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Managing Disagreement: A Defense of “Regime Bias”


Stein Ringen’s theory of democratic purpose cannot do the work expected of it. Ringen’s own criteria oscillate between being too vague to be useful (i.e. “freedom”) or, when specified more fully, conflicting, so that almost all democracies will seem to be potentially at cross-purposes with themselves rather than their purposes or sub-purposes being mutually reinforcing. This reflects a bigger and more theoretical problem. Disagreement about the purpose of democracy is built into democracy itself. The whole point of many (perhaps all) of our democratic institutions is to arrive at conditionally legitimate decisions in spite of such disagreement. So-called regime bias, i.e. the tendency to assess democracies according to the form and stability of their institutions rather than their results or their ability to serve certain purposes, does not in fact arise from bias. It arises on the contrary from a determination to avoid the bias inherent in giving some—inevitably partisan—ideals of what democracies should do pride of place over others in a scheme of measurement or evaluation. And even a regime-based definition of democracy must itself make simplifying assumptions that elide possible normative controversies over how the democratic game is best played. Vindicating one’s preferred set of democratic ideals against alternatives is a completely legitimate enterprise and lends richness to debates within and across democracies. But it is an inherently ideological and political enterprise, not a neutral or scholarly one.

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