Why do we need common goods? (with some concessions)

Deliberately constructed public or common goods differ in what they require of participants in several different ways. The following are typical of their diversity:

1. To solve conflicts of interests that tend to produce disadvantageous results for all the participants if they fail to cooperate, but positive goods if the do.

2. To produce positive goods that benefit almost everybody, but which private enterprise cannot as easily produce.

3. To provide coordinated action to avert evils that are the result from unregulated action.

Examples and discussion:

1. A simple example: Jack and Jill from Leeds want to go on holiday together and enjoy each other’s company. But when it comes to making arrangements Jack says he wants to go to Prague, while Jill wants to go to the Costa Brava. Being sensible people the do not adopt the facile solution of tossing a coin to see who wins this year, with the promise that he or she will be given first choice next year. That simply equalises the misery of being dragged to a place one doesn’t want to go to.

Instead they interrogate each other about their reasons for their choice. Jack says he wants to go somewhere that has an interesting architectural history, where he has not been before. Jill says she wants to relax and laze in the sun. That reminds Jack of reading Julius Norwich on Sicily. So he suggests Palermo to suit them both and give them plenty of time together. Win-win.

Of course, there is no guarantee that all such problems can be settled as felicitously as that. In social life things are much more complicated. However, the point is that it is almost always worthwhile to attempt to get behind raw preferences to open up the range of possibilities available. That involves spelling out in detail in the particular instance just what are the various costs and benefits the various participants need to achieve or avoid. in that context attempt to develop arrangements that are accepted as fair and offer to each as much as possible of what they want. There is no conceivable mechanical procedure for doing this. Clearly, it tends to involve a good deal of time, effort and cooperation.

It is of crucial importance that the process of negotiation proceed without the intrusion of the adventitious threats of and promises that are involved in power-trading. The only ground on which the conclusion of the process claims attention is that it is as sound a resolution of the problem as one could hope to get, and more advantageous to almost everybody than any other mode of arriving at a collective decision. Only in that way can a solution achieve the status of a public good, a common achievement of which the community can be proud, rather than an arrangement imposed by superior force.

Of course, in our real world where force of one kind or another is the salient ground for imposing solutions to many problems, it is optimistic to think that that cooperative procedures are likely to be seen as practically possible to achieve. Imposed solutions have the obvious advantage in many matters of offering a quick solution, where cooperative agreement takes too long. Or it appears too slow when the issues are framed in the simplistic rhetoric of war against some imminent evil. Unfortunately agreements based on threats and promise almost invariably leads to counterproductive decisions, because they rest on simplistic views of the problem they purport to solve. If a decison is to be effective it must get the situation right.

2. An obvious example is a well-coordinated public transport system. One fundamental problem about such as system is that it affects not just present patterns of demand, but the evolution of future patterns of demand. Differences of design will inevitably favour some developments, land uses, housing patterns, industrial and institutional enteprises and ecological consequences over others. Some such consequences are bound to be desirable and others undesirable from different point so view. It cannot be assumed that all of these desirable or undesirable consequences are reflected satisfactorily in judgements about future profitability to the entrepreneurs, especially in a capitalist economy that is ruled by short-term returns to investors.

Discussion of such matters as a transport system can only achieve a useful focus by offering comments on competing comprehensive proposals. In general this process proceeds in the opposite direction from the sort of case discussed in 1. above. It depends on the discussants being supplied with proposals that inevitably frame the debate. Ideally, those proposals should exhibit the major practical possibilities and their projected costs. They need to be drawn up by experts who have the technical knowledge to know what configurations are workable and what they cost to build and run. Debate can then proceed to consider which proposal offers most value or has the most desirable prospects.

Such considerations of relative desirability inevitably involve conflicting considerations of much the same sort as in 1. and similar procedures of cooperative negotiation to resolve them, but the emphasis needs to be very strongly focussed on the workability of the system and its long-term effects, rather than on meeting the preferences of the present population. Once again there is no simple procedure for getting these things right. Distancing the debate from power-trading and vote-catching is clearly necessary, but not sufficient to assure a good outcome. We have to rely on a well-informed public opinion converging on a sound evaluation of what is desirable.

3. A salient example of averting an imminent danger is action to halt the accelerating momentum of climate change. The broad trend of global warming may be clear enough, but he projected effects of its causes and the remedies required to deal with them are matters that only a few specialists can assess with any authority. What they tell us is that the results of doing nothing are almost certainly going to be catastrophic, and the costs of effective action are considerable.

The impacts that those costs can have on various economies and lifestyles are not only very diverse, but very difficult to compare with each other. It seems that there can be no such thing as a win-win outcome in these matters. When it comes to assigning burdens there are no positive pay-offs to provide a shared incentive to cooperate. So it does seem that an authority with strong claims to impartiality, wielding strong sanctions against free-loader is necessary. In order to avoid fatal distrust, it is necessary that such a body be representative of all the major interests involved. But at the same time it is crucial that the bearers of that authority do not see their task as one of maximising the interest they represent, but of reaching as fair a distribution of burdens as possible. It is here that sortition is particularly valuable, not just in assuring representation of all major interests, but in avoiding pressure on representatives to put the advancement of the interest they represent before the interests of reaching a fair allocation of burdens. At least they are not indebted to anybody for their position. They must realise that if they fail in their task the results for everybody, including their own interests are likely to be very bad indeed.

29 Responses

  1. John,

    Why are you using the economistic term “common goods” instead of the term “collaboration”? Is the former term more specific or in any other way different?


  2. John,

    >it is necessary that such a body be representative of all the major interests involved. But at the same time it is crucial that the bearers of that authority do not see their task as one of maximising the interest they represent . . . They must realise that if they fail in their task the results for everybody, including their own interests are likely to be very bad indeed.

    How do you reconcile these two desiderata in a committee of 12 or thereabouts, drawn by sortition from a pool of volunteers? It would be very easy to skew the sortition by flooding the selection pool with lobbyists and activists, so there is no reason to believe that this will lead to public confidence in the impartiality of the demarchic council. We should also be wary about institutional arrangements that rely on moral exhortation (especially of the “crucial” kind). Much better to assume (with Yoram) that persons will naturally pursue their own interests and to design political institutions around this assumption. By all means hope for the best, but better to plan for the worst. The reliance on moral exhortations supports my claim that your perspective owes more to the pulpit than the social science laboratory.


