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.

2. Public affairs and subjectivity.

The argument: Almost all the considerations involved in debate about public affairs are ultimately subjective. So it is absurd to postulate that such debate can arrive at a rationally warranted conclusion.

Reply. The argument relies on the contrast between practical considerations and those relevant to matters of objective truth, ranging from simple matters of fact to the most theoretical speculations. If the objective considerations we can muster do not warrant a conclusion, we must recognise that the opinions people may have about it on subjective grounds, such as their finding a theory elegant or easier to understand, cannot supply good grounds for a collective decision about its truth-value.

Practical matters are different. If we have to act in a certain situation, especially where doing nothing is clearly the worst option, it is rational to look for ways of assessing the weight to be given to different subjective preferences in the circumstances. This is not as difficult in most cases as it might seem.

In the first place even the most subjective and emotive considerations invariably have a close relation to certain matters of fact that can be determined and judged for their relevance to the practical choices available. Many fears that, if justified, would have considerable weight in relation to certain choices can be ruled out if it can be shown that the alleged dangers at which they are directed are non-existent. That may not cure the fear in some people, but it downgrades its relevance. We may still respect a person’s fear while disagreeing about its basis.

More positively, many of the considerations that people will offer in favour of a certain course of action will involve preferences that others do not share. However the others probably have their own preferences and all may agree that each has a prima facie right to demand that her preferences be given equal treatment with the others in reaching a decision. But ultimately what matters in reaching good decisions is that, as far as possible the process sorts out well-grounded considerations from the more dubious ones. Such a process may not be conclusive, but it must be enlightening. If the procedure is unable to decide between several proposals, i would suggest giving the choice to those most affected by that choice.

It is easy to conclude that in nearly all political matters there is no hope of reaching a well-grounded agreement about the relative importance of the diverse considerations involved. So the only sensible way of arriving at a practical conclusion is to award the decision to the view that has the support of the most participants, without futile argument about their merits. In some cases that may be so, but in my view it is a last resort.

I want to argue that where the practice is to regard majority voting as the right procedure in any case where there are divergent preferences, a great deal is lost. It is possible to debate many of the considerations on which different people base their particular preferences, and there is very often much be gained by all concerned if their preferences are discussed and debated with an open mind.

It is not only that those differences in preferences may rest much more on differences about matters of fact than about the subjective element in them. People may share very similar aspirations for the future, but differ in their practical judgements because they hold different views about the likelihood of different actions having the desired effects. Before they vote against each other it would be rational to attempt some resolution of their differences on that objective question.

Again, people may agree on sound rational grounds about the risks in a certain course of action, but differ on whether the possible benefits justify taking those risks. Some of us are timid, others rash, and there is not a great deal one can do about such dispositions in general terms. Nevertheless, it is often the case that the parties can reduce their difference by attempting to spell out to each other just what it is about the risks that so horrifies the one, and about the hoped-for result that is so promising in the other’s eyes. It may even be possible that, while not having resolved all their differences completely, they may come close enough to agree about a course of action.

More positively still, if we have a minimum of modesty and imagination, we are prepared to recognise that we have a lot to learn about our own potential from attempting to understand what others find interesting or attractive. The freedom to go one’s own way is indispensible, but so also is the opportunity to enrich and broaden one’s perspectives and the range of things one can appreciate by learning to see what others see in them.

3. Public affairs and conflicts.

The argument: Such considerations may be appropriate where we are talking about groups of friends who enjoy a great measure of freedom and ample resources. They are not struggling to survive or to protect themselves from oppression. Politics is the domain of compulsion, taxation and imposed uniformity.

Reply. That is indeed the pattern of history and of much in the present. It is no longer necessarily so. We now have the capacity to meet the needs of everybody in the world for shelter, food, education and communications, provided we can solve the problem of excessive population growth peacefully. In many counties we have made great strides in setting up procedures to solve conflicts peacefully, and there is hope that the process can keep on improving. a constructive future is open to us.

