This is a bit of an experiment.
I’ve noticed that some bloggers have quite a little agenda of their own developing. I’ve have one as well, in case you haven’t noticed – a collection of views on politics, government, journalism and representation that I think that very few people share. I started this blog to help myself develop these ideas (with visitors as a sounding board).
But, blogs aren’t that good for doing this. Posts have to be short (though I sometimes resist this temptation), and you often end up advancing or defending one small element of a wider argument – without readers necessarily understanding what that argument is.
As I’ve said, I’m not alone in this. Having noticed more than one other blogger advancing a position that needs a fair amount of justification, I’ve done an interview – in this case, with Chris Dillow of Stumbling & Mumbling
I’ve been reading his site for a while now, and I agree with a lot of what he says (and I like the way he says the bits I don’t agree with). But after a while, he alarmed me by starting to go on about what a fine idea Direct Democracy is – the single issue that keeps me awake at night more than any other. Even worse, I found myself agreeing with some of his pro-DD points as well.
This was a bit more worrying.
So I thought I’d try and get all of the contours of his argument out in the open. What follows is not intended to be particularly challenging or forensic. I’ve not really picked up on, or argued strongly with any of the points he makes beyond using them to bring up other aspects of the positions that I know that he takes.
The arguments can come later. For now, here goes….
Chris, you believe that democracy is, in some way, broken. What do you mean by that?
At a practical level, I mean the fact that voter turnout is falling, not just in the UK, and that there is, in David Miliband’s words a ”growing and potentially dangerous gap” between politicians and voters, with the former forming a separate class from the latter.
At a theoretical level, I mean that democracy, especially but only only in our first-past-the-post system, is a terrible way of translating preferences into policy. It gives too much weight to cheap ill-thought preferences relative to strong or well-formed preferences.
And in voting for parties rather than particular policies, we are forced to buy bundles of policies. This must be inefficient. As I said here , imagine if we bought our food simply by voting for Tesco or Sainsbury every five years.
And, reading your blog, you have a problem with authority?
Yes. Amateur psychoanalysts would come up with their own theories as to why. But the reasons (or rationalizations!) for my problem are many:
- In any complex organization, leaders will have imperfect information
- Even if they have perfect information, individual leaders are subject to countless cognitive biases. It’s possible – or at least worth considering – that groups are less subject to these, thanks to the wisdom of crowds
- More egalitarian decision-making schemes make people happier They’re good in themselves, therefore, even if they don’t yield better outcomes.
- Hierarchies can be lethal. There’s plenty of evidence that social inequalities hasten the deaths of those at the bottom of the ladder.
- Egalitarian decision-making could, in the long-run, transform our political culture for the better, making us better citizens and more self-reliant and creative – as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out
I suspect our belief that organizations must be hierarchic is partly just unthinking conservatism – things have always been this way, so we take it for granted that they must be. But it ain’t necessarily so.
I’d like to return to the observations about happiness and de Tocqueville’s aspirations in due course. On your first two points, to be clear, you are arguing that individuals that are placed in a position of authority may make decisions that are worse than the general public would – if asked?
Leaving aside – for now – your doubt about this, how could widespread public participation be given a practical expression – bearing in mind the common criticisms of referenda as a blunt instrument?
Yes – the key word there is “may”.
I don’t think it’s good enough to have merely yes/no referenda. One problem with these is that they allow the weak preferences of a majority to over-rule the strong preferences of a minority. This is inefficient, in the sense that in such cases the minority could in theory compensate the majority for adopting the minority position, with everyone ending up better off.
A further problem with simple referenda is that they give too much weight to cheap, ill-thought opinions.
The solution to both these problems is to use demand-revealing referenda
The essence of these is that people vote a sum of money, rather than a simple yes/no, to express the strength of their feeling.
Doing this will compel people to think more clearly: making people pay is a way of making them think. It will also allow for strong views to get their proper weight.
A further advantage is that it would take the hysteria out of politics. Asking people: “how much are you willing to pay for that opinion?” would force them to reflect on how strongly they should hold it.
One problem with even demand-revealing referenda is: on what issues should they be held? And: who decides? It would be unacceptable for them to be held simply on the whim of the government, but I’m not sure what constitutional rule could be used to trigger them.
But hey, I’m not meant to have all the answers or blueprints here. I’m just trying to suggest that there are alternatives to a representative democracy in which the political class is held in increasing contempt.
Fair enough. I’d agree that there are complications here. Aside from the question of who calls them, when and what about, there seems to me to be other issues as well. Do you think that you are bringing an economist’s cognitive bias to this discussion? Is Government simply the allocation of scarce resources? Are there not overarching strategic issues? Don’t government sometimes need to follow a strategy that involves a sequence of decisions (some of which would be unpopular) in order to achieve a desirable outcome?
I’m not at all sure that this short-term pain, long-term gain is a problem at all for direct democracy.
For concreteness, take the example of taxing carbon emissions to alleviate climate change. There are two circumstances in which this would be more feasible under representative than direct democracy:
1. If the public had shorter-time horizons than politicians.
2. If the public were less sure about the long-term gains of stopping climate change than the politicians.
(1) is probably false. Voters care about their (actual and potential) children and grandchildren, whereas politicians – qua politicians – care only about the next election. On this count, then, representative democracy militates against achieving longer-run strategic outcomes.
(2) is trickier. If the public are mistaken about the long-run benefits, the solution is genuine open debate. After all, if you’re right about something, you should be able to convince others of it – that’s what being right means.
But of course, it’s possible that the public are right instead…
This raises a few questions.
