Monday, November 14, 2011

Exit, Voice, and Democracy

Speaking of exit, voice, and domination, here's a very interesting paper by Mark E. Warren in the latest APSR: Voting with Your Feet: Exit-based Empowerment in Democratic Theory (gated, ungated earlier version), Volume 105, Issue 04, November 2011 pp 683-701. Abstract:
Democracy is about including those who are potentially affected by collective decisions in making those decisions. For this reason, contemporary democratic theory primarily assumes membership combined with effective voice. An alternative to voice is exit: Dissatisfied members may choose to leave a group rather than voice their displeasure. Rights and capacities for exit can function as low-cost, effective empowerments, particularly for those without voice. But because contemporary democratic theory often dismisses exit as appropriate only for economic markets, the democratic potentials of exit have rarely been theorized. Exit-based empowerments should be as central to the design and integrity of democracy as distributions of votes and voice, long considered its key structural features. When they are integrated into other democratic devices, exit-based empowerments should generate and widely distribute usable powers for those who need them most, evoke responsiveness from elites, induce voice, discipline monopoly, and underwrite vibrant and pluralistic societies.
Warren explicitly argues for a connection between mechanisms of exit and the promotion of nondomination, something which I had idly wondered about, and rightly argues that exit has often been neglected in democratic theory, even though modern democracies obviously depend at a basic level on certain forms of exit (e.g., from one political party to another). I also found Warren's discussion of the varieties of exit and their interaction with voice mechanisms (e.g., exit as signalling vs. exit as silence, and exit as free-riding vs. exit as empowerment) insightful, and his discussion of the ways in which exit mechanisms can be incorporated into modern democracies provocative.  (I should note that my first reaction to his argument was "I wish I'd written this paper!").

I have some quibbles, however. Warren notes that democracy is typically understood in terms of a voice-monopoly model in which collective voice is required to discipline the  potentially problematic effects of the state monopoly on violence:

The democratic case for voice usually assumes monopoly organizations. It does so normatively—voice is most important within the context of monopolistic organizations. And it does so structurally—monopoly induces voice by restricting exit. 
In these two respects, Hirschman's analysis tracks the fact that modern democracy was born of a specific kind of monopoly—that of states. In its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century origins, the democratic project focused on increasing inclusions within states that had effectively consolidated power by controlling territory, developing administrative capacities, and regularizing sovereignty through constitutional means (Poggi 1990, chaps. 1–2). The justifications for voice are closely related to these elements of monopoly in two ways. First, when a collectivity controls key features of livelihood, such as security, and solves collective action problems through coercion, then individuals subject to that coercion should have a say in how it is deployed. Second, the greater the costs of exit to individuals, the greater the need for voice. Though liberal-democratic states do not legally restrict exit from their territories, they recognize that exit is costly: It is disruptive of family, social support networks, careers, language, and culture, and can mean giving up the protections and welfare entitlements of citizenship. These monopoly-like effects are well recognized and justified by the existence of voice mechanisms—that is, democratic processes that legitimate the monopoly-like properties of the state. Thus it is appropriate that democratic theory has focused on equalities of political resources, secured by positive political rights (voting, speech, association) and related welfare rights (education and income security), as well as on the mechanisms such as electoral systems, judicial systems, public sphere discourse, and civil society activism through which citizens’ voice is translated into influence over law and policy (see, e.g., Habermas 1996, chap. 8).
The depth of attachment to monopoly within democratic theory stems from the fact that it is structurally necessary for the provision of common goods. As Hirschman's analysis suggests, democracies are sensitive to problems of collective action: Defectors from collectivities undermine democracy by undermining the possibility of common choice (Barry 1974). Union organizing is the archetypal case: The worker who breaks with the solidarity of the bargaining unit also undermines the capacity of the union to serve its members. More generally, as Olson (1971) famously detailed, when individuals are left to weigh the costs and benefits of collective action, larger groups tend to return fewer benefits, causing individuals to exit the collectivity, which in turn undermines the provision of public goods. As Hobbes understood, monopoly removes the threats to common security and provision posed by defection. Similarly, democratic theorists—particularly those focused on the important relationship between solidarity and collective choice—view exit opportunities as harmful, indeed, so much so that, as Hirschman (1970) observes more generally, exit is often branded criminal or treasonous (17).

Warren then rightly argues that voice is insufficient to the task of disciplining monopoly, especially given the scale of and the dispersion of power in modern states, and also that forms of exit can also play a role in ensuring that people affected by collective decisions are not unjustly dominated. Yet he does not discuss the possibility of exit from the state monopoly (aside from the brief mention of migration quoted above) except in terms that assimilate these forms of exit to "free-riding" (e.g., capital flight that hollows out public services). And the forms of exit he does discuss (what he calls "enabled" and "institutionalized" exit) are more or less dependent on the state insofar as they require the state to provide resources to make effective the ability of individuals to leave dominating relations, or to transform relations of domination into relations of choice. For example, a policy of full employment can be understood to enable exit from oppressive employment relations by reducing the costs of unemployment; and similarly extensive social safety nets, or a guaranteed minimum income can enable exit from such relations by making formal options (like quitting a job) much more easily taken. But forms of enabled exit are presented as dependent on the state in ways that suggest that Warren implicitly values voice more than exit, or at least thinks that voice is normatively or structurally prior to exit, and sets limits to its exercise, a view that seems to me to be unwarranted. (So Warren is fairly critical of the market as a mechanism for exit, in part because he thinks that the market tends to be biased against those with fewer resources). Yet it is by no means clear that all forms of exit from the state monopoly should be understood as forms of free-riding (see, for example, James C. Scott's work), or that enabled exit (making effective formal opportunities for exit) should be understood as something that only states can (or should) structure and provide, even if enabling exit may on occasion require large-scale collective action.

Perhaps this is a result of trying to fit a discussion of exit within democratic theory rather than simply liberal theory. It seems to me that there is something like a liberalism of voice that incorporates exit to a greater or lesser extent in its basic structure, and a liberalism of exit that similarly incorporates voice to some greater or lesser extent in its structure. Both forms of liberalism are concerned with nondomination, but they differ in their normative evaluations of the relative importance of exit and voice, in part due to different understandings of the relationships between, and the value of, the individual and the community. Warren's argument pushes a liberalism of voice closer to a liberalism of exit, but his position remains, in important respects, a liberalism of voice.