Equality, elites, markets, politics and sortition

The Australia I was born into before WW2 was probably the most anti-elitist culture the world has ever seen. Vigorous efforts were made to stamp it out in every aspect of life. So a few reflections on how that worked out may be illuminating. We didn’t try sortition in politics, but many other tactics. The point of this isn’t any claim to virtue. Anti-elitism was often a symptom of that resentment against which Nietzsche protested. The point is to understand how practices work and what effects they have.

Elites, at least for purposes of this discussion, are social groups that achieve some high degree of monopolisation of a valued social function and profit by making it difficult to join that group. That monopoly is exploited to benefit the group inappropriately. Remedies for elitism all look for ways of breaking down those monopolies. What means are favoured depends on what is seen as the crucial source of the power to exclude.

One simple diagnosis is that an exclusive focus on a free market can sweep away both political and social bases of elitism. In a free market anybody can offer any service at any price they choose and anybody with money can buy it. It really works, but instead of promoting equality in social and political power, it leads to plutocracy. As regards income, the labour market works by supply and demand. The plutocrats compete for the services of the most skilled, who are in short supply. The best in any respect are necessarily few. So the price of skill goes up. At the other end of the market, those with no particular skill are in oversupply, so wages are driven down. Here the poorest are competing against each other.

On the wealth front big money makes big money. It finds ways of buying whatever it wants, including political power and social status. We did not like that and set out to oppose the privileges of wealth in a host of ways, while keeping a market economy. So tipping was socially deplored. People like waiters and taxi drivers were to be paid a proper wage and offer a professional service. Offering them a tip was an insult, like offering a bribe.

So, how to guarantee everybody a fair wage? By setting a minimum wage for every occupation. The market still allowed you to pay or demand more for exceptional skills in a particular job, but nobody is allowed to pay less than the minimum without incurring a fine. So how were those minima for different jobs set? In principle by negotiation between employer organisations and trades unions, but increasingly by impartial arbitrators  with power to adjudicate competing claims and protect the public against collusion between employers and employees to exploit their collective monopoly. The whole system culminated in the Annual National Wage Case, in which the top employer and employee organisations submitted their rival claims for a general wage increase in the light of changed conditions to the supreme arbitrator.

Combined with a very protectionist economy, sustained by geographic isolation, it worked surprisingly well up until the seventies when countries started to lose control over their own economies in the interests of free trade in everything, including labour and money. It was a less dynamic economy than many others, but pretty comfortable. Oz ideology exalted “the battler” the poor guy struggling to get a “fair go” and looked with horror at the contempt that others showed for “the loser”, who was deemed to ignore the opportunities offered him.

As for politics, we were pretty satisfied on the whole that the political system did serve as an adequate counterpoise to the power of money and of social status. The people who rose to the top were often from lowly beginnings and we alternated between Labour and Liberal (conservative) each of which offered similar policies, but with differences of emphasis. Power tended to rotate between the major parties as the party in office was seen to have grown stale.

The system did not offer much scope for innovation. But we didn’t think that elites or big money were a problem. We had pretty strong controls over them.

When globalisation came, the whole system became unsustainable. As a nation that depended on trade we had to follow the international system. Naturally, the task of introducing the radical changes necessary fell to a Labour government. A Liberal government would have been open to the charge of doing what big business, especially the multi-nationals, wanted, and would have been too timid. Bob Hawke, the former head of the union movement had no such inhibitions. He and his colleagues changed nearly everything, but hung on to a high minimum wage, without the predicted increase in unemployment. Jobs were exported by the shipload, and capital invested in local industry destroyed wholesale, but somehow the economy continued to grow at a steady 2.5% for the nest twenty-five years.

What soon became clear is that we had handed over an enormous amount of power to the mega-rich and the elites that served them, both of which were almost entirely outside our control. So we no longer controlled exchange rates, but handed them over to the big market players. While the local economy remained stable, the exchange rate fell in a few years fro 115 Us cents for an Oz dollar to 65 US cents. Of course our importers and exporters had to protect themselves against such fluctuations. So they had to buy currency futures from the same people who manipulated the rate. Those money traders made huge amounts out of very small fluctuations in demand for a currency without ever buying of selling a real commodity. Hedge funds deliberately engineered slides in value.

A remedy that has the support of many economists is to impose a small tax on each transaction. The big money comes from minute profits on computer-generated information and action that is repeated at lightening speed, wherever there is the slightest discrepancy in supply and demand for a currency. But such transactions have no unique location. Only global authority could hope to monitor it and impose a tax. But we rightly shrink in horror from global authority based on the sort of political processes we now employ at the national level.

That is not to say that reforming local and national politics is pointless  It can still do a lot of good in many matters that remain under local control. In the case of the US, where most of the mega-rich are still located, it might even be possible to achieve some degree of control over them because of the risks of relocating. That worries the rest of us. In that case what is done will be dominated by US interests, and the rest of us will just have to accept that. No wonder we shudder when we listen to Trump! But improving the US political system, as sortition probably could, is not necessarily going to help us and probably not the US either in the longer run, as it is forced to pander to the mega-rich to keep on board their money and such taxes as they deign to pay.

