Pluralism and Public Choice

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  • Topic: Unitary state, Federation, Public choice theory
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  • Published : October 4, 2008
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Part A: Contrast the theories of Pluralism and Public Choice (Private Interest).

Public Choice theory and Pluralism are both expressions of an attempt to critique political structures, analyse the processes that drive them and understand their relative effectiveness in achieving stated political or social goals. The disparate perspectives that can be obtained by application of each of these political ontologies are generated by fundamental differences in these assumed goals and underlying motivators.

Pluralism can be defined in its broadest sense as an acceptance of diversity (Wikipedia contributors 2006). This philosophical concept has been used to describe tolerant theological positions, liberal social structures and a political approach that recognises and values diversity. A major proponent of Pluralist ideals as fundamental to defeating the more ignoble of human behaviour was Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997). In his last essay he wrote, “If pluralism is a valid view, and respect between systems of values which are not necessarily hostile to each other is possible, then toleration and liberal consequences follow”( Berlin 1998).

As such, Pluralism in any area of human endeavour is commonly regarded as a characteristic of a free society. When discussing politics, the term is generally used either as a fundamental principle which holds that peaceful coexistence of diverse groups is not only desirable but actually strengthens the democratic process, or to define an inclusive style or flavour of government that seeks to accommodate a range of constituencies and their interests, whether they be based upon morality, philosophy, religion or ethnicity(Ryan, Parker and Brown 2003 pp.47-48). Bob Jessop writes “democratic politics… raises the question of formulating policies that will prove realistic in terms of the overall balance of forces and structural constraints confronting a party or coalition in office” (1990, p.182).

To achieve this pluralist ideal, societies and the governments they elect will develop political forms and structures which protect citizens from the tyranny of the majority. A discussion of political pluralism will often become an analysis of the effectiveness of these protections. This can be judged by a groups input into public debate, a fundamentally important part of the democratic process in successful Pluralist societies (Ryan, Parker and Brown 2003 pp.47-48).

If an elected government is assumed to have garnered support for its policies from a broad range of constituencies it is expected to remain a neutral body mediating the sometimes conflicting interests of its constituents (Roskin et al. 1994, pp.262-264). To do this relies on rule of law, independent judiciary and a legislative process constrained by a constitution. In a social democratic framework this pluralist approach might be expected to protect citizens from the worst excesses of a purely market driven economy and mitigate the homogenising effects of majority rule.

It is the necessity that all groups participate fully in the public debate which often requires a lengthy process of whittling down government proposals by rejecting outcomes which may prove unfavourable to interest groups rather than simply proposing policy on the basis of the common good. Many theorists maintain that this process of conflict and dialogue is not only more effective in achieving successful outcomes than top down imposition of control, but is in fact inevitable.

Discussing centrally controlled economic systems, Geoffrey Hodgson suggest that pluralism is a necessary part of all systems; even totalitarian communism inevitably incorporates a black market (1993 pp.254-262). He writes about an “impurity principle” which holds that “there must always be a plurality of economic structures, so that the socio-economic formation as a whole has requisite variety to promote and cope with change” (Hodgson 1993 p.255). Consequently “an over centralised economy...
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