The Heart of Isonomia

Equality of Political Participation versus Equality of Political Capabilities: A Fundamental Dilemma at the Heart of Democratic Theory

by Benjamin M. Studebaker


This new journal is called Isonomia Quarterly, and so this article explores what precisely that term means. It begins with a discussion of the way the concept was used in ancient Greece. While Friedrich Hayek associated “isonomia” with the rule of law, John Lombardini—a historian of political thought—advances a different interpretation, positioning isonomia in relation to another Greek concept, “eunomia,” associated with achieving “good order” through a hierarchical political concept. Athenian proponents of democracy hoped to show that their equal order achieved good order by non-hierarchical means.

Critics of Athenian democracy—like Plato and Aristotle—argued that an equal distribution of political power leads to disorder and political decay. But they did not reject equality in all its senses. Instead, for Plato and Aristotle, it was important that the citizens all equally enjoy a common set of political capabilities. If political participation is extended to everyone, citizenship is inevitably extended to some people who lack the necessary capabilities, and in this way equality of political participation leads to an inequality of political capacity among the citizens.

This opens a debate over whether equality of political participation and equality of political capabilities can—or should—go together. The rest of this essay explores different ways different political theorists from different traditions have tried to answer this question. Ultimately, I argue that no one has answered the question in a fully satisfying way, and because of this it becomes important—for the sake of democracy’s political legitimacy—to pretend that a satisfying answer has been found. In the absence of a satisfying answer, I argue we should play it safe. We should do everything we can to increase the political capabilities of all our citizens, drawing on a plurality of different approaches from different traditions.

The Concept of Isonomia

The Greeks used the term “isonomia” to refer to some kind of equality, but it is not entirely clear what kind. Herodotus and Thucydides both identify it with the democratic political system. For Plato, isonomia occurs in democracy, but is not identical with democracy itself. In Reeve’s translation of Republic, the term is rendered as “legal equality”:

The ultimate freedom for the majority, my friend, comes about in such a city, when males and females bought as slaves are no less free than those who bought them. Then there is the case of women in relation to men, and men to women, and the extent of their legal equality and freedom—we almost forgot to mention that!

Plato had a rather low opinion of democracy, and this passage is often used to frame him as a conservative thinker. However, in other parts of the Republic, Plato suggests that the best city doesn’t include slavery, and that in that city women participate in rule. For Plato, these forms of equality are dysfunctional in democracy, but potentially functional in a different political context. For Plato, “democracy” is direct democracy, a system wherein “the majority of the offices are assigned by lot.”

In The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek identified isonomia with the concept of “equality before the law” and with the “rule of law.” He argues that the concept is in Aristotle’s Politics, while at the same time conceding that the term does not appear in any of Aristotle’s works. Hayek is right to suggest that Aristotle affirms the value of the rule of law:

…it is more choiceworthy to have law rule than any one of the citizens. And, by this same argument, even if it is better to have certain people rule, they should be selected as guardians of and assistants to the laws.

However, it does not necessarily follow that isonomia is reducible to the rule of law, or to equality before the law. Newer scholarship understands the term in an entirely different way. Writing in History of Political Thought, John Lombardini argues that the concept of isonomia developed in response to another concept, “eunomia.” Eunomia literally means “good order.” In ancient Greece, it was associated with hierarchical systems. For Lombardini, isonomia was an attempt to achieve good order by egalitarian means:

…the principle of isonomia articulated a conception of good order that was at once a form of equal order; it signified that the balance of forces created through an equal order was more stable than the stability created through the hierarchical arrangements associated with eunomia.

Solon, the founder of Athens, argued that his reforms were necessary to promote eunomia. Because the concept of eunomia played a fundamental justificatory role in the Athenian founding narrative, it was politically crucial to establish that equality was compatible with the maintenance of order. Lombardini writes:

…isonomia does not only stand for equality; it also represents a type of balanced order that is created through the equal distribution of political power.

Now, it is certainly possible to associate the equal distribution of political power with the rule of law. An equal distribution of political power makes it difficult for any one person or faction to overthrow the law. But these two ideas are clearly non-identical. You can, at least in theory, have a monarch who respects the rule of law, and you can have a tyranny of the majority in which the law is flippantly disregarded. The idea that political equality and the rule of law go together was, plausibly, an ideological conceit of Athenian democrats, a part of the Athenian political system’s legitimation story.

Plato and Aristotle’s Critique of the Equal Distribution of Political Power

Plato challenges that story directly. For Plato, isonomia doesn’t work in a democratic context because under democracy is not possible for everyone to acquire the virtues necessary to rule well. Without virtue, a person is unable to manage the bodily desires, to distinguish between the desires that are “necessary” and “unnecessary.” In a city where there is an equal distribution of political power, Plato thinks that large numbers of participants will lack the virtues, and so the city as a whole comes to lack them as well. This leads the city to pursue its citizens’ desires flippantly, disregarding the laws:

In the end, as I am sure you are aware, they take no notice of the laws—written or unwritten—in order to avoid having any master at all.

