On Political Equality

On Political Equality

by Robert A. Dahl

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Robert A. Dahl, one of the world’s most influential and respected political scientists, has spent a lifetime exploring the institutions and practices of democracy in such landmark books as Who Governs?, On Democracy, and How Democratic Is the American Constitution?  Here, Dahl looks at the fundamental issue of equality and how and

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Robert A. Dahl, one of the world’s most influential and respected political scientists, has spent a lifetime exploring the institutions and practices of democracy in such landmark books as Who Governs?, On Democracy, and How Democratic Is the American Constitution?  Here, Dahl looks at the fundamental issue of equality and how and why governments have fallen short of their democratic ideals. 

At the center of the book is the question of whether the goal of political equality is so far beyond our human limits that it should be abandoned in favor of more attainable ends, or if there are ways to realistically address and reduce inequities. Though complete equality is unattainable, Dahl argues that strides toward that ideal are both desirable and feasible. He shows the remarkable shift in recent centuries toward democracy and political equality the world over. He explores the growth of democratic institutions, the expansion of citizenship, and the various obstacles that stand in the way of gains in political equality. Dahl also looks at the motives, particularly those of emotion and reason, that play such a crucial role in the struggle for equality.  

In conclusion, Dahl assesses the contemporary political landscape in the United States. He looks at the likelihood of political inequality increasing, and poses one scenario in which Americans grow more unequal in their influence over their government. The counter scenario foresees a cultural shift in which citizens, rejecting what Dahl calls “competitive consumerism,” invest time and energy in civic action and work to reduce the inequality that now exists among Americans.

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Editorial Reviews

Fred Greenstein
"On Political Equality has all of the earmarks of a book by Robert A. Dahl—sharp edged reasoning, unfolding logic, and lucid writing."—Fred Greenstein, Princeton University

Jennifer L. Hochschild
"On Political Equality is notable for its clarity and simplicity, but don't be fooled—it asks one of the most difficult questions a nation can face: should we strive for more political equality over the coming century despite the controversy that will ensue? Dahl answers with a resounding yes, and shows why almost any effort is worth the cost."—Jennifer L. Hochschild, Harvard University

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Yale University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)

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On Political Equality


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11607-6

Chapter One


Throughout much of recorded history, an assertion that adult human beings are entitled to be treated as political equals would have been widely viewed by many as self-evident nonsense, and by rulers as a dangerous and subversive claim that they must suppress.

The expansion of democratic ideas and beliefs since the eighteenth century has all but converted that subversive claim into a commonplace-so much so that authoritarian rulers who wholly reject the claim in practice may publicly embrace it in their ideological pronouncements.

Yet even in democratic countries, as any citizen who carefully observes political realities can conclude, the gap between the goal of political equality and its actual achievement is huge. In some democratic countries, including the United States, the gap may be increasing and may even be in danger of reaching the point of irrelevancy.

Is the goal of political equality so far beyond our human limits that we should seek more easily attainable ends and ideals? Or are there changes within our limited human reach that would greatly reduce the gap between the ideal and our present reality?

To answer these questions fully would take us farbeyond the confines of this brief book. I'm going to begin by assuming that the ideal of democracy presupposes that political equality is desirable. Consequently, if we believe in democracy as a goal or ideal, then implicitly we must view political equality as a goal or ideal. In several of my earlier works I have shown why these assumptions seem to me to be highly reasonable and provide us with goals sufficiently within our human reach to be considered as feasible and realistic. In Chapter 2, in recapitulating my reasons for supporting these judgments I'll draw freely from these earlier works.

In the chapters that follow, I want to provide some further reflections on the relevance of political equality as a feasible and attainable goal. An important body of evidence is provided by the historical advance of "democratic" systems and the expansion of citizenship to include more and more adults. To help us understand the causes underlying this extraordinary and historically unprecedented advance toward political equality, in Chapter 4 I'll emphasize the importance of some widespread-even universal-human drives.

Yet if these basic human qualities and capacities provide us with reasons for upholding political equality as a feasible (even if not fully attainable) goal, we must also consider-as I shall do in Chapter 5-some fundamental aspects of human beings and human societies that impose persistent barriers to political equality.

If we then focus our attention on the future of political equality in the United States, we can readily envision the realistic possibility that rising barriers will greatly increase political inequality among American citizens. In Chapter 6, I'll explore this possible future.

In the final chapter, I'll describe an alternative and more hopeful future in which some basic human drives may produce a cultural shift that would lead to a substantial reduction in the political inequalities that now prevail among American citizens.