  3. keith > reconciling interests and tasks

    First. once again the question of power. If they reach a conclusion that is plausibly claimed to represent the practical conclusion to a wide-reaching debate, the councillors will normally, I expect, have considerable influence, and that is, of course, what they are after, power . The point you do not seem to grasp is that it is earned influence. If they do not achieve an acceptable solution they will have no power. Of course, from time to time some few will wreck the process rather than compromise, but it is unlikely to be of any real advantage to them.

    Second. If what I have just said is granted, there is no contradiction a t all, provided nearly everybody negotiates. It is not a Prisoner’s Dilemma situation , where whether each party pursues its own interest or not is hidden at the time the other needs to act. Here every move is explicit and public. However the party sees its own interest, what it does is offer a compromise to the others, or it simply pulls out of the game, thus losing any influence on the result.

    Third. The point of a small number of participants is that they can all participate in a negotiating process in a way that grows very much more difficult as the number of negotiators increases. The point of entrusting the process to reps of the most strongly affected interests is that it should rule out solutions that disproportionately affect those parties with most at stake. The general forum may favour an agreement, but the practical details are a togher matter.

    Fourth. As I constantly emphasise, the process of negotiation, like the process of debate that precedes it, is essentially one of getting behind interests, as we normally think of them as concrete wholes, to the considerations that lie behind them, thus opening up the possibility of finding common ground. Life in a ny ecosystem is a process of adapting to the demands and opportunities offered to the organism by changes in tis own DNA and in the environment in which it exists.

    Five. Most organisms can only succeed in adapting to changing situations by happenstance, and a lot of human interactions are like that, too. We have had amazing successes in adapting intentionally in many respects. But our very successes now threaten us with disaster. We may be able to intervene in very limited ways to change our ways in the necessary respects. But perhaps we’re off with the dinosaurs.


  4. John, I guess until you can find an example of demarchy working in practice then we are going to have to agree to disagree. It just strikes me as implausible that a dozen self-selecting persons are a) likely to come to a consensual agreement and b) likely to have a significant influence on outcomes (via the mediation of public opinion) given that they will have no power or responsibilities. I’ve provided a close-to-home example of the failure of demarchy (this forum), so you need to come up with an example of its success.


  5. Keith >power and committees

    I have spent more of my time on committees that I have spent lecturing or on any other sort of performance. From that long experience I have drawn one clear and firm conclusion:


    In the typical so called democratic procedure the members of the committee have votes and what the committee decides is just a matter of what secures a majority of those votes. Having the numbers secures whatever power the committee has ex officio. If you don’t have a majority, the sure way of getting the decision you want is by doing deals to stitch up a majority. That majority rarely reflects the particular merits of the proposal it endorses as compared to the merits of other proposals. The deals that make the alliances that marshall a majority vote are put together on grounds that have little relevance to the proposals in question. They range from power-trading (you vote with me on this and I’ll support you when you need it), ideological sympathies, both parties to the deal sharing a dislike of the proponents of other proposals, both seeking to look good in the eyes of those who can advance their interests outside the committee, striving to appear effective to their electors, seeking to butter up to the powers they serve, and so on.

    The idea that you can get good decisions by tinkering with the way in which members of committees are chosen is ludicrous. Once others start to play the power game there is no option but to play it to win if a party wishes to affect the outcome. (Occasionally you may gain kudos by opting out of an obviously corrupt game.) It doesn’t matter much whether the reps are elected or chosen by sortition, once the decision-procedure is a matter of getting the numbers, if others choose to concentrate on success rather than on the merits of the proposals, you have to follow suit. In this respect committees chosen by lot have an advantage. The do not come to their tsk laden with debts to those who put them there, and they do not have a career in the role of candidate for office. So they can look at the the proposals for what they are, and they may well choose to do so, resisting any attempt by minorities to play the power game.

    However, the only sure way of eliminating the power game is to strip the committee of all power. Any power it claims must come from the quality of its decisions. Those decisions must be close to unanimous if they are to have a plausible claim to be based on sound argument that should appeal to anybody. That may allow for minority reports on certain particular aspects of the decision, but in the context of an overall consensus. A mere majority is a failure. Nobody will take it as having any force. This is the logic of all advisory bodies, however appointed, be they expert committees or community consultative ventures of any kind. People will take notice of them only if there is clear evidence that they have reached an agreed conclusion on the merits of the proposals they endorse. So if you want to see how a demarchic council works, just look at any successful Royal Commission or any other influential advisory body, whether commissioned by some authority or claiming to influence public opinion.

    In particular I have had long experience of such bodies as have advanced the changes of views I listed in my last comment, ranging from bodies representing the case for immigration reform to that for native title. The success of those bodies has depended entirely on convincing public opinion that what they recommended was based on solid argument, taking account of all the relevant considerations. Only in that way has it been possible to give the lie to the inevitable accusation that they were just another self-interested minority. Any proposal for significant change must start as small minority. The only hope it has of becoming accepted is on the basis of the arguments it advances.

    That strategy has proved very successful when it has been directed towards changing public opinion rather than influencing governments directly. The trouble with all efforts to influence political parties directly is that inevitably the task of arriving at a conclusion is dominated by the need to make that conclusion as attractive as possible to the parties you want to influence. That is the case whether the committee is officially appointed or purely voluntary. In any case, governments only pay attention to such committees telling them something they don’t want to hear when they cannot avoid doing so, usually because public opinion demands that they take notice.

    The conclusion, on which all my proposals are based, is obvious. What we need to get good decisions are committees that strive to enlighten and articulate public opinion, focussing certain debates on very specific problems.


  6. John,

    >. . . bodies representing the case for immigration reform to that for native title. The success of those bodies has depended entirely on convincing public opinion that what they recommended was based on solid argument, taking account of all the relevant considerations. . . . Any proposal for significant change must start as small minority. [my emphasis]

    Aha I now understand what you mean. What you refer to as “public opinion” is the “small minority” that frequented Habermas’s beloved coffee-houses. But, as Habermas acknowledged, (effective) rule by the liberally-educated elite ended with the expansion of the franchise and the development of the welfare state. Starbucks and McDonalds have enabled the masses to sip their cappuccinos but the conversation would be unlikely to extend to a consideration of the deliberations of a demarchic committee. Unfortunately for your project, the masses have most of the votes, so the “small minorities” will still have to smuggle in their agenda by subterfuge under the smokescreen of bread and circuses as before. According to the Burnheim principle, democracy is neither possible, nor desirable — what we need is government according to principles decided by a small minority of educated and rational persons. This is generally called aristocracy, and I’m sure Calvin would approve wholeheartedly.