Unfortunately a number of attempts to rush the process of rational decision-making have done so by parties seizing state power and implementing their plans by compulsion, with disastrous results. An approach that involves a minimum of force and conformity is called for. But good intentions are not enough. A central contention of the parts of my book that nobody reads is that getting good decisions about public policy is of fundamental importance and that the procedures by which we currently arrive at such decisions are very defective. They make policy proposals pawns in a contest to win power. My proposals are focussed on attempting to take decisions on public policy out of that context, enlighten and articulate public opinion and rely on voters to insist that hose in power legislate and administer in accordance with public opinion, on pain of not being returned to office at the nest election.

Such a suggestion makes many novel assumptions, at least some of which I have tried to identify and justify. Among those assumptions is one that is crucial, but very shocking in this context. It is that in the procedures that are best fitted to producing good policy in any particular matter should pay most attention not to the actual views the citizens have about their needs, but to the reasons they advance for their views. In other words, the debates would have much the same kind of structure as the examples I mentioned in the last section. People should be invited to take part in a debate that tests the validity of those reasons, hopefully helping all concerned to arrive at a better understanding of their situation and a more realistic, constructive and effective collective decision that is sensitive to what people really need rather than just their unscrutinised opinions.

By contrast almost everybody else who has thought seriously about public policy assumes that it is neither necessary nor desirable to attempt to take the process of decision out of the context of power. What is needed is to take the exercise of power out of the hands of those who abuse it and give it to a genuinely representative body constituted by a sample of the population. Good people will find good answers to their collective problems. They will, of course, need to use sound procedures in arriving at their conclusions, but that is a secondary matter.
There are, naturally, differing views about what the people so chosen can or ought do. But there is substantial agreement that their right to do what they decide on comes from their being genuinely representative of the population, not from the alleged properties of the procedures they use.

At this level of abstraction and generalities the verdict looks clear: I’m barking up the wrong tree. But stay tuned.

16 Responses

  1. John, that’s all very well, but why do you think that voters who have not bothered to inform themselves properly on political issues will suddenly change their behaviour on account of the deliberation on a website sponsored by a private foundation? As you rightly point out, much voting behaviour is expressive (and a lot more is habitual), so online deliberation will not affect this one way or the other. Most of the studies of online postings indicate that the attention span of the public is very limited — in fact I would go so far as to ask how many of the followers of this blog (other than myself) have taken the trouble to even read this post? The internet as a medium doesn’t really lend itself to long and considered statements, you have to keep it short and punchy, so I’m very sceptical that anyone will take the slightest notice of the online deliberation of the demarchic councils. It’s also the case that the blogosphere is largely comprised of highly atypical people (the likes of you, me, Yoram, Terry etc.), so your project would appear to have nothing to do with democracy, in the sense of empowering the mass of ordinary people (who have far better things to do with their time than oddballs like us).

    >What is needed is to take the exercise of power out of the hands of those who abuse it and give it to a genuinely representative body constituted by a sample of the population.

    Absolutely, but a committee of a dozen persons randomly selected from a pool of volunteers will not be representative of the target population — they do not “describe” those they are supposed to represent and they were not chosen by them, they just selected themselves. It would appear that your selection criterion is the following:

    >Good people will find good answers to their collective problems.

    That strikes me as something of a truism, but why do you think that your committees will be comprised of “good” people (presumably you’re not referring to the Great and the Good)? If the demarchic councils are to have real political influence then they are just as likely to be composed of lobbyists and headbangers (“those who abuse power”, as you put it). I do think we all need to be aware of the danger of wishful thinking.


