“Real democracy” videos

Tomas Mancebo wrote to draw attention to the following video clips. They seem to be inspired by the ideas promoted by Étienne Chouard.

Sortition and reform of political institutions

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

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

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 Certainly, if I had one it would now be hopelessly out of date.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

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

We all gain in numerous ways from the fact that we are all different to varying degrees in most respects. Strict equality in any respect can only mean uniformity in that respect. Equality as such is not generally a good thing. Certain varieties of socialist thinking that focus on eliminating inequalities inevitably turn out to be very oppressive. (Marx himself was not guilty in this respect.)

However there are many kinds of inequalities that have very detrimental effects on people’s lives. Some of these are due to natural causes, like many physical disabilities. It is to the credit of the much-maligned “nanny state” that we devote quite a lot of resources to helping people with disabilities to participate in as many areas of social life as possible.

Many other injurious inequalities are socially constructed, sometimes deliberately, but often as an unintended result of activities, some legitimate, others criminal undertaken for other reasons and causes. Some of these are remediable without recourse to compulsion, simply by dissuading the culprits from doing certain things, often just by shaming them. Those so shamed often attempt to deride this as “political correctness”. Obviously it can go too far.

Even those activists who operate principally without invoking political authority sometimes try to have the activities they want to suppress declared illegal, not so much in order to impose legal penalties on their targets as to show their opponents that the nation collectively disapproves of what they do. Obviously, that can help the activists to defend themselves from the imputation of being an idiosyncratic clique. It is a two-edged sword. Concentrating on legality invites the response that nobody has a right to criticise people who are doing what they are legally entitled to do. Usually the sorts of activity in question are mainly matter if intent in acting and notoriously difficult to prosecute. So some egregious offenders escape. Moral matter should as far as possible be left to moral suasion. Continue reading

Aspects of decision-making

1. Public affairs and rational ignorance.

The argument: It is rarely rational for anybody to vote or engage in some other political activities because the chance of influencing the outcome is so infinitesimal that it does not merit the slightest effort.

Reply. That is one consideration, but it is not only a false picture of the thinking of most people, but not the only rational consideration. Many, I think most, voters also recognise two other dimensions to their role as voters.

One is that they see voting as an expressive act and feel it is important to them to express themselves in this way. That is why opposition voters still turn out to vote in what is a safe seat for the incumbent party. Moreover, voters are concerned that in expressing their support for a candidate or a party they are ding something that reflects credit on them. So they are concerned to exercise what influence they can on that candidate or party to adopt policies that they find admirable.

Another reason why the selfish approach is not rational is that people quite rightly do not take an entirely selfish attitude to public goods. Their identity as members of a particular community is closely bound up with the quality of the public goods in which they can share as members of the community. So they do have an interest in the quality of the community’s educational institutions, even though they do not expect any particular pay-off to them from those institutions. Moreover, they are usually well aware that the sort of cost-benefit analyses that reduce benefits to measurable benefits to individuals leads to a penny-pinching approach to funding policy decisions that is often destructive and counterproductive in its effects. It is not rational.

That is not to say that it is improper in choosing to support one rather than another of competing proposals about, say, an educational program, to do so because it suits one’s own interests better. Practical decisions are rarely one-dimensional. They involve diverse, often competing, considerations in varying degrees in different contexts.
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Demarchy and the ways of the world

1. Demarchy assumes that enough people will engage in the complex of serious activities it is supposed to work on to convince people that the outcome of those activities can claim to represent public opinion.

Looking at the way in which public opinion is in fact formed in our society that seems an absurd assumption.

Even if we go back to Habermas’s beloved 18th century coffee house it is utterly unrealistic. Public opinion emerges from a host of conversations in which what is going on or what is proposed is talked about in terms of familiar images. What is prized in conversation in all sorts of social contexts, from groups of labourers on lunch break to elite dinner parties is wit, the remark that encapsulates a way of looking at a subject in a new light that is at least in some respect plausible.

The cardinal sin in conversation is to insist on spelling out in detail just where that slant on the subject is misrepresented. People are not expected to take casual remarks seriously. That is utterly boring and destructive of conversation. Nevertheless there is overwhelming evidence that people are very strongly influenced by the cumulative effects of the caricatures that prevail in representations of ideas and states of affairs and come to be seen as expressing public opinion.

Even very sophisticated people succumb to this sort of conversation, because they are very aware that political affairs are usually so complicated that there is little chance of arriving at a rationally justified analysis and verdict on them. One just despairs or hopes that the obscure processes of social change will tend towards decisions one can live with. But there is no prospect of getting reliable decisions about political matters by discussion. So Demarchy is nonsense.

Reply: I concede there is a great deal of truth in this picture, but as a generalisation it is too sweeping. At the risk of being boring I shall try to explain why. There are several aspects to it.
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No one party

The practicalities of demarchy

1. In order to be THE voice of public opinion the council advancing that claim would need to be unique and unchallenged. But if anybody can set up a rival council, that is impossible. If anybody takes it seriously, it will be challenged and rivals set up.

Answer. There are two stages in the proposal: a fully open public discussion and the council attempting to draw a practical policy from that discussion.

The public discussion will be unique if the Foundation sponsoring it has adequate resources to publish and render accessible on line every word that anybody thinks relevant to the problem under discussion. If anybody sets up a rival forum, all of its content will be posted on the original site, where it could have been posted at no cost. So if somebody refuses to allow certain material to be posted, they are refusing to offer it for public scrutiny.

How might they justify that refusal?

Perhaps it is copyright, and they demand to be paid for it. In a genuine case, the foundation might agree to pay whatever any other user would pay for it. In some cases a reference to sites on which it has been published might suffice.

In other cases the appeal might be to confidentiality, for example, in the case of survey documents. That sort of confidence protects the identity of contributors to the survey, not its content. When it comes to privacy about the actions of individuals and organisations, such privacy can never be invoked in a way that favours a competing open forum. It has to remain private.

Some may argue that the way in which the problem is described by the foundation in initiating discussion is subtly biased to exclude certain viewpoints. In that case they need to state their case and argue it publicly.

A completely open forum, including full documentation on the proceedings of the foundation, can be reduplicated, but the only point that could have was to try to exclude certain contributions. And that cannot be done with impunity.
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