  7. Keith > aristocracy

    I recall your waxing lyrical about the behaviour of the aristocrats depicted in the famous painting you reproduced of Victorian politics.

    Of course creative ideas do begin with a few people and filter through journalism and conversation to become generally accepted. That is the answer to Nietzsche’s fear that democracy stifles creativity, imposing mediocracy. We have some way to go, especially in class-ridden England, to open up participation in creative thinking to anybody who is interested. As long as aristocracy does not mean hereditary privilege, anybody who is in favour of exploring our potential must be in favour of it.

    It is a sad day when conservatives like you have to rely on exploiting ignorance to counter the force of ideas. Naturally, I do not approve of “smuggling ideas under a smokescreen of bread and circuses. So I’m against politics of any stripe that depends on advertising techniques to manipulate the electorate. Only conservatives, anxious to stop change at any price think that sort of tactic. Whar my experience suggests is that when ordinary people see a salutary change as a practical pro[osap, not just a theoretical possibility, they readily grasp its point.
    If people generally do not come to understand and value a change, no amount of exhortation or legislation or administrative or policing action is going to make it work.

    In my experience there is not alot of hereditary succession among thinkers. Their offspring usually choose other avocations, and there is a continual renewal of the intellectual “aristocracy” from outside it.


  8. >I recall your waxing lyrical about the behaviour of the aristocrats depicted in the famous painting you reproduced of Victorian politics.

    Was this the reproduction of the Palmerston/Disraeli painting in The Party’s Over? This was in the section on the history of the political party and indicated that before the second reform act the chamber of the House of Commons was still a deliberative forum. I don’t recall this as an evaluation of aristocracy.

    >I’m against politics of any stripe that depends on advertising techniques to manipulate the electorate. Only conservatives, anxious to stop change at any price think that sort of tactic.

    The example I provided was of socially progressive changes being smuggled in by a Labour Government against a public opinion that was, at best, indifferent, if not actively hostile. I still await your example of public opinion obliging elected governments to implement socially progressive policies. Public opinion is currently forcing governments in the Eurosphere in an anti-liberal direction on immigration and asylum seeking. I know little of Australian politics but I imagine the government’s position on asylum seeking is broadly in line with public opinion. As for the US, Trump has significant popular support.

    >If people generally do not come to understand and value a change, no amount of exhortation or legislation or administrative or policing action is going to make it work.

    The evidence that I’ve already cited would indicate that the direction of causality is the other way round. The one thing I do agree with you is that exhortation doesn’t work, that’s why I’m no fan of the pulpit. But if you change the law then people in the end come to accept the changes, so long as they don’t directly affect their interests. In the long run they may even come to understand and accept the arguments (on equality, social justice etc) that led to the change in the law, but the notion that subjecting the electorate to a dumbed-down version of the Oxford PPE syllabus as a prelude to the reform of public policy along rational lines is absurd.


  9. Keith> causality

    There are few activities more pointless than arguing about causality in social contests in general terms. All the concepts are far too slippery. I certainly do not want to base my suggestions on any such general claims. It is clear, as your own example of the present tendency of European opinion shows, that public opinion can influence government policy. You may even be right in claiming that in the past the causality has been usually in the other direction. If so, my aim is eventually to change it.

    Nor do I think public opinion is generally progressive. In the normal course of things it is conservative. My conviction is that it is absurd to be totally dedicated to conservatism or progressivism. What I want is to take each problem that arises on its specific merits. Inevitably in some cases that will involve a conscious change in behaviour. In some respects such changes will bear resemblances to the past, thus pleasing conservatives, while in other perspectives they may appear as a break with the past.There are always very many differences and similarities to draw on, many different levels of abstraction and many ways of claiming significance as events are allocated different roles in different narratives.

    So I agree with your remarks about subjecting the electorate to a version of Oxford PPE.

    That does not mean I am a sceptic. In particular, I am not a sceptic about moral considerations, only about moral theories that pretend to reduce all moral considerations to a single set of principles, or draw a sharp line between moral and non-moral considerations.


  10. My point is simply that people will act in their own interests and that to imagine that public policy can be determined by the exchange of reasons is utopian in the extreme, particularly when power is still vested with people who do not participate directly in the exchange of reasons. You like to think that you’ve removed power from politics but have overlooked the fact that it is simply transferred from politicians to raw public opinion. If this is true then demarchy cashes out as populism.


  11. Apologoied to all

    I have just discovered that I have been making my comments as “Anonymous” which was certainly not my intention. I suppose that in the unlikely event that people have been following the sparring match between me and Keith they would have little difficulty in identifying the responses to Keith as mine. I was not trying to hide!


  12. Keith > interests

    First, a clarification of a point you raised in an earlier comment. You said, correctly, that there is nothing to prevent stacking the panel from which the particular demarchic council is to be chosen and charged with developing a practical proposals out of the open forum debates.
    But that can only be of very limited value to any particular interest.
    The sortition process works only within the categories of the diverse interests most strongly affected. The council is designed to produce a balanced sample of those interests.

    It might be easy to stack the panel so that a particular view of some one of those interests was very likely to prevail in that particular area, but it would be hugely improbable that the stacker could ensure that most of the diverse interests were represented by a single view. If that happened it would surely be so obvious that the whole thing would be aborted. As I freely admit, if people want to wreck the process, nothing is going to stop them doing so.

    As for your main point, that “people will act in their own interests” I certainly hope that they do. The situation in which they are acting is one of a problem that can only be resolved by collective action, where failure to reach agreement is complete failure, which is against everybody’s interest. The only way that members can secure the best result for their own particular interest in the matter is by negotiation with competing interests to secure a mutually advantageous outcome. This applies just as much to hostile interests such as attempts to negotiate an exit from violent conflict as it does to the most cooperative of groups.

    The great danger to demarchy, as to all social cooperation, is that people are so often guided, not by their interests, but by their passions, their blind hatreds, ideological fanaticism, irrational fears and sheer malice. Nobody can deny the importance of such factors in our histories or fail to see how adversarial power politics provides them with encouragement and opportunities. One of the most important strands of that historical movement called the Enlightenment has been to devise ways of managing public affairs according to the interest involved, to the exclusion of the passions. In spite of considerable successes, it has often failed, as my proposals may well fail.

