Democratic Theory in the Desert

Site of Libertarian Democracy: Arizona, USA.

Site of Libertarian Democracy: Arizona, USA.

News from Jul 15, 2014

Deep in the Southwest of the United States, just before the Mexican border, lies the University of Arizona. Far from the ivy-clad towers of the East Coast, one of the best political philosophy departments in the country is tucked away in the Arizonian desert. This was my motivation to become a visiting scholar in Arizona from October to December 2014.

At the SFB 700, I focus on the question of how – or in what respects – the goal of democratic governance can be realized in areas of limited statehood. These questions force us to abandon our trusted, familiar ideas of state-based democracy in order to reach a notion of democracy that does not take the state as a prerequisite. Through an extended exchange with Thomas Christiano, one of the most important democracy theorists in the United States today, I concentrated my time in Arizona on developing a consciously abstract understanding of democracy that still maintained democracy’s core normative commitment: the equal participation of all members of a political community in making collectively binding decisions.

Although I did not anticipate it, my time in Arizona also provided an opportunity to reflect in unusual ways upon the role of the state in political communities. Unlike in Germany and most parts of Europe, there are true “libertarians” in the United States, particularly at the University of Arizona. Drawing on the work of F. A. Hayek and Robert Nozick, these political theorists argue for a concept of freedom that places strong limits on state intervention. For this type of libertarian thought – whose political significance in the US currently manifests itself in the “Tea Party” phenomenon – non-state governance is far from flawed; to the contrary, it is the normatively desirable constellation. Even libertarian authors agree that certain functions require the state for normative reasons, but in taking the classic, liberal notion of state legitimacy to its extreme, they reverse the burden of proof: now it must be shown why state governance is better than non-state forms of governance. While I did not become a libertarian myself, my stay in the United States thus became a wonderful opportunity to question and rethink normative assumptions held dear in reflecting upon the state.

About the author:

Dr. Daniel Jacob works as a postdoc researcher in the B9 project at the SFB 700. In October 2014, his dissertation was published by Palgrave Macmillan under the title "Justice and Foreign Rule. On International Transitional Administrations".