The practicalities of demarchy

1. In order to be THE voice of public opinion the council advancing that claim would need to be unique and unchallenged. But if anybody can set up a rival council, that is impossible. If anybody takes it seriously, it will be challenged and rivals set up.

Answer. There are two stages in the proposal: a fully open public discussion and the council attempting to draw a practical policy from that discussion.

The public discussion will be unique if the Foundation sponsoring it has adequate resources to publish and render accessible on line every word that anybody thinks relevant to the problem under discussion. If anybody sets up a rival forum, all of its content will be posted on the original site, where it could have been posted at no cost. So if somebody refuses to allow certain material to be posted, they are refusing to offer it for public scrutiny.

How might they justify that refusal?

Perhaps it is copyright, and they demand to be paid for it. In a genuine case, the foundation might agree to pay whatever any other user would pay for it. In some cases a reference to sites on which it has been published might suffice.

In other cases the appeal might be to confidentiality, for example, in the case of survey documents. That sort of confidence protects the identity of contributors to the survey, not its content. When it comes to privacy about the actions of individuals and organisations, such privacy can never be invoked in a way that favours a competing open forum. It has to remain private.

Some may argue that the way in which the problem is described by the foundation in initiating discussion is subtly biased to exclude certain viewpoints. In that case they need to state their case and argue it publicly.

A completely open forum, including full documentation on the proceedings of the foundation, can be reduplicated, but the only point that could have was to try to exclude certain contributions. And that cannot be done with impunity.

2. Such a forum could generate an enormous mass of verbiage, much of which would be either uselessly repetitive or irrelevant or incoherent. Nobody is going to read most of it, much less take the trouble of sorting it out and replying to what calls for comment. So there will be a lot of verbiage, but no real debate. No grappling with the issues.

Likely answer: The foundation employs professional editors who classify the submissions by content and star those contributions that they judge to have something distinctive to say. The aim would be to arrive at a manageable set of texts that people could respond to with confidence that they have addressed all the significant elements of the problem. The editors, being true professionals, would strive to show impartiality. Even if they were personally biased they would recognise that their preferred view is most likely to survive discussion if it addresses the best that the opposing views can offer.

In any case, it would be open to those who wanted to support a contributor not awarded a star to detail the ways in which her essay was superior to the winner and invite support for her claim or at least demand that a reference to it accompany the star on the other text.

So debate could proceed, focussed on a relatively small number of texts. Like any rational debate, it will consist in arguing about the weight of the evidence pointing to certain conclusions. It is about the arguments adduced, not about counting numbers of supporters.

3. It is certain that many will reject that approach. They think that a democratic society must be guided by what people want, their desires, not some depersonalised rational process. Such a rational process is bound to reflect the interests and sensibilities of the elites rather than those of ordinary people.

Reply: It all depends on the scope of these procedures. It is often assumed that the proper role of politics is to protect (conservatives) or construct (progressives)”the sort of society we want.” Demarchy takes the view that that is a mistake. It is always in practice repressive. There are indeed many things we generally agree in some measure in wanting. But only in the vaguest sense is there such a thing as ” the society we all want” But that objective is used to repress people we don’t want. We can largely agree about specific measures needed to outlaw activities that threaten us individually or collectively in those particular respects. But societies, like ecosystems, consist of innumerable different activities that go far beyond our capacities to directs and control them. As in matters of our bodily health most of the processes that are involved in our organism and its environment must be left to look after themselves. We intervene only to avoid or treat something that is sure not to cure itself.

In most aspects of our lives in a modern open society we aspire to discover for ourselves, both as individuals and groups of various kinds what sorts of activities we want to pursue. In our interactions with each other as individuals, families and other groups we develop patterns of behaviour that involve a huge range of conventions, expectations and habits, most of which we take for granted most of the time, becoming conscious of them only when rules are infringed, expectations disappointed and old habits frustrated.

This complex and multi-stranded culture is constantly changing as patterns of behaviour and circumstances change. Particularly in moral and technological matters a good deal of that change comes about as result of critical and rational activity seeking to get people to change their behaviour by persuasion, not by force. The healthy organism or ecosystem changes by adapting to circumstances, pursuing new opportunities and relinquishing those that no longer work effectively. It cannot be planned because it is too complex and because to the extent that it involves deliberate choice it is directed to a variety of changing and undefined ends.

