An argument against a basic right to democratic say
This handout is a draft.
Richard Arneson argues that there is no basic right to democratic say.
What is a basic right to democratic say?
Arneson understands a basic right to democratic say as follows:
(a) It is a right to an equal say in the political process that determines the laws and a right to an equal say in which people shall be rulers or top officials.
(b) It is a natural right. (It does not require any act to acquire and is there independently of whether or not it is legally recognized.)
(c) It is a right that is there independently of whether it would be a useful means to achieve some end.
Component (a) of this definition uses the term ‘equal say’. Arneson defines ‘equal say’ as follows:
You have an equal say in the political process if, and only if: should you and someone else in the society have equal talents and equal motivation to devote resources to influencing the political process, the chances of either of you influencing the outcome of the process are the same.
Components (b) and (c) are part of what it is for a right to be basic.
What is Arneson’s argument against a basic right to democratic say?
Arneson argues as follows.
First, he commits himself to a thesis that I shall call the IP thesis:
(IP Thesis) Any right that gives you significant power over the lives of others can only be justified instrumentally.
Then he argues that, owing to feature (a) of a basic right to democratic say, this right would give you significant power over the lives of others. But owing to feature (c), this right (if it exists) has a non-instrumental justification, contrary to the IP Thesis.
The IP Thesis therefore leads to the conclusion that it is impossible for there to be a right with features (a), (b) and (c), because a right cannot have both feature (a) and (c).
Another way of putting Arneson’s argument is like this: a right to equal say in the political process would give you significant power over others, such a right can only be justified instrumentally, but then it cannot then be a basic right, because basic rights are not justified instrumentally.
An objection and a reply
Is there not an intrinsic value in people being able to form a community of equals?
The simple way of understanding Arneson’s reply to this objection is like this. People may be equal in some ways, but they are not equal in the relevant ways. People differ greatly in how motivated they are to involve themselves in political work and to work out the demands of social justice, and in their political skills, such as skills in communicating a political vision and their skills in working out the details. Given such inequalities, the only reason for giving everyone a right to democratic say has to be instrumental, for example because it prevents abuse of power by corrupt elites.
(Note: the actual text is quite complicated.)
Arneson, R.J. 2004. Democracy is not intrinsically just. In K. Dowding, R.E. Goodin and C. Pateman, Justice and Democracy: Essays for Brian Barry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.