Sortition and reform of political institutions

Keith has described me as the Godfather of sortition. Of course, I reject the capital G, which is associated with mafia, but I also reject the strict Christian role in which the godfather promises to see that the godchild is brought up in the True Faith. For me there is no such thing, especially in politics.

Politics is mainly a matter of making and enforcing collective decisions where it is desirable to do so. The decision procedures and enforcement procedures may well differ from context to context. As every engineer knows, a design that will work well on a certain scale will fail miserably and perhaps disastrously on a smaller or larger scale. From my first book on I have always seen sortition as a procedure that depends for its utility on many factors. In that book I argued for it as a way of selecting decision-makers in the decentralised authorities that I hoped might replace most of the functions of the highly centralised modern state.

The structuring of authorities charged with producing or protecting certain public goods has to be designed in relation to the problems that emerge from patterns of social interaction. In that book I singled out a few examples of areas of social activity that might have their own independent regulatory authority. But I had no systematic analysis of the problems of contemporary society. Certainly, if I had one it would now be hopelessly out of date. Humanity now faces major problems of which we were hardly aware a generation ago, some created by, and all changed by the explosion of our capacity to record, store, process, communicate and exploit information, where that misleading word has to cover not just figures and facts, but contracts, threats, promises, suggestions, commands and many other kinds of organisation, interaction and interdependence.

All nations have surrendered control of their currency, their terms of trade, much of their law and even entertainment to supranational bodies and processes. The nation-state as we know it survives as the authority responsible for many of these activities, only because we have not invented authorities capable of regulating them satisfactorily on the required scale, and we need to feel we are doing something about them by the occasional international agreement.

The old image of the nation-state as a person whose constituent organs should act under the direction of the head was never a very good one. It is now hopelessly unrealistic. I argue that we have to think of our situations on the model of interdependent ecosystems in which various organisms and complexes of organisms each strive to flourish and reproduce themselves in a variety of ways adapting to each other. Unlike most other organisms we have the capacity to organise ourselves using very superior knowledge of our situation in order to adapt to it constructively and even to a limited extent to alter some aspects of the ecosystems in which we are embedded.

The ecosystem has no purpose of its own. The patterns of order that it develops are the result of countless interconnections between its components that cannot possibly be organised to serve a single purpose exclusively in the way the part of a machine can. What we can do to avert dangers or find new things to enjoy depends on uncoordinated actions, suggestions and interactions between people who are constantly reappraising aspect of their situation. The key presupposition of our coping with the unprecedented problems and opportunities we face is that we learn what we can do and decide on that specific matter: what is best to do flexibly and with a minimum of irrelevancies of all sorts. Such decisions, I argue, need to be separated from each other to a large extent and made in relation to the scale of action required. Some problems are quite localised, other global.

Some of the implications of this for authorities of various kinds and the legitimacy of their powers i have alluded to in the new book. Solving them in particular cases will mostly be a pragmatic process, constrained within strict limits to exclude unacceptable behaviour. But there are no magic bullets, not even sortition.

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19 Responses

  1. Caro Don Burnheim,

    >From my first book on I have always seen sortition as a procedure that depends for its utility on many factors. In that book I argued for it as a way of selecting decision-makers in the decentralised authorities that I hoped might replace most of the functions of the highly centralised modern state.

    As I understand it this is not the case with demarchy. People who want to serve on a demarchic council nominate themselves and the only function of sortition is to reduce the number in an impartial manner. If, however (as is highly likely) the original pool is an unrepresentative sample then the final council will reflect this lack of representativity.

    cordiali saluti

    Keith (the young pretender)

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  2. Keith > representativity

    You are absolutely right about representativity in the sort of justificatory role that you assign to it. I don’t believe in it.
    I think that it is neither necessary nor sufficient to ground authoritative legitimacy and that it can be very unjust.

    In any case, since my councils claim no such authority, that is not relevant. What I think sensible people like me wantare good decisions. The basic point of representation is to assist in getting good decisions by a process that is epistemically reliable. In most matters I am prepared to recognise that my shaky opinions are not worth much, and that the same goes for most other people.

