The rich or the powerful?

There has been a lot of debate on this blog recently as to whether or not political outcomes are unduly influenced by the rich; in this post I want to consider the influence of other nondemocratic agents – activists, civil society pressure groups, non-corporate lobbyists and academics in the social sciences and humanities. The reason for the inclusion of the last category is because most political leaders are educated in these disciplines – unlike, say, in China, it’s hard to identify political leaders who studied the natural sciences or engineering – so academics in these fields will have had a powerful influence in their formative years. There are more Oxford PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) graduates in the House of Commons than Old Etonians (35 to 20) and 50% of ministers and 28 percent of MPs were educated at Oxbridge, the vast majority in the above-mentioned subjects. Jeremy Waldron, in his inaugural lecture for his (Oxford) chair of social and political theory argued against the focus of the PPE syllabus on the ’57 varieties of luck egalitarianism’ as opposed to ‘political’ issues like representation, sovereignty and the rule of law, and it’s the resulting influence of the equality lobby that I want to address in this post. Some of the material is anecdotal, and some evidence of partisan influences in the formulation of a UN convention on disabilities equality.

The primary school in my village (pop. c.300) has recently constructed, at considerable expense, a ‘sensory room’ to meet the needs of one part-time disabled pupil. (Bear in mind this is happening at a time when local authority budgets are squeezed to the extent that rural residents are being told that they will need to grit their own roads this winter (and pay for the materials) as the council does not have the funds.) This is the result of government policy that insists that the disabled must be fully integrated in regular society, and has closed down most of the special schools that accommodated the specific needs of disabled children. Speaking to two parents of disabled children (one Aspergers and one cerebral palsy), they both volunteered that this politically-motivated policy has been disastrous for their children because, unlike their peers in special schools, their everyday growing-up experience provided a constant reminder of their neediness.

What evidence have I that this highly politicized policy was the result of lobbying by civil society pressure groups under the influence of academic theorists? My department recently hosted a seminar on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The presenter, Dr. Lucy Series, a legal theorist from Cardiff University, argued that the basis of the convention was the strong social model which views disability as a social construction – i.e. disability is not a medical condition but purely the inability of society to accommodate different needs. The needs of mentally disabled persons have to be understood purely in terms of their own will and preferences, no (external) assessment of welfare/needs is allowable, even in the case of patients in a coma, where their wishes are supposedly to be chanelled by close friends and family. The principle of power of attorney is rejected tout court, as the legal distinction between sound and unsound mind is not accepted. It turned out that the convention had been drafted under the guidance of one civil society pressure group, The World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, whose core belief is the social model of disability.

Another (contingent) factor in the formulation of the Convention was the fact that the UN building had no wheelchair access to the public gallery, which enabled a pressure group of the (physically) disabled to position themselves in the chamber, amongst the delegates. Dr. Series informed us this provided the group with an opportunity to exert disproportionate influence over the proceedings (and the final outcome).

What concerned me at the departmental seminar was that none of my political theory colleagues seemed remotely bothered by this entirely undemocratic procedure. I raised the question of how public policy was being determined by an outmoded social theory and the response was merely that article 12 of the convention was inserted in order to enable signatories (democratically elected governments) to ignore any parts that they found unacceptable. But this still ignores the undemocratic nature of the policy process itself.

So what might the role of sortition be in such an instance? Nobody is disputing the advocacy rights of the sector of society that is most affected by the matter under consideration – in this case the disabled. One way of preventing the domination of one particular advocacy group would be John Burnheim’s model for legislation by demarchic committee, another would be to maintain the traditional distinction between advocacy and judgment but to use sortition to extend advocacy rights beyond the ‘special consultative status’ afforded by bodies like the UN to particular groups (and their axe-grinding leaders) that may or may not represent the views of the majority of disabled persons. Whilst I’ve used the example of disability pressure groups (and their academic backers), similar arguments could be made on other aspects of the ‘progressive’ obsession with equality as the keystone of political theory (feminism, immigration, gay rights, ethnic minorities etc).

9 Responses

  1. Response from Dr. Series:

    Thanks for alerting me to this post Keith. I would like to take this opportunity to clear up a few things, as I do feel you’ve misrepresented me. Firstly, none of the literature on Article 12 CRPD takes issue with powers of attorney. Secondly, I think you’ve misrepresented what I said about the accessibility problems during the negotiations in fact facilitating inclusion; can I suggest you read Janet Lord’s paper on this to clear up your misunderstanding (Lord, J. (2004) ‘Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Voice Accountability and NGOs in Human Rights Standard Setting’, Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, 93 – attached). Thirdly, the WNUSP was by no means the only disability organisation to be involved in the drafting of the CRPD – Lord’s paper explains better, or you could go on the UN Enable Website to look at the travaux preparatoires for lists of other participants.