The point I want to make is that the world has changed, irrevocably. That insistence is not obfuscation. To put it crudely, democracy on the local and national scale can deal with those matters that play out on that scale. But when it comes to many global matters and scientific matters ordinary people just have not the experience or the skills needed to get a grasp of what is wrong and what can be done about it. They may often be well aware that there is a problem of a certain sort but have no idea of what to do about it. That is not just about the plebs, but all of us without exception in most such matters. In a world that is structured by arcane scientific knowledge and technology as well as natural processes we “lay people” cannot hope to master, we inevitably depend on the elites who have some claim to understanding at least some aspects of those matters. That involves a lot of complications.

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38 Responses

  1. John,

    >Democracy on the local and national scale can deal with those matters that play out on that scale. But when it comes to many global matters and scientific matters ordinary people just have not the experience or the skills needed to get a grasp of what is wrong and what can be done about it.

    There is a lot of truth in that. But why would volunteering be a solution? Would it not be better for demarchic councils to be formed via sortition from a pool of associations with a proven knowledge and interest claim in the chosen policy area? In the example you provide, relevant (UK) organisations would be the TUC, CBI etc — ie organisations representing those most affected by decisions in that particular domain.

    But there is still the problem of adjudication — the “supreme arbiter”, as you put it. But if “impartial arbiters” were required in your historical example, why do you think this would not pertain to demarchic councils? I think you are making an optimistic assumption based on little more than your own anarchist faith in the ability of good people to come to good decisions. Pessimists (aka democrats), like Terry, Naomi and myself, would argue that the final decision outcome should be determined by a minidemoi, rather than trusting the internal bargaining of the council members. The attraction of the minidemoi is that it is just as scaleable as the demarchic council (there is no inherent reason for the selection pool to be the nation state). Ordinary people may lack experience and skills in a particular domain but there is no reason to believe that they are incapable of judging the knowledge (and interest) claims of others.

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  2. John,

    As often happens, I tend to disagree with many of your factual claims, but that seems largely beside the point. (Although, I do wonder where your economics grand theory comes from. Is it supported by anything more solid than elite conventional view?)

    According to your conclusion, none of us have much an understanding what’s going on. (Although, again, it appears that according to you some of us, you included, do have some understanding, at least in broad terms, that others do not.)

    It does seem that you consider yourself at least able to identify the experts whose opinion we must follow if we are to achieve any sort of functional policy. Are you an exception in this sense, or would the average citizen be able to develop enough of an understanding to know who to follow (essentially blindly, you imply)?

    Your bottom line, it seems to me, is quite confused. To what extent do people understand what’s going on? Do you? Do people know who to ask? Do you? If you do not understand what is going on, how can you be so sure that you can know who to ask? If you do know what’s going on, why won’t others? If they know what’s going on, why must they blindly trust others?

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  3. Yoram, >elitism

    I am sorry I have failed so comprehensively to make myself clear. eg I have no grand economic theory and do not believe in such things. What i try to analyse are the effect of certain social mechanisms in certain circumstances. People tend to rush in and conclude that if you think that an injection of credit into the economy can be the solution to some specific problem, you must be one of those dogmatic Keynesians (which JMK certainly was not.) Such analysis of particular mechanisms is indispensable in understanding the present, as well as in proposing experiments for the future. But analysis cannot assure us that a mechanisms will work in changed circumstances. I want to emphasise how different our emerging situation is from the past and how important it is to recognise that fact in assessin approackes to the future.

    What I was trying to do in this pice was to say two things:

    1. That our problems are not the result of certain people holding certain powers, so that the solution is just to get rid of them and put good people in their place. The problem lies in the social structures and practices that put that power in the hands of whoever holds certain positions. I went into some detail about Australia’s attempt, with some success, to curb the power of capital and about why it failed when the world changed. The point was to illustrate how hard it is to build and sustain effective institutions. So, for example I sympathise with the “occupy Wall Street” push. But they are a flash in the pan, because they have no constructive alternatives.

    2. My opinion on climate change and what can be done about it is worth nothing. So are the opinions of 95% of scientists, as most of them would be the first to admit. What we can do is attempt to assess the credibility of the people who can talk with first hand knowledge about the subject. Fewof us realise just how much, even in small matters, like diagnosing a minor illness
    or what precautions to take when using a certain substance, we do have to rely on the knowledge, or at least the opinion, of certain experts. In my view the only effective warrant for the trustworthiness of experts in most fields is that there is in their community a genuine, peer enforced, set of norms governing their use of the procedures appropriate to their work.

    That inevitably involves a certain degree of elitism in that community of experts. When I go to the doctor I expect to get a genuine opinion, certainly not to be prescribed a certain drug because the drug company offers her vacations in Hawaii. I am sure that her professional pride and habits would inhibit such behaviour.

