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Schumpeter: Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy

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Schumpeter. 1976. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. London: Allen and Unwin.

In Brief

Schumpeter is best known for advocating a procedural definition of democracy. Though his book touches on other points, the following summary focuses on those sections of his book.

Chapter 21

In this chapter, Schumpter sets the stage for his "proceduralist" definition of democracy by criticizing the implications of "the eighteenth-century philosophy of democracy," which is this: "The democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions which realizes the common good by making the people itself decide issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble in order to carry out its will."

Part I:

  • This defintion assumes: (1) there is a known "common good" that we all agree on, which defines good and bad. The only issue to argue about is how quickly to move towards this ideal.
  • Problems: (1) There is no common good that we all can be brought to see through rational argument. Even those with good intentions can disagree on what is best for society. (2) Even if we could agree on a common good (ends), we would be unable to agree on the means. "'Heatlh' might be desired by all, yet people would still disagree on vaccination and vasectomy" (252). (3) Finally, those using this definition tended to come from a utilitarian perspective, such that the common good is that which is best for each individual. However, this view does not allow the people to express its will about the common good, but rather makes an assumption about what form that "will" should "naturally" take.

Part II:

  • Dropping the assumption of utilitarianism as the common good requires assuming that each citizen is independently rational, able to sort good facts from misleading impressions, and promptly/accurately form opinions. Each citizen's value set would be fully formed, not a mere collection of "vague impulses." In such a society, one person's opinion would be just as good as another's.
  • Government BY the people is not necessarily better at being government FOR the people than other forms of governance can be (255-256).

Chapter 22: Schumpter's Procedural Theory

Part I:

  • In classical theory (criticized above), each citizen has a rational opinion about every issue. Each citizen votes for a representative to carry out his opinion. Thus, selecting a representative is "secondary."
  • New theory reverses these roles: "The democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a comeptitive struggle for the people's vote" (269).
  • Strengths: (1) Establishes a clearer criterion by which to distinguish democratic governments (but see #4). (2) Accounts for the importance of leaders and leadership, unlike classical democratic theory which almost deems leaders superfluous. (3) If there are common notions of what is good, they are now given a more realistic role: they make there way into a candidate's bundle of policies, where voters choose which bundle they prefer. (4) There is a continuum between perfectly free competition and noncompetition, just as there is a continuum between perfectly free markets and perfect command markets. (5) This theory clarifies the relationship between democracy and freedom; democracy does not require or guarantee freedom, other than that "everyone is fre to comepte for political leadership by presenting himself to the electorate." [Important qualifying footnote: "Free, that is, in the same sense in which everyone is free to start another textile mill" (272). However, this is likely to create general freedom for everybody. (6) The public does not control the government; it simply elects or evicts it.

Part II:

  • Presidents and prime ministers alike compete for the national vote. Even where the parliament appears to select a prime minister, it often has little choice but to pick the person with a national following.
  • Even though parliaments do pass laws and administrative acts, this is done in the same sense that an army takes a strategic hill: it is to keep its own "army" advantaged to win the fight. Passing bills "is the very method by which Parliament accepts or refuses to accept the Prime Minister's leadership. . . . [almost] every vote is a vote of confidence" (279).
  • Just as a store is defined by its desire for profit and not by what it sells, parties are better viewed as a gaggle of people seeking office rather than as a principled program of values.

Chapter 23

Part I: Implications of Schumpeter's new theory

  • Democracy, then, is not rule by the people, but rather rule by politicians, who compete freely for the people's vote. Politics has become a career.
  • Thus, politicians deal in votes just as businessmen deal in oil (285), forcing them to focus on short-term political goals over long-term policy planning. This is especially true of prime ministers who must constantly be sure that a piece of legislation doesn't lead to loss of confidence (as opposed to the US president, who has a bit more freedom to make unpopular, long-term moves).
  • Democracy puts good politicians in power, but those able to win votes are not necessarily talented administrators, leaders, judges, diplomats, etc.

Part II: Four conditions for success

These conditions for democracy's success apply only to "great industrial nations of the modern type" (290).

  • There must be enough high quality people (ability and moral character) willing to run for office. One way to ensure this is if politics tends to be the game of a selective social stratum (291). If the "high quality" people shun politics (as in Weimar German), you've got problems.
  • Politicians should be able to make decisions on only a limited range of issues. Not that constitutions should impose this limit, but that parliaments should limit themselves. They should leave to the specialists things they don't understand--e.g., in writing the criminal code, parliament should heed the advice of specialists who study crime. E.g.: some states fund universities without attempting to run/regulate them--the universities are in the public sphere, but are not controlled by ignorant legislators.
  • Government must have a loyal, well-trained, professional bureaucracy. This is related to the second condition. Civil service rules that limit legislators' control over promotion, hiring, and firing are important.
  • "Democratic self-control" (294): Everyone must accept all laws legally adopted. Those desiring legislative action should be willing to wait their turn to have action taken. Politicians must "resist the temptation to upset or embarrass the government each time they could do so" (294). Voters must recognize that, between elections, "political action is [the politicians'] business and not theirs. This means that they must refrain from instructing him about what he is to do," even though this "clashes with the classical doctrine of democracy and really spells its abandonment. For if the people are to rule in the sense of deciding individual issues [per the classical theory], what could be more natural for them to do than to issue instructions to their representatives...?" (295).
  • There must be much "tolerance for difference of opinion" (295), and, in addition to tolerance, respect.