Let’s pick up (1) first. Do politicians really only care about the next election? Would you say that this incentive trumps all others? Do they not have longer-term worries about their reputations – the peer approval, the biographies to sell, the lecture-circuits to think about? Political biographies frequently reveal individuals who made ideological commitments fairly early in their lives and have been bound by them ever since.
Taking your climate-change example, would you agree that politicians are likely to have bureau-shaping instincts in which they would like to position themselves as being earlier adopters of ‘coming’ policies?
Also, are you saying that the individual conscience is not relevant here? I’d suggest that – collectively – our consciences are valued in the same way that anything that is held in common is. Surely this is an argument for us to choose someone who can demonstrate an impressive conscience?
I understand the wisdom of crowds argument, and how it applies to estimation of value. But is there an equivalent that covers matters of conscience?
I’d also be interested to see if there is evidence that people really do care about their children and grandchildren in the way you describe. If they do, it would certainly make a case for lowering of inheritance tax – a position that you oppose ;-)
Once we’ve dealt with this, we can come onto (2) from your previous answer.
I’m not saying politicians care only about the next election. But this does loom very large – the famous “look on Portillo’s face” in 1997 wasn’t one of joy or relief, was it?
And the political system is structured such that this is meant to be their dominant concern. Insofar as they have other concerns – ideology, legacy, conscience – these exist despite the system, not because of it, and are as likely to exist among the general public as among politicians.
I’m not convinced the bureau-shaping motive looms very large. It’s not obvious to me that many mainstream politicians are early adopters of coming policies. It’s think-tanks (for example, the influence of the IEA upon Thatcherism) that do this.
The methodological individualist in me rejects the notion of a collective conscience.
Indeed, individuals seem to value their consciences surprisingly highly in politics. They vote and demonstrate far more often than you’d expect them to, if they were narrowly self-interested.
Yes – the evidence that people care about the future does come from the fact that they care to leave bequests. It doesn’t follow, however, that such bequests are a legitimate form of caring about the future.
Going back to the second part of your earlier answer – about the suitability of public opinion in addressing strategic issues.
The traditional objection to investing open debate with legislative powers has always been the worry about emerging demagogues – in this case, pressure groups, journalists, newspaper proprietors, or various professional groups. Or quack-doctors? Or communalists? Does it also worry you that the likes of George Galloway or the late Pim Fortuyn may welcome the kind of settlement that you are proposing?
It seems to me that you are arguing against the republican notion of ‘politics’ – the need to reconcile competing interests, or to promote what Machiavelli described as virtù – the capacity for collective action and historical vitality.
And, given that liberal democracy has history’s greatest prolonged track-record of promoting peace, stability and prosperity, you would surely only be able to advocate this position if you were fairly confident that it would not privilege ‘opinion’ over ‘knowledge’ to a greater extent than the current settlement does? You could break quite a golden egg here if you’re not careful?
I’m not sure about any of these objections.
- The great bulwark against the public being led astray by demagogues and quacks is the principle behind demand-revealing referenda – that people must vote with money.This forces them to ask: how much am I willing to pay to back this man? It also forces demagogues to restrain their inflammatory rhetoric. Imagine if Galloway were asked: how much are you prepared to pay in a demand-revealing referendum for (say) troops to be withdrawn from Iraq?
- I’m certainly not arguing against the conception of politics as the reconciliation of conflicting interests. Quite the opposite. One virtue of proper democracy is that it gives fuller voice to interests that can get overlooked today, because they are not those of the median voter, or because they are only those of a minority.
- There is a danger of smashing the golden egg in any reform. This is why I’m not a fanatical proselytiser, but merely trying to raise questions.
Also we must remember that this egg isn’t as golden as we once thought – declining voter turnout, increased contempt for politicians and the emergence of a separate political class all suggest representative democracy is losing its lustre.
And I think we can read history a little differently. The history of the last 200 years is that of increasing democracy – its spread to countries that hadn’t tried it before, and the widening of the franchise to include women and the working class. These extensions have worked well. So why not extend democracy a little further and see what happens?
So far, we’ve covered whether a more direct democracy is practical and whether it could actually work without any reduction in the quality of public policy outcomes.
Finally, can we return to the points 3, 4 and 5 in your opening answer? These seem to summarise the attractions of a more democratic style of government.
But could these outcomes not be equally achieved in a model whereby some kind of formal deliberative process in which the public would be free to participate in could be used to provide the basis upon which elected representatives propose and enact legislation? Where the public engage in the kind of quality of conversation that is worth eavesdropping on?
How far do you think that your prescription is for a wholesale change when actually, many of the outcomes that you are seeking to achieve could be realised with fairly modest democratic reforms? By this, I mean the kind of ‘People’s Panels’ that the current government are trying. I mean decentralisation of power, steps to reduce the influence of political parties, reform of the electoral system, an elected second chamber, and so on?
It’s not obvious that piecemeal reform along these lines would work. For example:
- “People’s panels” are vulnerable to all sorts of manipulation – in selecting them, in framing the question put to them, in the evidence presented to them, and in whether their recommendations are accepted.
- Decentralisation, electoral reform and electing the Lords might actually increase the influence of the party system: This seems especially true of Jack Straw’s proposals to (partly) elect the Lords, but its also true of some sorts of PR - party list systems, for example.
Perhaps my biggest doubt about piecemeal reform, though, is that it’ll fail to reap the long-run gains, of re-engaging, empowering and reactivating the citizenry.
As de Tocquville said, institutions – eventually – affect culture and character. It’s largely because I’m so pessimistic about these that I’m so interested in the possibility of radical institutional change.