    However, there are some things on which people are much more likely to have knowledge that nobody else has, namely just how the acknowledged consequences of a proposal affect them. Any good decision must take serious account of those effects. People count. They are not just parts of a greater whole, but ends in themselves. That is why my councils, charged with trying to work out the best practical proposal in the circumstances are heavily weighted in favour of those who are most substantially affected.

    This is, of course, slippery territory. I am assuming that the question of who is most substantially affected is largely a matter of fact, about which experts may be the best judges. But the experts, no matter how conscientious, will have only a very general idea of what the consequences mean to various groups of those affected. The experts may help the”victims” by making them aware of things they could not discover for themselves and help then to get a better picture of their situation. Not that the “victims” are always right from their own point of view. They must be prepared to enter discussion with their peers who may have a different reaction to the consequences of what is proposed. But in the long run I’m sufficient of a democrat to think that those people who bear the consequences of a proposal should have the major say in deciding what is the best collective decision.

    The sort of democracy we have and that you propose assumes that he wishes of the population as a whole trump the wishes of any minority. It is crystal clear that such procedures fail dismally to take account of the effects of certain measure on ill-understood minorities. The treatment of indigenous minorities in many countries is notoriously unjust. Even where it is benevolent it is almost invariably inappropriate. But oppression is often backed by the argument from equality. Any discrimination in favour of a section of the whole is iniquitous.

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  3. >The basic point of representation is to assist in getting good decisions by a process that is epistemically reliable.

    Not so. Representation is required on account of the impossibility of direct democracy in large communities, although Madison, Payne and others have argued that it is an improvement on the original. But the appeal to “good” decisions and epistemic reliability is not a part of the lexicon of representative democracy. In fact it’s not at all clear how a self-nominating group of a dozen persons should perform any kind of representative function.

    >The sort of democracy we have and that you propose assumes that he wishes of the population as a whole trump the wishes of any minority.

    My proposal combines decision making by large stochastically-representative juries with a host of other constitutional arrangements, many of which are specifically intended to protect minority interests. Why do you think that minority interests would be safeguarded by tiny demarchic councils, given that the chance of any minority being directly represented are very small? As Naomi has pointed out before, the process could easily be hijacked by the Tea Party, the NRA and other powerful lobby groups. Nobody nominates members of demarchic committees, and there is no mechanism (statistical or otherwise) to ensure balanced representation.

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  4. John,

    > The basic point of representation is to assist in getting good decisions

    Yes – it is common to obfuscate this issue and heap excessive verbiage about various types of representation. It is, however, representation of interests that matters. Sortition is a tool for achieving that.

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  5. Yoram,

    1. Good decisions and the representation of interests are not synonymous. For example it may well be in the interests of a majority to exterminate or enslave a minority. Do you consider that to be a “good” decision?

    2. Sortition is a tool to achieve the representation of interests iff combined with other representational mechanisms — what you refer to as “obfuscation” is generally called analytical political theory (in the Aristotelian tradition that you frequently refer to).

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  6. Keith > The point of representation

    You say that representation is required on account ot the impossiibility of direct democracy. That used to be so, but is no longer the case with modern communications.
    But that is not the point. You slide into the manifest falsehood that representation is required only because of that alleged impossibility.

    Take a very practical real-life instance, the condominium in which I live, which is part of a federation of adjoining condominiums on a large site. On many matters we delegate the decision to a person or group which we believe is more likely to arrive at a good decision than a general meeting.

    There are 110 units in our condominium and just over a thousand in the federation. Representation on the federation is by condominia, some of which are much larger and some much smaller than ours. That form of representation is chosenis because it is thought that the matters controlled by the federation, such as access roads, common spaces and facilities, water sewage, drainage and external relations, are matters we face as communities rather than as individuals.

    On the other hand representation in the general assembly of this condominium is by unit, not by numbers of inhabitants, and units are represented by owners, not by tenants. I have known other condominia where owners had not just one vote, but a number of votes that reflected exactly the scale of liability of the owner to contribute to common funds. That liability in turn was determined by the relative prices of the units at their first sale. So on every matter one owner might have 223 votes but her neighbour only 103. It was quite workable and fairer in regard to certain matters than some other arrangements, but certainly not in many other respects. There is no perfect form of representation, even in such relatively simple cases.

