Theses Doctoral

Experimental Democracy - Collective Intelligence for a Diverse and Complex World

Gerlsbeck, Felix

My dissertation is motivated by the following observation: while we care very much about the outcomes of the democratic process, there is widespread uncertainty about ex ante how to produce them - and quite often there is also disagreement and uncertainty about what they are in the first place. Consequently, unless we have a definite idea what "better decision-making" might be, it is not obvious which institutional reforms or changes in democratic structures would actually promote it. Democracy is a wide concept, and not all institutional constellations and rules and regulations that can be called democratic function equally well. In this dissertation therefore I offer a specific model of democracy - "Experimental Democracy" - that unites the view that the quality of decisions matter, with taking into account the circumstances of uncertainty and disagreement that define political problems. On this account, a desirable political mechanism is one that realizes an experimental method of policy-making directed at solving problems, such that we can expect it to make progress over time, even though we cannot rule out that it will get things wrong - possibly even frequently. I also show how democracy may best realize such an experimental method, and which particular institutional features of democracy could serve this purpose. The argument in the dissertation proceeds as follows. In the first part I develop a theory of the justifiability of political authority in the sense outlined above: a theory that is sensitive to the outcome concerns that many people share, but recognizes the fundamental disagreement surrounding this question. I establish that instrumental considerations should be of crucial importance when we evaluate political authority. Here I argue against pure proceduralist theories that see the outcome dimension as secondary. However, the facts of disagreement and uncertainty about the ends of politics, as well as concrete policy, do seem to pose a problem for any instrumental justification. In response I outline a pragmatic or experimental theory of political authority, which focuses precisely on the capacity of a political procedure to solve political problems under uncertainty. Just as in many other fields of inquiry experimentation and adaptation are seen as the adequate responses to uncertainty, I argue, an experimental and adaptive mode of policy-making is the best response to political uncertainty. In the second part I answer the question which form of democracy would best realize the ideal of experimental policy-making. Subsequently, we should evaluate democratic institutions mainly by their capacity to enable successful experimentation and adaptation. Here, contrary to popular "wisdom of crowds" arguments, I argue that since no single decision procedure can be expected to be reliable across the board, a justified political system may have to employ a plurality of first-order decision-making mechanisms. However, as I show for this to work, these mechanisms must be subject to effective democratic control. The key function of democratic institutions here is that of feedback, in order to enable successful adaptation. Finally, I offer some concrete examples how the functional requirements of a successful experimental strategy of policy-making can be institutionally realized within democratic systems.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Schwartzberg, Melissa
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 18, 2013