    One of the key aspirations of my thinking is to find ways in which to encourage the flourishing of all the various kinds of constructive communities to which we belong or on which we depend in various ways. Communities are built around specific public goods that are accessible to all members of that community and relevant to their common concerns. Such goods include highly specialised knowledge, established procedures and practices, shared understandings with other communities and a reputation for trustworthiness. Such self-regulation, fully disclosed for all to see and assess, is infinitely preferable, where it works, than regulation by people, be they politicians bureaucrats or ordinary citizens, who have only a limited knowledge of or concern for the things to which the members of the community have devoted their lives.

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  4. Yoram,

    Can you adjust the byline at the top to show that John B is the author of this post, and NOT you?

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  5. Yoram >what’s going on

    I’m very wary of that phrase. It is associated for me with innumerable conspiracy theories that are just an excuse for not understanding the problem. Even if the paranoia on which they feed is justified. merely identifying the conspirators is never enough. The problem is to identify the structural basis that allows them to do their stuff and find a way to supplant it that isn’t just a matter of putting other people in their place.

    I am slowly going blind.. So I’ll eventually be following others blindly. That’s OK if I can trust them.

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  6. John,

    >2. My opinion on climate change and what can be done about it is worth nothing. So are the opinions of 95% of scientists, as most of them would be the first to admit. What we can do is attempt to assess the credibility of the people who can talk with first hand knowledge about the subject.

    Agree, but who are the “we” doing the assessing? Democratic theorists seek to give all citizens (or their elected representatives) a say, whereas kleroterians would give the task to a statistically-representative mindemoi. But you want to leave it to a handful of volunteers (“we” suggesting people like yourself?). Why do you think everyone else would respect the disinterested judgment of a handful of self-nominating “good” people?

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  7. Keith > who are the “we”?

    I am not able to answer that question in completely general tems, especially for authorities with the right to enforce their decisions. It must be a process of reforming existing authorities, supplemented by some new authorities where needed I have already argued that in most cases those new authorities will not need any particular punitive powers, but would ise existing provisions against fraud etc.

    As for the open forums and the demarchic councils that try to pin their results down to practical conclusions, as I have said often, I rely on the people who are what they claim to be to uncover and dismiss any attempt to suborn the debate. It is all up there in black and white. If an accusation of false pretences is raised, I’m sure the journalists will be on to it. If people acquire confidence that this sort of vigilance is adequate, I believe they will readily enough accept that the outcome of that discussion is as good a conclusion as could be hoped for in the circumstances. Practical people will accept that as a basis of action where action is inevitable.

    One reason why I am against attempts to privilege some one form of legitimate decision is that doing so inevitably frames questions in inappropriate forms, as zero-sum casesl for example.

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  8. Thanks John, I think it’s important not to conflate your proposed reforms of existing institutions (that have some kind of statutory authority) and demarchic councils that refine and enlarge opinion in the public sphere (although I’m sceptical in both cases that demarchy will be seen as a legitimate organising principle, and journalists are on a par with politicians in the esteem of the public).

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  9. John,

    I completely agree with the following:

    > our problems are not the result of certain people holding certain powers, so that the solution is just to get rid of them and put good people in their place. The problem lies in the social structures and practices that put that power in the hands of whoever holds certain positions.

    > I sympathise with the “occupy Wall Street” push. But they are a flash in the pan, because they have no constructive alternatives.

    I disagree with the following:

    > the only effective warrant for the trustworthiness of experts in most fields is that there is in their community a genuine, peer enforced, set of norms governing their use of the procedures appropriate to their work.

    Nothing prevents a set of experts from developing a set of self-serving norms that are applied throughout. In fact, economics and political science are areas were such self-serving norms are the rule. The case of doctors which you mention is somewhat different but is also hardly a model of science-based practice. To put things more practically, who would be in a position to say whether a field is a “community [with] a genuine, peer enforced, set of norms governing their use of the procedures appropriate to their work”?

    The fact that you see your economic world view as somehow being grand-theory-free is indicative of the problem. Without explicitly asserting that this is the case, and without explaining why this is the case, you seem to be implying having a privileged viewpoint. This seems associated with a general underlying pro-establishment bias where established expertise is considered a-priori reliable and opposing views are conspiracies or “grand theories”.

    Relatedly, I don’t believe you answered the foundational questions I posed at the end: who is to make decisions and based on what knowledge?

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  10. Terry,

    I did fix the byline. I originally published this post by mistake without changing the author but fixed this within minutes. My mistake, however was reflected in the “new message” notice email WordPress sends and maybe in other ways. In any case, the byline now says John Burnheim.

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  11. Yoram,

    >Nothing prevents a set of experts from developing a set of self-serving norms that are applied throughout. In fact, economics and political science are areas were such self-serving norms are the rule.

