What Should Democracies Know? What Democrats Should Know

By Jane Mansbridge

The looming reality

The reality we all must face is that we are going to need more and more state coercion into the future to solve the free-rider problems created by our growing interdependence and the new need for human provision of resources formerly provided by “nature.”

Coercion is a bad; it means getting someone to do something they would otherwise not do through the threat of sanction and the use of force. State coercion is another bad, particularly as the state grows larger, because it is hard to get under citizen control.

Nevertheless, we are going to need increasing amounts of state coercion into the future. Democrats should therefore be concerned not only with how to resist it but also with how to legitimate it in order to use it well. Increasing inequality and increasing polarization in the US make legitimacy harder and harder to achieve. Just as we have dramatically increasing need for legitimate coercion, the supply of legitimate coercion is shrinking, making every ounce of legitimacy even more precious.

Why we will need more and more state coercion 

Free-use goods – goods that once produced, anyone can use[1] – create free-rider problems. Because anyone can use a free-use good without paying, no one wants to pay. It is true that we can get some free-use goods, such as Wikipedia, through voluntary donations of time and money. It is particularly true that many people will pay for many free-use goods through commitments to duty and feelings of solidarity. It is also true that we can get some to pay for free-use goods through designing good systems of coordination and nudges. But these methods will not work all of the time, and in the case of duty and solidarity, will tend to unravel when the majority who gave voluntarily perceive themselves as “suckered” by those who do not pay. Instituting some coercion on the periphery provides an “ecological niche” in which the core of solidarity and duty can survive. If the coercion keeps the few who would not otherwise contribute from using the good without paying, those who pay voluntarily will keep doing so.

In small groups, where one person can know the reputation of another, informal social sanctions can provide the coercion needed to solve free-rider problems. In large anonymous societies of strangers, we need state coercion. As we become increasingly interdependent, eating blueberries from Chile in the winter in the US, for example, we need more and more free-use goods, such as the food safety standards in Chile, the roads and harbors in Chile, the cleaner air created by regulating emission standards, as well as the harbors, roads, law and order, etc. in the US. As we use up “nature’s” provision of existentially important free-use goods such as clean air, clean water, fish in the sea, trees in the forests, and – the biggest of free-use goods – a stable climate, human beings have to produce collectively the free-use goods that we previously took for granted. That means we face an increasingly large number of free-rider problems. As we face these problems, we need increasingly more state coercion to help solve them.

The demand for legitimate coercion is increasing and its supply decreasing

State coercion is not only more effective if it is perceived as legitimate, it is also more moral if it is based on reasons that those who are coerced themselves can accept.

The problem is that just as we need more and more legitimate state coercion, we can get less and less. The sources of legitimacy are drying up.

The decline of legitimacy has many reasons, running from changes in childrearing that stress questioning authority to the fact that because the state now has so much power (in order to help solve so many free-rider problems), it can use its power easily for bad ends and must be watched. In most nations the citizenry has become relatively good at resistance, although still not good enough. In most nations the citizenry is not very good at producing legitimate state coercion.

Sources of low legitimacy:  Inequality and polarization

In the US, two features of the current political system – inequality and political polarization – make legitimacy harder and harder to achieve.

The first significant cause of increasing illegitimacy is rising inequality. Of all the most advanced industrial democracies, the US began with close to the most inequality several decades ago and now has by far the most. We are more unequal as a society now than we were in the last “Gilded Age,” when robber barons built mansions in Newport. As top incomes soar, the stagnating or declining incomes of the middle and working classes breed anger at the governments that have allowed or encouraged this decline. As for campaign finance, 67 percent of the US public now says they think “the rich buy elections,” compared to 17 percent in Germany.

The second cause of increasing perceived illegitimacy is polarization. We now have more polarization than we had at the last peak, which coincided with the last Gilded Age of inequality. Polarization since then seems to have tracked inequality almost perfectly, declining after the turn of the century and reaching a long-lasting low between 1945 (the end of World War II) and around 1980. This correlation of the curves suggests some causal relationship, probably mutual, with polarization blocking state policies to reduce inequality and inequality providing the money to fund more extreme candidates.

Along with inequality, which is unlikely to go away soon, two other structural changes in the US political climate have produced polarization. The first of these is the current relative ideological homogeneity of the two US political parties triggered when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the southern conservatives over the next few decades left the Democratic Party to join the Republicans, leaving the Democrats more liberal and making the Republicans more conservative. The second is the closeness of the parties in elections for the US House of Representatives and Senate since 1980. The period of “non-partisanship” between the end of World War II and around 1980 was actually a period of Democratic Party dominance. When one party is dominant, it pays the members of the minority party not to be overly obstructionist, or they will not get federal funding for the bridges and roads in their districts. When either party can expect to win in the next election, it pays each to not let the party in power get many wins, so that whoever is in the minority can campaign against the majority party as “do-nothings” in the next election.

The polarization resulting from inequality, homogeneity, and closeness of the two major parties will probably be with us for a while. These structural features have created a situation in which, although in 1960 only 4 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans said they would be displeased if their child married someone from the opposing party, in 2016 the numbers were 60 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans. Place these figures in the context of the polarizing effects of social media hostility and echo chambers, and governmental legitimacy declines.

In this polarized world, I have no answers. But I think the best minds of our generation should be focused on how to increase and bolster the sources of genuine legitimacy for state coercion.

Jane Mansbridge, Charles F. Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values, is the author of Beyond Adversary Democracy and the award-winning Why We Lost the ERA.

[1] Examples are toll-free roads, law and order, common defense, and clean air. Free-use goods (my term) are sometimes called “public goods” or “non-excludable” goods, but these terms have the technical problems of, in the first case, including non-rivalry and, in the second case, implying non-exclusion even when the good is depleted.