speech is obviously necessary. This is about something different--the right to a fair hearing--and whether this right is coterminous with the amount of funds a candidate can raise. The logic of simon-pure economics answers yes, and any other answer leads into a different morass, but there are other answers.

In this regard it is interesting how Posner uses the language of politics ('virtual representation') to speak about the economics of campaign finance. Underlying the argument is the truth that as a society, we vote first with money and then with ballots. But it is unclear to me that the competing interests of the wealthy lead them and their corporations to de facto representation of workers. After all, whatever their differences, by definition the wealthy do all have in common the one monolithic fact of their wealth.

Posner's glib definition hints at no striations in 'levels' of democracy at all: either officials are forced to stand for election or not. It ignores that we want to make finer judgments between candidates. What does election mean? Democracy is not a political system in which, at regular intervals, the principal offices are forced to stand for auction. That is the point the argument Posner rebuts is trying to make.

Justin

As to the last paragraph, "...The identity and policies of the officials may well be influenced by the underlying distribution of income and wealth in society, but that does not make the society less democratic." I believe Posner is defining democracy in a very limited way, which certainly is not true to the common usage. It is unfair to say that the commenters are wrong because their (generally accepted) use of the language does not fit with Posner's particular technical terminology. This is particularly unfortunate because this quibbling is used to avoid addressing the fundamantal question: *is* democracy (as it is usually understood) impaired by unlimited campaign contributions? The answer is not from clear, and those who made the comments might feel that they are due a more direct answer.

Martin Bento

First of all, I notice Judge Posner made no atttempt to defend his previous assertion, attacked by me and others, that magnitude of contribution could measure intensity of preference between donors. So let's consider that point won. What then does Posner argue?

First he suggests that decreasing campaign contributions will decrease the quantity or quality (it is not clear which he is arguing, or both) of information available to, or at least actually absorbed by, the public, and that this would lead to poorer decision-making on the part of said public. If this is true, one would expect that the dramatic increase in campaign expenditures over the past three decades to have led to a comparably dramatic increase in such information, independent of other increases that can reasonably be traced to the Internet or the portions of cable television not financed by campaigns. I submit that this is untrue on its face, but would welcome any attempt to establish it empirically rather than by bald assertion.

Posner asserts further that the wealthy are not a monolith and represent various interests that are sometimes in conflict. This has to be true to some degree, but is it common and significant enough to neutralize objections to the concentration of political power that wealth provides when its political influence is not curbed? The proper approach to this question is empirical. If the wealthy are not significantly a monolith, then their political positions should neither be significantly monolithic. Their positions, for example, on taxation or free trade should reflect the approximate distribution in society as a whole. Clearly, this is not the case. One can say, therefore, that the wealthy are substantially a monolith because their positions are, in fact, significantly monolithic. That they may not be absolutely monolithic need not detain us; as in most such matters the criterion that matters is statistical significance, and that criterion is clearly met for most issues, possibly for all of them. In my previous response, I wondered if there were any major contentious issues of the last decade where wealth did not statistically skew the distribution of opinion. Though I conceded it was possible in principle, I could not and can not think of an example in fact. The notion that the wealthy may take unselfish positions is not even a factor unless it is established that the wealthy are more likely to take such positions than others; otherwise, it is just statistical noise. It certainly is not obvious that the competition for wealth selects for an indifference to self-interest; that would certainly need to be argued, and hard.

After some analysis of minor points, Posner gets to the core of the matter:

"Finally, I disagree with the suggestion, common though it is, that unlimited campaign spending impairs democracy by giving political power to the wealthy, or more precisely to any individuals or groups able and willing to spend disproportionately to support particular candidates or policies. The suggestion confuses democracy with equality. Democracy is the political system in which the principal officials are forced to stand for election at short intervals. The identity and policies of the officials may well be influenced by the underlying distribution of income and wealth in society, but that does not make the society less democratic."

This is incorrect. The premise of democracy is majority rule, and there can be no such without political equality. Here is the definition from the American Heritage Dictionary:


1. Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.
2. A political or social unit that has such a government.
3. The common people, considered as the primary source of political power.
4. Majority rule.
5. The principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community.

Notice that both majority rule and social equality are included. Without equality, of course, majority rule is incoherent because if the elements of a set are unequally weighted, then the numeric majority and the weighted majority may not correspond. However, majority rule in this instance is clearly intended to refer to numerical majority; indeed, that is the whole point of the voting and the elections. The elections are the means, not the objective. If the mere fact of elections is sufficient to establish a democracy, then the Soviet Union itself was a democracy, at least until 1936, since the Congress of Soviets was elected (only the "proletariat" could vote, but that was the bulk of the population, at least under the prevailing definition). Of course, the USSR was not a democracy, because the elections did not actually reflect majority opinion. This is primarily because the real political power rested in the Communist Party, not in the formal government, and members of that party had disproportionate powers to influence the elections. Nonetheless, those were the existing power relations in the society, and if we accept that a democracy is any society that holds elections, and that it is legitimate for the elections to be skewed by the unequal power relations in the society, then the USSR qualifies. Indeed, it is no "less democratic" than the US, since Posner holds that elections are no less democratic, even if skewed to the existing unequal power relations.

This brings up a deeper point. Posner states that his definition of democracy is "uncommon". That is certainly correct, However, there are certain basic concepts whose understanding must be shared at least among those whose social function relies on that concept. A surgeon cannot have an "uncommon" definition of the liver, though it may be harmless for a bricklayer to be confused on this point. When the surgeon is tasked with removing part of the liver, he cannot take out the kidney because he defines the organs differently. Can someone with a definition of democracy fundamentally at odds with the general understanding that underlies our society and its implicit social contract legitimately serve in the judiciary of a democratic society?

A side note to Miss Lonelyhearts. I think I'm generally sympathetic to the argument you are trying to make, but I don't know what you mean by saying that exclusion of the homeless from the vote is not arbitrary. Could you clarify?


Miss Lonelyhearts

The homeless have no addresses for purposes of voter registration.

Martin Bento

MissLonelyhearts, thanks for the response. I don't see this as very compelling, however, especially for the purpose of denying a basic right at the heart of democracy. Homeless can be and are issued ID, and these cards seem to provide the same level of protection against identity theft or duplication for the homeless as for others, although the specifics vary somewhat from state to state. If nothing else, assigning homeless people mailing addresses - shelters or whatnot - is easy to do and not unusual.

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