There has been a lot of debate on this blog recently as to whether or not political outcomes are unduly influenced by the rich; in this post I want to consider the influence of other nondemocratic agents – activists, civil society pressure groups, non-corporate lobbyists and academics in the social sciences and humanities. The reason for the inclusion of the last category is because most political leaders are educated in these disciplines – unlike, say, in China, it’s hard to identify political leaders who studied the natural sciences or engineering – so academics in these fields will have had a powerful influence in their formative years. There are more Oxford PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) graduates in the House of Commons than Old Etonians (35 to 20) and 50% of ministers and 28 percent of MPs were educated at Oxbridge, the vast majority in the above-mentioned subjects. Jeremy Waldron, in his inaugural lecture for his (Oxford) chair of social and political theory argued against the focus of the PPE syllabus on the ’57 varieties of luck egalitarianism’ as opposed to ‘political’ issues like representation, sovereignty and the rule of law, and it’s the resulting influence of the equality lobby that I want to address in this post. Some of the material is anecdotal, and some evidence of partisan influences in the formulation of a UN convention on disabilities equality.
The primary school in my village (pop. c.300) has recently constructed, at considerable expense, a ‘sensory room’ to meet the needs of one part-time disabled pupil. (Bear in mind this is happening at a time when local authority budgets are squeezed to the extent that rural residents are being told that they will need to grit their own roads this winter (and pay for the materials) as the council does not have the funds.) This is the result of government policy that insists that the disabled must be fully integrated in regular society, and has closed down most of the special schools that accommodated the specific needs of disabled children. Speaking to two parents of disabled children (one Aspergers and one cerebral palsy), they both volunteered that this politically-motivated policy has been disastrous for their children because, unlike their peers in special schools, their everyday growing-up experience provided a constant reminder of their neediness.
What evidence have I that this highly politicized policy was the result of lobbying by civil society pressure groups under the influence of academic theorists? My department recently hosted a seminar on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The presenter, Dr. Lucy Series, a legal theorist from Cardiff University, argued that the basis of the convention was the strong social model which views disability as a social construction – i.e. disability is not a medical condition but purely the inability of society to accommodate different needs. The needs of mentally disabled persons have to be understood purely in terms of their own will and preferences, no (external) assessment of welfare/needs is allowable, even in the case of patients in a coma, where their wishes are supposedly to be chanelled by close friends and family. The principle of power of attorney is rejected tout court, as the legal distinction between sound and unsound mind is not accepted. It turned out that the convention had been drafted under the guidance of one civil society pressure group, The World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, whose core belief is the social model of disability.
Another (contingent) factor in the formulation of the Convention was the fact that the UN building had no wheelchair access to the public gallery, which enabled a pressure group of the (physically) disabled to position themselves in the chamber, amongst the delegates. Dr. Series informed us this provided the group with an opportunity to exert disproportionate influence over the proceedings (and the final outcome).
What concerned me at the departmental seminar was that none of my political theory colleagues seemed remotely bothered by this entirely undemocratic procedure. I raised the question of how public policy was being determined by an outmoded social theory and the response was merely that article 12 of the convention was inserted in order to enable signatories (democratically elected governments) to ignore any parts that they found unacceptable. But this still ignores the undemocratic nature of the policy process itself.
So what might the role of sortition be in such an instance? Nobody is disputing the advocacy rights of the sector of society that is most affected by the matter under consideration – in this case the disabled. One way of preventing the domination of one particular advocacy group would be John Burnheim’s model for legislation by demarchic committee, another would be to maintain the traditional distinction between advocacy and judgment but to use sortition to extend advocacy rights beyond the ‘special consultative status’ afforded by bodies like the UN to particular groups (and their axe-grinding leaders) that may or may not represent the views of the majority of disabled persons. Whilst I’ve used the example of disability pressure groups (and their academic backers), similar arguments could be made on other aspects of the ‘progressive’ obsession with equality as the keystone of political theory (feminism, immigration, gay rights, ethnic minorities etc).