For Plato, the “freedom” of pursuing our desires without interference causes trouble. We enjoy a better kind of freedom when we are able to free ourselves from the domination of our bodies, taming the desires that stem from embodiment. By establishing rule over our bodies, we free our minds. But, for Plato, this kind of freedom is only obtainable for certain kinds of people—the philosophers. Other kinds of people cannot rule themselves and must therefore be ruled by those who can. If the state does not put the philosophers in charge, it will fail to rule those who cannot rule themselves. Untamed desires will spread throughout the city, engulfing and destroying the law. This, then, is Plato’s problem with democracy—it gives political power to citizens who lack the capacity for self-rule. This virtue of ruling is an essential political skill every citizen in a democracy needs to have, insofar as every citizen participates equally in rule.1

For isonomia to work, it would need to be the case that the virtue of ruling is widespread throughout the city. You might ask why Plato doesn’t think the virtue of ruling can be widespread. At points, Plato suggests that only certain kinds of people have the right sort of soul for philosophy.2 But Plato also argues that the kind of education necessary to enable a would-be philosopher to achieve their potential is quite extensive—it is not until the age of 35 that he permits trainee philosophers to hold even minor offices, and it is not until age 50 that he deems them ready to rule the city.

Similarly, Aristotle argues that an extensive kind of education is necessary to obtain the virtue of ruling. This form of education requires a lot of time and is incompatible with many activities that are routine for most Greeks (and for most Americans, for that matter). Aristotle writes:

That children should be taught useful things that are really necessary, however, is not unclear. But it is evident that they should not be taught all of them, since there is a difference between the tasks of the free and those of the unfree, and that they should share only in such useful things as will not turn them into vulgar craftsman. (Any task, craft, or branch of learning should be considered vulgar if it renders the body or mind of free people useless for the practices and activities of virtue. That is why the crafts that put the body into a worse condition and work done for wages are called vulgar; for they debase the mind and deprive it of leisure.) Even in the case of some of the sciences that are suitable for a free person, while it is not unfree to participate in them up to a point, to study them too assiduously or exactly is likely to result in the harms just mentioned. What one acts or learns for also makes a big difference. For what one does for one’s own sake, for the sake of friends, or on account of virtue is not unfree, but someone who does the same thing for others would often be held to be acting like a hired laborer or a slave.

If all the citizens need to participate equally in rule, then all of the citizens need to acquire the virtue of ruling, and that means all the citizens must be kept away from activities that will turn them into vulgar craftsmen, including wage labor. Since, in an ancient democracy, many citizens engage in wage labor, the philosophers argue that an equal distribution of political power promotes tyranny and the demise of law.

Equality in Plato and Aristotle

Aristotle is often framed as deeply hostile to egalitarianism. In addition to denying the political potential of wage laborers, he argues that women lack the ability to do philosophy and that some people are natural slaves. But there is a kind of equality even in Plato and Aristotle’s accounts. To acquire the virtue of ruling, rulers of the city need to have access to the same kind of education. This means they need to be brought up in similar circumstances. For Aristotle, this means that all of the citizens should be protected from wage labor. It is for this reason that Aristotle promotes a property requirement for citizens. The citizens need to own enough land to ensure that they are under no pressure to participate in the market. He tells us, approvingly, that in Thebes, “there used to be a law that anyone who had not kept away from the market for ten years could not participate in office.”

On this kind of view, if we want citizens to all be able to participate in politics, then we need citizens to all have the capabilities necessary to participate, and that means we need to ensure that, at least in certain fundamental respects, the citizens enjoy an equality of capabilities. Plato and Aristotle restrict citizenship precisely because they think this equality of capabilities is essential. If it is not possible for all the people to have the same talents and to be brought up in the same way, Plato and Aristotle would sooner exclude some portion of the population from politics than permit this inequality to infect the citizenry. For these philosophers, when some citizens do not have the qualities necessary for citizenship—like virtue—they fail to regulate the desires that stem from embodiment. This means that when people who don’t have virtue exercise the powers of citizenship, they try to use the state to satisfy their bodies at the expense of the good of the city. Eventually, this twists democracy into tyranny, as unregulated, conflicting desires lead to class conflict and civil war.

To put the point another way, ancient liberty requires self-rule in two senses—rule over one’s own body, and participation in rule.3 Without the former, you cannot, in the long run, maintain the latter. Since all participants must have the capacity to rule themselves for the city’s freedom to endure, ancient liberty straightforwardly depends on a kind of equality. To make matters worse, an ancient city that is weakened by division from within risks being conquered from without, and very likely enslaved. In this way the freedom of the citizens doubly depends on their equality. The citizens must be equal in virtue both to preserve the freedom of the city from tyranny and to preserve the freedom of the citizens from domination, from slavery.

