Why Democracy Solves Social Problems Better Than Markets or Hierarchies


The other day I discovered a fascinating essay entitled Cognitive Democracy on the Three-Toed Sloth, thanks to a link on Twitter from The Browser*. Co-written by Henry Farrell and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi (love that name!), it’s a thought provoking examination of the “macro-institutions” of markets, hierarchies, and democracies. As I read through it over Memorial Day weekend, it struck some nerves in me that resonated with related thoughts I’ve pursued here on Schools as Ecosystems and elsewere as I’ve begun branching out in my philosophy regarding education reform.

One thing I’ve struggled with as I mature in my ed reform perspectives hinges on a basic question: what sort of governance structures and decision-making processes are most conducive to the creation of positive and supportive school environments?

I am much enamoured with the need for transparency and “open source” development processes, especially in curriculum development, as I’ve articulated on GothamSchools. I have also written on Education Gadfly about the need for more dialogue and collaboration across all levels of those involved in public education. Central to these ideas is not only the necessity for dialogue, but more fundamentally for a diversity of perspectives to be included within that dialogue, which Will and I have argued for on this blog.

Henry and Cosma hit on some of these points. Ultimately, they argue for the supremacy of democracy over markets and hierarchies as a macro-institution for tackling complex social problems. It’s truly an interesting argument, and well worth spending the length of time it will take you to comb through it. In fact, once you’ve read it, I’d recommend heading over to Crooked Timber, where it is cross-posted, in order to check out some of the thoughtful commentary and dialogue that is ongoing there. Henry Farrell takes the time to consider and respond to the feedback.

But let me highlight a few of the passages in the beginning that outlines their perspective that resonated with me:

What are broad macro-institutions such as politics, markets and hierarchies good for? Different theorists have given very different answers to this question. The dominant tradition in political theory tends to evaluate them in terms of justice — whether institutions use procedures, or give results, that can be seen as just according to some reasonable normative criterion. Others, perhaps more cynically, have focused on their potential contribution to stability — whether they produce an acceptable level of social order, which minimizes violence and provides some modicum of predictability. In this essay, we analyze these institutions according to a different criterion. We start with a pragmatist question – whether these institutions are useful in helping us to solve difficult social problems

Some of the problems that we face in politics are simple ones (not in the sense that solutions are easy, but in the sense that they are simple to analyze). However, the most vexing problems are usually ones without any very obvious solutions. How do we change legal rules and social norms in order to mitigate the problems of global warming? How do we regulate financial markets so as to minimize the risk of new crises emerging, and limit the harm of those that happen? How do we best encourage the spread of human rights internationally? 

These problems are pressing — yet they are difficult to think about systematically, let alone solve. They all share two important features. First, they are all social problems. That is, they are problems which involve the interaction of large numbers of human beings, with different interests, desires, needs and perspectives. Second, as a result, they are complex problems, in the sense that scholars of complexity understand the term. To borrow Scott Page’s (2011, p. 25) definition, they involve “diverse entities that interact in a network or contact structure.” They are a result of behavior that is difficult to predict, so that consequences to changing behavior are extremely hard to map out in advance. Finding solutions is difficult, and even when we find one, it is hard to know whether it is good in comparison to other possible solutions, let alone the best. [Bold added]

Here are some direct parallels to the issues with schools that Will and I have been outlining on this blog. We have argued that schools, as Dewey stated, are primarily social institutions, and as such, they are highly complex, dynamic and dense with relationships and interdependencies.

We argue that macro-institutions will best be able to tackle these problems if they have two features. First, they should foster a high degree of direct communication between individuals with diverse viewpoints. This kind of intellectual diversity is crucial to identifying good solutions to complex problems. Second, we argue that they should provide relative equality among affected actors in decision-making processes, so as to prevent socially or politically powerful groups from blocking socially beneficial changes to the detriment of their own particular interests.