It is beyond my capacities to predict which of these-or other-possible futures will actually prevail. But I feel confident that the outcome can be strongly influenced by the individual and collective efforts and actions that we, and our successors, choose to undertake.

Chapter Two

Is Political Equality a Reasonable Goal?

If we make two assumptions, each of which hard to reject in reasonable and open public discourse, the case for political equality and democracy becomes extraordinarily powerful. The first is the moral judgment that all human beings are of equal intrinsic worth, that no person is intrinsically superior to another, and that the good or interests of each person must be given equal consideration. Let me call this the assumption of intrinsic equality.

Even if we accept this moral judgment, the deeply troublesome question immediately arises: who or what group is best qualified to decide what the good or interests of a person really are? Clearly the answer will vary depending on the situation, the kinds of decisions, and the persons involved. But if we restrict our focus to the government of a state, then it seems to me that the safest and most prudent assumption would run something like this: Among adults no persons are so definitely better qualified than others to govern that they should be entrusted with complete and final authority over the government of the state.

Although we might reasonably add refinements and qualifications to this prudential judgment, for at least three reasons it is difficult to see how any substantially different proposition could be supported. First, Acton's famous and oft quoted proposition appears to express a fundamental truth about human beings: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whatever the intentions of rulers may be at the outset of their rule, any commitment they may have to serving "the public good" is likely to be transformed in time into an identification of "the public good" with the maintenance of the their own powers and privileges. Second, just as free discussion and controversy are, as John Stuart Mill famously argued, essential to the pursuit of truth-or, if you prefer, to reasonably justifiable judgments-a government unchecked by citizens who are free to discuss and oppose the policies of their leaders is more likely to blunder, sometimes disastrously, as modern authoritarian regimes have amply demonstrated. Finally, consider the most crucial historical cases in which substantial numbers of persons were denied equal citizenship: does anyone really believe today that when the working classes, women, and racial and ethnic minorities were excluded from political participation, their interests were adequately considered and protected by those who were privileged to govern them?

I do not mean to say that the reasons I have given were in the minds of the persons who brought about greater political equality. I am simply saying that moral and prudential judgments offer strong support for political equality as a desirable and reasonable goal or ideal.


If we conclude that political equality is desirable in governing a state (though not necessarily in all other human associations), how may it be achieved? It almost goes without saying that the only political system for governing a state that derives its legitimacy and its political institutions from the idea of political equality is a democracy. What political institutions are necessary in order for a political system to qualify as a democracy? And why these institutions?


We can't answer these questions satisfactorily, I believe, without a concept of an ideal democracy. For the same reasons that Aristotle found it useful to describe his three ideal constitutions in order to classify actual systems, a description of an ideal democracy provides a model against which to compare various actual systems. Unless we have a conception of the ideal against which to compare the actual, our reasoning will be circular or purely arbitrary: e.g., "the United States, Britain, France, and Norway are all democracies; therefore, the political institutions they all have in common must be the basic institutions that are necessary to democracy; therefore, since these countries possess these institutions, they must be democracies."

We need to keep in mind that a description of an "ideal" system can serve two different but entirely compatible purposes. One is to assist in empirical or scientific theory. The other is to help us make moral judgments by providing an ideal end or goal. These are often confused, though an "ideal" in the first sense does not necessarily imply an "ideal" in the other.

In empirical theory the function of an ideal system is to describe the characteristics or operation of that system under a set of perfect (ideal) conditions. Galileo inferred the rate at which an object would fall in a vacuum-i.e., under ideal conditions-by measuring the speed of a marble rolling down an inclined plane. Obviously he did not and could not measure its rate of fall in a vacuum. Yet his law of falling bodies remains valid today. It is not uncommon in physics to formulate hypotheses concerning the behavior of an object or force under ideal conditions that cannot be perfectly attained in actual experiments but that can be satisfactorily approximated. In a similar spirit, when the German sociologist Max Weber described "three pure types of legitimate Authority" he commented that "the usefulness of the above classification can only be judged by its results in promoting systematic analysis ... [N]one of these three ideal types ... is usually to be found in historical cases in 'pure' form."

An ideal in the second sense is understood as a desirable goal, one probably not perfectly achievable in practice, but a standard to which we ought to aspire, and against which we can measure the good or value of what has been achieved, what actually exists.