Plato and Aristotle might have had a different attitude toward an equal distribution of political power if they lived in a heavily automated techno-futurist society where it might be possible to give the whole population philosophical education, to protect the whole population from wage labor and participation in the market. But it is hard even for us to imagine such a scenario really coming to pass, and we have all sorts of machines that were unheard of in the 4th century BC. For these Greeks, that level of equality would have been difficult to imagine. It was far simpler to restrict political participation to those who already seemed to check the boxes, to naturalize the division between those who can rule themselves and those who can’t.

Plato and Aristotle advanced highly demanding conceptions of citizenship. The more demanding the conception of citizenship, the more exclusive citizenship tends to become, if all citizens must be equally able to perform the functions of citizenship. The more ambitious the functions of citizenship are, the smaller the viable set of citizens becomes.

To resist Plato and Aristotle’s arguments, a theorist has to develop a less demanding conception of citizenship. Many Greeks did precisely this—in many Greek cities, you could be a citizen if you had enough property to equip yourself as a hoplite. In Athens, the bar was lower in part because Athens relied more heavily on rowers than hoplites. Athens was a naval power, and Athenian triremes required large numbers of rowers to get moving. Athens’ dependence on the navy empowered the rowers and, by extension, the demos.4 Virtue was not a criterion for citizenship, and therefore education and occupation often weren’t criteria, either. When we ask less of citizens, we don’t need to ensure they receive a highly advanced kind of education. It becomes possible to have citizens with wildly different levels and types of education. It also becomes possible to have citizens with wildly different levels of income and wealth. Once we establish an equal distribution of political power, it undermines our interest in creating an equality of capabilities for citizens, because we can only establish an equal distribution of political power by conceptualizing citizenship in a manner that reduces the need for an equality of capabilities. Equal distribution of political power is, in this way, in tension with protecting equality of capabilities for citizens.

And yet, Plato lists isonomia alongside other kinds of equality that he likes in theory but finds dysfunctional in practice. At 563b in Republic, he places it alongside the abolition of slavery and equality among the sexes. Perhaps in some other context, everyone would enjoy the conditions necessary to do philosophy, allowing everyone to share in political power. In that situation, these two kinds of equality would come together, and we would have isonomia alongside equality of capabilities for citizens. Alas, for Plato, in real cities, one seems to come at the expense of the other. If Plato is forced to choose, he’ll choose the latter every time.

Liberal Responses

Plato and Aristotle’s critiques of Athenian democracy had substantial influence in the centuries to come. In the Middle Ages, the nobles would claim a right to rule in part based on their superior education derived from a superior relationship to labor and the marketplace. In the 18th and 19th centuries, increasingly wealthy merchants began to buy their way into elite institutions. Liberal theorists challenged the idea that political power should belong exclusively to the landed aristocracy. 

To do this, they had to come to grips with the arguments of those influenced by Plato and Aristotle. For the defenders of the old order, the merchants and the workers engaged in vulgar activities that were inimical to virtue. There were two prominent liberal responses to this. Some liberals—like Adam Smith—argued that commercial activity was compatible with virtue. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith argued that private civil society organizations were perfectly capable of producing virtuous businessmen, if virtue is understood in a less demanding way. For Smith, we are virtuous insofar as we align our moral sentiments with those that a fair and impartial spectator would have. If the merchants go to church and get involved in their local communities, they will gain this ability to tame their moral sentiments. Other liberals—like Benjamin Constant—doubted that the merchants could acquire the virtues. Instead, Constant argued for a less demanding conception of citizenship. Constant doesn’t ask his citizens to be virtuous. Instead, all he asks is that his citizens vote for representatives and keep a careful watch over them. In practice, liberal states worked both sides of this. They encouraged the development of civil society organizations while at the same time asking relatively little of their citizens.

Right from the start, there were concerns. Constant himself worried that modern citizens would become too preoccupied with their private liberty, neglecting the public sphere so thoroughly that the government would slowly take on a despotic character:

Because we are often less concerned with political liberty than [the ancients] could be, and in ordinary circumstances less passionate about it, it may follow that we neglect, sometimes too much and always wrongly, the guarantees which this assures us…The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily.

Indeed, Constant wrote an entire novelAdolphe—about a man whose life becomes all about romance, to the exclusion of everything else. This worry—that modern liberty would allow people to fall down all sorts of rabbit holes, becoming too preoccupied with their own niche concerns to lift a finger for the public weal—was never decisively put to bed. Many theorists still worry that modern citizens don’t have enough incentive to engage in politics. Rational choice theorists suspect that it is irrational for citizens to vote or to vote well, given how little they can expect to gain from doing so.5 Other political theorists—like Bryan Caplan and Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels—argue that voters are mired in cognitive biases.