    At a more general level, your argument seems to be that the drafting of the CRPD was undemocratic because it didn’t consult widely enough. Certainly Lord’s paper argues that some groups of people with disabilities and some parts of the world could have been better represented and included, and I would agree. But at the same time, this level of involvement of disability organisations in the drafting of a legal instrument that affected them was unprecedented. Can you point to any other international legal instrument that has had a similar or greater level of involvement from people with disabilities, or indeed any other interest group in an area of law concerning them?

    Whilst I do share your concerns that the drafting process could have been more inclusive, I’m concerned that you have presented the CRPD as if it is in some way less democratic than other legal instruments, when I feel the opposite is true.

    I can’t help but feel that there’s a certain irony in your complaint that the negotiators of the CRPD did not consult *enough* people with disabilities, given your own criticisms of ‘politicised’ policies in the UK seem to be based on you speaking to two parents in your village (not even people with disabilities who have been through ‘special’ education) and blaming a single child for the absence of road gritting in your area (rather than, for example, failure of central government to provide adequate resources for both).


  2. Lucy,

    Thanks for correcting the misrepresentations in my post. I do, however, stand by the main thrust of my argument. In your talk you pointed out that the strong social model of disability is a controversial one, nevertheless this was the intellectual foundation of the UN Convention. Do most disabled people view their condition as a social construction? If not this would suggest that the advocacy input from disability organisations was unrepresentative. It was you who drew our attention to the privileged role of the WNUSP and this has been confirmed by my own research.

    As for the comments on my village and conversations with parents I pointed out at the beginning of my post that it was based partly on anecdotal evidence. I would be intrigued to hear if the views of the two parents (of children with disabilities) that I spoke to were typical or not — if it is the case that most disabled children and their parents regard the integration policy as beneficial then my anecdotal experience has clearly misled me. As for the situation of my village school, I can’t believe that it is unique — indeed my contacts in the governing body tell me that this is a well-known ruse to gain extra capital and human resources from central government during cash-strapped times. I would also be interested to read a cost-benefit analysis of the special schools vs integration models — building a room for the benefit of one part-time pupil (who is set to leave in 2 years time) doesn’t sound like a prudent use of taxpayers’ funds. I don’t think that this is the place to go into arguments on macroeconomic policy, but would point out that the current government was elected partly on the strength of its deficit-reduction proposals.

    Bear in mind the topic of this blog is radical theories of democracy, rather than the debate on disability, hence the last paragraph of my post, where I speculated on how sortition might play a role in reflecting the needs of those most affected by particular policy options. Sortition is doubly beneficial in that it ensures a descriptively-accurate portrait in miniature of a target population and undermines attempts to manipulate the agenda by powerful and influential agents. The purpose of this post was to argue that undue influence is not limited to those with economic power.


  3. Keith,
    I think your comments support the need for decentralisation and involvement of the people directly concerned in such matters. That should result in a good deal of variation and experiment in the way different communities handle such problems, as opposed to egalitarian rules that inevitably impose uniformity at the cost of local initiative.
    Can I plead with kleroterians to adopt a decentralising perspective instead of concentrating on taming the power of the nation-state, or worse still, like socialists of old, trying to impose a form of organisation from the top down by legislation and regulation?


  4. John,

    > decentralising

    I’d be happy to engage on this subject if you are interested. I’ve had a couple of online discussions regarding this issue and never managed to get convinced that the Anarchist ideal makes sense. See my comments here (the “Libertarian socialism, hierarchy of representation” section and in the comments), and here (post and comments).


  5. John,

    I can understand the argument for decentralisation as a way of encouraging initiative and experimentation, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the problem with the WHO is that it’s a radically decentralised organisation. The principal reason that they lost the plot on Ebola was not Geneva HQ but (paradoxically) incompetence at the local level, where people are very much affected.

    If we agree that sortition is a form of representation, then it applies at any/all levels, the appropriate level in any particular instance being the nature of the issue under consideration. My criticism of the UN convention procedure is that decisions were made by politicians, social constructivists (arguing that disability is not a medical condition) and political activists who appear to be more interested in equality per se than improving the lot of disabled people. During the talk Lucy pointed out that disability activists are prepared to accept inequalities in the accessibility of personal loans so long as they were applied equally to other high-risk categories; their only objection was discrimination when it only affected disabled persons. Disabled persons would, by contrast, only be interested in their ability to get a loan, not some abstract principle of social justice.