    That may be true of some economists, but why do you make that claim for political scientists? Would you include, say, Martin Gilens in that rather sweeping statement and, if so, why? The obvious interest of political scientists is to keep their job, publish books and papers etc and I’m not aware of critical voices being silenced along the way. As for political theorists, most of them are still being wagged by the long tail of critical theory which is very critical of the domination of hegemonic elites. So what are the norms that you refer to and why are they self-serving?

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  12. John,

    I’m intrigued to see that Madison’s criticism of the fusion of advocacy and judgment has it’s origins in Aristotle:

    “Men . . . judge [equal justice] badly. That is because they are judging about themselves. Most men are bad judges in their own cause.” (Arist, Pol., 1280 A 7-25).

    Do you not view this as a problem for demarchy, or any other system that arrogates judgment to those who are most affected by a decision?

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  13. Keith > Judging one’s own case

    Yes, indeed, it is a problem, long recognised in such sayings as : The lawyer who insists on representing himself has a fool for a client. It is by no means restricted to contexts where advocacy in any precise sense is concerned. More generally, what is at issue is the transition from analysing the various considerations that are relevant to a decision to deriving from them a practical decision. To the extent that one is already involved in the practicalities of the matter, one’s judgement of the weight that needs to be attached to various considerations is inevitably skewed by a particular perspective. If one looks at the discussions on this blog, it is clear how each participant tends to see a certain aspect of the problem as the real problem. One concedes that others do have concerns that are relevant, but insists that emphasising those considerations distracts from the REAL problem.

    Inevitably we are all faced very often with particular decisions about our own affairs where we are in the position of the doctor diagnosing her own complaint. If we are wise, we seek the advice of others who understand our situation, but can take broader perspective on it. But in the long run on most matters (other than those where specialised knowledge is decisive) i have to make my own decision on our own assessment of the relevant considerations.

    I think that where members of a particular community are faced with a collective decision the situation is much the same. In my scheme the open public discussion should bring out and clarify all the relevant considerations. That is the equivalent of seeking sound advice. to correct one’s narrow perspective. But when it comes to the practical decision it should rest with those who, in various ways, are most strongly affected by decisions in the area. To some extent the fact that there are different perspectives among them mitigates the danger of collective myopia. Those who have to carry the can for the decision have the strongest possible reason for getting it right, but they need to get beyond too narrow a perspective if they are to do that.

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  14. Yoram >answering the foundational questions

    Great, we’re making progress. I in fact agree with your objections to the rather simplistic way I put the points about trusting experts. I’m a philosopher by trade, and I sympathise with the sceptic who remarked of the philosophy section in the library: What a treasure house of interesting errors! For example, when I first became interested in philosophy of science about 1950 much of the most recent prewar output was from radical hard-nosed empiricists, who held that the only thing we were sure was real were our own sensations. So they purported to show that all the elaborate theories of the sciences were really just elaborate constructions we put on our sense-data, including all that stuff about the fundamental forces at the bottom of everything. Of course the atom bomb blew that nonsense to smithereens.

    Today even physicists who should know better speak of being on the verge of “a theory of everything”, in spite of the fact that they have hardly a clue about dark matter, which many think is the biggest mass of stuff in the universe. And that is in matters where we can measure certain factors that are not directly observable with incredible precision. When it comes to the social sciences, where hardly anything can be identified with clarity and measured accurately ,the situation is radically worse. The best candidate is money. Remember “monetarism”. It fell to bits when closer scrutiny revealed that there were at least five distinct measures of money in circulation.

    The spectrum of concerns of economists range from those who are interested only in finding a satisfactory general theory of production and distribution to those whose interests are focussed on the stock exchange. Still, they do often come up with some valuable understanding of particular mechanisms and their limitations. But the goal of theorising is always to try to show that what superficially seems complicated is basically simple if only you can find the right approach to it. All science makes progress by finding such simplifications, pinning down where they fail and then going through the same process again with the newly identified factor. It still remains that the old theory works well within limits and can be relied on in practice. If you want to send a rocket to the moon you only need Newton. Einstein is irrelevant. But our knowledge of what is irrelevant is pretty shaky and often distorted by prejudices and investments in projects that are doomed to fail.

    So you foundational question cannot have any clear answer. Opinion on some matters is rock solid as long as you are clear about the limits of its relevance. On many other matters received opinion is as good as we can get. It is usually a lot better than much that passes as common sense, as Keynes remarked. But most decisions are to some degree a gamble. The best way of ensuring, as far as we can, that we are not ignoring things that are relevant to our choice is an open forum in which anybody can have a say. But they have to spell out as clearly as possible why they think that the considerations they advance deserve our attention.

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  15. John,

    >Those who have to carry the can for the decision have the strongest possible reason for getting it right, but they need to get beyond too narrow a perspective if they are to do that.

    Agree, but “carrying the can” generally refers to some form of accountability (the buck stops here), and in your new book you are adamant that the status of demarchic committees is purely advisory, so there are no cans to carry.

