Sunday, November 30, 2008

The revealed preference of liberal commentators

Tony Benn was on the wireless yesterday defending Parliamentary privilege against police intrusion. Parliament, Benn argued, 'is a court' and should be treated as such.

Unlike Owen's dad, I have no background in constitutional law, so I'm not going to comment on that further, but the very notion raises an interesting question which Owen fleshes out a good deal here.

But, contra-Dad, Owen seems to be arguing for a judicial model of democracy. One in which all evidence is assembled and submitted in a formal way. Let me see if I can unpick a few of the things that I think that Owen is arguing for here?
  • All research that government ministers consider should be commissioned in a transparent even handed way in order to reveal evidence. There should be no loaded questions, so this would suggest commissioning by a diverse committee?
  • The researchers should go off, answer their question without interference, and reveal the results in a timely fashion - to all at the same moment. Publishing on the Internet, for instance, would achieve this well enough perhaps?
  • Politicians should receive no representations of any kind from policy advocates unless it is done openly in the public eye.
  • Politicians should then be able to retire in private, consult each other (but only each other - no-one else) and reach a verdict upon with a pre-determined majority (in the current situation, 50% + 1) before enacting their conclusions as legislation.
There are lots of implementation details left out here of course - the question of bicameralism and so forth, but what Owen seems to be arguing for here is a much more mechanised and clearly defined process by which policy is to be made.

Disclaimer: Owen may feel justified in arguing that I'm reframing him here, for which, apologies. It's all in good faith - honest!

This seems to me to be the real 'e-democracy' question. The 'e' bit of government is really defined by the ease and flexibly with which information can change hands, access barriers removed and the 'workflows' by which it is processed agreed. A fortune could be saved on e-democracy projects if this were acknowledged.

This is something I've been over a fair bit in recent months. I think that Owen's view is actually the revealed preference of a broad wedge of the commentariat if you follow the logic our our Men in White Suits. A replacement of private discretion with public cant. No-one is arguing it in the specific terms listed above, but it is the inevitable consequence of a great many - perhaps the dominant - 'liberal' arguments about the changing nature of our relationship with the people who represent us.

One consequence of this sort of thing will be a great deal more 'unseemly' policing. There seems to be a growing realisation that the lack of intervention by government in police business (following Damian Green's arrest) - a lack of political discretion - may not be that good a thing.

As I say, I think Owen's view is a popular one (once you actually dig down it what many commentators are really asking for). But I think it is one that will wane in popularity in due course, now that we're emerging from a period of free-market orthodoxy. One consequence of the current 'primacy of markets tempered by regulators' model of governance is that regulators act and think like economists.

This post a few weeks ago was written after hearing Patrick Barwise speak. In it, I argued that OfCOM's model of regulation (one that is well on the way to the kind of policymaking that Owen is advocating here, I think?) doesn't work. In the case of public service broadcasting, it is unable to see the wood for the trees. As I argued ...

"When you get this kind of ultra-economic analysis, you know that its authors are long on logic and very short on context and their assumptions."

I'm not certain on this, but my current strong preference is to argue that the traditional British settlement is the least-worst available. And - on balance - all reform should be primarily based upon giving elected individuals more discretionary powers and removing powers from every one of their rivals. Everything else makes our democracy more direct in one way or another.

This is certainly not the revealed preference of almost anyone else that I've read recently.


Owen Barder said...

With respect, Paulie, I think you have reframed my views beyond recognition (at least, beyond my recognition)!

I've replied in detail under my blog post:

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