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Every Vote Counts: Equality, Autonomy, and the Moral Value of Democratic Decision-Making

Abstract

What is the moral value of formal democratic decision-making? Egalitarian accounts of democracy provide a powerful answer to this question. They present formal democratic procedures as a way for a society of equals to arrive at collective decisions in a transparent and mutually acceptable manner. More specifically, such procedures ensure and publicly affirm that all members of a political community, in their capacity as autonomous actors, are treated as equals who are able and have a right to participate in collective decision-making. Recently, a number of authors have raised what I describe as the ‘no impact’ objection. This objection focuses on the egalitarian emphasis on autonomy to cast doubt on the moral value of formal democratic procedures. It holds that individual participation in formal democratic decision-making has no impact on the eventual result, and therefore cannot be understood as an exercise in autonomy. Consequently, the ‘no impact’ objection claims that the moral value of formal democracy cannot be explained with reference to an egalitarian ideal of ‘rule by the people’. In this article, I refute this objection by complementing an egalitarian account of democracy with an account of basic autonomy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For more on the role of lotteries in democratic processes, see Buchstein (2010) and Saunders (2012).

  2. 2.

    For some of the major contributions to the debate about deliberative democracy, see Habermas (1996), Elster (1998), Goodin (2008), Gutmann and Thompson (2004), Parkinson and Mansbridge (2012).

  3. 3.

    For an overview of the more recent debates, see Anderson and Christman (2005a), Mackenzie and Stoljar (2000b).

  4. 4.

    For the discussion about a minimal threshold of autonomy, see also Christman (2005, pp. 346–350), Dworkin (1989, p. 61), Gaus (2005, pp. 296–298), and Raz (1986, pp. 372–373).

  5. 5.

    See also Anderson and Honneth (2005), Christman (2014).

  6. 6.

    For an overview of the empirical research on voter turnout, see Lijphart (1997), Geys (2006), and Norris (2011).

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Acknowledgments

I wish to thank Eva Deitert, Luise Müller, Sophia Obermeyer, Cord Schmelzle, the two anonymous reviewers and the Editors of Res Publica for their valuable comments, which were of great help in developing my arguments. I gratefully acknowledge funding provided by the German Research Council within the framework of the research centre ‘Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood’ at the Freie Universität Berlin.

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Correspondence to Daniel Jacob.

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Jacob, D. Every Vote Counts: Equality, Autonomy, and the Moral Value of Democratic Decision-Making. Res Publica 21, 61–75 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-014-9262-x

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Keywords

  • Democracy
  • Voting
  • Autonomy
  • Equality
  • Political disaffection