A definition and description of democracy may be intended to serve only the first purpose; or it may serve the second as well. As an aid to empirical theory, a conception of democracy may come not from an advocate but from a critic for whom even the ideal is unsatisfactory, or simply irrelevant to human experience because of the enormous gap between the goal and any possibility of a satisfactory approximation.


Although an ideal democracy might be portrayed in many ways, a useful starting point is the etymological origins of the term: demos + kratia, rule by "the people." In order to leave open the question of just which "people" are provided with full political equality, instead of "the people" let me briefly use the more neutral term "demos."

At a minimum an ideal democracy would, I believe, require these features:

Effective participation. Before a policy is adopted by the association, all the members of the demos must have equal and effective opportunities for making known to other members their views about what the policy should be.

Equality in voting. When the moment arrives at which the decision will finally be made, every member must have an equal and effective opportunity to vote, and all votes must be counted as equal.

Gaining enlightened understanding. Within a reasonable amount of time, each member would have equal and effective opportunities for learning about the relevant alternative policies and their likely consequences.

Final control of the agenda. The demos would have the exclusive opportunity to decide how (and if ) its members chose which matters are to be placed on the agenda. Thus the democratic process required by the three preceding features would never be closed. The policies of the association would always be open to change by the demos, if its members chose to do so.

Inclusion. Every member of the demos would be entitled to participate in the ways just described: effective participation, equality in voting, seeking an enlightened understanding of the issues, and exercising final control over the agenda.

Fundamental rights. Each of the necessary features of an ideal democracy prescribes a right that is itself a necessary part of an ideal democratic order: a right to participate, a right to have one's vote counted equally with the votes of others, a right to search for the knowledge necessary in order to understand the issue on the agenda, and a right to participate on an equal footing with one's fellow citizens in exercising final control over the agenda. Democracy consists, then, not only of political processes. It is also necessarily a system of fundamental rights.


Political philosophers from Aristotle to Rousseau and later have generally insisted that no actual political system is likely to meet fully the requirements of the ideal. Although the political institutions of actual democracies may be necessary in order for a political system to attain a relatively high level of democracy, they may not be, indeed almost certainly will not be, sufficient to achieve anything like perfect or ideal democracy. Yet the institutions amount to a large step toward the ideal, as presumably they did in Athens when citizens, leaders, and political philosophers named their system a democracy-i.e., an actual if not ideal democracy-or in the United States when Tocqueville, like most others in America and elsewhere, unhesitatingly called it a democracy.

If a unit is small in numbers and area, the political institutions of assembly democracy could readily be seen as fulfilling the requirements for a "government by the people." The citizens would be free to learn as much as they could about the proposals that are to come before them. They could discuss policies and proposals with their fellow citizens, seek out information from members they regard as better informed, and consult written or other sources. They could meet at a convenient place-Pnyx Hill in Athens, the Forum in Rome, the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, the town hall in a New England village. There, under the guidance of a neutral moderator, within reasonable time limits they could discuss, debate, amend, propose. Finally, they could cast their votes, all votes being counted equal, with the votes of a majority prevailing.

It is easy to see, then, why assembly democracy is sometimes thought to be much closer to the ideal than a representative system could possibly be, and why the most ardent advocates of assembly democracy sometimes insist, like Rousseau in the Social Contract, that the term representative democracy is self-contradictory. Yet views like these have failed to win many converts.


Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe and the English-speaking countries a set of political institutions needed for democratic representative governments evolved that, taken as a whole, was entirely new in human history. Despite important differences in constitutional structures, these basic political institutions are similar in their broad outlines. The most important are:

Important government decisions and policies are directly or indirectly adopted by, or accountable to, officials who are chosen in popular elections.

Citizens are entitled to participate freely in fair and reasonably frequent elections in which coercion is uncommon. Citizens are entitled to run for and serve in elective offices, though requirements as to age and place of residence may be imposed.

Citizens may express themselves publicly over a broad range of politically relevant subjects, without danger of severe punishment.

All citizens are entitled to seek out independent sources of information from other citizens, newspapers, and many other sources; moreover, sources of information not under the control of the government or any single group actually exist and are effectively protected by law in their expression.

In full contrast to the prevailing view in earlier democracies and republics that political "factions" were a danger to be avoided, both theory and practice came to insist that in order for citizens to achieve their various rights they must possess a further right to form and participate in relatively independent associations and organizations, including independent political parties and interest groups.


Excerpted from On Political Equality by ROBERT A. DAHL Copyright © 2006 by Yale University . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert A. Dahl is Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Yale University. He lives in North Haven, CT.

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