    One crucial point about interests that is insufficiently appreciated is that we all have many competing interests in most public matters. Most obviously, we want the best environment we can get, but do not want to pay what it costs; the best protection against potential harm, without the curbs on our behaviour that we must share with everybody else, and so on. It is normally the case that we can reach a resolution of the ways in which these conflicts of interest affect us personally only to the extent that the society in which we are embedded succeeds in reaching a stable resolution of each of them. one’s ability to drive safely depends on there being an agreed pattern of safe driving that makes it possible to rely on the behaviour of others.

    Most people, most of the time; find it most convenient and congenial to abide by the rules that govern social behaviour. They have a very large investment in their reliance on them and the mutual trust they engender.
    But that very trust offers opportunities to those motivated by anti-social passion or a myopic view of their own interests to exploit that trust. In particular matters it is necessary to curb such behaviour, but such punitive action must depend on very feneral acceptance of and adherence to the rule.


  13. John,

    >The sortition process works only within the categories of the diverse interests most strongly affected. The council is designed to produce a balanced sample of those interests.

    This is not specified in your book — in fact you claim (with deliberative theorists in the tradition of Burke) that any attempt to achieve numerical balance will re-introduce interest aggregation by the back door. How can balance be achieved with a council of 12 drawn from people who nominate themselves? Who decides the categories and the weighting to be allocated to each one?

    As for your claim that it is in the interest of all (partial) interests to negotiate a working compromise, that is only true of committees with power and responsibility. The deliberations on this forum have shown conclusively that, absent such power/responsibility, there is no incentive whatsoever to compromise.

    I would agree, of course that interests are generally overwhelmed by passions, but that is standard Madisonian/Calvinist political theory — reason is the exception rather than the rule. There is scant evidence that this perennial truth has been overcome by the Enlightenment.


  14. Keith >this is not specified in your book

    You claim that nowhere in the book do I mention a balanced representation on the councils. On the contrary, on p13, where I outline my key proposal point 4 reads”the members of the council will be selected by lot eithin certain categories,reflecting the different ways in which ordinary people are most strongly and directly affected by the policies under discussion.” This point is further amplified in the discussion of representation on p77 and on p85.

    You confude this point with the fact that I reject any pretensions that such representation endows the council with any caim to speak on behalf of those it represents. In my view those reps are there sollely for what they can contribute to an sound discussion. It is up to the people whose interests the councils are discussing to decide for themselves whether the deliberations of the council are sound.

    “As for your claim that it is in the interests of all interests yo negotiate a working compromise, that is only true of committees with power and responsibility.” Far from being true that is completely false. All advisory committees, no matter how appointed do not have power. They aspire to it. If they fail to reach substantial agreement, they have no advice to offer. They are a failure. They can acquire influence and recognition only by the quality of the arguments they adduce more or less unanimously. A committee that has power to decide authoritatively may be content to achieve a majority verdict. They may well have less incentive to seek agreement.

    As for responsibility, anybody who undertakes seriously to offer advice must accept the responsibility of acting according to proper standards of argument. If it becomes apparent that they are not observing those standards, their claims will be dismissed.

    Enlightenment is winning, much as yu may dislike it. I t will win more surely if we can establish better form of public decision-making.


  15. John,

    Your proposal is certainly Burkeian in the sense that a single MP for the manufacturing interest could represent Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield ‘virtually’. But we still need more specifics as to how these ‘interests’ are to be identified and by who. And it remains the case that Burke’s system of virtual representation via the exchange of reasons between wise and virtuous individuals was destroyed by the expansion of the franchise in the following century. Given that demarchy functions by the intermediation of the general public — obliging elected governments to follow the recommendations developed by the councils — why do you believe your proposal will not be subject to the distortion of the public sphere in a mass society. These are the problems developed in 2, 3 and 4 of Naomi’s thoughtful post questioning why:

    2. Anyone will care what these councils have to say even if they were to come to consensus as a general rule.
    3. A consensus found in one of these councils will actually mirror the future social consensus of society.
    4. There will someday be found a consensus in society on any particular political issue of the day.

    You are making some very strong assumptions regarding the rational public once the tyranny of electoral politics is removed. What evidence would you like to offer in support of this assumption?


  16. Keith and Naomi > consensus and public opinion.

    First, what do I mean by public opinion? The body of view about matters of fact and value that commentators commonly take for granted in arguing for or against practical proposals or assessing the performance of both public and private and public individuals and organisations. That body of opinion is in many respects continually changing as people adapt individually and collectively to new situations that arise out of actual changes in reality and changes in our knowledge or we confront various inconsistencies in that body of received opinion.

    That body of opinion naturally varies in many respects from one particular partial community to another. That is not a problem as long as each remains open to new considerations. Historically such communities have often been closed and hostile to each other, for two reasons: One is that many people of every level of education are not content to accept that the particular version of public opinion that is fundamental to the life of the community with which they identify is, in its distinctive content, just an opinion that is open to revision. So they seek to sanctify those opinions and vilify any departure from them. They refuse to accept that what they value so much is really so precarious. That kind of concern is fading as people become aware of the possibility of understanding and learning from others and find themselves forced to live among those who get on quite well without their dogmatism. Intellectually it has become increasingly obvious that the sort of absolute foundational truth that religions and philosophies have claimed to deliver is not attainable, and practically people have found such systems too constricting, as they come to appreciate the positive value of thing the system excludes.

    Unfortunately, in reacting against dogmatism, there has been a tendency to relativism and individualism that obscures the fact that rational argument about matters of both fact and value is possible in many matters and that there is very good reason for trying to develop appropriate ways of enhancing our capacity to do that wherever possible. The living complex of our knowledges and values is at the core of our collective and individual identities. A rich and fulfilling life for most of us depends on discovery of new opportunities to share in that process.

    The other reason why communities have tended to shut themselves off from each other is that they have been dominated by situations in which the major patterns of access to the means of living have been settled by violence, wars of one sort or another. Those who possessed superior capacity for organised violence have felt entitled to take the means of livelihood away from the weak and exterminate or enslave them. Not only the whole of the settler communities to which so many of our advanced democracies belong, but at least the margins of the older nation-states have been established by violence. In order to resist invading violence communities have had to rely on mobilising their members to sanctify the defence of the community by opposing violence with equal violence. That in turn involves suppressing, by violence where necessary, any internal divisions that may weaken the power of the state to mobilise violence. In that context, constructive politics have been a matter of finding substitutes for violence in deciding “who gets what”.

