Representation and what it’s for

Focussing on the importance of tackling specific problems is the key to my claim that in that way we have a much better chance of achieving a broad consensus on what needs to be done in each of those matters. Only such a consensus can lead to that decision being seen as public good, not just a necessary evil.

I further assume that what we want in each case is to get a sound solution to that particular problem. Accordingly I conclude that when it comes to deciding, after full public debate, what is the best solution in the circumstances, the people most likely to reach a good decision are those who, in different ways, are most directly and substantially affected by the outcome. They have to face the actual consequences of a decision. They cannot afford to give too much weight to merely expressive considerations, as people making decisions about public goods are apt to do.

If we care at all about public policy, it is inevitable that we will want it to express the sort of values and aspirations that we would like our social arrangements to exemplify. That is the case in any kind of regime, theocracy, monarchy, aristocracy or democracy. Indeed people accept authoritarian regimes mainly because they think those authorities can deliver the sort of social order they want, because of their religious, social or other beliefs, which all proper members of the community ought to share. The vice of all such authoritarianism is that it substitutes coercion for persuasion, which is the proper driving force of culture. But persuasion is open to change and the orthodox see change as inevitably for the worse

Similarly, many people think that a democratic regime ought to deliver a united social order that embodies the values and aspirations of the people. In a rapidly changing, many-stranded cultural matrix that is a recipe for endless conflict. Even if we give priority to liberty over such other considerations as security of fairness or harmony, there are always particular situations in which most people would agree that some other considerations outweigh liberty. The difficulty is that it is often very hard for those who put expressing their devotion to liberty first to agree with those they suspect of other allegiances. The expressive force attached to particular things is a matter of culture rather than anything that can be pinned down clearly. It is always full of ambiguities and paradoxes.

Cultural beliefs and practices are changing all the time in an open and free society, affecting profoundly the way people behave towards each other in interpersonal relationships. We must resist any attempt to use political matters as a means of controlling cultural change. That may sound platitudinous, but in practice it is very difficult. The two are inextricably intertwined. A great deal of democratic political rhetoric seeks to rally support for political parties on the grounds that the party is devoted to the right values, as opposed to its competitors who are out to undermine them. In such a context particular proposals are chosen, not in view of their specific effects, but because of their imputed symbolism or as instances of some allegedly desirable or undesirable tendency. The results are inevitably disappointing, even to their protagonists.

A decision-process focussed on the concrete outcomes of a proposal is the best hope of avoiding the fallacies and abuses that vitiate expressive politics.

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8 Responses

  1. I guess our fundamental disagreement comes down to your belief that
    “when it comes to deciding, after full public debate, what is the best solution in the circumstances, the people most likely to reach a good decision are those who, in different ways, are most directly and substantially affected by the outcome.”

    Frequently a small group are deeply and directly affected by a decision and the general population only minutely affected, but I still argue that impartial citizen judges are more suited for making decisions in the interest of fairness seeking to balance interests.
    Example: A group of farmers are being asked to give up their land (for a market payment) to build a hydro electric dam. the farmers are clearly the most affected, while the millions of citizens who will get a tiny bit of power from this source as opposed to some other source really don’t feel directly affected at all. Even the designers of the dam, and employees of the power plant are only slightly affected since they might instead work on some other project. Why should we trust those “most directly affected,” to come to the best decision for society as a whole?

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  2. Terry > most affected

    Your objection is valid. I certainly do not want to give power to a single group to block something that is in the common interest. (Though, being mindful of the ecological effects of dams in many cases, I might quibble about the example!)
    What I have in mind is the more normal case where the conflicting interests are more complex and more nearly balanced and a good decision is not so much a matter of balance as of producing something that is much more important to nearly everybody than whatever it costs them.. Impartial deciders are too liable to rely on formal criteria of impartiality, and as I like to put it in the Solomon example, end up cutting the baby in two. We need to get beyond mere impartiality between conflicting interests and the who getw what mentality.

    When it comes to public goods what we really want is not so much a fair distribution of costs and benefits as a well designed arrangement that gives us all a share in something we could not otherwise have.
    To take my example of the botched road tunnel, if only everybody had concentrated on getting the best working design instead of passing the costs around, everybody would have been better off. It is supremely important to get away from the sort of cost benefit calculations that reduce public goods to a question of who gets what, to the complete exclusion of the integrity of the good to be constructed.

    Much as I dislike it, that does point in the direction of leaving the final design to the experts who are mainly focussed on getting a design that works well. In stressing the role of those most affected, I rely on their having the good sense to see that the overriding point is to get a good working result in the light of the considerations that emerge from the general discussion. Obviously, if you want a good public building , you look to a competition that draws in the best architects and you bow to expert opinion in the final judgement of its architectural merit, and so with many other things. Of course, the architects , or any other experts, do get it wrong at times.

    Remember that they have no power or authority. If they are to have any effect, people generally, especially those who have contributed to the public debate ,must hail their decision as a good solution. My readers constantly forget that point ,and treat the decision of the council as having binding force. It hasn’t. It must rely on its merits. the council havr to keep that in mind, on penalty of failure to have any influence on anything. The whole point is to divorce debate from power of any sort.