At the same time, theorists also worried that modern civil society could not do an adequate job of educating citizens. Alexis de Tocqueville worried that economic turbulence would force the government to take a larger role in society. Growth in state capacity would eventually crowd out the space for civil society organizations, leaving the population dependent upon a despotic state:

It is easy to foresee that a day is coming when man will be less and less capable of producing life’s most common necessities by himself. The task of the social power will therefore increase steadily, and its very exertions will make that task greater with every passing day. The more the social power tries to take the place of associations, the more individuals, losing sight of the idea of associating, will need its help: here, cause and effect engender one another in an endless circle. Will the public administration ultimately control every industrial venture beyond the capabilities of the isolated citizen? … The morals and intelligence of a democratic people would be no less at risk than its business and industry if government were everywhere to take the place of associations.

There are other variations on this theme. Robert Putnam highlights a general decline in American civil society organizations. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson worry that the decline of labor unions leaves workers too disorganized to effectively engage with politics.

Non-Liberal Responses

Given that so many liberal theorists feel uneasy about the liberal response to the ancient problem, it should not surprise us that non-liberal theorists pick up on these weaknesses and further explore them. Marxists—like Louis Althusser—argue that as the state becomes more heavily involved in the economy and culture, voters are dominated by state ideology, and in this way, they are prevented from developing critical capabilities necessary for real citizenship. Étienne Balibar argues that the this suppressed capacity for citizenship is rediscovered through revolutionary action. But if the would-be revolutionary’s capabilities have been eroded or suppressed, how can the revolutionary actor build a new state that unlocks those capabilities at scale? There’s a cart-horse problem, insofar as revolutionary citizens need to develop capabilities that only a revolution can unlock. It is for this reason that Marxists like Vladimir Lenin suggested that the people must be led by a set of educated leaders, a “vanguard party.” Lenin describes the role of the vanguard:

…if ‘we’ desire to be front-rank democrats, we must make it our concern to direct the thoughts of those who are dissatisfied … to the idea that the entire political system is worthless. We must take upon ourselves the task of organizing an all-round political struggle under the leadership of our Party in such a manner as to make it possible for all oppositional strata to render their fullest support to the struggle and to our Party. We must train our Social-Democratic practical workers to become political leaders, able to guide all the manifestations of this all-round struggle, able at the right time to “dictate a positive program of action” for [the discontented people].

In this way, Lenin proposes to use develop the capabilities of the citizens over time, eventually enabling them to participate. The “front-rank” democrats prepare the way for more citizens to join them in participation at later stages. Those in the vanguard are to be equal in virtue, and they are to develop the virtues of the ordinary citizens until those citizens are ready to join in, enabling isonomia and equality of capabilities among citizens to come together. The Soviet Union did produce very high levels of educational attainment—even now, 63% of Russians between the ages of 25 and 34 have a university degree, compared with just 44% on average across the OECD. But it must be pointed out that the Soviet Union did not, in the end, include these educated Russians in its political system. Political theorist Lea Ypi points out that while democratically-run revolutionary parties often fail to take power and transform the state, hierarchical revolutionary parties often struggle to transition to more inclusive political forms after power has been acquired. Those who pursue equality from the start fail to get going, and those who hope to pursue equality later on rarely follow through. This organizational dilemma continues to vex Marxists.

The far right borrows from Marxist critiques to make an argument instead for returning to some form of traditional politics in which the vast bulk of the population is excluded from participation in rule. Like Althusser, Curtis Yarvin argues that as the state becomes more heavily involved in the economy and culture, voters are dominated by state ideology. Althusser associates this ideology with a set of “ideological state apparatuses” while Yarvin calls it “the cathedral.” But the argument is fundamentally the same, except in the conclusions Yarvin draws. Instead of calling for a Marxist revolution, Yarvin makes a Jacobite argument for the restoration of the Stuarts. Ultimately, he acknowledges that monarchism is unlikely to persuade. Instead, he calls for handing the state over to a CEO, responsible for giving a set of shareholders “dividends” derived from GDP growth.

Yarvin’s proposals are dead on arrival in the liberal democracies, because in our context the idea that all citizens should be able to participate in politics—at least to some sufficient level—is deeply embedded. As a matter of empirical reality, citizens of liberal democracies are not going to vote to replace their political systems with some form of corporate governance or with a line of Stuart kings. Even when things get very dire, the commitment to democracy as an ideal is unwavering. As David Runciman points out, older, more experienced democracies have a high level of “confidence.” Citizens of these democracies know that their political systems have survived many crises in the past, and they are reluctant to discard the democratic system in favor of unproven—or disproven—authoritarian alternatives.