    Recently we settled, for a lump sum, to terminate a long-running litigation with the original developer for rectification of sundry faults in the building. The negotiation of that deal was entrusted to a small committee including financial and legal experts who were not residents, and people were generally very pleased with the result, which was a larger amount than we had expected. A general meeting expressed its gratitude.

    That left us with the extremely complex task of deciding on what would be the best way of remedying the diverse defects, drawing up a program and specifications and assessing tenders. The assembly can meet as often as it likes, and these were not recondite matters, but much the sort of thing that any householder is faced with. But it was decided to entrust the task to one person, an architect long resident in the building, under the supervision of the Executive committee, with full power to let contracts. That arrangement was, of course voted by a general meeting, as necessary formality, but I am sure that if it had passed by a slender majority the person s in question would not have accepted that responsibility. As is happened there was clear general support for it.

    What sensible people wanted was a reliable way of getting good decisions.
    That trumped all other considerations.

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  7. Keith and others > minorities

    There are no foolproof answers to many question of the sort we are debating. So, yes indeed, there is nothing to stop a well-organised partisan group to swamp the panel of self-nominated people who profess to have a legitimate interest in joining the panel from which a certain demarchic council is to be selected by lot. But if what they say in debate is fully public, and clearly dominates proceedings, then people who are trying to bet a balanced discussion will draw attention to that and the council will be discredited. Its only claim to attention is its claim to is that it is seen as offering a practical conclusion drawn from a completely open debate.

    As for the protection of minorities, I assume that the sort of protection you are supposing is just the sort at present offered by “advanced democracies”. In certain matters these have proved effective because the kinds of discrimination against minorities in question have been easily remedied by removing certain legislative restrictions on those minorities. The sort of disabilities I am most concerned about call for special provision for the needs of certain communities and the assumptions of much democratic theory, especially on what constitutes justice, exclude even considering those needs. I take an extreme case, not because it is typical, but because it opens up wider considerations that most others.

    When Britain invaded and conquered Australia, the instructions of the government to tis officers emphasised that they should be attentive to the welfare of the existing population, and some of the early governors were very conscious of that aim. Unfortunately, they failed to realise that their system of land tenure was designed to suppress every aspect of the native’s relationship to their lands. Under British legal practice, if a piece of land belonged to no individual owner, any individual might lay claim to it, and such claims were normally ratified by the state and registered if they seemed reasonable. But the very complex set of entitlements to certain sorts of access to various sites that were the basis of aboriginal life could not be accommodate in the new scheme, and all such titles to access were extinguished.The new owners simply excluded natives from access to their land.

    For many generations, in spite of some misgivings, the view prevailed that the aborigines were an inferior race and would soon die out or be assimilated, in the sacred name of Progress. Anthropologists and intellectually curious people came to study aboriginal culture and realised that it was an extraordinarily powerful and complex set of relations with nature and society. Some groups of Aboriginal people who managed to survive on the fringes of white society began to demand the opportunity to live according to their original culture as far as they could under changing conditions, assimilating what they wanted to take from white society, instead of simply abandoning everything in their culture that did not fit the white pattern. Many whites sympathised with them, but unfortunately the simple response to the problem was just to throw money at it, which often did more harm than good.

    Any approach that offered hope of success had to involve giving special power and responsibility to some aboriginal communities that wished to proceed in this path. But that was incompatible with the ruling conception of equality.

    The conclusion I want to draw from this, in conjunction with very many other quite different cases, is that we need quite a comprehensive process of change in our political culture and procedures ,of a kind that certainly cannot be deduced from simplistic axioms. I propose to attempt to say something constructive about these matters in future posts, if only because I need to ATTEMPT TO SAY WHAT I MEAN IN ORDER TO FIND OUT WHAT I MEAN.

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  8. John,

    Pretty well everyone (Pitkin, Pettit, Manin, Urbinati etc) who has thought seriously (or, according to Yoram, obfuscated) about political representation has concluded that there are two forms: a) acting for and b) standing for. In democratic contexts, we choose representatives who (a) “act for” us through preference elections and this applies to poleis, clubs and societies as well as occupants of condominium buildings. Although the OMOV principle generally applies, some (e.g. Henry Ireton during the Putney Debates) argue that the franchise should be limited to those with a fixed permanent interest (i.e. owners but not renters in your example) and others (e.g. Mill) claim that some people are worth more than others and should have multiple votes (high-value owners in your example). But whatever the basis of the franchise, you get to choose your representative by exercising your preference vote.