    Still I concede that there are cases where that is not going to work if those most affected are opposed to the whole project. I don’t have a clear alternative. Any procedure works as it is intended to work only under certain conditions, and usually not all of those conditions can be specified in advance. Much less is it possible to understand in advance what the best alternative procedure is going to be. That remains to be invented.

    The underlying theme of my thinking on getting good decisions is that different people and organisations should get their say in so far as they have something to contribute to the discussion. But that is not something that can be determined by a simple procedure.

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  3. John,

    Your approach might be best described as a system of normative engineering — if we want to get good (and consensual) decisions then the people making them need to behave in a certain way and everyone else needs to respect the process. You then claim, drawing on Habermas, that the only way to achieve a good consensus is to make the transition from instrumental to communicative action and this requires the people making the decisions to be stripped of all power and to bracket out their own interests for the sake of the general good. Once that is done and a good consensus arrived at then everyone else will accept that consensus as the optimal outcome and apply pressure on politicians to put it into practice.

    The paradigm example of this kind of normative engineering — good outcomes resulting from abjuring power — would appear to be Matt. 18:3-4 “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

    Unfortunately you are unable to offer a single example of such an approach working in the real world and have consistently refused to respond to my counter example (the lack of power and resulting lack of consensus in the deliberations on this blog.) Unlike post-Marxists such as Habermas and post-Christians like yourself my concerns are sociological, psychological and historical — how people function in the real world, rather than how they ought to in an ideal world, so I would appeal to you, yet again, to explain exactly why the history of the deliberations on this blog are the exception to the demarchic rule.

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  4. Keith > the lack of consensus on this blog

    The reason for this lack of consensus is that its structure of argument is persistently adversarial. My adversaries have no interest whatever in finding common ground, but only in taking pot shots at me. I am trying to get them to change their minds, and they have no interest in doing that if they can avoid it.

    On the other hand, a demarchic committee is just wasting its time if it engages in that sort of sniping. As I repeatedly say, any success that it may have can come only from being seen to have produced a conclusion that is generally accepted as at least as good as is likely to be achievable in the circumstances. So they have to engage in constructive negotiations to achieve a fair outcome for the various considerations which survive scrutiny in debate as seriously relevant to the problem in hand. The whole discussion is directed towards establishing as much practical agreement as they can.

    Such negotiation does not assume goodwill or unselfishness on the part of the participants. The negotiations that resulted in an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program are a good instance of what even mortal enemies can achieve if they are under sufficient pressure to negotiate.

    Please note that I am not attributing any malice to my adversaries.
    It is, of course, perfectly normal and, up to a point salutary, for theoretical discussions to be adversarial, since progress in theory often depends on uncovering the weaknesses in a position. I welcome the attacks on my position, because they give me a chance to formulate it more accurately and more fully. Even if, as you say, people don’t read what I say and so constantly come up with the same objections, that is sometimes useful in highlighting what tends to be misunderstood.

    When I said “up to a point” what I had in mind particularly is that when one is trying to say something that has not been said before, it is natural enough to assume that what is allegedly new is merely a rehash of old mistakes. So one has to put up with the repeated necessity of pointing out that one is saying something quite different from what has been said before. The difficult thing is to get people to ask a different question from the ones they are used to asking, particularly if that involves questioning or at least setting aside some cherished assumption.

    The history of science is full of examples of this resistance. When Newton postulated the force of gravity as the explanation of the stability of the planetary orbits, the ruling mechanist assumption was that one body could act on another only by surface contact. So he was accused of reverting to mysterious unobservable factors reminiscent of discredited spiritual notions. Eventually the hard-nosed mechanists simply died out.

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  5. John,
    A web forum is neither inherently adversarial nor consensus oriented. Its character is set by those who choose to participate. In that it is much like a demarchic council. Yoram most certainly did not intend for this site to be a de facto debate club.

    >My adversaries have no interest whatever in finding common ground, but only in taking pot shots at me. I am trying to get them to change their minds, and they have no interest in doing that if they can avoid it.

    Funny. From where I’m standing it looks like Keith is trying to change your mind, and you have no interest in doing that if you can avoid it. Everyone else is just as strongly attached to their point of view as you are. They are no more interested in dropping their positions and embracing someone else’s views than you are. When someone’s position is challenged it doesn’t matter most of the time if the challenge is reasonable or not. People get defensive. This is a general rule regarding people and their beliefs/goals/values. No one throws down their policy preferences because there’s an alternative which might find broader support. Seeking consensus is perfectly respectable. Expecting that consensus can be found as a general rule is simply not defensible.

    Consensus in science does not wait for the old diehards to die off. Debate largely lasts as long as conflicting positions are tenable given the available data. Once there’s only one good explanation for the data the old positions fall away surprisingly quickly. No one wants to be the stubborn fool who refuses to give Occam his due. It’s bad for one’s reputation. But unlike science, politics is not about facts. It’s about values. You can’t perform an experiment to discover whether European federalism is the “right” direction for the continent. Politics is about goals and directions and the power to set goals and directions. If one person wants to go left and another wants to go right a “consensus” position leaves neither of them happy and neither will favor it.