    Unfortunately, the systems of voting that have been developed in that role perpetuate the adversarial frame we inherited from our violent past. Indeed, our reliance on violence in certain circumstances remains. Some countries continue to believe that in dealing with countries where democratic voting is not yet established the true democracies have every right to intervene by violence on a range of pretexts. It should be clear by now that such intervention is inevitably counterproductive, whatever the pretext.

    My contention is that we must wean ourselves away from adversarial politics to see politics as a matter of building genuine public goods. Many things are, of course, important public goods, even though they are not generally recognised as such. In the past it was often assumed that the judgement of what is a public good should reside with some privileged person or class who possessed the wisdom required, and that heir subjects should bow to those judgements. The reaction against that false assumption has been to give equal formal weight in making such decisions to everybody, no matter how little thought they have given to the matter, either on the moralistic assumption that they will all attempt to do so, or on the pragmatic ground that that is the only way of arriving at an acceptable decision in a community that is divided on many matters of common interest.

    Adversarial politics runs together two questions that should be distinguished: who is to rule? and what policies should the rulers implement? Who is to rule is a simple zero-sum game, as is appointment to any position, but the considerations that are involved in choosing the people who are to occupy executive positions are inevitably a complex mixture of those relating to the particular talents required of them and those relating to their intentions in implementing the policies they are expected to legislate and administer.

    In modern democracies it is generally acknowledged that election to office dies not entitle the office holders to do whatever they judge to be required or authorised by the intentions that they announced as candidates. They must take account of public opinion on specific issues, and commonly pretend to do so. The trouble is that, although there is a great deal of public discussion, the agenda of that discussion is set by the adversarial framing of the issues that means that in some respects the issues are too narrowly defined by who has crucial influence, while in others they are too broadly ideological hopes and fears.

    What I suggest is that the initiative in proposing policy on specific issues as a matter of public opinion be vested in a process that has a sound claim to represent public opinion on that issue. The underlying idea is that it is not desirable that constructed public goods be forced on people, but that they be generally recognised as a shared benefit, or at least an acknowledged necessity.
    A piece of legislation, for example is only likely to be a good if it enables people to coordinate their actions with each other in predictable ways to their advantage and that of social order. People must feel that it is valuable to them both personally and as an attribute of their community, not something imposed by some dubious majority or dogmatic view of the common good.

    In my book I acknowledge very explicitly that the relatively simple formula that I suggest should be our starting point is not going to be capable of dealing with many crucially important problems and tentatively offer some other suggestions. I offer no suggestions about better means of choosing our politicians. However, I disagree with most kleroterians to the extent that they seem to suggest that the same body be responsible for policy on all matters. I do not think that any such body can get to the bottom of all the various issues that call for collective decision. However, when I put this objection to them their usual reply is that my point could be met by the large body setting up suitable sub-committees. That would converge with my suggestions and concerns, and might indeed be the best long-term solution, especially if the jurisdiction of various authoritative bodies could be detached from the narrow confines of nation-states.

    As I see it the various proposals you list as failures to agree are mainly incompatible only to the extent that they claim more for their proposals than is warranted. I have no quarrel with Stone or Gat, and in fact rely on considerations they adduce. I’m unsure about the relation of Boyles ideas to mine, and about how Bouricius ‘s would meet the point I made about specialisation. I think Keith’s proposal rests on a mistaken foundationalism. Throughout my book I rely on the image of a polity as an ecosystem in which various organisms and configurations of organism strive to reproduce themselves and adapt to or exploit changes in their environment. Our distinctive difference from other organisms is that where they have to rely on chance to supply them with the changes in their genes needed for them to adapt, we can devise procedures that enable us to do so by changing our behaviour. That is always something of an experiment and experiments can go very wrong. But nothing risked, nothing gained. Worse, there are some consequences of our own actions that will cause us great harm unless we do something effective about them.

    We cannot design our own ecosystem, only make small changes here and there that maybe adaptive to a changing situation that are likely to be unwelcome in many respects. The crucial thing is that we do our best to find out just what is causing our problems and what we can do about them. We have to get behind crude desires and interests, just as we have to get behind appearances to understand the world. Our social thinking is mostly incapable of the sort of general truths we can discover in the physical sciences. I think people generally have come to realise this and are looking for promising suggestions about how to go about dealing with it.

    If anybody cares to read my book they will find that I acknowledge that the simple procedures I begin with open up a host of other questions. I am merely offering an opening strategy. Most kleroterian proposals have no practical chance of succeeding in the present situation.

    Finally, short answers to Naomi’s short questions. As such they are inevitably simplistic.

    Q2. People do not know what to do about most political matters. They should welcome a determined attempt to get the thing right.

    Q3. It won’t “mirror” anything. It may shape a wider consensus if it is accepted as the best suggestion on offer. Not that everybody will agree with it, but it should be seen to offers as good a practical agenda as is likely to be available.

    Q4. There will be no consensus that is not contested. The consensus on homosexuality has changed completely. That does not mean that there are no blatant homophobes around as well as a lot more inconsistent waverers.


  17. John,

    Your long excursus on foundationalism, relativism and adversarial politics/militarism could have been expressed more concisely by quoting from John Lennon’s 1971 song:

    Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace…

    Assuming Naomi’s highly-focused discursive style to be indicative of good demarchic practice, let’s consider her points in turn, where she doubted whether:

    1. These councils will be able to come to consensus as a general rule.

    Using EbL as an example of demarchy in practice, I see no evidence for any of the self-appointed council members (yourself included) making any progress towards compromise or consensus. If your ideas have changed at all as a result of the deliberations of this council they have become more entrenched in that you no longer consider yourself to be a kleroterian and have picked up the mantle of John the Baptist in the desert.

    2. Anyone will care what these councils have to say even if they were to come to consensus as a general rule.

    Your response here is a normative one — what people “should” do, not what they are likely to do.

    3. A consensus found in one of these councils will actually mirror the future social consensus of society.

    Your response — “It may shape a wider consensus if it is accepted as the best suggestion on offer” begs question 2.

