Waylaid Dialectic

August 5, 2010

Complacency in Democracy

Filed under: Governance — terence @ 8:15 pm
Tags: , ,

Just been to hear David Runciman speak on democratic confidence and over confidence.

I’m not sure if I got or missed the point (not Runciman’s fault – he was a clear and engaging speaker – but rather me fading at the end of the day) anyhow, I think the key idea was this…

1. Are democracies up to the task of tackling complex challenges such as climate change?


2. Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the ability of democratic societies to produce solutions to such challenges?


3. Which of the answers to these two questions is dependent on which?

Surely, you’d think the answer to question 2 is dependent on question 1. If democracies are up to the task then be optimistic; if they’re not – hello pessimism.

Except that to Runciman the causal arrow between these two questions runs both ways. If people (be it intellectuals, political or economic elites, or voters) are overconfident of democracy’s ability to produce the right answers to the hard questions then they may become complacent. On the other hand, if they’re overly pessimistic they may lapse into disengaged cynicism. At either of the extremes people may fail to tackle the issue at hand. You could I, think, call this an issue of endogenity between reality and belief.

Runciman’s solution to the issue – and he, I think, thought it was a real issue – was for political scientists (or maybe, more generally, thinking men and women) to correct, where appropriate, unfounded over or under-confidence in democracy.

Interesting, but are over and under-confidence really issues for democracy? I’m not sure but I don’t think so. If you were to ask me what the big contributing factors were to whether democracies met the challenges they faced, I’d say: their underlying political economies; the fit between formal and informal institutions; the power of ideas and their communication and how this plays out in discourses (and this wouldn’t include ideas about democracies).

Nevertheless, an interesting talk.


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