    >If one looks at the discussions on this blog, it is clear how each participant tends to see a certain aspect of the problem as the real problem.

    Exactly, and these active participants are precisely the sort of articulate and opinionated person likely to volunteer for demarchic committees. So far we have seen little evidence of the likes of John, Yoram, Keith, Terry etc conceding much ground as to what constitutes the real problem. John and Terry are still focused on epistemic issues, Yoram on interests and Keith on accurate representativity.

    >But when it comes to the practical decision it should rest with those who, in various ways, are most strongly affected by decisions in the area.

    That’s where we disagree. If these individuals are selected by volunteering then they will be the self-same active (and myopic) participants and we can anticipate little progress towards any kind of consensus or even compromise. We must have exchanged millions of words over the years on this blog, the debate is entirely public and on-the-record, but it’s little more than hot air. Why would a demarchic council be any different? What we need to do is empower the silent majority — in the example of this blog this would be the 400+ silent witnesses who have signed up as “followers” but rarely have anything to say. If this Council of 400 were to read all the posts and comments and then vote on them this would better approximate a democratic solution to the problem of equality by lot. Once we’ve hit the magic 500, perhaps we should introduce some sort of Yes/No voting button at the bottom of each post.

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  16. John,

    > So you foundational question cannot have any clear answer. Opinion on some matters is rock solid as long as you are clear about the limits of its relevance. On many other matters received opinion is as good as we can get. It is usually a lot better than much that passes as common sense, as Keynes remarked.

    If I understand your response, the bottom line is that we should put our faith in those people or institutions whom the establishment has sanctioned as being “experts”. This to me is completely unacceptable. It essentially boils down to acquiescing to oligarchical government since there is no practical difference between the establishment and establishment-sanctioned-experts.

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  17. From the perspective of critical theory the establishment is the reflection of an oligarchic conspiracy, whereas from a liberal/polyarchic perspective, received wisdom reflects a darwinian process of free competition. So there’s not much chance of Yoram and John agreeing on this.

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  18. Keith> irreconcilable?

    You continue to indulge your mischievous misdescritions of people’s positions in order to stir up conflict.
    No significant critical ever indulged in conspiracy theories. On the contrary they devoted their attention to showing how recognisable social processes that looked innocent produced results that favoured certain interests. Anybody who is interested in understanding the world we live in would do well to examine their account of those processes.The critical theorists were strong on critique, but short on constructive suggestions.
    On the other hand none of the great libertarians, certainly not Hayek, thought that social processes could be explained wholly in Darwinian terms.
    They did claim there were advantages in attempting to substitute market processes for Planned production in many instances, and sometimes, I think, they were right. What I think is now clear is that completely unregulated markets lead to such discrepancies of wealth as to cause intolerable inequalities of social power.
    I know people love to play the silly games of ideological confrontations, but I think we need to get serious about particular problem and stop looking at them simply as instances of oversimplified and one-eyed ideological caricatures.
    Ideologies are the modern hangover from the social dominance of religion, proclaiming a message of salvation that gives purpose to our lives. (We don’t need a totalising purpose of living, just many activities that have their particular purposes) Just as we have relegated religion to the personal sphere, it is time we refused to accept ideologies as a basis for political deliberation or choice

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  19. Yoram > experts

    Where experts of a certain kinds owe their status to that elusive beast, the establishment, in modern Western countries mainly the plutocracy,of course, to accept their claims uncritically is unacceptable. The economics profession is heavily involved in defending capitalism and careers in it are in many cases dependent on telling capital what it wants to hear. But there are dissidents, some of whom get to the top ranks as an irritant minority.

    As a theoretical enterprise, like all theoretical enterprises it seeks to reduce the apparently complicated to a simple underlying mechanism, and the obvious candidate is the market. So, even apart from the influence of the establishment, it is biases against recognising other social and political factors. But they do devote a lot of close attention to markets and compete strongly among themselves to point out the flaws in each other’s data or reasoning. That means that there is much to be learned from them in regard to the workings of markets, even though one is convinced that those workings do not explain as much as the experts would like to think they do.

    I have several friends who call themselves “political economists”, resurrecting the old term with a new inflexion. who study the way in which such political factors as legal titles frame market relationships in certain patterns that have systemic effects. Their work doesn’t make much in the way of simplifying theory, but it is of great practical importance. It is not supported by the establishment, but some journalist who are so supported do manage to get their points cross from time to time.

    The point is that it is very likely that there is a good deal we can learn from the market economists and that we need to take into account in practice if we are to act on the best understanding available to us. Most of us can understand the basics of market economics.

    When I spoke of there being matters of political importance that we lay people cannot understand, such as many biological and physical matters, It poses a serious problem for democracy or demarchy. I want to suggest that it is important that we be able to trust the people who are genuinely expert in such matters. That involves quite a big change in our adversarial political culture, as I’ll try to spell out further one of these days.