    4. There will someday be found a consensus in society on any particular political issue of the day.

    Your response (on homosexuality) ignores the fact that the change in public opinion has resulted from the change in the law, not the other way round. And to describe the new public opinion as a consensus is wishful thinking, especially where conservative and religious sub-groups (who would object to being called “blatant homophobes”) are concerned.

    5. These councils will generally come up with better ideas than specially constructed think tanks do today.

    Response awaited.

    >Keith’s proposal rests on a mistaken foundationalism.

    Yes, since the so-called “constructivist turn” in representation studies there is a growing view that there is no such thing as a public in need of representation, only “representative claim-makers” in search of an “audience”. I view my project as the traditional one of enfranchising the silent majority in the face of these new incarnations of elite theory.

    >Most kleroterian proposals have no practical chance of succeeding in the present situation.

    Why so? The many proposals for allotted upper houses, or public enquiries with allotted juries would appear to be pushing at an open door.


  18. Keith >Naomi’s questions

    1. They will reach agreement. All advisory bodies, whatever their status can only offer advice if they come to agreement about what to say. They will need to gibe at least the appearance of having arrived at that agreement by an appropriate procedure. Even fully empowered bodies need to give evidence ot that . Otherwise they risk being seen as imposing arbitrarily.
    The Ebl is in no way like a practical advisory committee. It is a matter of theoretical debating, far removed from any agreed particular advisory task.

    2. Why take notice? Faced with a complex of competing consideration and the need to arrive at an acceptable practical decision ,we normally do not know what to do. It is rational to follow the outcome of a genuine effort to reach an agreed solution that respects all the considerations involved. The only alternative is not engage in joint action, which in many cases is to fail to do what is needed.

    3. I do not beg Q2.

    4. No consensus? I have offeres a long list of matters where the consensus has changed. That does not mean unanimity. The test of consensus is that the onus is on the dissenter in public discussion. “I am not a racist, but….” Of course there are often highly organised bodies that profess dissent, but their members do not. Ireland is nominally RC, but a sizable majority voted for same -sex mattiage, against the injunctions of the clergy.

    5. The operations of think tanks are not publicly and openly conducted, because they commonly represent a particular point of view. In any case, if they have anything to say on an issue they can contribute to the comprehensive debate.

    The silent majority is a conservative myth. Its only strength is that in regard to many issues many people don’t care, and don’t want to be subjected to pressure.

    If anybody comes up with a practical proposal for an upper house by sortition, I shall support it.


  19. John,

    Thanks for the clear and concise response.

    >The silent majority is a conservative myth. Its only strength is that in regard to many issues many people don’t care, and don’t want to be subjected to pressure.

    That certainly accords with your overall perspective that people who care passionately about, and can produce the best arguments in favour of a public policy option should predominate. Very often the only argument for the status quo is that it has enabled us all to muddle along, whereas the rationally-derived alternative may well have unforeseen consequences. I think this has been the case with the majority of the liberal reforms that you list originating from the 1960s counter-culture. You frequently introduce Darwinian metaphors (ecosystems etc) in defence of the case for demarchy but choose always to favour rationalism over the survival paradigm. I think you should re-read Burke’s Reflections.

    My other concern is that your privileging of the discursively gifted over the swinish multitude (this is where I part company with Burke) is aristocratic. In our conversation regarding representative isegoria you claimed that what may be true for the Guardian, Independent and Times does not apply to the Sun, Mail and News of the World. This is objectionable from the perspective of democratic norms but I’m confident that demarchy won’t work anyway as the link between the discursive output of the councils and executive action is pressure from the electorate. A lot more voters read the Sun and the Mail than the Guardian and the Times so, bearing in mind that we are dealing with real-time policy specifics (as opposed to aggregated party packages) it will no longer be possible to smuggle in the liberal agenda under the cover of general policies designed to buy off the silent majority (Sun and Mail readers). This is Naomi’s second point and there is no good reason to believe that the “rational” alternative will predominate over what you would dismiss as propaganda and “highly organised bodies that profess dissent”. Notwithstanding the efforts of the New Democracy Foundation, public opinion is likely to remain much the same and the demarchs will end up talking amongst themselves.


  20. Keith > majorities

    Thanks to you in trun for your latest appreciation of my position.

    I don’t think politics, or almost anything else, should be looked at as a matter of who predominates, but of which conxiderations, procedures and processes predominate, when it comes to solving problems of any sort. On the other hand, I am a pragmatist, not a rationalist. I do not think that there is any procedure that is necessarily going to give the right answer to every question, much less a comprehensive set of answers to all important questions. I use the ecosystem model or metaphor to emphasise that we survive, reproduce and perhaps improve within a very complex and mostly unpredictable world into which we are plunged and to which we have to adapt, sometimes by chance, sometimes by design, as best we can, sometimes defensively, sometimes constructively. Whether we act boldly or just muddle through in regard to any particular problem, we run risks, on the one hand of unforseen consequences, on the other of rejecting the opportunity to solve a t least some of our problems.

    Admittedly, some of us are meddlers, who are always hyping problems and getting on the nerves of people who are quite comfortable with how things are. Obviously, there are continuous gradations here, but they do not coincide with degrees of intellectual commitment. What is true is that it is mainly the intellectuals who come up with the new ideas that are central to social change, but jdeas become widely accepted only as a result of changes in what people do that prove advantageous or at least attractive. to them. It is necessary that both the apparent advantages and apparent attractions need to be kept under continuing critical review. Both the inertia of those who can’t be bothered to think and the enthusiasm of those who relish novelty need to be countered by suitable checks and balances.

    One of the reason for emphasising the sort of procedures I advocate, which do have the undemocratic consequence of giving more influence to those who actively concern themselves with problems of public policy, is that most people are too much immersed in their own concerns to give much attention to politics.
    I’m thinking not just of those who struggle to sustain themselves and their families, nor of those who concentrating on their own selfish ends, but also of very many people who make huge contributions to our stock of public goods, are genuinely devoted to the pursuit of knowledge or aesthetic excellence, and feel that they cannot afford the time to take a serious interest in political problems, unless they impinge directly on their work. Politics is only a small part of what matters in our lives. Most of these people, if they vote at all, tend to rely on traditional allegiances to parties or on an impressionistic assessment of their leaders. I find that very many such people are dissatisfied with the results of that regime and would readily go along with a better system of discussion and formulation of public policy.

