Tag Archives: voice

Democracy, Inequality and Voice

Most of us have heard the old adage “politics is war without the guns.” It’s shorthand for a basic premise of democratic theory: when people have an opportunity to express their preferences and argue for their point of view in a fair fight, they are less likely to shoot each other and far more likely to abide by the results, albeit grudgingly, if they lose the fight.

There’s a substantial amount of history supporting that thesis. What we sometimes forget, however, is that the fight must be fair. Not only that, participants must view it as fair. At the end of a public debate, if the combatants have been able to express their positions, articulate their concerns–if they’ve had what sociologists sometimes refer to as voice–they generally can live with adverse results.

Lawyers often see this same psychology; clients who would be well-advised to settle a case often insist on having their “day in court,” even when that decision entails considerable risk, because they want the opportunity to make their case in a public forum.

Humans want to be heard. We want our points of view acknowledged. When we feel our arguments have been dismissed without proper consideration–when we feel “dissed”– we get belligerent.

One of the reasons that inequality is so corrosive to democratic systems is that people without money are almost always people without voice. A healthy democratic system doesn’t require a population where everyone has comparable resources, but it does require a population where everyone who wants to participate–who wants to be heard–has sufficient resources to do so.

Anyone who has been part of a legislative body–as an elected official, a paid lobbyist or a citizen activist–will confirm that the voices of poor people are rarely if ever heard in the corridors of power. When policymakers move to cut food stamps or drug test welfare recipients, they rarely hear testimony from people who will actually be affected by those actions. They hear disproportionately from business and taxpayer groups. With the exception of social welfare nonprofits (most of which have their own resource issues), no one is there to lobby for the poorest American citizens.

And the poor sure aren’t contributing to political campaigns.

When poor people have virtually no voice, even in the decisions that most directly affect them, that hurts democracies in two ways.

When legislators make decisions based on partial information, even the best-intentioned among them will opt for policies that have by definition been inadequately vetted. They will pass laws with unintended (and often unfortunate) consequences.

Worse, the people who had no voice–the people who are affected by rules they had no part in creating and no opportunity to debate–tend to be the people with the most legitimate grievances and the fewest outlets for expressing those grievances. When a society includes a large number of people who have effectively been disenfranchised–people who, thanks to their poverty, have little to lose– history tells us they will eventually take to the streets.

That’s not only bad for democracy and rational policymaking–it’s bad for business. Civil unrest is certainly not in the best interests of the privileged and well-to-do, who would be better served by sharing some reasonable measure of their power and wealth.

There’s another old adage that comes to mind: pigs get fed. Hogs get slaughtered.

Power, Voice and Bowling Alone

Americans are increasingly focused on economic inequality, and especially the growing and dangerous gulf between the 1% and everyone else. But of course, no element of our social ecosystem is separate and distinct from the other elements, and the financial gap between wealthy and working class citizens is closely connected to other kinds of inequality.

Children from poor families attend poorly performing schools. The streets and sidewalks and parks in poor neighborhoods are rarely as well maintained as those in wealthier precincts. The prevalence of “food deserts” in poor neighborhoods—the lack of markets selling healthy foods at reasonable prices—has been the subject of numerous articles. These and other tangible manifestations of unequal access to social goods (health care, for example) are relatively obvious.

But there is a less-often recognized kind of inequality: disproportionate access to the public square and the marketplace of ideas. This lack of access to contending perspectives, abetted by the steady erosion of what sociologists call voice, doesn’t just disadvantage the poor. It hurts us all, by depriving us of perspectives we need to hear and understand.

It is certainly true that many Americans, not just the poor, have historically opted out of democratic deliberations. But they had voice–and influence–through a multitude of civic organizations.

As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote

 Political scientists after World War II hypothesized that even though the voices of individual Americans counted for little, most people belonged to a variety of interest groups and membership organizations – clubs, associations, political parties, unions – to which politicians were responsive.

 “Interest-group pluralism,” as it was called, thereby channeled the views of individual citizens, and made American democracy function.

 What’s more, the political power of big corporations and Wall Street was offset by the power of labor unions, farm cooperatives, retailers, and smaller banks. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith approvingly dubbed it “countervailing power.” These alternative power centers ensured that America’s vast middle and working classes received a significant share of the gains from economic growth.

 Beginning in 1980, those organizations—a vibrant part of civil society—began to wither. Robert Putnum famously documented the decline in Bowling Alone.

The decline of unions has been especially consequential. As Reich notes, however, other former centers of countervailing power – retailers, farm cooperatives, and local and regional banks – also lost ground to national discount chains, big agribusiness, and Wall Street. Many of these changes were an intentional result of public policies—everything from Right to Work laws to slackened banking regulations. Others reflected economic and technological shifts.

Meanwhile, political parties stopped representing the views of most constituents. As the costs of campaigns escalated, parties morphed from state and local membership organizations into national fund-raising machines.

Although Reich does not include it in his list, we might add the effects of so-called “privatization”—especially the practice of government contracting with nonprofit organizations to deliver public services. Nonprofit scholars have long expressed concern that the growing dependence of human services nonprofits on government dollars has operated to “hollow out” their essential character as mediating institutions.

Reich concludes that the only way to turn this situation around is through greatly increased political activism. I agree.

The open question is whether average Americans have the time, the energy, or the will to  reassert their right to be heard, and to insist on retaking their rightful place at the civic table.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exit, Voice and Reform

Albert Hirschman, an eminent economist and political thinker, has died. He was a towering figure, an economist who refused to reduce human interactions to commercial transactions, and who understood that human behavior is motivated by more than a desire for comparative advantage.

The book for which Hirschman is best known is his classic  Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. The Economist gives a good summary of its basic argument:

Mr Hirschman argued that people have two different ways of responding to disappointment. They can vote with their feet (exit) or stay put and complain (voice). Exit has always been the default position in the United States: Americans are known as being quick to up sticks and move. It is also the default position in the economics profession. Indeed, when his book appeared, Milton Friedman and his colleagues in the Chicago School were busy extending the empire of exit to new areas. If public schools or public housing were rotten, they argued, people should be encouraged to escape them.

Mr Hirschman raised some problems with the cult of exit. Sometimes, it entrenches the status quo. Dictators may rule longer if their bravest critics flee abroad (indeed, Cuba uses emigration as a safety valve). Monopolies may have an easier life if their stroppiest customers find an alternative. Mr Hirschman got the idea for his book during a ghastly train journey in Nigeria: he concluded that the country’s railways were getting worse because the most vocal customers were shifting to the roads.

Exit may also reinforce the cycle of decline. State schools may get worse if the pushiest parents take their custom elsewhere. Mr Hirschman worried that a moderate amount of exit might produce the worst of all worlds: “an oppression of the weak by the incompetent and an exploitation of the poor by the lazy which is the more durable and stifling as it is both unambitious and escapable.”…

But Mr Hirschman’s overall point was not that exit is bad but that exit and “voice” work best together. Reformers are more likely to be able to fix an organisation if there is a danger that their clients will leave. The problem with Friedman et al was that they focused only on exit and not on how exit and voice could be used to reinforce each other.

I’ve quoted a rather long segment of the Economist’s piece, because Hirschman’s point is critically important, and all too frequently ignored.

Without the right to exit, there can be no freedom. But if our only choice is between shutting up and leaving, there can be no progress, no institutional improvement. That’s the great virtue of dissent, of voice–something the  “love it or leave it” folks seem unable to grasp.

Sometimes, we want to remain in a situation–a marriage, a job, a country–because we care enough to want to improve it.