    If the representatives were purely to (b) “stand for” the principals (rather than acting for them), stochation would be an appropriate selection process, although this would entail restricting the mandate of such a group to aggregate decision making (as individual persons selected by lot only stand for themselves). The process relies on the law of large numbers, so is not really applicable to clubs and the occupants of small condominium buildings.

    What you are suggesting is (c) that persons should put themselves forward as representatives and then be subject to sortition. How many representatives does your condominium send to the federation meeting? One, two? Would you be happy that such a random process of selection would reliably represent your interests in the federation meeting, given that it might mean you being represented by a crank, a bozo or even a fifth columnist? Given that the only rationale you have ever provided for demarchy is its epistemic value, this strikes me as an unreliable procedure to secure expert advocacy to best protect the interests of the condominium occupants and owners. Much better to choose someone (either from amongst yourselves or an external expert) by voting at a general meeting or by some less formal process, but all the principals should get to choose. This is not the case with demarchy where the only choice is whether or not to nominate yourself for the position — from then on it’s left in the hands of Zeus. Your earlier claim that demarchy would lead to good judgment by good people suggests that you are (subconsiously?) harking back to Fustel de Coulange’s argument for the religious origin of lot. To purloin the old adage, you can take the man out of the Bronx, but you’ll never take Marx out the man and the same seems to apply to the other formative influence in your life.

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  9. Keith > political theory

    In the midst of the silly imputations and contentious descriptions that one is expected to put up with as “robust debate” there are points about my anecdotal incursion into political theory that It hink are well taken but don’t seem to affect my views.

    But you do advert to the impossibility of guaranteeing that people who nominate themselves for membership of a certain panel, claiming to have a legitimate interest in the matter it is to discuss, may have no such interest, or only some illegitimate one. In IDP? I proposed that such nominations would have to go through various filters in order to be chosen for the deciding committee. I now think that no such set of filters is likey to be effective without also being unduly prescriptive.

    Now I am relying on complete publicity of everything anybody involved says or does to enable other participants to discover and publicise what is wrong with what the nasty people say and do. As I continually insist, it is not people’s motivations or purposes that are relevant to a rational decision, but the worth of the arguments they advance. Even the nastiest Nazi may have a valid point to make about some aspect of a particular problem that otherwise might not surface.

    My hope is that when people stop dealing with practical questions on the basis of general ideological preferences and concentrate on the practical ways of dealing with a specific problem, it is usually much easier to arrive at a mutually satisfactory solution than most political discussion allows. Of course, that shows how far I am from both Marxists and Libertarians, who think they have general prescriptions on which to construct the good society.
    They believe that concentrating on the specifics will lead to the neglect of their Great Truths, the positive, sweeping visions that can inspire us all. At least in that respect I hope they are right.

    On the other hand that the sort of deliberation in which I place my hopes can work on the scale I postulate remains to be shown. My argument is that it deserves to be tried.

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  10. Yoram> sortition and good decisions.

    I agree heartily with what you say, but I suspect that we start to disagree about what to do here and now to make a start in that direction, and perhaps about the complexity of the problems to be solved.

    For example I agree that in some important respect virtually all political philosophy and theory is obfuscatory, but that does not mean that there are not a lot of truths and falsehoods in it all that we ought to try to sort out. My apparently irrelevant excursion into theory of logic was to make a point in favour of my campaign against foundationalism, the assumption that all sound reasoning in any area must rest on a few self-evident axioms, which has been pervasive in western thinking since the Greeks, including political and moral theory.For me the greatest achievement of the 20th century was to begin to break away from that assumption.

    But doing so also has its dangers in an indiscriminate scepticism or relativism.
    Pragmatism cannot tell you how to solve any problem. That does not mean that there are not some solutions that can be shown to be promising, just that every solution needs to be tested before it is accepted. Such acceptance is always provisional. Almost always solving one problem contributes to creating another. The more we know the more complicated it all gets, in spite of the fact that in some respects we can achieve amazing feats of simplification. Seek simplicity but distrust it! That’s my motto.