    As more people come to recognise the deficiencies of party politics, the number and importance of the swinging vote increase. At least in the short run, what I rely on is that sufficient of the swinging voters will endorse the work of demarchic councils to ensure that they prevail.


  21. John,

    >I don’t think politics, or almost anything else, should be looked at as a matter of who predominates, but of which considerations, procedures and processes predominate, when it comes to solving problems of any sort.

    Yes, that’s the normative goal of deliberative democracy. But given that political power is an empirical reality, you can’t abolish it by fiat. Your proposal does not involve removing power from elected politicians, you simply claim that they will implement policies on specific issues that align with informed public opinion and will no longer aggregate them into packages that involve log-rolling, pork-trading and other compromises necessitated by realpolitik. But is this plausible?

    1. Naomi is rightly sceptical as to whether the vast mass of voters will accept (or even notice) the verdict of a small group of unauthorised volunteers/activists. The demarchs may or may not convince a tiny group of concerned citizens with the time and inclination to scrutinize the proceedings, but why should elected governments follow suit? The media are unlikely to pay any heed as newspapers are less interested in reporting than promoting the views of their own commentators/editors and/or reflecting the views of their readers.

    2. The dispassionate search for truth is an estimable goal but in political matters there is no such thing as truth, only beliefs and interests.

    >What I rely on is that sufficient of the swinging voters will endorse the work of demarchic councils to ensure that they prevail.

    This is highly unlikely for the reasons stated so eloquently by Naomi. If people no longer have faith in the delegation of political responsibilities to trusted representatives (selected either on the basis of character/reputation or interest-alignment) then they are more likely to have faith in representation by proxy (via large randomly-selected juries). Your suggestion — that they will accept the verdict of demarchic councils because they are (epistemically) “sound” — suffers from the problem that the “soundness” of the verdict will only be open to evaluation by hindsight, as plausible reasons can only partly anticipate real-world outcomes.


  22. Keith > acceptance

    1. “Naomi is rightly sceptical….” As I have already pointed out, I end my book saying that my arguments are unlikely to influence many people unless the concrete practices they suggest are embodied in rituals, events , and dramatic appeals. If that happens, they will be reported and talked about both in the public media and the twitterverse. There is, I concede, a chicken and egg problem here, but evolution, both in Nature and in Society, solves such problems all the time, with surprising results.

    2. Swinging voters unseat governments frequently. That is how our system works. Their discontent is often focussed on the failure of the incumbents to respond to a few salient problems. It is just a matter of achieving that salience.

    Of course, there is no subjectivity-independent truth of the matter in any particular practical matter. But there are in any community at any time in most matters (and in all communities in relation to the basic innate dispositions of people) sets of reasons for explaining and justifying actions of various kinds that are generally accepted and largely internalised by nearly everybody who is not alienated from their community. We can and do discuss choices in relation to these considerations both in deliberating about what to do ourselves and in attempting to act jointly with others, usually successfully. When that consensus is lacking there is conflict. But that can be minimised by improving our agreed understandings, as we have been doing over the past few centuries.


  23. Spot the difference:

    J.B: “my arguments are unlikely to influence many people unless the concrete practices they suggest are embodied in rituals, events, and dramatic appeals.”

    J-J.R: civil religion, necessary to maintain faith in the common good, “has its dogmas, its rites, its external worship prescribed by the law”. Without such “sentiments of sociability . . . it is impossible to be a good citizen”.

    Rousseau, of course, firmly believed in the need for consensus and a general will which should predominate over partial interests, factions and beliefs and was conscious of the need for a civil religion to achieve this consensus. If this is alien to the demarchic model, then what do you mean by rituals, events and dramatic appeals? Rousseau would have agreed with demarchy regarding the role of the delegated government (putting into practice the general will), the only difference appears to be how the will is determined — in Rousseau’s case by all citizens (silently) deliberating together, in Burnheim’s case a tiny demarchic oligarchy who’s task is to refine and enlarge public opinion. I suppose the demarchic council would be what Rousseau referred to as “the legislator”:

    “the legislator ensures that the law supports the preservation of the state. The legislator protects the law from being manipulated by private wills, and also aids the people in weighing the short-term benefits of a decision against its long-term costs.”

    He would have also approved of the separation between moral and physical power at the heart of the demarchic model.


  24. Keith> Rousseau (is is going to be a hash of what I lost in failing to post)

    Any community or organisation that is more than a mere voluntary agreement whose only purpose is to serve whatever the members desire depends for its unity on a sense of a common identity focussed on goods that are worth producing and preserving quit independently of what individuals happen to desire. Most people feel the need to share in such goods and identify with some such goods, be it a sporting team an artistic tradition or movement a great commercial enterprise, a political or religious body.

    They naturally surround key activities in these pursuits with rituals that express their identification with them, They express the significance they and their companions attach to them in images, poetry and song. They celebrate key events in their present pursuits as well as in stories about the past. Certainly, shared opinions are required, but not dogma such as religions depend on. In fact, religious dogmas, far from being foundational, are parasitic on the false belief that any good that is worthwhile must be derived from some transcendent source, a view to which Rousseau occasionally concedes the sort of acceptance that was very general in his day.

    The other false assumption that he may have shared with most of his contemporaries (though, as you remark, he is often very equivocal about it is that these foundational myths and practices must be backed by legislation. Even the Catholic church, after centuries of enforcing that view, finally decided at the second Vatican council that it is both false and counterproductive. People need to be educated to appreciate values, not forc


  25. John,

    Thanks for the clarification. It’s worth noting that Hobbes’s views on religion were a lot more liberal than Rousseau’s, as it was a purely private matter. Given demarchy’s need to shape a public consensus (not required by Hobbes), I think you might be a lot more reliant on Rousseau-style civic religion than you would like to believe. Rousseau had no interest at all in the transcendental foundations of religion, it was simply a civic necessity. He would certainly have denied the possibility of arriving at the general will through purely rational or discursive means and you appear to be acknowledging this through demarchy’s requirement for “rituals, events and dramatic appeals”. Needless to say liberals like me find this unsettling as it presupposes what Oakeshott called the enterprise model of association (universitas), as opposed to civil society (societas). Rousseauian universitas requires that associates are forced to be free, even if only by the forceless force of public consensus.


  26. Keith > Hobbes again

    Hobbes most emphatically did not advocate religious freedom as liberals understand it. The state must control or suppress religious authorities. Private beliefs are ok only because they don’t matter. The Hobbesian polity is purely a matter of external conformity. In my view that is absurd.