  2. Keith

    Realistically all of us most of the time, particularly when we don’t think that’s what we are doing, buy our opinions just as we buy nearly everything, off the shelf, ready to go. The key to getting a better standard of opinion is to make it easy and attractive to people to buy what has the reputation of being the better product.
    of course, somebody has to do the hard work of developing and selling that product and building up the label’s reputation. It is important that there be checks to make it hard for imitators to get away with taking it over and trashing it.
    Of course, the people who are prepared to and able to put the hard work into it will be very atypical, but in my view, within limits, what matters most is that the considerations that people have for their preferences be sympathetically appraised and accommodated as far as possible. I am assuming that in an open forum people will claim attention by showing that they are trying to do that and surviving criticism. It is not true that the only people who can represent effectively other people must resemble them.

    We have an underlying disagreement about the point of representation. The sort of representation you insist on gives at best a photographic image of what the picture people think. You insist that that is the point of democracy. But I think that the necessity for that sort of democracy is a theoreticians’s demand, not what the people themselves would like to get from their reps. I think that now, as almost always, what they want is to live in a secure, prosperous, perhaps fair, certainly well-governed community, and they are pretty pragmatic about how that is to be achieved. They would like to be able to sack those who fail to deliver, but they get worried if the only alternative isno different. Sometimes they get panicked and fall for charlatans like Hitler and Trump, who tell tem the establishment is evil but they can fix it..


  3. John,

    >I think that now, as almost always, what [voters] want is to live in a secure, prosperous, perhaps fair, certainly well-governed community, and they are pretty pragmatic about how that is to be achieved. They would like to be able to sack those who fail to deliver, but they get worried if the only alternative is no different.

    So what you want is a well-informed Schumpeterian minimalism. That’s fine, but why do you want to argue for this on a forum devoted to equality by lot? Although you are rightly seen as the Godfather of the modern sortition movement, in your new book (which only includes three references to sortition) you seem to have reverted to a traditional model of democratic constitutionalism, with a tad more deliberation in the informal public sphere. The role of sortition in demarchy is the trivial one of reducing the count of self-nominating busybodies to a small committee of a dozen or so, but such a committee would not be representative in any sense of the word that I’m aware of.


  4. John,

    If the public can be focused enough to vote for or against candidates based on the recommendations of juries on a variety of issues, why wouldn’t the public be focused enough to cause a shift in government structure away from electoralism and toward sortition?

    It seems to me that making a specific, systemic change is much more realistic than being able to direct policy on a wide variety of issues on an ongoing basis.


  5. Keith> why argue this on Equality by Lot?

    I had the impression that the site was not just for theological discussion between the strictly orthodox, but was open to discussion of all the various aspects of equality and related dimension of political theory and practice. Have I been wasting my time on it for so many years?

    Why do you persist in sticking simplistic labels on people’\’s views and then assuming that they are committed to all and only the consequences you see as associated with that label?

    I think that it is very important to examine carefully what a particular procedure can contribute in various applications under different conditions, actual and possible. It is certainly not a matter of “assigning” roles to them. but of understanding how thing can work.

    Equality is an abstract noun applicable along many possible dimensions. To assume that the only sort of equality that is relevant to politics is the sort of equality with which you are enamoured is a very dubious assumption.


  6. Yoram

    Referenda are on constitutional matters are notoriously difficult. People will focus on a particular practical issue where they think they can understand the consequences. They don’t like change in matters where the consequences are potentially ramified in ways that they are not confident of understanding.


  7. I agree with many of the thrusts of John’s vision (though I question the effectiveness of his means). I agree that far too much of public policy is reduced to power competitions and winners and losers, rather than even asking the question of whether there is some optimal policy nearly all could agree on. Elections discourage even thinking of that possibility. In the kind of sortition democracy I imagine, “politics” would become incredibly boring for most people (no more power struggles fought out in campaigns)… Instead it would become hum-drum routine activity that people take turns trudging through. When I was a city councilor I invested a lot of time in incredibly tedious details (like whether the Public Works Department needed a rate hike on residents’ water bills). I learned a lot about the issue and ended up as the key policy decider for my city. BUT, I have NO interest years later as a citizen in continuing to monitor the Public Works Department water rates. I want some other people WHOM I CAN TRUST to take a turn doing that (and the countless other public policy decisions that must be made). I don’t want to ask, and don’t expect the citizenry as a whole to monitor the countless reports of demarchic councils and compare the voting records of elected representatives on the hundreds of council reports they went along with or rejected. Voters won’t do that level of monitoring. My goal for sortition is to assemble groups I can trust as representatives…. and the best way to do that is to eliminate any chance of self-selection special interest bias through scientific sampling. IF there were a magical way to find the BEST people, that might deserve consideration, but I have concluded that it is impossible to know who are the best, and endless cycle of the guards of the guardians, agains leads me to lottery choice as the only safe method.