The Three Core Strategies, and Habermas’ Escape Attempt

In this way, both the left and the right still face the same problem the liberal theorists face. If the citizens all need to have the same set of political capabilities, but many people lack these capabilities for some reason or other, there are only three responses available, regardless of the particular political ideology to which one subscribes:

  1. A sincere effort can be made to help the citizens who lack these capabilities to obtain them, enabling them to participate on equal terms.
  2. The citizens who lack these capabilities can be stripped of the rights of citizenship and denied political participation.
  3. We can water down our notion of what political capabilities are necessary, including all of the citizens in politics but tolerating deep inequalities in the political capabilities those citizens will have.

The Marxists talk about doing #1, but cannot figure out how to follow through. The right is fixated on #2, but #2 is impossible to legitimate in embedded democracies. Liberal theorists have tended to focus on #3, but there is a growing sense even among liberals that #3 doesn’t cut it.

Jürgen Habermas proposed to achieve #1 through liberal democracy. Habermas argues that liberal democratic procedures are “democratic in form.” But they nonetheless put citizens in a “passive” role with only “the right to withhold acclamation.” The state discourages them from seeking a larger political role, instead emphasizing the value of “career, leisure, and consumption.” The state then facilitates the pursuit of these things in lieu of helping citizens develop the virtue of ruling, via the “welfare-state” and an “achievement ideology” instantiated through the public education system.

However, Habermas suggests that this system unavoidably breaks down. As the state becomes more involved in the economy, it also becomes more involved in the culture, and “administrative manipulation of cultural matters has the unintended side effect” of unmooring “meanings and norms,” of “stripping away traditionalistic padding.” Some citizens begin to question the pursuit of private goods. This creates political demands that liberal democracy cannot satisfy in its current form. When this happens, only two possibilities remain— “manifest force from above” or “expansion of the scope for participation.” Since for Habermas force can only be a temporary solution, the state is forced to further democratize. This buys more time, but eventually the demands resurface, leading to further rounds of democratization. In this way, the liberal democratic state is eventually forced to make good on the promise of democracy.

Habermas embraced liberalism for Marxist reasons. But his account breaks with Marxism in one very important respect. Habermas thinks that there is a kind of cultural progress under liberal democracy. He thinks that as meanings and norms unmoor, citizens will demand more democracy. But this is not the only path open to them—they might instead try to paper over their dissatisfaction with ever greater levels of consumption. Habermas assumes that the citizens will reach higher levels of consciousness even as they are subjected to an ideology which, for Habermas, debases them. 

By contrast, Plato describes a “cycle of regimes” in which the state tends to become worse over time. The more the citizens succumb to their bodily desires, the more they degrade the city, and the more degraded the city becomes, the less able it is to tame the bodily desires of the citizens. This throws the debate back on the question of whether citizens need to be able to reign in the bodily desires in the first instance.

Civic Education in Weber and Dahl

The liberal wants to agree with Bernard Mandeville, who argues in his famous fable of the bees that the pursuit of luxury is not merely compatible with political participation, but necessary to develop a competitive, prosperous society. But when liberals are made to give an account of how the pursuit of luxury can be made sustainably compatible with good citizenship, they don’t tend to be satisfied with their own answers. Max Weber gives the most biting critique. He spells out the specific qualities liberals need for effective political participation, and then he points out that these qualities are in desperately short supply.

Specifically, the liberal who wishes to participate in politics needs both conviction and responsibility. To have conviction, individuals needed be free to choose their own ends, including ends that might be focused around the things Habermas derides—career, leisure, and consumption. The Weberian individual is meant to be free to determine “the meaning of its activity and existence.” 

At the same time, the individual needs a sense of responsibility, a willingness to put their convictions to one side when those convictions conflict with the maintenance of the state. He writes:

We economic nationalists measure the classes who lead the nation or aspire to do so with one political criterion we regard as sovereign. What concerns us is their political maturity, which is to say their grasp of the nation’s enduring economic and political power interests and their ability, in any given situation, to place these interests above all other considerations.

If political actors can choose ends focused around the pursuit of bodily desires, they must still have some ability to control those desires when those desires conflict with the maintenance of the state. In other words, political actors can pursue their desires, but only to a point, and political actors must have the ability to distinguish between situations where they are free to pursue conviction and situations where they must be responsible.

This is, in some ways, very similar to Plato’s argument. For Plato, citizens who wish to participate in rule must be able to distinguish between the “necessary” and “unnecessary” desires. They must be able to distinguish between the desires that are compatible with “well-being” and those that are not.6 Weber is a liberal pluralist. He does not think there is any one understanding of “well-being” on which citizens can be made to agree. But he nonetheless thinks that states have “enduring economic and political power interests” that can be objectively identified. This idea that the state has an enduring interest to which citizens must be held responsible is a brake on Weber’s pluralism, and, indeed, on his liberalism.