    A free polity does depend on consensus, but one in which all the elements are open to question and change by persuasion, which is only possible on the basis of appeals to consistency or to revaluation of the relative importance of some strands of the consensus, coupled with an exploration of changing technology and physical circumstances.

    I accept the broad lines of Oakeshott’s distinction, but I can’t recall him referring to civic consensus as a religion. I’m firmly on the societas side.
    But I refuse to be tagged with any of the systemisation that these and other classical theorists tend to lapse into. Social, political and philosophical matters are just not the sort of thing that we can be confident that we know what we are talking about.

    Analogy: Many of the medical conditions described and treated in my youth no longer exist. The “syndromes” of symptoms in terms of which they were described bear no relation to any single cause or set of causes. We know this, because we have some degree of genuine understanding of the sort of things that cause such conditions.

    The nearest we get to such knowledge in social matters is some understanding of the logical structures of various information-handling and decision-making procedures. That is the basis on which I try to argue.


  27. John,

    >Hobbes most emphatically did not advocate religious freedom as liberals understand it . . . A free polity does depend on consensus

    My concern is less the intentions of the original author than the outcomes of their philosophising in the real world. Although Hobbes may have advocated the control of religious doctrine by the prince (rather than quarrelsome priests), the unintended consequence has been the freedom of opinion and conscience valued by modern liberals. Citizens are free to believe whatever they like, so long as they observe the law. It’s no coincidence that Oakeshott, the prime theorist of the civil mode of association (societas), viewed himself as a Hobbesian liberal. The notion of consensus was abhorrent to him and the role of the state was limited to ensuring that citizens don’t bump into each other whilst going about their lawful business. What goes on inside citizens’ heads is of no concern to the state.

    Although Rousseau’s intentions may have been entirely benign, the consensus requirement (that you share) necessitates that citizens should be forced to be free — there is a thin line between persuasion and coercion. We are yet to learn the difference between between demarchy’s “rituals, events and dramatic appeals” and civic religion as understood by Rousseau and other consensus theorists. The requirement for consensus presupposes social engineering, and this is the principal characteristic of the enterprise mode of association (universitas. Ideally this can achieved via peaceful means (aided by rituals, events and dramatic appeals), but if not then the policeman is always available. No doubt the end (a society organised along rational lines) will justify the means.


  28. Keith > Hobbes etc.

    I agree. Let’s forget about what Hobbes, Rousseau et al actually said, or what they or others thought they were saying. At the same time I reject any claim that something that deserves to be called a Hobbesian liberal political agenda ever existed, or could have existed, and had any assignable effects, good or bad.

    Social reality is very much more complicated than any such simple model can usefully represent. The usual justification for appealing to such drastic oversimplification is that in planning political institutions one must plan for them to deal with the worst eventualities, not attempt to achieve the best. Granted the disasters inflicted on various societies by simplistic conceptions of the best, particularly those backed by appeals to various strands of dogmatic religions, that may seem a sound strategy. It is not.

    It appeals to the undoubted fact that very many people, perhaps even all of us, have a destructive streak, and that we are more or less impatient. When we are frustrated, as we inevitably are, in the pursuit of our goals, we find that destruction is always easier than construction, and can be very satisfying to that nasty streak in all of us, particularly when we manage to persuade ourselves that we are wreaking vengeance on what is evil.

    Recognising that natural tendency as inherent in our situation, one may take one of two directions. On the one hand, one may stress the importance of a powerful authority dedicated to curbing the destructive tendencies of people by punishing dangerous behaviour. On the other, one may stress the importance of finding ways os increasing the likelihood of people succeeding in constructive enterprises, partly by offering them more satisfying collective achievements in which they can participate freely and partly by assuring that they can pursue their private interests in ways that are compatible with others doing the same.

    The two strategies are not incompatible as long as the balance between them is established pragmatically. But it seems obvious to me that the latter must predominate. The first becomes necessary in a given situation only to the extent that the second fails. Civilisation is a matter of making cooperation easier and more congenial to all those other strands in our natures that we value more positively as enriching our lives in their many diverse dimensions.

    Since both strategies involve collective action and the recognition of various kins of authorities, each involves consensus, in the first case, about some ultimate Leviathan., as well as about the boundaries we must not transgress. In the second about the many different public goods which need to be constructed by collective action, as well as about the rules that define the boundaries we need to respect in the pursuit of our private goals.


  29. John,

    >one may take one of two directions.

    I’m using “Hobbist” and “Rousseauian” as a crude shorthand for this dualism, the former stressing the need for a powerful authority and the latter the need for a consensual general will.

    >The two strategies are not incompatible as long as the balance between them is established pragmatically. But it seems obvious to me that the latter must predominate. The first becomes necessary in a given situation only to the extent that the second fails.

    Hmm, your second sentence would appear to be a moral exhortation and the third is simply historically wrong. Take the example of the Arab Spring — it would not be entirely inaccurate to describe the Baathist regimes in Iraq and Libya as liberal in the Hobbesian sense — neither Saddam nor Assad gave a damn about their subjects’ religious convictions or practices so long as they did not interfere with matters of state. So the Yazidis and Christians were able to co-exist with Sunni and Shia, the only downside being that the state tended to privilege the interests of one group (for prudential Hobbesian reasons). Ask these minorities whether they are better off now? I was appalled to hear yesterday the British foreign secretary describe the grotesque chaos in Libya as a temporary glitch in the transition to a new stable form of government (standard neoconservative wishful thinking).

    I appreciate you will balk at my attempt to liken the Arab Spring uprising to a demarchic council, I’m merely pointing out that your claim “The first becomes necessary in a given situation only to the extent that the second fails” is historically inaccurate. But I do make an equation between the deliberate anarchism of demarchy and the real-world anarchy in Libya and would agree with Rousseau that the only practical way of achieving the sort of consensus that you seek will be a deeply illiberal one, in which people are forced to be free. If the “rituals, events and dramatic appeals” of the demarchic religion fail then it will be down to the policeman.

    >It appeals to the undoubted fact that very many people, perhaps even all of us, have a destructive streak.

    Hobbesians don’t need to make this claim, only the more modest one that we are all motivated by the prudential need for self-preservation and this necessitates that civic life should be subject to clear authority. The source of this authority is less important than the prudential need for survival. Just ask the Syrians.


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