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What Kind of Political Equality?

Democracy
Political Theory
Voting
Normative Theory
Chiara Destri
Sciences Po Paris
Chiara Destri
Sciences Po Paris

Abstract

Political equality is often considered a necessary requirement of liberal democracies (Dahl, 1998; Christiano, 2008). However, since John Stuart Mill, various scholars have objected against certain intuitively key features of political equality, such as the equal distribution of voting rights (Mill, 1861; Brighouse and Fleurbaey, 2010; Angell and Huseby, 2020). While most scholars present these objections as consistent with a broader support for democratic institutions, it is open to question whether and to what extent democracy is conceivable without political equality. To this end, it is paramount to understand which conception of political equality we should favour. James Lindley Wilson’s recent contribution is an important step forward in this direction (Wilson, 2019). In his book, Wilson offers a conception of “political equality as equal consideration of citizens’ judgments” and rejects an alternative view which he dubs “political equality as equal power”. The latter view proposes to equalise citizens’ power or influence over collective decisions and its main institutionalisation is the right to vote. His arguments against this conception, which are reminiscent of Ronald Dworkin’s famous objections against equality of impact (Dworkin, 1987), are three. Firstly, the equal power view is inconsistent with representative democracy, insofar as it requires that all citizens take direct part in collective decision making. Secondly, it is insufficient as a conception of political equality because it pays little attention to deliberation. Thirdly, it is unnecessary for political equality because equal consideration of citizens’ judgments can be achieved without equalising power. As a result, Wilson does not directly advocate for plural voting schemes, but he does allow for systems where the equal consideration of citizens’ judgments is achieved through intragovernmental checks and accountability without citizens’ direct input (2019, 120-121). This paper aims to reject Wilson’s arguments and to offer a justification of the conception of political equality as equal power. While I agree with Wilson that equal power may not be sufficient to give us a full account of what we need in order to be treated as political equals, I reject his claims that it is necessarily inconsistent with representation and that it is unnecessary. Firstly, political equality as equal power does not require that people exercise equal influence over a decision if those who have more influence are authorised through an egalitarian procedure. Insofar as representatives are selected through regular, free and competitive elections and insofar as these elections manage to hold representatives accountable, their asymmetry of power is consistent with and justified on grounds of other citizens’ equal power. Secondly, and more importantly, interpreting citizens’ political equality as equal power allows to identify something that is distinctive of democracy and would be lost in systems based on lottery: respect for citizens’ autonomous decisions. I will argue that mere respect for citizens’ judgments fails to do this because it fails to secure citizens’ opportunity to decide which of their judgments matter more.