  8. Terry

    Your comments certainly resonate with my aspirations and experience. They are the more valuable because they are backed by a lot of first hand experience.

    I am inclined to suspect that , like all of us to varying degrees, you underestimate how much easier acquiring, assessing and exchanging information has become, if organised on a suitable scale. We have two daughter in their forties , both very successful policy specialists, one in academia in Australia, the other in business in England. (both also very good mothers) I am amazed at the amount of information they can handle and how quickly. When I cast my mind back to endless meetings trying to sort out reams of paper, there is a qualitative difference in our ability to record, retrieve, process and assess information. I do think we are in most areas of life the better off for all of that.

    I know there are new abuse, the computer program that pumps out reports that are purely mechanical manipulations of spread sheets, the people who expect all decisions to be a matter of assigning numerical values to variables and letting calculators do the math, and so on. But peole are learning to do better and demanding that others do better.


  9. John

    The topic of this blog is how to implement equality through lot, not deliberative democracy per se. There are sharp differences on how to achieve this goal — some people (e.g. Terry) put more emphasis on the epistemic benefits of sortition, whereas others (e.g. Yoram) privilege the representation of interests — but we all agree on the case for sortition to establish democratic equality. Demarchy has no interest in equality, sortition or democracy, it is just a way of improving the quality of public opinion and advocates a minimalist Schumpeterian model of democracy. In fact demarchy would be entirely compatible with absolutism or oligarchy, just so long as the rulers were attentive to public opinion — the only value of democracy being the ability to kick out any bunch of rascals who ignore public opinion. I can now understand why you were so opposed to any mention of sortition on the cover or marketing blurb for your book.

    >To assume that the only sort of equality that is relevant to politics is the sort of equality with which you are enamoured is a very dubious assumption.

    It’s certainly true that demarchy would establish the proportional equality valorised by Plato and Aristotle, although the “worth” would be determined by the self-evaluation of the demarchs (as opposed to the traditional criteria of virtue, education, wealth, breeding etc.). But it has no regard for numerical equality (the topic of this blog).

    Terry:> My goal for sortition is to assemble groups I can trust as representatives…. and the best way to do that is to eliminate any chance of self-selection special interest bias through scientific sampling. . . I have concluded that it is impossible to know who are the best, and endless cycle of the guards of the guardians, agains leads me to lottery choice as the only safe method.



  10. John,

    When I referred to the public pushing toward sortition-based government I was not thinking specifically about referenda. Whatever ways the public can affect public policy (e.g., by voting behavior) can be used. In this sense the proposal is not any different from your own suggestions. The difference is that instead of hoping that those ways can be used on an ongoing basis to steer pubic policy, the focus would be on a specific institutional change.


  11. Yoram

    I must confess that I have not got my head around just what your proposals are to the same extent as I believe I have understood Keiths. So my comments may be at cross purposes.

    As you say, I want debate to focus on specific substantive problems where yours is on specific institutional changes, I do not for moment think that my approach will solve the sort of problems with which you and others are concerned. What I am saying is that my approach is a good starting point to an growing practice of producing solution by open debate which ultimately will lead to a sound approach to the bigger questions.

    At present theoretical discussion of those question in terms of theoretically possible situations is both possible and necessary if we are to keep the big questions open to development and remind ourselves of the limitations of a piecemeal method. But I do hope to convince people of its merits as a first step on a long road.

