Draft work, comments welcome. Please do not cite.

On the Possibility of Right Answers in Politics (2022)

This article draws out a tension in democratic theory between popular rule and technical expertise. It sets out a taxonomy of the types of political question we might encounter, and elucidates the extent to which democratic delegation is defensible in each case. I find that the scope for legitimate democratic delegation to experts varies with the political unit's degree of consensus on (1) the paradigms used to understand the non-political world and (2) the objectives to be furthered through collective action. The legitimate role of the expert will be largest when there is consensus on these concepts, and smallest under conditions of dissensus, particularly those exacerbated by political polarization. This variation in the legitimate role of experts complicates political theories based on mechanisms for eliciting “the right answers,” such as the Condorcet Jury Theorem. There seem to be at least two senses in which political outcomes may be said to be correct and incorrect, one relating to achievement of the agreed end through the agreed paradigm, and another relating to the correspondence between the end so achieved and the requirements of justice. By disambiguating these cases, this article contributes to recent debates in epistocracy by clarifying the precise sense(s) in which a political question may be said to have a correct answer. A draft of this paper won the 2022 Gerald Gaus Memorial Essay Prize.

What Democracy Prevents (dissertation) (2021)

Political theorists tend to justify democracy on the basis of the good things that can be expected to result from adopting it. However, there exist many expressions of what we might call “democratic anxiety,” or worries about the repercussions of losing democracy. These expressions identify a lacuna in our democratic theory, because they point not toward hopes that might be frustrated, but towards fears that might be realized. These fears or worries lead in two theoretically-fruitful directions. First, they permit the exploration of different ideal types of non-democracy, based on some particular set of anti-democratic worries or anxieties. Second, they allow us to develop richer justifications for democracy based not only on achieving some good but on avoiding the specific “bads” articulated by expressions of democratic anxiety. I speculate that democracy’s commitment to prevent these conditions from arising cannot be completely fulfilled, in the sense that full achievement of one of these goals will impair or compromise fulfillment of the others. This negative justification of democracy has connections to an older tradition in political theory that celebrates democracy not for what it actually provides, but rather for what it counterfactually prevents. Prior theorists have shown what an ideal democracy might look like, and how ours has fallen short. By contrast, I seek to show what the varieties of ideal non-democracy might look like, and in so doing, to help us understand the role that fear of these ideal types plays in sustaining our democratic aspirations.

The Authoritarian Challenge: Liberal Thinking on Autocracy and International Relations, 1930-1941 (2021)

The return of authoritarian great powers, the slowing of the democratic wave, and outright reversion to authoritarian rule pose important questions for international theory. What are the implications of an international system populated with more autocracies? Precisely this question was posed by a diverse array of social scientists, public intellectuals and policy analysts in response to the autocratic wave in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. We show that a series of conversations emanating from quite diverse intellectual priors—from Christian realists to international lawyers and disaffected Marxists—converged on the risks these regimes posed to international cooperation and peace. These risks included unconstrained rulers, an inability to sustain international commitments and political processes that undermined rational deliberation at home and spread disinformation abroad. These debates have direct implications for liberal arguments about the democratic peace. Rather than theorizing why democracies avoid war, however, they focus on why authoritarian and democratic countries are more prone to conflict.

Measuring Democratic Antecedents, 1650-1789 (2021)

This paper sets out a coding scheme for measuring the antecedents of democratic institutions in Eurasian states between 1650 and 1789. Building on the work of historians, I identify a set of ten factors that collectively comprise the institutional complex known as medieval constitutionalism, and I argue that the presence of these proto-democratic institutions provides a reasonable proxy for measures of democracy in the period immediately prior to the emergence of mass democratic institutions.


Evaluating a minimalist electoral definition of democracy (2020)

This paper evaluates conceptualizations of democracy used in empirical research, in particular the influential minimalist conception of democracy that operationalizes democracy as the occurrence of competitive elections. I find that although some degree of conceptual minimalism may be desirable for the purpose of operationalizing the definition in research, these considerations do not give the analyst carte blanche to stipulate definitions. Limitations include a desire to communicate with other researchers studying the same topic, and some degree of correspondence with the background concept as used in ordinary language.

Justice: Evaluating a Role-Immersion Game for Teaching Political Philosophy (2020)

Coauthors Andy Lamey, Noel Martin and I investigate the potential of a role-immersion game in teaching political philosophy. We designed, developed and playtested a game where students took on the role of prominent political thinkers in a legislature asked to decide important political issues. We then implemented the game in Fall 2019, in two sections of a course on contemporary political philosophy. Student reactions were positive, and focus groups and follow-up surveys reveal that in addition to accomplishing the learning objectives, students developed ‘soft’ skills including respectful communication and charitable consideration of opposing views.

Some criticism of a critique of critical sociology (2020)

I introduce Luc Boltanski’s critique of Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of a critical approach to sociology. I explain Boltanski’s intriguing notion that because the subjects of sociological inquiry are themselves equipped with a critical attitude, the sociologist must abandon any such attitude in order to understand the complex struggle to define value. I then explore the implications of this idea for normative political theory.


Monitoring and Prosocial Contribution (2019)

This paper sets out a formal model of individual-level prosocial contribution. I argue that the individual utility of contribution is a function of the cost of contribution, the reputational impact of (non)compliance with prevailing norms, and any individual satisfaction produced by the act of contribution itself. I further argue that social sanctions are themselves a function of the magnitude of group-oriented social norms and the extent of monitoring mechanisms to relay individual compliance decisions to the group. I construct and test a formal model incorporating these parameters. Agents in the model exhibit behavior that resembles the concepts of rapid norm shifts (Bicchieri 2006) and “norm cascades" (Keck and Sikkink 1998). Counterintuitive conclusions are developed, particularly the dependence of group-oriented norms on the presence of altruistic actors. Finally, I use the model developed in Kuran 1991 to introduce the concept of “contribution thresholds,” and I explore deep structural resemblances between the concepts of revolution and prosocial contribution.


Corruption as an enemy force-multiplier (2019)

This paper presents a theory of occupation-induced corruption as an accelerant of conflict. I present a model of territorial occupation by a foreign power that increases corrupt practices among the local population. Increased corruption in turn creates sharp divides between insiders and outsiders, and engenders significant resentment towards both the occupying power and its collaborators in the civilian government. This resentment causes militant youths to join existing rebel groups, and increased activity by these insurgents causes the security environment to deteriorate, making the occupying power more likely to extend its occupation. After outlining these theoretical propositions, I present a thorough research design for the investigation of this question, including a discussion of sampling, conceptualization, operationalization and validity. Finally, I turn to specific predictions and policy implications.

Re-Estimation and Extension of Barnes et al. (2018) (Poster)

This article re-estimates and extends published work on the impact of government-issued taxpayer receipts on political knowledge and political attitudes. Previous work had found that tax receipts can increase knowledge but have no effect on attitudes or preferences (Barnes et al (2018), JoP). After reproducing the authors’ findings using the original survey data, I fit a cumulative logistic regression model in place of the authors’ ordered logit, and use this cumulative logistic regression to test the parallel regressions assumption on which the authors’ use of an ordered logit relied. Finding that this assumption is not satisfied, I fit a multinomial logistic regression in place of the authors’ ordered logit. I find evidence to suggest that a multinomial logistic regression is a better model of the data-generating process studied in Barnes et al. (2018).


The effects of political corruption on infrastructure provision (2018)

Part of a larger book project, this paper explores the differential effects of corruption on infrastructure spending.


Corruption and systems collapse (2017)

Part of a larger book project, this paper explores the role corruption has played in the collapse of complex societies.