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February 06, 2012


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

The questions of incentives is also the subject of the book recently discussed at Prawfs: Lynn Stout's Cultivating Conscience: How Good Laws Make Good People (2010).

The "triad of coercion, persuasion, and incentives" as "exercises of power" finds an intriguing fit (as Jon Elster would note) with the triad of motivations that became prominent among 17th century French moralists, namely, passion, reason, and interest, although today we tend to conflate the last two (as in 'law and economics' and neo-classical economics generally).

With regard to your comment about persuasion and real democratic decision making I think you're right, as we can see from the differences and debates between social choice theory(e.g., as with Sen) and deliberative democracy theorists (e.g., as with Habermas). Elster provides a nice set of possible objections (I'm citing here some of them) to the democratic deliberative idea, the first of which helps account for the reason why our democratic institutions are, in the first instance, justifiably "representative" rather than participatory (such things of course being a matter of degree): "Would it not, in fact, be unwarranted interference to impose on the citizens the obligation to participate in political discussion? This "paternalist" objection might conceivably be met in various ways (e.g., where participation is facilitated or encouraged but not obligatory). Today, as Elster notes, "people who survive a high threshold for participation are disproportionately found in a privileged part of the population." Second, what if we cannot come to a rational and /or consensual agreement as a result of public discussion? What if, for example, participation only heightens or inflames disagreement and discord? Third, time constraints mean we're invariably involved in aggregating, not simply transforming (persuading) preferences. Fourth, perhaps participation or the body politic as a whole becomes more selfish and irrational as a result of increased political interaction (think 'group think,' witchhunts, demagogues, mass hysteria, conformity...). And, relatedly, we should not assume a democratically deliberated consensual decision is rational: it may be rather perverse, owing to social psychological mechanisms like the "bandwagon" effect, sour grapes, what have you.

Deliberation, as Susan C. Stokes reminds us, can have both salutary and pathological effects. More widely, we return with Robert E. Goodin to the "problem with which democratic elitists began at the turn of the last century [which] returns to haunt democratic theory in its most recent incarnations. How can we constructively engage people in the public life of a mass democracy, without making wildly unrealistic demands on their time and attention?" Goodin himself attempts to address the question in two recent works: Reflective Democracy (2003), and Innovating Democracy: Democratic Theory and Practice After the Deliberative Turn (2008). Amartya Sen reworks social choice theory in Rationality and Freedom (2002).

Kim Krawiec

Thanks for this, Patrick.

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