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Showing posts from July, 2017

Freedom to do stuff vs. freedom from stuff

As our children grow up we typically give them more freedom and discretion over the activities they will pursue, and increasing freedom of choice when it comes to who they will associate with and the type of education they want. It's commonly accepted that freedom from tyranny, oppression, and control is a hallmark of a democratic society; we should be free to lead and build a life of our choosing. Leading and guiding one another to a life of freedom is a great privilege that many communities are still fighting and striving towards. 
However, when our children are young, we're a bit more directive. When I wake up my daughters in the morning, whether they get dressed, eat breakfast, and get ready for school is not up for discussion or deliberation. At first, commanding them when to put on their shoes might seem to contravene their freedom of choice. Am I restraining their liberty? Obstructing their progress as free individuals? In directing them through these activities, it is…

Where can you set the agenda?

In a previous post I highlighted the importance of personal relationships and trust for democracy. The implication is that without some degree of personal relationships, public decisions are made without meaningful responsibility or commitment to one another as political equals.  A separate but related concept concerns control over the agenda - a critical but often overlooked dimension to democratic decision-making.

Controlling the agenda is distinct from the power to actually make decisions. The ability to set the agenda entails discretion and power over the issues themselves; deciding what issues matter, and what issues require a decision. Deciding what to decide.

The concept is one of five criteria Robert Dahl put forward in his book Democracy and Its Critics (1989). At first the idea sounds boring and inconsequential, but the power to frame issues has an enormous influence over decision-making. An inability to control the agenda is one reason for much frustration with politics tod…

Spheres of Power and Authority

Imagine the wealthy owner of an airline who donates significant funds to her child's school, via the local Parent Advisory Committee (PAC). Out of respect, although she does not formally sit on the committee, the members seek her input and advice on the priorities for PAC expenditures for the coming year. This same wealthy individual is a major donor to several local city councillors, who oblige her requests for phone calls from time to time. Within the airline industry, due to her position and stature, she is often called upon as an advisor for policy review committees.

Does something feel wrong with this picture? Should this individual be able to enjoy positions of influence within multiple different sectors and industries? Michael Walzer would say no. His 1983 book "Spheres of Justice" describes a concept called 'complex equality'. The fundamental premise here is that someone who holds a position of privilege, power, or domination in one "sphere" sho…