Like Plato, Weber does not feel that most people who wish to participate in politics have the necessary qualities:

I am under the impression that in nine out of ten cases I deal with windbags who do not fully realize what they take upon themselves but who intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations.

Weber hopes to rectify this with civic education. He is not alone in placing the emphasis here. In the post-war United States, Robert Dahl also argued that American citizens must be made to affirm the value of the state, that their political system “is the best form of government.” For Dahl, these beliefs must be acquired during the first two decades of a person’s life, because these are the decades when people are “receptive” to political ideas. But if, during this time, young Americans face a “confrontation with inequity,” with the “injustices of American life and policies,” these young people will adopt “more radical views.” These radical views will not be compatible with maintaining a priority on the structural integrity of the state.

This “confrontation with inequity” can take a form similar to the one we’ve been discussing. Insofar as Americans have formal equality of political participation (in the form of the vote), this conflicts with a reality in which citizens do not enjoy an equality of capabilities. The attempt to create some level of equality of capabilities—by exposing all Americans to forms of civic education that emphasize that the American political system is valuable insofar as it produces equality of political participation—can have the unintended side effect of making Americans more aware of the further respects in which equality of capabilities does not obtain. Dahl himself recognized that the concept of equality has a tendency to mutate:

…once a social or political principle becomes firmly embedded in the political culture, it can serve quite literally as an axiom from which new unanticipated, and seemingly inescapable conclusions can be drawn. The ‘functions’ originally fulfilled by a principle, the ‘interests’ initially served by it, can no longer control or dominate the conclusions to be drawn from it. Beliefs about political equality and inequality often take on this axiomatic quality.

Dahl uses this to point out that if we teach the American youth that the political system is justified insofar as there is equality of political participation, they are likely to demand stronger rights of participation. In Dahl’s own time, these demands focused on groups excluded from suffrage, including African-Americans in the South, and young Vietnam War draftees. 

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is also possible for equality understood as equal political participation to produce demands for equality understood as equality of capabilities for citizens. If all citizens are to have a right to participate, then it is easy to draw the further conclusion that all citizens must be equipped to meet whatever standards are necessary to participate effectively. The young radicals tend to develop criteria for participating effectively that are more rigorous than those developed by liberal theorists like Benjamin Constant. If they raise the bar too high, it becomes impossible to satisfy it. If the democratic state allows citizens to participate that do not meet the criteria for participation, either radical left-wing measures must be taken to help them meet the criteria, or reactionary right-wing measures must be taken to exclude them from participation. Again, we’re back where we started.

Making Up Stories

The radical and reactionary measures will not work. Even if all citizens have the natural potential to develop their political capabilities to a high level, our technology is not sufficiently advanced to allow all citizens the time necessary to fully develop these capabilities. At the same time, even if some citizens lack the natural potential to develop their capabilities to a high level, it is no longer possible to legitimate a political system that excludes the bulk of the citizens from political participation. The liberal solution—watering down the criteria for citizenship so that it can plausibly be said that everyone meets it—remains the only possible solution, even though it is completely unsatisfying even to most of the liberal theorists who espouse it.

Liberal democracy can therefore only be sustained through a fiction. This fiction says that all citizens have what it takes to participate effectively in politics, even though in practice citizens do not have the virtue of ruling, are inadequately socialized by civil society organizations, enjoy insufficient civic education, have various myopies and cognitive biases, are dominated by various ideologies, and so on and so forth. The story is constantly being debunked, and so it must constantly be reformulated. There is always a market for political theory that argues in new and inventive ways that the ordinary citizen has the qualities necessary to participate effectively or can easily acquire these capabilities with very small amounts of state aid.

Perhaps the most effective version of this argument comes to us from John Rawls. Rawls argues that citizens have “the two moral powers” of reasonableness and rationality. They are reasonable insofar as they have a sense of justice—they are able to abide by fair terms of cooperation, even at the expense of their own interests, provided others are willing to do so. They are rational insofar as they have the capacity to pursue and revise their own conceptions of the good. But the two moral powers develop only when they have access to a set of primary goods. These include “basic right and liberties,” “freedom of movement and free choice of occupation against a background of diverse opportunities,” “powers and prerogatives of offices and positions of authority and responsibility,” “income and wealth, understood as all-purpose means,” and “the social bases of self-respect.”

Rawls’ account makes no mention of Smith and Tocqueville’s civil society organizations or the demanding virtue-oriented education systems of Plato and Aristotle. Compared to these frameworks, it is more or less an assertion that, left to their own devices, citizens can figure politics out on their own. Yet even Rawls’ framework calls for citizens to have access to many primary goods that are not available to all Americans, like “income and wealth” and “powers and prerogatives of offices and positions of authority and responsibility.”