    What common ground exactly are you seeking in discussions here? What would you see as an agreeable compromise between the different the institutional goals you, Keith, and Yoram have all set out? What about on other issues? What *consensus* position do you imagine could be found on immigration in the US, exactly? What common ground is there on the Brexit issue? Again, compromise is admirable. Seeking an outcome with broad support rather than the barest of majorities is something which should be encouraged by healthy institutional dynamics. But winning, rather than compromising, is ALWAYS going to be everyone’s first choice. Everyone in a demarchic council is going to start with the goal of convincing everyone else that their starting position is right and best so that the consensus position will end up being their own position. They’ll all see the OTHER guys as digging in their feet and refusing to listen to reason.

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  6. John,

    I would fully endorse all Naomi’s arguments.

    >The negotiations that resulted in an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program are a good instance of what even mortal enemies can achieve if they are under sufficient pressure to negotiate.

    Exactly. But there is no parallel to a demarchic council as both parties were sovereign powers. I’m not aware that the proceedings of the negotiations were made public and that the overriding consideration was rationality. There was strong pressure from the Iranian public to lift the embargo and Obama’s prime consideration was his own legacy.

    Regarding the deliberations on this forum I agree with Naomi that Gat, Burnheim and Sutherland are all sincere in their convictions and are not just sniping at their opponents, they just don’t agree. If, however, there was a strong motive to come to agreement (as in the Iranian example) then I’m sure we would manage to cobble together a compromise (which we might even refer to as a “consensus”, although for purely instrumental reasons), especially under pressure from the 450-odd silent witnesses to the online deliberations. Power has the effect of concentrating the mind.

    >Even if, as you say, people don’t read what I say and so constantly come up with the same objections

    That’s because your posts are too long and waffly. If you want people to really engage on a forum like this you need to write in a more condensed style.

    >So one has to put up with the repeated necessity of pointing out that one is saying something quite different from what has been said before.

    Jesus and Marx had a similar complaint. Successful programmes for the transformation of society start with people as they are.

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  7. Keith >engineering

    I agree completely with your remarks about engineering, but I would like to get you to look at what it can do. That depends, as you say, on the properties of the materials, but it is a fundamental mistake to assume that what those materials can do when acting together in a well-designed set of roles is obvious from an understanding of what they do in other circumstances. Look at the components of a car engine scattered at random and you would never guess that they were capable of the feats that they daily perform for us.

    Look at the ordinary bods like us who are involved in somee scientific enterprise, you would never guess that they could come up with the theory of sub-atomic particles. It is not a matter of genius. Newton was in many ways quite a silly man who spent inordinate amounts of time on the weirder fringes of alchemy and theology. But when it came to science he followed correct procedures.

    When it comes to getting people to perform the roles that institutions assign to them it is necessary that they know what is required of them, have the capacity to do it and are motivated to do it in a fairly regular way. It is easy to conclude that these conditions cannot be met if you look at situations where the roles are quite different and generalise from those to blanket impossibilities.

    One persistent fallacy in regard to motivation is that only identification with the ultimate purpose of a role can supply motivation for doing it well. All that is required, as Adam Smith pointed out in relation both to economics and morality, is that people have adequate motivation to do what is required of them in their role. Such motivation may be quite independent of the social purpose of the role.

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  8. John,

    >All that is required, as Adam Smith pointed out in relation both to economics and morality, is that people have adequate motivation to do what is required of them in their role. Such motivation may be quite independent of the social purpose of the role.

    And what might happen if the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker sat down to exchange reasons around the demarchic table? Each would pursue his own interests and beliefs and there would have been no need to compromise as the resulting decision would be of no consequence (as they have no power). It would be even worse if their customers, suppliers and international competitors were to participate. Why should the butcher and his customers and suppliers adopt a consensual viewpoint? And what would happen if the Vegetarian Society, soybean producers and others whose interests are deeply affected chose to participate?

    It’s all very well coming up with sweeping generalisations backed up by inappropriate mercantile and scientific analogies, but when I present you with an entirely relevant case of demarchy in pratice (i.e. the deliberations on this forum) all you can say is that we are sniping at each other and scoring points. We all try to follow the appropriate procedures and to respect the forceless force of the better argument, but if it can’t even work here (where all of us [apart from you] are committed to sortition) then why on earth should it work anywhere else? Bear in mind that the exchange of reasons on this forum has deteriorated to the extent that some of us are not even prepared to talk to each other, on account of (supposed) issues of mendacity, stupidity and bad faith.

    Demarchy has been put to the test on this forum and has been a spectacular failure. How different it would be if the 420-odd silent witnesses (who we can assume to be “interested” [in both senses of the word] to a lesser extent than pointy-heads and anoraks like you and me) were to follow each thread and determine the outcome of the debate by the secret vote.

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