The salient feature of modern democracy is that those who wield legislative and administrative power are chosen by popular vote in open competition between candidates. In practice the candidates generally present themselves as representatives of a party with a distinct ideological emphasis. Some voters who share a particular ideological position will normally support the same party, though they may disagree on many matters of policy. Others, less ideologically committed, are “swinging voters”, taking a more pragmatic view of which party to support. In either case, voters are constrained to chose between packages of personalities, policies and promises. The processes by which the parties arrive at these packages are not very transparent and are widely distrusted. For good reason, as I shall attempt to explain.
The alternative I propose is that the policies we adopt in any specific sphere of public decision-making should be determined by bodies that are statistically representative of those most directly affected by what happens in that sphere. These bodies would have no formal constitutional status. They would depend for their authority on community recognition. We would constrain our elected representatives to activate those decisions in legislation and administration on penalty of not being elected or re-elected.
Instead of being consumers faced with a choice between packages over whose contents we have little influence, we forfeit any attempt to impose an ideological flavour on the whole range of public decisions and concentrate on getting sound decisions in those matters that affect us most. The focus of these bodies would be on specific problem areas. There would be no attempt to prescribe for every possible eventuality. The whole would be treated as an ecosystem that mostly looks after itself, as various interactions adapt to eacn other. It is far too complex and unpredictable to be planned, but its stability and development are constantly being threatened by various human activities that may need to be regulated or eliminated.
These threats often give rise to vigorous discussion, which is usually confusing, because there is no institution that has the authority to focus discussion and draw a practical policy decision from it. Governments are seen increasingly as making policy, not on the basis of the merits of the case, but as the tactical necessities of the struggle for power dictate. These are a mixture of the careerist ambitions of politicians, factional deals, the power of financial supporters, the disproportionate power of key groups of voters and what can be “sold” by deceptive advertising.
The following questions arise:
- What would these bodies be expected to achieve that our present practices don’t?
- How are these policy bodies to be set up and their membership appointed? Why accept such arrangements.
- How would they operate?
- What reason have we to think they would make good decisions and that those decisions would be accepted as authoritative?
- How can such decentralised policy-making be reconciled with the need for centralised authority to coordinate policies in different areas?
Question 1. Our present practices construct a package that is supposed to cover all public concerns. These packages are developed by parties seeking the electoral support that will give them administrative and legislative power.
Parties typically consist of politicians who have to appeal to different constituencies in which different concerns often prevail. One means for arriving at a compromise on such differences is by trading support, as when I vote for you on some issue I care little about and you reciprocate by voting for me on what I do care about. The result is that policies on many matters are determined not on the merits of the case but on deals that reflect the power strategies of politicians. Their dependence on small pockets of voters and financial supporters often ensures that certain difficult questions are not even raised and those that are raised are presented in ways that obscure what is at stake.
By contrast, if the group of people making a decision on a particular issue have as their dominant interest getting the best possible compromise on the issue taken in isolation from other issues, they have to reach a compromise between the conflicting considerations that impinge on the issue. They have to negotiate with each other, attempting to offer each other a compromise that will be as attractive as possible to them for least cost to their own concerns. Assuming that they are working with a fixed budget and under the need to convince public opinion of the soundness of their decision, they will need to be sure they have addressed all the relevant considerations that influence public opinion on the matter.
Question 2. Such bodies would be set up in the first instance by a foundation dedicated to identifying issues where better decisions are needed. Such a foundation would design and explain the formula on which a sample affected would be chosen, blind to every other characteristic. It would offer the support that the representatives need in acquiring relevant information, stimulating public discussion and consulting appropriate experts. It would cover their expenses. The hope would be that once the value of the foundation’s work and its reputation for integrity was established public support would be forthcoming and others would adopt the same model. Where an ongoing body is needed, members would be replaced one by one to ensure continuity and consistency.
Question 3. Fruitful negotiation, as described in answer to question 1, depends on the negotiators seeing themselves as facing a shared problem. In many cases, although we are used to thinking of interests in terms of oppositions between groups of people who then organise to assert their power against the interests of their enemies or competitors, when it come to specific issues what we find is a bunch of diverse and often conflicting considerations that affect all those involved, though to different degrees. In most such cases, we have to recognise that an adversarial approach is unlikely to reach a decision that will attract wider support. Every effort must be made to produce a decision that is seen by all those most affected as the best that can be achieved in the circumstances.
Question 4. There are two important aspects to this question. First, what reason do we have for thinking that the decisions of such councils would be any better than the decisions of competent bureaucrats, who have more experience and more expertise? Usually in any practical matter there is no uniquely right solution. A decision is to some extent a gamble. It is clearly appropriate that those who are most affected by certain decisions should be those who take responsibility for them. People are rightly resistant to being cast as the guinea pigs on which experts experiment. Even from a pragmatic point of view the success of many decisions is dependent on those involved identifying with their objectives and feeling a certain pride in them as a collective achievement.
Another aspect is the need to get away from the tyranny of monetary considerations. It is very important to know what a particular proposal costs and how that cost relates to the resources available. But it is much more important to have a sound decision on whether or not we are prepared to pay that cost, even if we can. That is something that cannot be reduced to monetary measurement, in spite of the tendency of our politicians and bureaucrats to do just that. There is no substitute for those affected coming to a collective view on what they are prepared to pay for what. It is not rational to settle for getting the most in monetary terms for our investment if that means we forego what we value most. Others can advise and make suggestions, but ultimately we need to choose for ourselves in full knowledge of what we are doing. Ordinary people need to do that all the time in almost every aspect of their lives. Faced with a specific set of problems about an area in which they are involved and having access to what experts can tell them about the matter the decision must be theirs.
Of course, they may be wrong, be misled by fashion, make assumptions that are falsified, fail to make allowance for various unknowns. All authorities are fallible and none has an unquestionable legitimacy. The general considerations of political morality cannot determine legitimacy uniquely, even when there is agreement about them. The particular status of a procedure or an institution is always a matter of convention. New conventions arise about institutions that are seen as effective and salutary, particularly as meeting the need for a way of arriving at a sound choice between alternatives that offer different advantages from different points of view.
Question 5. The legislative and administrative processes would continue to have their present functions, but operate within a different context. At present the main constraint under which legislators and administrators operate is the fear of massive reactions against their decisions or perhaps alienating a key element of their constituency, leading to disruption in the party and defeat at the next election. Parties in power usually overestimate the acceptability of their partisan policies. Unfortunately by the time that strong reactions emerge irreparable damage has often been done. The legislative and administrative organs of government need better information than they can now get on which to base their decisions.
More fundamentally, the reaction to particular measures in the adversarial context of party politics is usually one-sided, largely negative rather than constructive. Off-the-cuff answers to survey questions and unfocussed public discussion are usually clear about what people don’t want, but inevitably vague about what would be preferable. Under the arrangement I am suggesting the process of policy formation would be focused on finding a constructive compromise between conflicting considerations that would greatly reduce the scope for partisan legislative and administrative decisions. Elections might come to focus on what most swinging voters already see as the important question, namely, which of the competing teams is likely to carry out its legislative and administrative duties more competently?
The perspective of public discussion would change from seeing the role of government as shaping society from above to seeing it as providing a range of very diverse services according to the specific character of each. Our very complex societies are constituted by interactions between many different processes, just as our bodily health depends on the nervous, digestive, growth, circulatory and energy control systems, each with its distinctive processes and interdependencies with the others. Most of our social processes operate normally and support each other without conscious intervention, but some of them run into problems that need explicit attention, based on a correct understanding of the way they work.