This did not stop Rawls from taking center stage in American political thought. The Rawlsian story buys legitimacy for the American political system by suggesting that it might really be possible for all Americans to participate and for all participants to have the necessary political capabilities. Even if the story can only withstand scrutiny for a few decades at most, it provides valuable cover. The idea of isonomia provided a valuable legitimation story for Athenian democracy, even though the story was never strictly speaking true, and the many mistakes made by the Athenian demos eventually led to the city’s subjugation. It did not matter whether it was true because, for a time, it worked.

Taking off the Mask

Joseph Schumpeter makes the case that democracy works not because citizens have the political capabilities to perform well, but because, when things are clearly going badly, citizens will vote out the incumbents in lieu of staging a revolution. This gives democracy a structural safety valve that authoritarian states lack. It also means that political elites have to compete with one another for votes, and that prevents any section of the elite from permanently dominating the system. In that sense, the elites enjoy the legal equality we associated at the start with Hayek. This prevents tyranny and it gives voters a sense that their participation matters, without actually making the political system dependent on the voters’ virtues or lack thereof. In recent years, a number of “liberal realists” and “liberal institutionalists” have joined Schumpeter in making these kinds of arguments.7

Why can’t more liberals straightforwardly appeal to rule of law arguments? The problem is that democracy has—even going back to Athens—drawn on some conceptualization of equality for legitimacy. When we are confronted with Dahl’s radicalized citizens, we cannot simply say to them that equality is a fairy story for children. Nor can we get around this by giving citizens Weberian civic education, focused around the economic and political interests of states, or the internal workings of markets. The concept of equality is already ubiquitous throughout political discourse, and it cannot now be removed. There is room to fight over its definition, and there are endless fights over how precisely it ought to be conceptualized. But this often has the effect of creating so much controversy around the term that it is not possible to teach any particular conceptualization to young people. Instead, they are given a laundry list of possible definitions, or they are told that equality—or, increasingly these days, equity—is important, in some vague, imprecise sense.

In Schumpeter’s story, the qualities the citizens need to participate effectively is so low that the whole question we’ve been discussing in this piece is rendered an afterthought. Equality is, on this account, merely a device for justifying the political system to those who will not accept the truth. But if this quiet part is said out loud, in a context where equality is an ubiquitous abstraction, it generates even fiercer opposition, creating more legitimation problems than it solves.

There’s another problem with Schumpeter’s story. There are a non-trivial number of political theorists and even ordinary citizens who are more worried about totalitarianism than tyranny. As I use the terms, in a tyrannical system, a particular person or legislative body has too much power. In a totalitarian system, the impersonal institutions and procedures used to prevent tyranny themselves become a straightjacket, overdetermining political outcomes and making citizens feel powerless. This is the core worry underpinning both left-wing critiques of the market and libertarian critiques of the state. The concern is that there is an institutional logic to markets and to impersonal democratic institutions that fundamentally threatens the freedom of particular people and particular bodies of people to make meaningful decisions.

Schumpeter’s theory locks the elites up in a competition for the vote of a population with very limited political capabilities. The ordinary people do not develop significant political capabilities, because they have little incentive to do so—they are asked merely to either accept or reject the incumbent party. At the same time, the political agency of the elites is heavily restricted by the fact that they are beholden to electoral incentives. The politicians must do whatever is necessary to get votes and to get the money to run competitive campaigns. From a certain point of view, this state of affairs seriously undermines human freedom, by subordinating all the human beings involved to a coercive incentive structure. At this stage, even some liberal realists—like Francis Fukuyama—are worried that the American political system has become too vetocratic, that it incentivizes politicians to block too many things, generating a crisis of inadequate state capacity. Fukuyama recommends resolving the crisis by centralizing more power in fewer hands, increasing the maneuvering room for federal politicians. He writes:

Many of these problems could be solved if the United States moved to a more unified parliamentary system of government, but so radical a change in the country’s institutional structure is inconceivable. Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document, so getting them to rethink its most basic tenets would be an uphill struggle. I think that any realistic reform program would try to trim veto points or insert parliamentary-style mechanisms to promote stronger hierarchical authority within the existing system of separated powers.

If democratic political systems exist on a continuum between totalitarianism and tyranny, Fukuyama calls for a move in the tyrannical direction. If some liberal realists value democracy because it protects against tyranny and others value democracy because it protects against totalitarianism, these accounts of democracy will inevitably conflict with one another. And if the anti-totalitarians sometimes prevail, and the state is sometimes given a more active, personal role in solving problems, it then becomes more important that the citizens who participate in politics have a robust set of relevant political capabilities.


