Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Time to see sense

I think that Chris (usually Britain's brightest blogger) is presenting a false opposition here and here.

He rightly identifies a "growing and potentially dangerous gap between politicians and the public" – and he offers direct democracy as an ideal (though thankfully, not a practical) solution.

You see, when someone calls for a system of governance to be changed, there is an implication that the current official system has failed. And I'd suggest that this isn't the case. We are, of course, officially a representative democracy. In practical terms, however, we are not so in the truest sense – and that there are plenty of steps that could be taken to improve that situation – thereby bringing the governors and the governed closer.

I would argue that the most effective form of democratic renewal possible is a programme of capacity building for elected representatives, so that they can

  • reduce their dependence upon political parties and civil servants
  • be less vulnerable to misrepresentation from journalists of single-issue campaigns by pressure groups
  • be more effective at deliberating on policy issues
  • be more effective at managing multilateral communication with policy experts in particular, and the public in general. And be more effective in interpreting those discussions during the process of policy formation.

Indeed, I've even outlined a Charter that could provide the cornerstone to this approach here.

There are many other interesting strategies promoting democratic renewal, but without addressing the cornerstone issue of representation, they are less likely to succeed. For this reason, capacity building for elected representatives should be the prime medium term project for those promoting democratic renewal.

Oddly, Chris’s arguments for technocracy and against managerialism are very important bulwarks to my own arguments here.

I hope he can see sense on this matter. ;-)

As a further provocation, I'd also argue that, even if Direct Democracy - in it's perfect incarnation - would be a good thing, moves towards it may not. It's a reworking of Paul Ormerod's argument (in The Death of Economics) that - even if a perfection of free-markets could be shown to be a good thing (and this will never be practically possible) that there is no evidence that 'more free market' means 'more efficient'.

You either do it perfectly (you can't) or you don't do it at all (yay!).


Shuggy said...

"You see, when someone calls for a system of governance to be changed, there is an implication that the current official system has failed."

I'm inclined to be agin direct democracy but I see for different reasons than yours.

First of all, just because a system is deemed to have failed or failing, that doesn't mean we have to accept whatever alternative is suggested.

There are a number of problems with DD but my chief objection is that I think it would prove to be illiberal. Moreover, I don't even think making representative democracy more genuinely representative would necessarily help matters. One only has to look at how our own system has functioned in recent years. Britain would be more democratic of the House of Lords were elected - but it would also be more democratic if you got rid of the second chamber altogether. But if Britain had been more democratic in this way, we'd have even more of New Labour's repressive nonsense in the name of the WoT than we do already.

Another example would be Scotland. Post-devolution, it is more democratic than it used to be. It is also less liberal as the Parliament has banned smoking and fox-hunting. Both of these may be desirable for a number of reasons but there is no liberal argument that can be made for these measures.

This isn't direct democracy of course but there's no reason to think that if there were more of it, it wouldn't be similarily illiberal. While it might not be, I don't fancy taking the risk because underpinning my view on this is the idea that democracy is not the supreme value and sometimes it has to be limited in order for our liberal habits to survive. In other words, while it is fairly easy to demonstrate that governments that are elected are generally more liberal than those that are not - it does not follow that more democracy means more liberty so depending where your preferences lie, sometimes democracy and liberty have to be traded-off against each other.

On a different strand, why is it always assumed that it is a good thing for the people and the representatives to be 'closer together'? I've seen it argued - although can't remember where - that one of the problems with more democracy is by the time they have attempted to ingratiate themselves to us in a variety of fairly nauseating ways, by the time they get elected, they are already degraded in our eyes and it's this as much as anything else that breeds disillusion with 'our system'. Don't know about this but it's by no means absurd. I could be doing with a bit of distance. I'm not interested in Cameron's opinions about fathers being present at childbirth or Brown's about the World Cup (lying through his teeth, btw) or what music he listens to (Artic Monkeys? Does he fuck - and who cares anyway?) Come to think of it, if direct democracy could rid us of this puke-making behaviour, you might be able to sell it to me ;-)

chris said...

It's worth stressing what we agree upon here - that there's something wrong with our existing form of democracy.
I agree that politicians should be less dependent upon civil servants and pressure groups, and better at deliberating. But increased use of referenda might help here; the less politicians have to think about, the more likely they are to think well. And it's harder for lobby groups to influence 50 million people than a few hundred.
Where we differ is about the potential for renewal of the existing system. My desire for DD arises partly from pessimism about how much politicians can improve, and optimism about how much the public can do so.

Paulie said...

Thanks for that Chris.

I'd argue that referenda are a charter for tabloid idiocy. And I'd suggest that well resourced politicians could resist pressure groups more effectively than the general public can. There are plenty of pressure groups - and often not the progressive ones - that can afford to influence 50 million people at once.

No-one has to explain why policies go wrong in referenda. Politicians should have to account for their mistakes. They don't at the moment because the press blame them for everything and there's no effective right of reply. So when they ARE really to blame for something, it's hard to tell.

I'd suggest that politicians could be improved significantly if political parties could be weakened.