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  11. John,

    I agree with the general thrust of your comments. As I wrote before, I am by no means offering an “it’s all so easy” recipe for democracy.

    One point of disagreement:

    > the assumption that all sound reasoning in any area must rest on a few self-evident axioms, which has been pervasive in western thinking since the Greeks, including political and moral theory.

    I am not sure that historically the tendency has been so one sided toward over-simplification. Especially in political theory obfuscationism and mystification has also been a persistent current, and indeed I think the dominant one. This is so for the straightforward reason that the theorists in general have something to hide – the contradiction between their professed values and the status quo that they almost invariably justify.

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  12. Yoram> the pattern of western thought.

    That’s a difference that would take ages to sort out, particularly because I do think all these questions are multi-stranded, with some strands that are of the sort you concentrate on and others I think are more defensible. In earlier versions of the present book I spent a lot of space on exposing certain doctrines that I think do have the character you mentioned. It is hard to sheet home conclusively, and I decidedit only distracted from the positive things I wanted to say.

    Fortunately it is not often necessary to go into such questions if we are agreed that in the particular matters we are concerned with from a practical point of view they are mostly irrelevant. Devoting toomuch attention to them is to give them an importance they do not have.

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  13. John,

    Yes – by all means, let’s proceed to more practical issues.

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  14. John,

    >But do you advert to the impossibility of guaranteeing that people who nominate themselves for membership of a certain panel, claiming to have a legitimate interest in the matter it is to discuss, may have no such interest, or only some illegitimate one?

    No, it’s perfectly possible and even likely that they are entirely genuine, but that doesn’t mean that their interests will reflect the interests of the whole, unless the sample is large and truly random (i.e. without self-selection). The alternative procedure is self-nomination, followed by preference election, during which all of the principals register their choice. I imagine that is the procedure adopted by the tenants and owners in your condominium — why would you want to replace it with a demarchic committee?

    >Now I am relying on complete publicity of everything anybody involved says or does to enable other participants to discover and publicise what is wrong with what the nasty people say and do.

    I think that’s over-optimistic as I don’t think most people would have the time and/or inclination to read it, given that our modern societies are characterised by information overload. How many of the 440 followers of this blog have even read your posts? Judging by the commentators (primarily Yoram and myself), hardly any at all, and these are all people who have registered an interest in sortition. How many of them (apart from me) have even read your new book?

    Yoram,

    >Especially in political theory obfuscationism and mystification has also been a persistent current, and indeed I think the dominant one. This is so for the straightforward reason that the theorists in general have something to hide – the contradiction between their professed values and the status quo that they almost invariably justify.

    Really? Foucault, Ranciere, analytical Marxism etc are all pretty mysterious (certainly compared to political theorists justifying electoral democracy) yet dedicated to the overthrow of the status quo. Pitkin’s book is based on ordinary language philosophy and aims to clarify our use of words like “representation”, so the claim that it’s obfuscatory is eccentric to say the least. Or take the example of a book that I’m currently re-reading — Michael Saward’s The Representative Claim makes Pitkin’s “obfuscations” pale into insignificance and yet Mike is highly critical of electoralism and the status quo. I think your position is accurately described by John when he critiques “the assumption that all sound reasoning in any area must rest on a few self-evident axioms, which has been pervasive in western thinking since the Greeks, including political and moral theory.” It would be wonderful if we could put the world to right by fleshing out a couple of axioms from Aristotle and Montesquieu but it’s a little more complicated than that. Even if it’s true that all politics can be reduced to the clash of interests, how best to secure the interests of the majority (and protect the interests of minorities) in large multicultural states is a non-trivial matter that will need a little more than selecting a random sample and then leaving it all down to them (just because Aristotle and Montesquieu described that as “democratic”).

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  15. Two points…
    Keith made reference to the common belief that “all politics can be reduced to the clash of interests.” I believe one of John’s main claims is that this assumption needs to be challenged. It MAY be that many political problems are more a matter of how to orchestrate group coordination. Majority voting among pre-established “interests” is the current default approach for “resolving” disputes, but may completely miss the boat in terms of finding optimal solutions.

