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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Accountability and democracy (I)

And now for something completely different -- some thoughts on accountability....

Getting back on track seems to be a constant theme of the few blogs I have posted over the past several months, so it is time once again to try doing so.

This time my focus is on the relationship between democracy and accountability -- a topic that is actually newsworthy given the elections coming up this Tuesday. But instead of the mid-year vote, my thoughts are in reaction to an award-winning book by political philosopher Henry S. Richardson (son of Elliot, by the way) titled Democratic Autonomy: Public Reasoning About the Ends of Policy.

I am only at the beginning of this work, but the problem Richardson addresses is the possibility of democratic governance in the context of the modern administrative state (my phrasing, not his). He sets the stage by noting that most discussions of modern democracy focus on two issues: how to constitute a democratic system that builds upon and protects individual rights (liberal democracy) and how to establish a democracy that does not foster tyranny of the majority (republican democracy). What neither of these traditions directly confront is the necessity of administrative discretion and the accompanying potential for bureaucratic domination.

While this may be a refreshing reconfiguration of the current debate among democratic theorists, it is hardly a new topic for students of American public administration or administrative law. For the mainstream scholars in American PA, Dwight Waldo's articulation of the problem in The Administrative State and later publications has been a preoccupation since at least the mid-1940s, with notables such as David H. Rosenbloom (e.g., here) and John A. Rohr (e.g., here) leading the way to finding some rationale for "retrofitting" constitutional democracy into the administrative state. For those who study US administrative law, the constitutional problem of how to deal with delegation of authority issues reached its peak in the 1930s and has been circumvented rather than resolved for all these decades (e.g., here).

My own take on the issue places accountable governance at the center of the "democracy in the administrative state" question -- with equal stress on both accountability and governance. Despite the conventional wisdom that assumes and inherent tension between democracy and bureaucracy (e.g., here), the two are linked by a fundamental and necessary reliance on mechanisms of accountability. But while accountability is a necessary condition of each, it is far from a sufficient condition for either. That said, almost all contemporary reforms (and related discussions) that attempt to address or resolve the problematic relationship between democracy and bureaucracy either over invest in the enhancement of accountability or fail to appreciate the complex role it plays in both.

More to come as I plod ahead into Richardson's work....

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