Productive Democracy

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Contextual Quote

"PD offers a more open, decentralized, locally rooted, efficient, egalitarian democracy, supported by leaner and more flexible government(s), as joined by a more capable public. Its policies and institutions cohere and mutually support one other in driving up social learning and productivity, visibly benefiting citizens via a better democratic order. It both satisfies democracy’s “survival criterion” and reopens its future. It may not be nirvana, but it’s not too shabby."

- Joel Rogers [1]


Joel Rogers:

"Productive democracy, an alternative to both neoliberalism and traditional social democracy, would focus on those that encouraged wide contribution to developing the total factor productivity (including human, physical, and natural capital) of well-organized places, with shared local capture of its benefits. These places would compete on the dynamic efficiency of their governing institutions and public goods, and cooperate on joint gains to same. Governing institutions would be designed for resilience (i.e., learning and adaptive capacity) and enlistment of free citizen contribution to this project, which requires sustained and cooperative experiment and problem-solving. Practical material equality would be achieved by cost-reducing public goods, asset equalization (“property owning democracy”), and transfers and insurance tied closely to society-wide productivity. Within places, the social contract between governing institutions and citizens — preparation for social contribution, expectation of its provision — would rest on the traditional radical democratic conviction that, given fair terms, ordinary people are both able and willing to govern themselves and contribute to a society (and global order) fit to live in." (was at


Joel Rogers:

""We usually think of democracy as a source of inclusive representation and distributive fairness, which it surely is. But it is also a source of problem-solving, invention and thus wealth generation—a source of value, not just values. After forty years of the corporate-sponsored defamation of democracy as whining parasitism or incompetence, and of democratic government as mere “waste, fraud and abuse,” it’s imperative that progressives show the ability of both to actually work, to be useful, in everyday life. Call this demonstration of usefulness democracy’s “survival criterion.” Doing so is one central aim of productive democracy—and the source of “productive” in its name.

PD would highlight the centrality of fostering both social learning and productivity—understood not just as output per unit of input, but as value per unit of input (and where “natural capital,” aka the environment, is included in that calculation)—in achieving more ambitious egalitarian ends. It would place a bigger and more visible bet than social democrats ever did on a well-ordered democracy’s ability to help citizens create social wealth—and solve social problems. Its signature politics would be efforts to develop and harness that contribution. Indeed, it would define the “general welfare” not just as physical and economic security and reasonably equal opportunity and life chances, but as the capacity and interest of all citizens to make such contributions, to be actively engaged in building their own society."



Joel Rogers:

"Let’s go to the essential elements. These are summarized in the sidebar “Three Public Philosophies,” which aims to clarify PD’s policy, governing, and broad “constitutional political economy” by contrasting its approach with those of neoliberalism and traditional social democracy."

Neo‐Liberalism Social Democracy Productive Democracy
Economic strategy Inequality/incentives Effective demand Effective supply of high‐road productive infrastructure
Redistributive peak None Late Early
Asset ownership Narrow Narrow Wide (private firms and public commons)
Income security None Employment, redistribution Social dividend (basic income)
Revenue Regressive taxes on private income/profits Progressives taxes on private income/profits Progressive taxes on private income, consumption, wealth, public bads
Intl economic strategy Forced integration Strategic protectionism Balanced trade, managed diversity, global public goods
Privileged branch Judiciary Executive Legislature and problem‐solving public
Public administration Disable affirmative state Delegation/rule‐bound Deliberative democratic experimentalism
Intergov relations Regressive federalism or unitary state Progressive unitary state, limited federalism Democratic (progressive & cooperative) federalism, rooted in metros/regions
Social contribution Demand/not enabled Enabled/not demanded Strongly encouraged and enabled

A committment to the effective supply of the productive infrastructure

"Considering, first, policy: in the realm of economic policy, PD would continue to use the traditional Keynesian tools of macroeconomic steering to maintain “effective demand” and keep the economy near its full potential. But it would commit as well to effective supply of the “productive infrastructure” needed to support the economy we actually want, not just the one we have. By this I mean a suite of policies, public goods, and institutions that together work to raise performance standards for firms and communities, enable both to meet them, and capture and share the resulting increased wealth.

This infrastructure is intrinsically local.

The relevant “location” can and sometimes would be the whole nation. But it may be easier to imagine it in terms of metropolitan areas (cities and their surrounding suburbs and commuting sheds), the densely populated and geographically compact engines of wealth in all national economies. (In the United States, for example, on just 12 percent of our land area, the top 100 metropolitan regions house two-thirds of our total population and produce more than threequarters of our annual GDP.) Already adopted in many cities (but nowhere near all), typical policies include things like standards on job quality, training, career pathways and a living wage at area firms; requirements for reduced waste (eventually zero); and broad encouragement of worker organization and ownership. Typical public goods, with their positive effects in lowering living costs, increasing sustainability and improving the local quality of life, are things like public transportation, education, recreational facilities and public space."

Preparing all citizens to participate and make a contribution to society

"Productive democracy would also argue for increasing the relative share of total “welfare” investment made early in life (everything from early-pregnancy care to perinatal and visiting-nurse assistance to whatever else is needed, up to adulthood, by way of health, education, counseling or other support). While this may be expensive, producing capable and confident adults is still much cheaper than repairing broken ones, and PD’s commitment to equality means preparing all citizens to participate and make a contribution to society. For similar reasons, it would also supplement employment income with a basic income guarantee for all (as most of Latin America does now, and Switzerland and other European countries are seriously considering). And it would vastly widen worker-citizen ownership, both of private firms and society’s “commons.” The latter includes both our natural commons (air, land, water, flora and fauna) and our created one, especially those parts of special benefit to business (e.g., physical infrastructure, intellectual property and business law, central banking)."

PD would promote experimentation and deliberative problem-solving, involving citizens

"Productive democracy would move government more squarely back into the business of public debate and deliberation. Its “privileged” unit of government would not be those private-property guardians so favored by neoliberals—the judiciary. Nor would it be the executive-centered administrative state favored by social democrats. Rather, it would be the “people’s house,” the legislature—and the organized public itself. In PD’s version of progressive federalism, the national government would establish and fund a set of core commitments to all citizens; state and regional governments would be free to experiment (or not) above that. Preserving its commitment to the affirmative state—the belief that solving problems is the government’s job— PD would promote experimentation and deliberative problem-solving, often involving citizens, in achieving legislatively declared goals. It would ensure and measure accountability by the actual progress toward such declared goals, not by monitoring the observance of often meaningless bureaucratic rules."

More Information

  • (no longer at)
  • Productive Democracy: The Nation (150th Anniversary Issue) 400 (April 6, 2015): 206-210.