Deliberative democrats—many of whom hope to follow in Habermas’ footsteps—recognize that there remains a fundamental tension between increasing access to political participation and improving the quality of democratic deliberations. The more people you let in, the more inequalities in political capabilities those people will have. Joshua Cohen sympathizes with left-wing efforts to have both at once, but even he acknowledges this is enormously difficult to pull off:

More fundamentally, social complexity and scale limit the extent to which modern polities can be both deliberative and participatory. Deliberation depends on participants with sufficient knowledge and interest about the substantive issues under consideration. But on any issue, the number of individuals with such knowledge and interest is bound to be relatively small, and so the quality of deliberation will decline with the scope of participation. Of course, knowledge and interest are not fixed, and deliberation may improve both. Still, time and resource constraints make it undesirable for any particular area of public governance to be both fully deliberative and inclusively participatory.

It remains impossible to have both equal political participation and equality of capabilities. Real, existing democratic systems will therefore make unsatisfying compromises between the two conceptualizations of equality. Democratic theorists will sometimes deny that these compromises are compromises, pretending to have delivered both kinds of equality at once. But the honest political theorists will admit it, and regardless, the tension will be there, all the same. Because of this, it is not possible to simply impose one of these conceptions of equality or the other in every area of democratic life. Sometimes there will be a need to favor equality of participation, and sometimes there will be a need to favor equality of capabilities. Institutional design must be sensitive to context. The citizens involved in making these design decisions therefore need a kind of prudence—they need the ability to judge in which contexts they should apply one principle more heavily than the other and to judge when this preference needs to be revised to enable the system to respond effectively to new circumstances.

The trouble, of course, is that prudence is a virtue! We cannot get away from this problem. Even insofar as there are solutions, citizens need certain capabilities to formulate and pursue these solutions, and it will not be clear to everyone how many citizens have the relevant capabilities or can be made to have them.

In some cases, whether we like it or not, we will find ourselves dependent on the political decisions of a large number of citizens with unequal capabilities. Therefore, we must try to improve the political capabilities of citizens as much as we possibly can, knowing full well that we will fall short of the ambitious standards of Plato and Aristotle. We ought, therefore, to pursue an all-of-the-above strategy, seeking to provide Rawlsian public goods, to develop a robust private civil society on the model of Smith and Tocqueville, and to ensure as many citizens as possible have economic access to the higher forms of education recommended by ancient theorists. This involves an expansion of economic rights, and it involves yet more state interventions into the economy. But if it is really the case that there is no sensible alternative to market liberalism, helping more citizens obtain critical political capabilities will make this more evident, rather than less. Isonomia and equality of capabilities cannot, at least at this time, come together, but trying in vain to bring them together will get us further than trying in vain to have one to the exclusion of the other.


1There is a second Platonic critique of democracy, in which Plato also suggests that in Athenian democracy, the citizens do not equally participate in rule, but that there is still a “dominant class,” the part that “does all the talking and acting.” These orators lack the virtue of ruling, and because of this the rich and the poor both become increasingly dissatisfied with democratic government, ultimately leading to a struggle for power between wealthy oligarchs and the supporters of a people’s tyrant. See Plato, Republic, 564c-566d.

2E.g., Plato, Phaedrus in Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Translated by A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, (Hackett: Indianapolis, 1997), 248d-248e.

3Incidentally, Mahatma Gandhi makes a similar point, arguing that Indians need to achieve swaraj (self-rule) in two senses. But unlike the Greeks, Gandhi believed it was relatively straightforward for ordinary Indians to learn swaraj through religious practice. See Mohandas K. Gandhi, “Hind Swaraj,” Hind Swaraj and Other Writings. Edited by Anthony Parel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

4For more discussion on the role of the Athenian navy in democracy, see W.G. Forrest, “An Athenian Generation Gap,” Studies in the Greek Historians. Edited by Donald Kagan, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009), 37-52, Donald Kagan, The Fall of the Athenian Empire (London: Cornell University Press, 1987), and Barry S. Strauss, “The Athenian Trireme, School of Democracy,” Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern. Edited by Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

5E.g., Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), John A. Ferejohn and Morris P. Fiorina, “The Paradox of Not Voting: A Decision Theoretic Analysis,” American Political Science Review 68.2 (1974): 525-536, Timothy J. Feddersen, “Rational Choice Theory and the Paradox of Not Voting,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 18.1 (2004): 99-112, and Mark M. Gray and A. Wuffle, “Vindicating Anthony Downs,” Political Science and Politics 38.4 (2005): 737-740, and Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

6This is not to imply that Plato straightforwardly believed that the good could be spelled out, straightforwardly concretized, or etched in stone. But for the Platonist, the good is a unity that has a plurality of expressions. The Weberian, following Nietzsche, is not sure that there is a unitary good in the first instance.

7E.g., North et al., Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (London: Profile Books, 2013), and Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

Benjamin M. Studebaker received his PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge. Send him mail.