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  20. Keith
    >carry the can

    As is perfectly clear , mean they bear the consequences, being the sort of people most affected.

    The situations are utterly different between our jousting here and a situation where the participants have a common interest in getting agreement about a particular practical problem that affects them substantially. If they don’t agree, people will take no notice of them.

    Only oddbods like us would engage in this sort of debate about ideas that are utterly unlikely to be implemented, but if it comes to a practical matter where they might be able to make a real difference. a lot of people would, I believe, start to get interested.

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  21. John,

    I hope you’re right, but fear that it will just be hot air, as demarchic councils are at two stages removed from actual power. All they can do is to hope to refine and enlarge deliberation in the informal public sphere in order to influence voters in the politicians that they choose to elect. Each member will be a partisan for their own cause and will seek to influence via an inherently partisan process. Compromise is the last resort when you can’t get your own way but will be out of a job if the trains don’t run on time. The trouble with philosophers is believing that the world can be organised according to rational principles.

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  22. Keith >rational principles

    We have come a long way since the days twhen all the most important questions were settled by force and the most admired achievement was to be a warrior. The developed world is a surprisingly orderly place.

    I do not want to organise the world on principles, rational or not. One of the points of my favouring an ecosystem model is that ecosystems are the result of emerging patterns of mutual adaptation of various organisms and groups of organism.

    The big difference we make is that here and there we can adapt by deliberate decisions to change our practices in some matters. Other organism have to rely on chance throwing up the requisite changes that enable them to adapt. But it is always a matter of particular problems and opportunities, not of great plans or principles, but many people like to imagine that there is or could be some great purpose in it all. Biodiversity is what enriches us.

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  23. John,

    Argument by general principles like ecology is all very well, but our principal source of evidence has to be how human agents respond in particular contexts. Without doing the experiments we cannot know, but I see no reason to believe that demarchic councils will perform the rational function you anticipate as political behaviour does, as you rightly point out, have its origins in partisan conflicts. Wars come to an end either when one party is victorious or both are exhausted and have to find a working compromise. I seem to remember Terry providing a recent example of this principle from his own experience as an elected official. This would suggest that if the council was empowered to decide and enact policies it would find a working compromise; not so if all it can do is influence partisan politics via the mediation of public opinion. This presents you with a conundrum — the councils will only work if they have a formal (legislative) role to play, yet they cannot do this as they have no democratic legitimacy (nobody has chosen them and they are not subject to the descriptive representation mandate).

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  24. John,

    I am not against trusting experts. I am against trusting experts blindly. The decision of who to ask for advice and whose advice to follow should be made by a representative body on a case by case basis.

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  25. Yoram >trust

    I don’t think we disagree. My only point in using the word “blindly” was t emphasise that in some important matters we come to a point where we lose control. People like to think it is possible to keep control of what is done with their authorisation at every stage. But it is not always like that.

    Some years ago I developed arteriosclerosis. I chose the best consultants. They tole me I had ro have an open heart operation, with a significant risk of fatality in the operation. The cheaper and safer alternative was to insert a stent, but in my cases it would be so close to the valve that a very small dislocation of it could be fatal. Of course the choice to have the operation was mine, but the odds of escaping a fatal heart attack were very unfavourable. I could have taken the gamble. The point is that once I committed to the operation I was entirely in the hands of the surgical team, completely out to it, with irreversible consequences.

    Unfortunately, in very serious matters, like climate change, whatever path we take or refuse to take has risks, and we are not in a position to evaluate them for ourselves. We have to trust professional opinion about what they are. Surgeons are inevitably drawn to surgical remedies, and obviously have an interest in advising you to take their expensive treatment. Still, they know , as you can’t, whether a stent will do just as well. I believed my surgeons were faithful to their professional ethics and reputation, in spite of those inducementa to sell me the expensive op.

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  26. Keith > behaviour

    I agree completely, models are all very well, but what matters is what people actually do.

    My view is that normally people in a certain role try to do what is expected of them, if they can, partly because they value their reputation, and partly because their self-esteem is bound up with it.

    People perform very differently in different contexts, depending on what is expected of them and the sort of rewards they get from doing what is expected of them.

    Our present political cultures are focussed on Will, accepted as the ultimate brute fact. The point of political activity is to get what you or the interest group with which you identify, want. Of course, if you are wise you won’t push it too hard, but be prepared to compromise.But rationality is ultimately at the service of desire.

    I hope to change that in the long run bit by bit, by changing what is expected of people in certain roles. That is something that is happening all the time.

    A state of affairs constitutes a genuine public good for a certain community
    to the extent that members of that community identify with it and take a certain pride in that identity. The things that most fully exemplify that claim at present are mainly states of affairs that were never planned, but result fom the cumulative effects of people engaging in certain activities, evolving various conventions about appropriate behaviour and so on.

