The problem with demoktesis

Let’s start wrapping up our review of Chapter 9 of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU) by taking stock of Robert Nozick’s mind-blowing thought experiment in this chapter. In summary, Nozick imagines a collective corporate entity or Great Corporation in which “each person owns exactly one share in each right over every other person, including himself.” (ASU, p. 285.) In other words, each person has an equal say in the lives of all others. Furthermore, Nozick coins a new term to christen this system: demoktesis or “ownership of the people, by the people, and for the people” (p. 290). What is so terrible about this imaginary scheme? It turns out there are two big problems with demoktesis. One is the problem of holdouts. According to Nozick (pp. 289-290), persons who refuse to participate in this scheme would not be allowed to remain in the same territory in which the great corporation operated; nor would they be allowed to create a competing corporation. For my part, my initial response to this argument was to push back against Nozick’s conclusions regarding holdouts. His entire scheme is imaginary, so why can’t we imagine an alternative world consisting of competing human corporate conglomerates?

But in any case, the holdout problem pales in comparison to the other major problem with demoktesis: the fact that it is the functional equivalent of slavery. Think about it for a moment. Imagine that you were a member of this collective scheme, a shareholder in this Great Corporation. You would not get to decide for yourself what activities to engage in or refrain from engaging in. Instead, you would have to abide by the decision of a majority of your fellow shareholders. (We assume the rule of decision to be followed is majority rule; in reality, many other voting systems are possible.) Worse yet, the deeper irony is that demoktesis is essentially the system we are living under today! As Nozick notes (p. 290),

“In elaborating this eldritch tale we have arrived … at what is recognizable as a modern state, with its vast panoply of powers over its citizens. Indeed, we have arrived at a democratic state. Our hypothetical account of how it might arise from a minimal state without any blatant violation of anyone’s rights through a series of individual steps each arguably unobjectionable has placed us in a better position to focus upon and ponder the essential nature of such a state and its fundamental mode of relationship among persons.”

Horrors!!! Is Nozick right? Have we become slaves? We will conclude our review of Chapter 9 of ASU in our next post.

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2 Responses to The problem with demoktesis

  1. Kathy H says:

    I think the above analysis is beyond my grasp. For the corporation to work the participants would have to truly vote for the good of one and therefore the good of all. Their vote would not impinge on the rights of others in the group. This is imaginary because I don’t think such a “true democracy” exists. This is where there is conflict. Someone who did not want to participate in the Corporation would be doing so for their own benefit and not the benefit of the group. i.e. I will not pay taxes because I don’t want to be governed by the Corporation. Yet they get the benefit of roads, clean water, etc. I don’t see the Corporation as the en-slaver, although it easily could be or visa versa the one who does not want to participate could be the en-slaver.

    • Those are good points. By the end of Chapter 9, even Nozick himself ends up conceding that the Great Corporation is not enslavement so long as your consent to joining the Corporation is truly voluntary. So, the question comes down to this: how many people would want to join this scheme, if given the choice?

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