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Keywords:

  • common good;
  • democracy;
  • markets;
  • self-interest;
  • voting

Economic analyses of democracy often draw an analogy between democratic procedures and the ‘consumer sovereignty’ of the marketplace. In contrast, normative ideals of democracy often propose that voters should aim at the common good or justice. It is suggested that there is a fundamental difference between the appropriate norms of the market, in which self-interest is permitted, and those of the political forum, in which self-interest is prohibited. These ideals are apt, however, to invite charges of utopianism. While I accept that morality may sometimes be demanding, my aim in this article is to argue that the appropriate norms of the democratic forum are not as demanding as sometimes suggested; the market/forum contrast is often exaggerated. The market is not a state of nature, so some moral constraints apply even there. More importantly, self-interest is allowed some place in the political arena, at least where justice or the common good is indeterminate. There is no need for agents to set aside their private interests entirely in the political arena. Thus, the ultimate guiding principles of the market and the forum are the same: agents are free to promote their self-interest within the constraints established by justice or the rights of other agents. It may be that these constraints are more restrictive in politics than in the marketplace, but the difference between the two arenas is one of degree rather than kind. Unless we think that even constrained pursuit of self-interest is too demanding, we have no reason to regard these norms as utopian.