    Surely it’s perfectly proper for lawyers and health professionals to have regard for the best interests of disabled persons who are incapable of having informed preferences? Not according to the Convention, where the autonomous will of the individual is non-negotiable, irrespective of the absurdity of the outcome. Descartes is still alive and kicking — how his modern disciples manage to combine the autonomous self with the radical constructivism that they apply to everything else is beyond my comprehension.

    I think we both agree that an allotted body formed from those actually affected by the issue is the appropriate forum. To my mind this would mean sortition among disabled persons (or groups representing them) along with equal representation for everyone else who would be required to pay for the policy outcomes. The only thing we differ on is the precise role of the disabled persons (advocates or decision makers?). I think this convention is a good illustration of what happens when the advocates for those most affected become too close to the decision makers.


  6. Keith asks if, compared to our present elective oligarchy (with many powers retained and excluded from democratic scrutiny eg money), a sortitionist settlement would prevent the blatant special interest leverage.

    This is a situation which I’ve encountered before when I was involved with Basic (Citizens) Income, which would be a single universal payment made to everyone, regardless of the usual race, religion etc. But it would also be paid regardless mental or physical abilities. Basic Incom must surely count as a supremely egalitarian arrangement. You would think that all the Special Interest Groups (SIG) like Low Pay, mental and disability charities would be keen to line up behind this. After all Basic Income (BI) would take many out of the dependency culture with all its fitness-to-work and other tests.

    What Bill Jordan, (a prime mover in BI, renowned prof of Social Studies at Exeter, now at Plymouth) found when he approached many of these helping organisations was that they saw their conditions as special, and they preferred to advocate their own special needs. Basic Income would only dilute their ‘specialness’ and with it the leverage over the democratic system that it conferred.

    Game theorists call this the Law of the Resolute Minority — a small SIG can bore away at the system to get its special needs catered for — with the aim of shovelling tax-money in their direction. As Keith recognises powerful SIGs like tobacco and other corporates do the same, but using a different pitch. Even in the disability field some conditions are more attractive and easier to ‘sell’ — compare the differing provision for breast- and testicular-cancer! Breasts are much more attractive!
    In the end Bill Jordan gave up on the disability SIGs, and in an uncharacteristically bitter throwaway line said that they could “go away and wallow in their in special needs regardless of the effects on others.”

    I’d say, far from curing this, a sortitionist settlement would be prey to not just disability SIGs, but much darker forces of localism, xenophobia and corrupt dealing.


  7. > they saw their conditions as special, and they preferred to advocate their own special needs.

    Seems like a legitimate position, even if ultimately misguided, IMO.

    > I’d say, far from curing this, a sortitionist settlement would be prey to not just disability SIGs, but much darker forces of localism, xenophobia and corrupt dealing.

    Why? It seems to me that the opposite is true. I don’t see how minorities would influence a representative group disproportionately.


  8. Conall,

    >A sortitionist settlement would be prey to not just disability SIGs, but much darker forces of localism, xenophobia and corrupt dealing.

    Interesting — it would certainly need to be very carefully designed. I’d like to hear how John Burnheim (with his call for localism and voluntarism) would respond. Sortition amongst all registered disabled people would be less likely to generate a group dominated by social constructivists and dogmatic egalitarians, but if voluntarism was the guiding principle then it would be quite easy for SIGs to flood the selection pool. And what about medical and legal professionals — they would likely end up a tiny minority (unless stratified sampling was mandated). And how would all these (expensive) special needs be traded off against the interests of the taxpayer?

    My own preference would be to use sortition to produce a large citizen jury (which would most likely only contain a few disabled persons), but to stipulate balanced advocacy rights to SIGs, health professionals, lawyers and others who argue for a duty of care approach. And the fiscal authorities would also have a statutory role — in the case of my village example, tax- and rate-payers would learn of the spending/tax implications of the need for balanced budgets and would get to choose whether to prioritise gritting the roads (and filling in the potholes) or the capital/HR outlay needed to integrate the severely disabled into mainstream schools. In a democracy this decision should be in the hands of a statistically-representative sample of all citizens, not left to politically-savvy SIGs.


  9. “go away and wallow in their special needs regardless of the effects on others.”

    This sounds like a knock-down argument against demarchy. Politics is not just the art of compromise between those most affected in any particular domain, it’s also the compromise between all domains (given finite resources and externalities). What, for example, would be the relationship between a climate change committee and an energy committee — a state of war? That’s why the UK government created DECC (department of energy and climate change). And local committees would be extremely unlikely to want to build the next nuclear plant in their own backyard, hence the need for national and supranational overrides.


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