1. Public affairs and rational ignorance.
The argument: It is rarely rational for anybody to vote or engage in some other political activities because the chance of influencing the outcome is so infinitesimal that it does not merit the slightest effort.
Reply. That is one consideration, but it is not only a false picture of the thinking of most people, but not the only rational consideration. Many, I think most, voters also recognise two other dimensions to their role as voters.
One is that they see voting as an expressive act and feel it is important to them to express themselves in this way. That is why opposition voters still turn out to vote in what is a safe seat for the incumbent party. Moreover, voters are concerned that in expressing their support for a candidate or a party they are ding something that reflects credit on them. So they are concerned to exercise what influence they can on that candidate or party to adopt policies that they find admirable.
Another reason why the selfish approach is not rational is that people quite rightly do not take an entirely selfish attitude to public goods. Their identity as members of a particular community is closely bound up with the quality of the public goods in which they can share as members of the community. So they do have an interest in the quality of the community’s educational institutions, even though they do not expect any particular pay-off to them from those institutions. Moreover, they are usually well aware that the sort of cost-benefit analyses that reduce benefits to measurable benefits to individuals leads to a penny-pinching approach to funding policy decisions that is often destructive and counterproductive in its effects. It is not rational.
That is not to say that it is improper in choosing to support one rather than another of competing proposals about, say, an educational program, to do so because it suits one’s own interests better. Practical decisions are rarely one-dimensional. They involve diverse, often competing, considerations in varying degrees in different contexts.
2. Public affairs and subjectivity.
The argument: Almost all the considerations involved in debate about public affairs are ultimately subjective. So it is absurd to postulate that such debate can arrive at a rationally warranted conclusion.
Reply. The argument relies on the contrast between practical considerations and those relevant to matters of objective truth, ranging from simple matters of fact to the most theoretical speculations. If the objective considerations we can muster do not warrant a conclusion, we must recognise that the opinions people may have about it on subjective grounds, such as their finding a theory elegant or easier to understand, cannot supply good grounds for a collective decision about its truth-value.
Practical matters are different. If we have to act in a certain situation, especially where doing nothing is clearly the worst option, it is rational to look for ways of assessing the weight to be given to different subjective preferences in the circumstances. This is not as difficult in most cases as it might seem.
In the first place even the most subjective and emotive considerations invariably have a close relation to certain matters of fact that can be determined and judged for their relevance to the practical choices available. Many fears that, if justified, would have considerable weight in relation to certain choices can be ruled out if it can be shown that the alleged dangers at which they are directed are non-existent. That may not cure the fear in some people, but it downgrades its relevance. We may still respect a person’s fear while disagreeing about its basis.
More positively, many of the considerations that people will offer in favour of a certain course of action will involve preferences that others do not share. However the others probably have their own preferences and all may agree that each has a prima facie right to demand that her preferences be given equal treatment with the others in reaching a decision. But ultimately what matters in reaching good decisions is that, as far as possible the process sorts out well-grounded considerations from the more dubious ones. Such a process may not be conclusive, but it must be enlightening. If the procedure is unable to decide between several proposals, i would suggest giving the choice to those most affected by that choice.
It is easy to conclude that in nearly all political matters there is no hope of reaching a well-grounded agreement about the relative importance of the diverse considerations involved. So the only sensible way of arriving at a practical conclusion is to award the decision to the view that has the support of the most participants, without futile argument about their merits. In some cases that may be so, but in my view it is a last resort.
I want to argue that where the practice is to regard majority voting as the right procedure in any case where there are divergent preferences, a great deal is lost. It is possible to debate many of the considerations on which different people base their particular preferences, and there is very often much be gained by all concerned if their preferences are discussed and debated with an open mind.
It is not only that those differences in preferences may rest much more on differences about matters of fact than about the subjective element in them. People may share very similar aspirations for the future, but differ in their practical judgements because they hold different views about the likelihood of different actions having the desired effects. Before they vote against each other it would be rational to attempt some resolution of their differences on that objective question.
Again, people may agree on sound rational grounds about the risks in a certain course of action, but differ on whether the possible benefits justify taking those risks. Some of us are timid, others rash, and there is not a great deal one can do about such dispositions in general terms. Nevertheless, it is often the case that the parties can reduce their difference by attempting to spell out to each other just what it is about the risks that so horrifies the one, and about the hoped-for result that is so promising in the other’s eyes. It may even be possible that, while not having resolved all their differences completely, they may come close enough to agree about a course of action.
More positively still, if we have a minimum of modesty and imagination, we are prepared to recognise that we have a lot to learn about our own potential from attempting to understand what others find interesting or attractive. The freedom to go one’s own way is indispensible, but so also is the opportunity to enrich and broaden one’s perspectives and the range of things one can appreciate by learning to see what others see in them.
3. Public affairs and conflicts.
The argument: Such considerations may be appropriate where we are talking about groups of friends who enjoy a great measure of freedom and ample resources. They are not struggling to survive or to protect themselves from oppression. Politics is the domain of compulsion, taxation and imposed uniformity.
Reply. That is indeed the pattern of history and of much in the present. It is no longer necessarily so. We now have the capacity to meet the needs of everybody in the world for shelter, food, education and communications, provided we can solve the problem of excessive population growth peacefully. In many counties we have made great strides in setting up procedures to solve conflicts peacefully, and there is hope that the process can keep on improving. a constructive future is open to us.
Unfortunately a number of attempts to rush the process of rational decision-making have done so by parties seizing state power and implementing their plans by compulsion, with disastrous results. An approach that involves a minimum of force and conformity is called for. But good intentions are not enough. A central contention of the parts of my book that nobody reads is that getting good decisions about public policy is of fundamental importance and that the procedures by which we currently arrive at such decisions are very defective. They make policy proposals pawns in a contest to win power. My proposals are focussed on attempting to take decisions on public policy out of that context, enlighten and articulate public opinion and rely on voters to insist that hose in power legislate and administer in accordance with public opinion, on pain of not being returned to office at the nest election.
Such a suggestion makes many novel assumptions, at least some of which I have tried to identify and justify. Among those assumptions is one that is crucial, but very shocking in this context. It is that in the procedures that are best fitted to producing good policy in any particular matter should pay most attention not to the actual views the citizens have about their needs, but to the reasons they advance for their views. In other words, the debates would have much the same kind of structure as the examples I mentioned in the last section. People should be invited to take part in a debate that tests the validity of those reasons, hopefully helping all concerned to arrive at a better understanding of their situation and a more realistic, constructive and effective collective decision that is sensitive to what people really need rather than just their unscrutinised opinions.
By contrast almost everybody else who has thought seriously about public policy assumes that it is neither necessary nor desirable to attempt to take the process of decision out of the context of power. What is needed is to take the exercise of power out of the hands of those who abuse it and give it to a genuinely representative body constituted by a sample of the population. Good people will find good answers to their collective problems. They will, of course, need to use sound procedures in arriving at their conclusions, but that is a secondary matter.
There are, naturally, differing views about what the people so chosen can or ought do. But there is substantial agreement that their right to do what they decide on comes from their being genuinely representative of the population, not from the alleged properties of the procedures they use.
At this level of abstraction and generalities the verdict looks clear: I’m barking up the wrong tree. But stay tuned.