We cherish both our shared identities and our particular personal identities. So, although we can usually understand the consideration others advance in regard to a common problem, we are very likely to disagree about the weight we attach to various considerations. Nevertheless, discussion focussed on a well-defined practical problem regularly leads to convergence by sorting out the specific considerations relevant to the problem from other consideration that are less relevant, trying to construct an answer to the problem that gives as much as possible to each of the considerations involved. There is rarely such a thing as the right answer to a shared problem, but there are certainly many wrong ones. In cooperative discussion we can at least avoid the wrong decisions and agree to experiment with particular practical proposals that are generally acceptable.

Adversarial politics, in which people try not to accommodate the aspirations of others but to triumph over them, tends to favour such broad considerations as whether a proposal involves giving more power to the state or increasing taxation instead of looking at whether it is really advantageous to public needs or gives good value for money. A party hides its exclusion of any genuine attention to specifics by claiming that some general principle that favours what it wants trumps (pun intended) all other considerations.

4. Even when debate does converge on a conclusion which is generally accepted as emerging from a comprehensive and well conducted discussion, that conclusion may well be that any one of a range of concrete actions could be a reasonable way of proceeding in dealing with the problem, depending on one’s assessment of the practical situation.

I have always argued that the practical decision on what is best to be done should be in the hands of a committee that is representative of the major interests most substantially affected by that practical choice. One of the reasons for this procedure is that general public discussion, including expert discussion, involving many people who have little close acquaintance with the problem, may fail to realise just how seriously some people are affected by some of the possible choices. Notoriously people often feel that they are treated as laboratory animals in a social experiment.

The point is not to give them a veto over anything they don’t like. Whether or not the public accepts their judgement about the best option to choose will depend on their convincing people that the option they choose is best, when due account is taken of their justified concerns. These need not be selfish concerns. People close to the problems being investigated may be quicker to identify certain practical assumptions behind a proposal than those who have no direct experience of the situation. For example, such aspect of any practical proposal as how quickly it can be implemented and what training those who work on it will need are more visible from close at hand than from a distance.

However, not everybody will agree that such considerations are decisive. Many will prefer a panel of acknowledged experts. As emerges in the second part of my book, I agree that in some matters that may be the best solution. What matters for the credibility of any attempt to draw a practical conclusion from a public discussion that is convergent but not conclusive is its claim to select the best option from the point of view that emerges from the discussion. The authoritative decision rests with the government or other authority charged with that responsibility. The whole point of the discussion is to examine policy questions in an open way, not distorted by the machinations of political parties struggling for power.

It is inevitable that vested interest will try to hi-jack the demarchic process in any way they can. I have great confidence in the capacity of well-informed open discussion to uncover such attempts and discredit them. Whether that confidence is justified will emerge only if my proposals are given an adequate trial.

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6 Responses

  1. 1 & 2. John, I sometimes wonder what world you live in — you seem to be attempting to rebuild Habermas’s ideal of the bourgeois coffee house (a goal you share with many deliberative “democrats”). However, as Habermas acknowledged, the public sphere has been corrupted by the extension of the franchise; your mechanism for converting demarchic compromises into public policy requires the mass public to read the proceedings of the debate on the demarchy website and then put pressure on politicians (via the ballot box) to instantiate the policies. Do you seriously believe that is going to happen? And why would you want elected politicians to execute the policies, given that most of them have had no experience of practical life? Election may have been the best way of selecting military strategists in classical Athens but the modern world has devised more reliable ways of appointing competent government officers.

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  2. Keith

    You are right . I do live in a different world from the one you think you live in. You are too focussed on the past. It is partly a matter of how we try to come to understanding what the other is saying. Very roughly speaking, whenever I say something you tend to try to understand it in terms of what others have said in the past. That is normal practice with a lot of people, and there is a lot to be said for it. But it makes it very hard to say anything new, which is what I’m typically trying to do most of the time. But it is very difficult to get anybody to take literally what one is saying, as opposed to what s/he thinks one is getting at. In any case if what one is saying is new, that is most likely because it is so wrong that nobody has ever thought it worth saying. So I don’t hold it against people that they don’t get what i’m saying. My only hope is to go on trying to correct what i see as misunderstandings.