    I am very strongly opposed to anyone-dimensional approach to such basic questions as what grounds are sufficient or necessary to guarantee the legitimacy of coercive authority? I believe that after a lifetime of grappling with such doctrines I have very good grounds, now widely shared among professional philosophers, for thinking that any such approach is likely to be self-refuting in theory and dangerous in practice.

    For example,it is usual in Aglophone counties to think that the Chinese rejection of western democracy is based wholly on repressive dictatorship. That is to fail to understand that culture. China has, for thousands of years striven to be a meritocracy based on genuinely competitive examinations in much the same spirit as a stream of western thinking that goes back to Plato.
    Within certain limits the present regime is in fact a very effective meritocracy. If you doubt that read Henry Paulson’ book How to Deal with China, based on many tears of very close involvement in Chinese-US relations at the highest levels of government and business.

    I’m well aware that nothing could be further from your thinking than meritocracy, which amounts to a self perpetuating elitism. But the Chimese do have their reasons for thinking that, even if it is by no means perfect, it suits them much better than our adversarial democracy.


  12. Keith

    You say demarchy would be compatible with any form of government provided those in power were responsive to public opinion.

    So you impute to me a complete lack of concern about questions of what is the basis of legitimate coercive authority. I constantly repeat that there are very important questions here that deserve serious attention. I refuse to be condemned just because I have no firm answers to them, but do want to make a start on voluntary associations that do not pose the same problems.
    When it comes to practice, the simple fact is that there is no advocating body based on agreement about a practical proposal for reform of our coercive authorities. So there is no live practical issue in this area.I don’t think your tactic of posing the problems in a very narrow frame can possibly work. If the site were more welcoming to open discussion, it might attract more attention.

    By contrast my proposals are for a development in a movement towards public deliberation that is already well established. I believe it has greater potential than even most of those who support it realise. What my practical program needs is to persuade those people to lift their sights from organising genuinely consultative deliberation on specific matters at the behest of government agencies to striking out on their own to deliberate about matters that governments would prefer left in obscurity. That is a very big ask.


  13. Yora> referenda

    When it comes to such a question as substituting sortition for voting in some body that can make legally binding decisions on a large range of important matters, I think it is inconceivable that any democratic government would introduce such a change without a referendum, even if, as in the UK, it is not legally required.

    People who are habituated to voting would be unlikely to accept it. I have met the reaction even among very sophisticated colleagues: I’m not giving up my vote on who represents me and handing it over to whatever group comes out of a random selection.

    Perhaps it might be possible to start with certain very limited bodies, as I have suggested elsewhere.


  14. John,

    >I’m not giving up my vote on who represents me and handing it over to whatever group comes out of a random selection.

    That certainly would be a rational response to self-selecting demarchic councils (if they had statutory powers), as well as Yoram’s all powerful sortition bodies, where the movers and shakers are purely down to chance. But if it could be demonstrated by experiment that the decisions of large and well-informed statistical samples were identical (within an agreed margin of error) then I think your very sophisticated colleagues might well be persuaded that the decision of a well-informed allotted sample would be an improvement on a referendum, particularly when the outcome in the latter case might well turn on whether or not voters like Boris Johnson’s new haircut.


  15. Keith > referendum or sample

    As you know, I certainly agree with your preference for the sample, especially if its conclusion was based on a thorough and fully public deliberation. But I also understand that very many people will not be convinced of the value of such a somple simply on very general methodological considerations. They need evidnece of its results in practice.


  16. Agree — the issue of what aspects of deliberation lead to variation between the samples is an empirical one and can be resolved by experiment. I’m surprised that Fishkin hasn’t done the experiment as the DP methodology is ideally suited. If it can be demonstrated that the decision outcome is invariant between samples then I can’t see why any half-rational creature could object to an adversarial public enquiry (plus jury) as opposed to this stupid referendum.

    I put the case for it in the Spectator some time ago, see:


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