Schumpeter’s Criticism of Classical Theory of Democracy

Schumpeter thinks of “18th Century” concepts of democracy (probably mostly pointing to Rousseau) as decision-making processes in which the people themselves decide on political issues by electing representatives who carry out the people’s will.

While others (e.g. Michels) had already attacked the notion that rather the leaders but not the people ultimately decide on political issues, Schumpeter focuses on another underlying assumption of the Classical Theory. He identifies this assumption as the idea that there is a common good to which all people can rationally agree on.

In his criticism, Schumpeter first states that the “common good” is a highly subjective term. Even people with genuinely good intentions will disagree on what exactly the common good is. Thus, it is impossible to find a unanimously acceptable common good. Second, even if people would agree on an end (e.g. health), they are still prone to disagree on the means (e.g. using vaccine or not, p. 252). Third, Schumpeter denies that people are able to make rational decisions to express their political will. Instead of carefully evaluating their political choices, people tend to focus on personal issues and merely express a general attitude when casting their votes.

Schumpeter suggests dropping the idea that people directly make political decisions. Instead it should be accepted that politicians make the decisions and people just vote for a politician (or political party) whose policy bundle best represents their interests. Politicians would have to compete for votes by addressing people’s needs in their programmes. Unlike in Classical Theory, the roles of citizens and politicians are supposed to be defined way more realistic in this framework.


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