    One possible problem with demarchic councils is simply my assumption that there would be just one foundation-sponsored council on a particular matter seeking the best compromise policy. In my design I propose a large number of independent such volunteer councils (I call them Interest Panels in my paper), with the notion that if one such panel was dominated by a special interest that was pro-X, that another one would be dominated by anti-X people… but that all of these draft policy proposals generated would have a crucial constraint… the members would know they had to draft proposals that could pass muster in front of a jury (relatively disinterested citizens concerned more with fairness). So I agree with John that getting people who are most directly affected by a policy topic to try and hash out an agreement is an excellent idea. But the problem is limiting this to only one such group, which may fall victim to an informational cascade that takes them down an odd path, and their being both author and judge of their own work (even if a later elected body was the ultimate judge).

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  16. Terry,

    >Keith made reference to the common belief that “all politics can be reduced to the clash of interests.”

    I’m not sure how common the belief is (I predicated my comment with “even if it is true that”). The reduction of politics to interests is certainly true for Yoram, but I think most people take a more nuanced view.

    >One possible problem with demarchic councils is simply my assumption that there would be just one foundation-sponsored council on a particular matter seeking the best compromise policy. In my design I propose a large number of independent such volunteer councils

    Apart from the number of councils, the crucial difference between John and Terry’s proposals is that demarchic councils have no formal constitutional role to play, they merely seek to influence opinion in the public sphere.

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  17. > The reduction of politics to interests is certainly true for Yoram, but I think most people take a more nuanced view.

    The reduction of discussion to mere repetition of lies, falsehoods and pomposities is certainly true for Sutherland, but I would hope most people would not tolerate such behavior.

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  18. Yoram, I really am struggling to understand you — you’ve consistently argued that the purpose of sortition is to ensure the interests of the masses over the elite(s), as opposed to epistemic arguments regarding rational ignorance etc. In what respect have I misrepresented your position?

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  19. Terry > two points

    1. Here we seem to agree.
    To elaborate a little, a key point about the public discussion is that if it is completely open it is an unique forum. Any group that refuses to post its arguments in the open forum condemns itself as a partisan lobby. It is only since the arrival of the internet that such an open forum has become a practical possibility. I have explained in an earlier comment how I think it could be handled in such a way as to produce a manageable set of documents on which public debate could focus. It has never been tried, and may not work in practice, but it’s worth trying.

    Interests are slippery in their scope and time-dimensions. In health care a geriatric like me has fairly narrow interests to ensure I get best treatment for the sort of things I’m likely to suffer from. A young person with their life before them knows that over time their needs are going to change and so will want to ensure that the variety of things that they may need in future are covered, not just their immediate needs. But I may also be concerned about the young person and they may be concerned about me and both of us may be concerned about many other kinds of people who do not have adequate access to health care.

    If we are wise and thinking in terms of a community sharing a common good, we should think of needs rather than interests, and be concerned about arriving at the most effective and efficient way of meeting those needs. Then, as members of that community we can take pride in our collective achievement. I take pleasure in living in a community that is well provided with sporting and recreational facilities that I’m long past using. That is not a matter of being altruistic. It is part of my identity to identify with certain communities, as everybody needs to do. We are social animals, with an unique capacity to construct common goods.

    2. As I see it the policy formation process has two stages, an open-entry, fully public debate that serves to bring out all the considerations that are relevant to the particular problem in question and construct a debate on their relative importance. That debate would, I hope, clarify the problem, but often leave a margin of uncertainty about the practical conclusions to be drawn from the debate. It may be easy enough to get agreement that several competing consideration are each relevant to a practical decision, but not on just how much weight each has in comparison with the others. I claim that, as a general rule, a selection of the sort of people who are most directly and substantially affected by the outcome are most likely to come up with a sound decision on that matter. They have to bear the consequences of their decision in the way that many participants in the general debate do not. That should sharpen up their perceptions.

    Of course others may disagree and set up their own councils, each of which claims to produce a better practical solution for some particular reason, which each would have to spell out in terms of considerations that have a claim to public acceptance. It might well be in some cases that such a process led to an impasse. How well it worked would depend on how public expectations and standards develop in a climate of constructive debate. Even if the differences between the councils proved intractable, the issue would have been clarified.

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