Obstacles to Strong Democracy - Prisoner's Dilemma and Free Rider Effect

Seminar Paper, 2004

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7




Description of the Neighborhood Assemblies

Description of the Civic Communications Cooperative

Description of a Civic Videotext Service

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Free-Rider Effect

Practical critique and Conclusion


In order to establish a strong democracy, Barber thinks, an institutional framework has to be created. The institutions have the purpose to give people the opportunity to become engaged citizens, an opportunity that is not yet provided for, that is not provided for in a liberal democracy.

Barber says, that “strong democracy must offer a systematic program of institutional reforms rather than a piecemeal package of particularistic, unrelated modifications” (p. 263). Therefore the twelve points of his strong democratic program have to be seen as one unitary complex. “The potency of the reforms offered here”, Barber continues “lies almost entirely in their capacity for mutual reenforcement when implemented in concert” (p. 264). Thus, one cannot discuss certain individual points of the agenda without taking the others into account, as well. That is why I will discuss three points that are closely related to each other and not that closely related to the others 9 points. Nevertheless it will be necessary to take a look at the left out points at the end of the discussion to see if they entail provisions that re-enforce or support the ones our focus is laid on.

My strategy is the following:

In the fist part of the essay I will describe the three points of the agenda I want to discuss. The institutions I want to discuss are the Neighborhood Assemblies, the Civic Communications Cooperative and t a Civic Videotext Service.

In the second part I will discuss and criticize them, focusing on the question of the practical possibility of their realization. Therefore I will at first lay down a theoretical foundation that is alternative to Barbers. I will explain the prisoner’s dilemma and the free rider effect. And I will show which obstacles they place on the strong democratic program and how the strong democratic program deals with these problems.

I will then show that, given this new focus, the three points of the Strong Democratic agenda are not likely to succeed. They are not likely to succeed even if the other points of the program are taken into account.

In the last part of the essay I will summarize my findings and state my own opinion. Here I will also mention some practical difficulties of the institutions, that were not mentioned before. The conclusion will be that it is important to be aware of the possibility of different assumptions about human nature and about the possibilities of collective action. Given the mentioned alternative perspective, it becomes very questionable weather the Strong Democratic program will succeed and therefore very questionable weather the Strong Democratic Program should be realized and implemented.

Description of the Neighborhood Assemblies

The “nation should be divided into wards” as Jefferson said, according to Barber (p. 263). And Benjamin Barber wants to make this call reality. The wards are supposed to be neighborhood assemblies. The size of these assemblies is defined not by certain areas all of the same size, but by the number of members. “Neighborhood assemblies can include no fewer than 5.000 citizens and certainly not more than 25.000” (Barber p. 269). The neighborhood assembly system would be limited to talk and deliberation. They “could be founded as forums for public discussion of both local issues and regional and national referenda without encroaching on the present delegation of governmental responsibility and authority” (Barber p. 270). People would not have to attain every meeting. Actually, there should be no coercion about attendance, at all. The assemblies should have three tasks. These are “to ensure local accountability, to deliberate on issues (and set agendas), and to act as ombudsman” (Barber p. 270). The most important of these is to deliberate together and to set agendas for the community. In a second phase of development they would become voting constituencies for regional and national referenda and possibly act as community units in a system of civic telecommunication. And they might act as local legislative assemblies. They would draw regional laws and decide on them. The neighborhood assemblies should also have a physical home. At first they could be located at multiple-use buildings but it would have to be found a permanent civic home for deliberation, voting, civic telecommunication and other public services. This integration of several civic utilities under one roof would strengthen political judgment.

People only vote for those who govern but not for the policies by which they are governed. And they are not provided with the opportunity to create their own agendas through permanent public discourse. This should be changed through neighborhood assemblies. “The objective [for the neighborhood assemblies] is not yet to exercise power […]: it is to create the conditions for the exercise of power” (Barber p 268). Neighborhood assemblies would play the role of civic educational institutions. They would “engender civic competence, and in time they would become potential repositories of local decision-making and community action” (Barber p. 270). Neighborhood assemblies would shift some of the responsibility of accountability of political officials directly to the citizens. A “question period” provides the citizens with the possibility to ask the officials for account. The group size is an important factor for neighborhood assemblies because in a smaller group citizens will feel able to participate and they will feel the power to change things. But the institution of neighborhood assemblies also raises some doubts. The question is, if neighborhood assemblies might not “fall prey to peer pressure, eloquence, social conformity, and various forms of sub-rosa manipulation and persuasion not known in larger adversary systems” (Barber p. 272). Here Barber says, that this danger might have been the case in earlier times but it is not one anymore. “As one element in the American pluralistic pressure system, the neighborhood assembly would be unlikely to reproduce the consensualist pressure of the villages and town of an earlier era” (Barber p. 273).

Description of the Civic Communications Cooperative

The neighborhood assemblies bear a serious danger. They can “divide and parochialize both regions and the nation” (Barber p. 273) because they are very much limited to a certain area. In order to avoid this from happening two other points of the strong democratic program have to be institutionalized. The first of these is a Civic Communications Cooperative. This is supposed to be an organization with the purpose to create and regulate new interactive telecommunication broadcasting. “The CCC’s defining mandate would be to promote and guarantee civic and democratic uses of telecommunication, which remains a vital public resource” (Barber p. 277). Barber says:

The capabilities of the new technology can be used to strengthen civic education, guarantee equal access to information, and tie individuals and institutions into networks that will make real participatory discussion and debate possible across great distances. (Barber p. 274)


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Obstacles to Strong Democracy - Prisoner's Dilemma and Free Rider Effect
LMU Munich  (Amerika Institut)
Proseminar: Communitarianism
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
471 KB
The paper discusses the vision of a thick democracy as defended by Benjamin Barber in his book "Strong Democracy". The conclusion is that the kind of participatory democracy he envisions is unlikely to succeed, because of insurmountable obstacles the logic of collective action constitutes against it.
Obstacles, Strong, Democracy, Prisoner, Dilemma, Free, Rider, Effect, Proseminar, Communitarianism
Quote paper
Sebastian Wolf (Author), 2004, Obstacles to Strong Democracy - Prisoner's Dilemma and Free Rider Effect, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/40512


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