    I am well aware of what Habermas has said, but sorting out my differences with him in a book for the general reader is impossible. Summarily, I think he, like pretty well everybody ,fails to see just how radically the digital age has altered the scope of human interaction and communication. Similarly, to explaining my differences with the various Founding Fathers would be an enormous task, and I don’t see what they said in very different circumstances as being of much use in understanding what I am trying to say. I may be wrong. My modes of thinking are biased towards the sciences rather than literary tradition.

    That being said, I agree that not many people are going to be reading the various contributions to the public debate. Public opinion has never been formed by large-scale participation in debate. What happens and will continue to happen is that some people get a fair idea of the debate from newspapers etc and hand on bits of the story to others in conversation. So they get a vague ideal of how the discussion is going which often gels into a widely accepted idea of the outcome. No great assurance of validity! Still, if there are lots of lines of communication open to them, those who think opinion is going in the wrong direction can find ways of saying loud and clear what they think is wrong and convincing people the debate is far from settled.

    As for your Madisonian argument, impartiality is important in some contexts, especially matters of principle, but there is no substitute for being closely involved in other matters which affect people in ways others may fail to appreciate.

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  3. John,

    My concerns are entirely practical — that’s why I dropped out of my history degree after only one week and switched to sociology. I have two, entirely practical, objections to your proposal:

    1. In the cacophony that we dignify with the term “public opinion”, nobody is going to even notice the worthy deliberations of your demarchic councils. The advent of the internet age makes the problem even worse as everyone gets to speak and nobody wants to listen.

    2. I defer to Terry’s experience of the difficulty of getting opposing interests to agree unless constrained by the needs of actual office (getting the trains to run on time). Your councils will be hijacked by factions, each of which will sacrifice the public interest in order to curry the favour of the media and politicians.

    Rousseau would deliver the same verdict on demarchy as he did on democracy: a form of government fit for angels, but not for men.

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  4. Keith

    1. What I rely on is that the cacophony can be changed locally in two ways, by good organisation of the debate, and by distinguishing different problems and debating each in its own terms, with particular privilege to those most affected. I am not thinking of twitter and facebook! Of course if you go on current experience it is not going to work. I am sure that sixty years ago you had told a physicist that anything like the mobile phone for everybody was possible, she would have explained to you just how difficult it is to keep a device tuned to a particular frequency and just how sparse the range we can us is. How my new procedures will work remains to be tested. Most people are going to agree with you that they are not worth trying, but perhaps there are people out there who will give it a go.

    2. of course in our adversarial party systems proposals are always to some extent tools in the struggle for power. I take my councils out of that context. More importantly, if they are to get people to listen to them, they must come up with decisions that are acceptable to all the particular interest directly involved. Other wise, they have no point and no claim to be heeded. That is a powerful incentive to negotiate. Remember the scope of the issues is very particular. The wider the scope the more consideration are involved and the more difficult it is to sort out all of them together.
    Perhaps it won’t work in practice. I think it worth trying. Simply deciding a priori that it can’t work is a bit peremptory.

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  5. I wish you luck! Although I’m not a historian I have great respect for the historical record — what works and what doesn’t work — I can’t see any other foundation for pragmatism. Is there any historical precedent for advisory committees seeking to influence partisan politics via the intermediation of mass public opinion? This is particularly problematic when committee members are drawn from parties with deep (and often unreconcilable) differences rather than the great and the good who are (supposedly) above partisan wrangling. As Terry pointed out, convergence only generally happens when all the other more profitable lines have been exhausted. But that only works for legislators who can put the compromise decision into effect, not for those at two removes from actual political power.

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  6. Keith

    I’m fully aware of the problems you raise, but you refuse to discuss answers to them. I admit that those answers involve enticing people to do some things they have not done in the past and that it remains to be seen whether that turns out to be possible in the circumstances.

    I propose a pattern of involvement in debating issues that in several respects has no precedent, partly because they could not possibly have worked prior to the development of our present capacities for communication, as I have explained in my section on committees. The inertia of old habits is against them. It remains to be seen whether that can be overcome.

    As for the partisan divisions, both the inherent dynamics of the party system and the role assigned to voting work powerfully towards assessing particular proposals primarily in relation to opposing ideological preferences and power struggles. But if you get individuals discussing seriously a specific practical problem you will often fine that they have a different view of it than the view that is entrenched in the program of the party they vote for , usually because they hate the other mob.

    My proposal is to take specific issues into a context where people can discuss the specifics. Again, that ‘s very novel, but worth trying.

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