    I have tried to suggest how certain reasonable procedures could make constructive decisions about specific deliberately produced public goods on the basis of rational deliberation about the weight to be attached in that particular matter to the considerations people want to advance to justify their views about what is best for that public good, not just their personal interests.

    That sounds hopelessly unrealistic, unless, of course the expectations attached to certain nes roles can inspire the relevant community to invent ways of making the requisite behavior attractive and rewarding, As I said in the last sentence of the book, that is up to others.

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  27. John,

    >Our present political cultures are focussed on Will, accepted as the ultimate brute fact. The point of political activity is to get what you or the interest group with which you identify, want. Of course, if you are wise you won’t push it too hard, but be prepared to compromise. But rationality is ultimately at the service of desire. I hope to change that in the long run bit by bit, by changing what is expected of people in certain roles.

    I’m beginning to understand the attraction of Wittgenstein to former men of faith — Christian, Marxist or whatever (spot the difference). Even if the redemptive transformation of the old Adam is no longer possible, he can still be taught to play a new language game. Realists like me still believe in human nature and I agree with Hobbes and Madison that it is predominately wilful — “the ultimate brute fact” in the case of fallen man. Although man is possessed of higher faculties, “the stern virtue of reason is the growth of few soils” as Madison (channeling John Calvin) put it. This being the case, the task of the Legislator is to design political institutions that will ensure as little collateral damage as possible and (ideally) recruit the base passions to more socially-desirable ends.

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  28. Keith > human i

    if you start from the premise that people are wicked, as so much of the Christian tradition did, it is fatally easy to manufacture confirming evidence. Srt up arbitrary or even impossible injuntions and people will fail and must be punished, and then they rebel and must be punished further, I’mimmensely gratefult that I lived in a context where nobody invoked: spare the rod, spoil the child and that my daughters grew up free, self-discipined adults who treat their childre in the same constructive way.

    Ditch that Calvinist crap!

    As for the game of psychological “explanations”. Why does Z hate apple pie? Because it was constantly served to him as a kid. Why does Y love apple pie? Because it was always served to her as a kid. The game is totally without interest, because anything goes. There is a trope to deliver whatever conclusion you like.

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  29. John,

    I’m glad we agree on the Christian origins of our worldview and political institutions, although we differ on whether or not that is A Good Thing. You’re the classic gamekeeper turned poacher whereas I try hard not to swing so violently from one pole to the other. My upbringing was probably almost as strict as your own (although I missed out on the Christian Brotherhood) and I also lived through the cultural revolution of the 1960s but, unlike you, I view it as something of a mixed blessing (although you don’t seem to have much time for participatory democracy, no doubt because you had to live through the chaos that was the philosophy department at the University of Sydney). I’m sorry if this all smacks of “psychological explanations”.

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  30. PS the irony is that while you trained to be a priest, I trained as a sociologist. Looks like we’ve swapped roles.

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  31. Keith

    Excuse the typos in my last response. It was sent hastily and in anger.
    Which reminds me of GBS’s profound remark: You should never hit a child, except,of course, in anger.

    What I particularly take from Wittgenstein is in the epigraph of the book. In order to change what people think you must first change what they do. He was talking about one of the most abstract of philosophical problems, the foundations of mathematics. But particular things can be changed bit by bit, and that sometimes adds up to a great change, like the emergence of democracy or non-Euclidian geometry.

    Wittgenstein himself failed to change very much in Cambridge, as is evident from the dismissive piece about him in a recent TLS by his latest successor. Most of the people who understood what he was saying gave up philosophy as a bad job. As for me, since High School I’ve always been primarily a philosopher, whatever else I’ve done. Of course, the chances of my changing what people do is minimal, not because they are incurably bad or obtuse, but because the assumptions entrenched in their practices seem self-evident to them.

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  32. Keith
    “explanations”

    Yes indeed
    You can always have irtboth ways. I remain an incurable seeker after the true faith, or I have reacted to the other extreme. The fact is that psychological situations almost always admit of contrary outcomes.

    Loving dad hits child in anger. The kid has two options. Having discovered he can make the old man jump, he decides to enjoy himself by doing so. Or having realised he has upset the old man he decides to back off, because he doesn’t want to cruel his pitch.

    Psychologism is the error of neglecting questions of the evidence for what somebody is saying because you have an explanation for his saying it that has nothing to do with validity or evidence.

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  33. John,

    >In order to change what people think you must first change what they do.

    Yes, that’s the classic behaviourist/constructivist line. I’m more disposed to start from what people are (particularly when it comes to non-abstract domains like political life), but that’s just Calvinist crap as far as constructivists are concerned. Tim Crane’s TLS review has led to some interesting correspondence (the latest being David Macarthur from your department), but nobody has brought up speculations on where Wittgenstein stood on the autism spectrum. That’s probably because psychologism is deeply non-PC: at a seminar in our department I once dared to question the degree to which Mary Wollstonecraft’s love life might have influenced her writing and the effect round the table could have been taken straight from an H.M. Bateman “the man who. . .” cartoon.