On the micro-level of school systems and schools themselves, these two features continue to bear saliency. Our schools and school systems are fundamentally hierarchies, linked up in a chain of command from the principal all the way up to the state governor and the federal government. Yet as many observers and advocates have been pressing on, these hierarchical structures often fail our students most in need, and the working conditions for teachers can be dehumanizing. The solution? For many new education reform advocates, markets seem to be the holy grail. But there are dangers in markets in solving complex social problems, as Henry and Cosma point out here:

On the one hand, free market participation provides individuals with some ability (presuming equal market access, etc.) to break away from abusive relationships. On the other, markets provide greater voice and choice to those with more money; if money talks in politics, it shouts across the agora. Nor are these effects limited to the marketplace. The market facilitates and fosters asymmetries of wealth which in turn may be directly or indirectly translated into asymmetries of political influence (Lindblom). Untrammeled markets are associated with gross income inequalities, which in turn infects politics with a variety of pathologies. This suggests that markets fail in the broader task of exposing individuals’ differing perspectives to each to each other. Furthermore, markets are at best indifferent levelers of unequal power relations.

Their advice?

This leads us to argue that democracy will be better able to solve complex problems than either markets or hierarchy, for two reasons. First, democracy embodies a commitment to political equality that the other two macro-institutions do not. Clearly, actual democracies achieve political equality more or less imperfectly. Yet if we are right, the better a democracy is at achieving political equality, the better it will be, ceteris paribus, at solving complex problems. Second, democratic argument, which people use either to ally with or to attack those with other points of view, is better suited to exposing different perspectives to each other, and hence capturing the benefits of diversity, than either markets or hierarchies. Notably, we do not make heroic claims about people’s ability to deliberate in some context that is free from faction and self-interest. Instead, even under realistic accounts of how people argue, democratic argument will have cognitive benefits, and indeed can transform private vices (confirmation bias) into public virtues (the preservation of cognitive diversity)6. Democratic structures – such as political parties – that are often deplored turn out to have important cognitive advantages.

In a sense, they are advancing an argument that the way much of public education currently stands in the media is in fact an advantage. We have a significant and growing amount of debate that is generated around education and education reform. As I’ve discussed before with Sara Mead, education reform should be messy. Democracy is a messy process. It would be so much cleaner, so much more efficient, if we had well-lubricated systems calibrated to deliver agreed upon knowledge and learning. But it’s important to keep the perspective on the bigger picture and acknowledge that we all benefit from deliberation and exposure to drastically different points of view.

However, anyone who works in a school or within the broader school system knows that at some point beyond deliberation, decisions must be made and acted upon, and that this process is far from democratic in application. A commentator, Jed Harris, points this out in a well-articulated comment on Crooked Timber:

Your argument doesn’t argue for democracy in any normal use of the word, but for social formations that don’t use power relations or exchange as primary constitutive elements.
Happily there are such formations and you give examples. Sometimes democracy (in the normal sense of the term) facilitates them, sometimes it is a captive of power relations and/or exchange relations and facilitates those much more.

Henry responds to Jed with this comment:

More generally – and this is a substantial weakness of our argument at the moment – we are all about democracy as a process of discovery, but have very little to say about it as a process of decision making. This needs to be beefed up, and will (probably not in this piece itself, but in its offspring).

So the key takeaway for me was that democracy is fundamental as a macro-institutional process of discovery and communication, but in terms of decision making and ground level implementation, other governance structures may be necessary. For example, in open source models of governance, benevolent dictatorships and meritocracies tend to be the typical form of ultimate decision making. One of the important facets of open source, however, is that if disagreements within the community are large enough, the original source code can be forked and developed in whichever way the new community members so choose.

What application do these insights hold for public education? I think this topic bears substantial relevance to the concept of unions, collective bargaining and the importance of bringing diverse perspectives to the table. I think it furthermore points to the utilization of technology to connect teachers directly to policymakers and include their voice and perspectives in the dialogue.

* [I’m the type who generally scavenges anything he can for free, but The Browser is one of the few online services I’m considering investing in a membership in — though I’m holding off until summer, as I already waste too much time trying to keep up with online media as it is.]

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