Policy and representation

There are two activities that go under the heading “Public Policy”, one that concentrates on political processes, as we do here on this website, and the other that is the focus of university departments of Public Policy and numerous professional associations. The first group (call them PPs) are concerned with political processes of arriving at political decisions, the second (call them PNs) with identifying needs in the community and devising means of satisfying those needs.

The two hardly ever engage with each other. If they did, the PPs would no doubt say to the PNs: you are at best just paternalists, patching up holes in the status quo, arrogating to yourselves decisions about what others need. To which the PNs might reply: you PPs are just entrenching the power of existing adults to suit yourselves. You completely neglect the fact that the young are in no position to understand what lies ahead of them and many disadvantaged people are deprived of the means of understanding what it is that they need to overcome their disabilities. They depend on the ‘paternalistic’ interest of competent professionals to bring about the changes that will open up opportunities for them. With all due respect, you PPs, however benevolent, are not very good at that. Your concern is framed by your own experience and aspirations, drawn from your past, not by any understanding of the potential of the future. You just want to replicate yourselves.

There is a lot more to be said on both sides. I’m an old PP, but one of my daughters, both of whom I greatly admire, is a very successful PN in educational policy. More significantly, there is a lot of empirical evidence that adult representation leads to decisions that favour the old at the expense of the young. Especially as life expectancies increase, we oldies and potential oldies would outvote the young by large margins, if it were a question of deciding policy by voting. Such arguments as these challenge the supremacy of representation as the unique ground of legitimate intervention on behalf of others. I am talking here of debates on policy, not about the right to legislate or administer programs. Status in public debates is not a matter of authorisation of any sort, but of the validity of arguments.

More fundamentally, I see the solution to the divergence between PP and PN, and indeed to policy questions generally, in moving policy decision processes away from concentration on preferences as the basic “givens” to be accommodated and concentrating on the considerations that underlie or justify those preferences. A simple example: If a couple want to go on vacation together, but one wants to go to X and the other to Y, they can decide by tossing a coin, which is the sort of thing we do in politics at the moment; or we can discuss what considerations lead us to make those choices, and try to find a way of meeting most of what each wants. That is which is what I want politics to focus on.

The conciliatory approach, rather than one that decides who wins, is best in politics. The reason is simple: POLITICS IS ABOUT PUBLIC GOODS and public goods need to be a matter of consensus, of general acceptance in the community. Whatever is imposed by a majority on a minority is not a genuine public good. A sound consensus is based on mutual understanding. An open forum can ensure that all the various considerations that are relevant to the problem are widely understood in relation to each other. It may also settle some factors, such as just how serious is a certain foreseeable danger. In the public forum representation is irrelevant. All that matters is validity of argument.

What public debate cannot decide is how much weight is to be attached to one rather than others of a set of competing considerations. For example, it may be easy to establish that a particular program will cost a particular sum. But opinions may differ about whether it is worth that sum when compared with other programs that would cost less, but also deliver less. A simple answer might take the form of getting the most possible out of our money by taking the cheapest satisfactory option every time. That leads to a penny-pinching public sector of programs that are unattractive and shortsighted.

Assuming the budget is strictly limited, going for the better option means reducing or postponing some programs in favour of spending more an some more important one. A difficult problem, but not, I think, an insuperable one. Tentatively, I would suggest a two-tier procedure. The demarchic council charged with distilling a practical proposal from the forum on a particular problem would normally work to a budget established by precedent, and would look to getting as much as possible for their program out of the money available. They would submit their decision to the budget committee that is charged with reconciling the demands on available revenue. If arguments that their budget allocation was was no longer justified in view of changed circumstances were put to the budget committee, the council would be asked to respond to those arguments. Depending on their judgement of the considerations advanced the budget committee would alter the council’s allocation.

Budget committee would publish its full budget and call for public debate about it. In the light of that debate it would review its allocations and submit the budget to the government. That would not be so very far from what is supposed to happen already in many advanced democracies. The main differences would be that there is no place for concealed lobbying or for political deals based on power-trading. I would suggest that the budget committee should be chosen by lot from a pool of former councillors who are nominated by their peers as having the qualities required by this difficult job. That job is one that requires impartiality. It seems that representation of interests would not be appropriate.

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2 Responses

  1. John,

    > there is a lot of empirical evidence that adult representation leads to decisions that favour the old at the expense of the young

    Could you provide some of that evidence? (And, of course, what reason do we have to think that the self-appointed – or establishment-appointed – reformers would not show this or any other bias?)

    > preferences as the basic “givens”

    Representation does not assume preferences are fixed. Preferences – informed and considered preferences – are part of the outcome of discussion at representative bodies.

    > All that matters is validity of argument.

    You keep saying that and you keep ignoring the fact that there is no objective measure of validity. You keep implicitly relying on the establishment to judge what’s valid, which boils down to making decisions that reflect establishment interests.

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  2. John,

    You really are an incorrigible old rationalist. The Really Difficult Question is why you think the public would accept the outcome of the exchange of reasons between a group of self-selecting soi-disant ratiocrats (sic), given that they can claim no formal authority or representative mandate. Can you provide any precedent as to why you think such a scheme would work in practice, or is your proposal purely utopian? The only examples that I can think of the public accepting the policy proposals of impartial (with or without scare quotes) ratiocentric bodies is when they have expert credentials (IPCC, IFS etc). They will almost certainly express “establishment” views, but that is not a primary concern of those of us still under the boot of hegemonic false consciousness. However we do expert our negotiators to be either experts or else representatives. Demarchic committees would appear not to benefit from either authorisation mechanism. I appreciate that anarchists like you have little time for Hobbes, but don’t you think he had a valid point on the need for authorisation in political affairs?

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