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  34. Keith

    “Behaviourist” is a label I recognise as applying to a suite of now defunct positions I always rejected. “Constructivist” is a label I don’t understand, except as applying to certain Kantian positions that have always been far from my views. Perhaps you can enloghten me about what it is supposed to mean.

    The trouble with the Calvinistic kind of position is that, when it claims to be empirical, it is based on a viciously self-confirming punitive practice that is demonstrably not needed. Unfortunately, it took me far too long to recognise that the traditional Christian account of the need for Jesus to suffer crucifixion before God the Father could forgive us our sins depended on endowing punishment with a cosmic necessity that bound even God himself. There are still relics of that position in Kant, but contemporary theologians evade it.

    Psychologism has been firmly rejected in every serious academic context since at least the end of the 19th century. As I pointed out, not only is it irrelevant to any question of validity, but it is so slippery that it can produce any conclusion you like. It has nothing to do with psychology as an attempt to understand how pur minds and hearts work.

    Tim Crane rejects Wittgenstein in favour of the classical ambition of philosophy to provide the highest possible “theory of everything”. It is, of course, as LW knew, impossible to prove that the classical ambition is radically misplaced and rather dangerous. All one can do is assemble reminders of the things that the grand theorist regularly ignore.

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  35. John,

    Constructivism comes in all sorts of shapes and forms, the two most relevant to our conversation being:

    1. Social constructivism: this is the doctrine that there is no such thing as “human nature”, as preferences, attitudes and cognitive and affective styles are shaped by social (and economic) processes (Marx’s work has had a huge influence on constructivist thought). One modern example is the claim that gender roles are socially constructed; your claim that the antagonisms between different groups are caused by institutional design flaws (and can be remedied by changing the design) appears to put you in this camp.

    2. Constructivist epistemology: Michael Saward describes his influential book The Representative Claim as pursuing a constructivist epistemology which he attributes directly to Wittgenstein. Constructivism in political theory argues that groups and interests are not just articulated but actually created by the representative process — the representative comes before those she represents as there is no pre-existing “bedrock”. Constructivism has its origins** in Hobbes’s theory of representation; modern proponents include Ernesto Laclau.

    I’m not remotely interested in bizarre Christian doctrines of redemption through atonement,*** my concern is with Calvin’s anthropology. Faculty psychology (which is vehemently anti-constructivist) argues that there are three aspects to human nature — passions, interests and reason — but that “the stern virtue of reason is the growth of few soils”. This is the main reason for my scepticism regarding demarchy, as it assumes that reason will necessarily triumph, if only we can sweep away institutions that are based on partisan antagonisms. But if partisan antagonisms reflect pre-existing passions and interests then the constructivist project will fail.

    ** Or perhaps John, 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, . . . and the Word was God.”

    *** the only way of making sense of it being the need for a radical myth in order to abolish the practice of animal sacrifice via a “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world”.

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  36. Keith > constructivism

    One can only construct something out of a given material by using the properties of that material. Everybody thinks that there is suchaa thing as human nature. Of course, there is a lot of room for investigation about what can be done with it. I have never claimed that “the antagonisms between different groups are caused by institutional design flaws” but only that such groups often have common interests that can be pursued by them in certain ways, to yheir mutual advantage. Bad institutional arrangements can exacerbate conflict, helpful ones can facilitate agreement.

    I’m puzzled that you think of me as an epistemic constructivists, who apparently are concerned with representativity, which my proposals fundamentally reject.

    “The stern virtue of reason is the growth of few soils” Undoubtedly historically correct. So we need to do a lot of gardening. Reason tends to prevail where people are seriously interested in getting good fesults, but it is very likely that we prefer self-delusion, if we go by the record.

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  37. John, you must be the only modern political philosopher who fundamentally rejects the principle of representativity. To say that you are swimming against the tide of modern governance theory would be an understatement. I thought that by retaining existing electoral institutions you were accepting the ongoing need for democratic representativity, but this would seem to be a token gesture. Demarchy would appear to be all about the rule of reason — unfortunately pluralists like myself only see reasons and view them as intimately tied in with passions and interests. There is no supreme arbiter other than the considered judgment of the demos and this is constituted by universal suffrage, however distasteful you might find that to be.

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  38. Keith >out on a limb

    We Wittgensteinians, and lots of other sensible people, say if able thinkers have gone on for centuries failing to find a satisifactory solutions to a question, they are probably asking the wrong question. So I want to change the question from the traditional one: Who is to rule? to : How do we get food decisions about public goods? So I look for ways of of doing that, and counting heads is not a good one.
    But when it comes to accepting a decision as enforceable by state power, I agree that some form of consent is necessary, and I don’t challenge the present arrangements.

    The fact that pushing representativity to the extreme leads to conclusions like yours about the limits of what people are allowed to do is a good example of the futility of trying to answer the wrong question.

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