A Behavioral Approach to Democratic Theory
Princeton University Press 2012
Plato famously argued that democracy is nearly the worst form of government because citizens are decidedly unwise. Many styles of democratic theory have tried to meet Plato’s argument by denying that democracy has anything to do with wisdom. Democracy, such views claim, is simply a matter of representing citizens’ preferences in politics, or rather a matter of giving everyone equal input into the decision making process. But even these minimal conceptions of democracy often want to distinguish between “raw” and “enlightened” preferences, thereby smuggling in considerations regarding the wisdom or rationality of democratic citizens. More recent democratic theories have embraced the epistemic aspect of democratic politics, and have tried to show, contra Plato, that citizens are not too unwise for self-government. Some hold that democracy in fact requires very little wisdom, and that citizens generally measure up to democracy’s requirements. Others think that democracy’s epistemic demands are significant, but hold nonetheless that the collective judgment of democracy citizens makes the grade. Democracy, it seems, is intricately entwined with epistemology.
In his new book Framing Democracy: A Behavioral Approach to Democratic Theory (Princeton University Press), Jamie Kelly brings empirical results concerning human epistemic abilities to bear on the current field of democracy theory. He argues that our susceptibility to framing effects greatly complicates the story democratic theorists must tell about collective self-government and individual rationality. Kelly thereby provides a much-needed empirical check on the claims democratic theorists make–implicitly or explicitly– about the epistemic powers of citizens.