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  • The Problem of Civic Competence
  • Robert A. Dahl (bio)

If democracy is to work, it would seem to require a certain level of political competence on the part of its citizens. In newly democratic or democratizing countries, where peoples are just beginning to learn the arts of self-government, the question of citizen competence possesses an obvious urgency. Yet even in countries where democratic institutions have existed for several generations or more, a growing body of evidence reveals grave limits to citizen competence. These limits are serious enough to require a systematic search for new ways of enhancing civic competence, several of which I will discuss below. Should these prove feasible, they could be employed to improve citizen competence not only in the older democracies but also in fledgling democratic countries where the problem may be even more acute.

Our inquiry must begin by addressing two basic questions: 1) What standards must citizens meet in order to be considered competent? and 2) Do a significant number of citizens in democratic lands-or in a particular country-fail by a significant margin to meet these standards?

A traditional answer to the first question is to say that in a good polity the rulers should possess both knowledge of the "public good" and also a robust and sustained desire to achieve it; that is, they should possess "civic virtue." A committed democrat might immediately object by saying that if we accept knowledge and virtue as standards for rulers, we commit ourselves to rule by an elite-whether Plato's guardians, a Confucian bureaucracy, a Leninist vanguard party, a technocracy, or the like. I think this conclusion would be a mistake, though I do not intend to argue the point here. In the end, I believe, the idea of rule by a select [End Page 45] few who are supposed to possess exceptional knowledge and virtue is deeply flawed both morally and empirically.1 But to make that case would deflect us from the questions I have just posed. Consequently, I will assume that the system we have in mind is democratic and that the "rulers" are, in some substantial way, the "citizens." In a democratic system, as in any other, it seems reasonable to ask that the rulers should be politically competent: that is, aware of what they want their government to achieve, and predisposed to act in ways intended to bring it about.

Yet even this formulation immediately suggests a deep and difficult problem. Whose good do we expect our citizens to seek?2 The most usual answers fall roughly into two categories, which might be called the broad or classical view, and the narrow or modern view. The broad view is that citizens should seek the good of some larger collectivity of which they are a part: the good of all, the general good, the good of the polis, the public interest, the general welfare, the interests of their class, country, or people, and so on.

Applying this view to the modern democratic citizen often produces a portrait that looks something like this: The good citizen is highly concerned about public affairs and political life; well-informed about issues, candidates, and parties; engaged often with fellow citizens in deliberations on public matters; an active participant in efforts to influence governmental decisions by voting, communicating views to public officials, attending political meetings, and the like; and motivated in all these activities by a desire to foster the general welfare.

It is clear that few citizens in democratic countries actually measure up to this idealized portrait, and most appear to fall far short of it. Is it even a relevant ideal today? When applied to the citizen of a modern democratic country, the classical view immediately displays one potentially lethal weakness: it treats the citizen as a member of only one political unit. Today, however, innumerable collective entities exist to which a citizen might be attached, ranging from one's city to humankind. Thus the classical view provides citizens with no guidance about which public's good they should seek.3

A much narrower view, one more consistent with modern individualism, is that each citizen is or should be moved by self...