Clarification after a week in the desert

1. There are very good grounds for believing that strong public debate over a short period of time, say five years, is extremely effective in changing public opinion and consequently political decisions to the extent that they are responsive to thoroughly well-considered public opinion.

I list a few triumphs for critical moral discussion in more or less random sequence in my experience:

  • The abolition of the White Australia mentality and the laws that implemented it.
  • The recognition of the rights of Indigenous people as the original owners of this land.
  • The recognition that women should be able to take full part as equals with men in every public activity.
  • The abolition of the assumption that women should be paid less than men.
  • The recognition of unions that are not formalised by marriage, and of the rights of people to premarital sex.
  • The recognition of the right to equal respect for same-sex couples as different-sex couples.
  • The rights of colonies to complete independence.
  • The rights of individuals and groups to cultural freedom within nation-states.
  • The abolition of racism as a basis for inferior treatment, socially, economically and politically.
  • The recognition of the need of the disabled to be able to participate fully in community activities.

All of these changes were brought about primarily by critical moral thinking coming to very generally accepted by people who had been educated in the contrary view. In hardly any respect were those who embraced those changes people who themselves benefited from them. The only sense in which they benefited was in their self-esteem and, as agreement grew, in the esteem of others. In almost every case, explicit political recognition of these changes followed enlightened, critical opinion. That is the core meaning of democracy, in my view, and my concern is to extend it.

2. Why does it need extending? For two reasons:

A. The sort of arguments that have appealed to people and changed their views in the matter listed above are instances of applying with increasing consistency the humanist morality of treating people as deserving of the sort of respect we would like to claim for ourselves, unless they explicitly forfeit it. That simple, basic morality is easy to understand and apply by ordinary people reflecting on their own experience and putting themselves in the shoes of other people. It works well as long as people are in a fairly secure position, even across significant cultural boundaries, as long as they focus on everyday social interactions. Moral arguments are not so clear when it comes to many important economic and political decisions. Thinking to help people, it is easy to do harm by neglecting the systemic consequences of our actions. The result is that it is relatively easy for those who enjoy political and economic power to gesture at public opinion in matters of personal morality, but ignore or confuse it when it comes to important systemic questions of production, exchange, employment and the use of force, secrecy and adversarial tactics.

So I conclude that we need a more focused sort of public discussion to bring these questions into the domain of effective public discussion, involving, not just considerations drawn from everyday experience but the best understanding available of the economics and politics. Of course, there is already a huge amount of such discussion, but predominantly of the wrong sort. It is dominated by those who want to convince us to adopt a very general theory of how everything in economics and politics works. Such views are commonly directed to practical applications that enable the power holders to ignore factors that don’t suit their agendas. It is clear enough that arguing about such ideologies is futile, as is judging what is to be done about specific problems by dogmatising about what is relevant to problems of a more general kind. It is the sort of thinking that assumes that ice and steam cannot have very different properties from each other because they are wholly made up of molecules of H2O. We need to understand each factor in a situation in its own general characteristics. But the same stuff forms very different wholes when organised in certain ways.

B. We face very severe problems that are largely unwelcome results of our own making, but now aggregated to a global scale, such as our global financial system and global warming. There may be no solution to such problems, but it is certainly most unlikely that they will go away or that we will chance on solution. We need to act, but only on the best understanding we can get of how these problem arise and what can be done to solve them. Just because an explanation or a line of action looks attractive to “common sense” does not mean that it won’t make things worse. On the other hand, we cannot leave it to the experts. Effective action on such problems is almost certainly going to demand coordination on a large scale and some hard -to-accept consequences. People generally have to be convinced that it is needed. So the experts must be examined in public discussion and plans developed that make as little demand as possible on people. I think that meeting these challenges is going to require resourceful, organised debate along the lines I have suggested.

11 Responses

  1. John,

    The examples of social liberalisation that you refer to are indeed indicative of a profound shift in public policy over the last half century or so. But what evidence do you have that politicians implemented these changes as a result of changes in public opinion? To cite just one contrary example, the government that was elected in the UK in 1997 was a result of the “New Labour” project which convinced the electorate that the Labour Party was no longer hostile to the upwardly-mobile aspirations of ordinary working people (“Mondeo Man” in the language of New Labour spin doctors). The liberal social reforms that you mention — in particular gay rights — did not play a significant role in the 1997 manifesto as there was little public pressure for them. Once in power, the New Labour liberal elite smuggled in the progressive reforms that you refer to and voters accepted them (albeit holding their noses) as the economy was booming and tax credits were being doled out to all and sundry, so it was a small price to pay (this is Labour MP Frank Field’s claim, not mine). There was certainly no public pressure to unlock the immigration floodgates. One of Blair’s successful electoral stunts was to make himself look more bulldog than the Tories, via an article in the Sun where he appeared wrapped in the Union flag. The fact that public policies were in practice to be shaped by the Oxford PPE curriculum — with its focus on “57 varieties of luck egalitarianism” (Jeremy Waldron) was kept hidden from the electorate.

    There is little evidence to support the demarchy model which assumes that public opinion changes first and the government responds to it, so it strikes me that you have got the process back to front — in fact policy changes first and public opinion catches up later on. Roy Jenkins ‘civilised’ the penal system while most Britons were still hangers and floggers — public opinion changed as a result of changes in the law, not the other way round. The law now obliges hoteliers and wedding-cake bakers to afford identical rights to gay couples and, with time, public opinion comes to accept the new regime, albeit with a shrug of resignation. And even if the direction of causation is as you claim, there is no reason at all to believe that the electorate would privilege the conclusions of a debate between a dozen self-selected persons, however public the deliberations may be.


  2. PS if New Labour had adopted the university seminar model that you propose, with full online publicity, then the liberal/progressive changes would not have taken place as they would have fallen foul of public opinion. These things have to smuggled in by the back door — that’s why voters are now so angry in the US, UK, France and everywhere else that has seen such an abrupt lurch to the right in public opinion. All the evidence would suggest that people are just not as reasonable as you would like to believe (or, more accurately, they employ reasons that are not attractive to liberal/progressive sensibilities).


  3. Keith > liberation and politics

    Do I glimpse a small ground of agreement? There is no doubt that people resent governments that introduce social legislation that is sen as contrary to public opinion, which is normally conservative in such matters. Rightly so, in my view. But as I have shown in many of the instances I have listed, public opinion is responsive to sensible arguments on specific matters, once they are disentangled from the stultifying tendency of ideologists to make all such changes test cases for their grandiose objectives of new Jerusalems or restoring the good old days. We make progress when we concentrate on particular problems and the particular effects of action to tackle them.

    The fallacy of Blair and so many politicians of every stripe is to think that “selling” themselves to the public is mainly a matter of advertising, of clever use of images and associations such as are the basis of the fashion trade. Faced with a choice between deceptive package deals, voters may be swayed by such superficialities. However, one thing is now crystal clear; voters do not accept that they are giving politicians a “mandate” to do anything that can be claimed to be part of the package they propose. they insist on being consulted about each major item. All their vote means is that in the circumstances they prefer this lot rather than the other. Unfortunately at that stage things have usually gone too far for specific public debate to be possible. The question get framed in terms of how voters propose to vote at the next election instead of the merits of the proposed legislation. Inordinate influence is given to noisy protesting minorities, to lies designed to raise groundless fears, and to manufactured hatred of fictionalised villains.Politics does become a matter of battling against enemies. Its proper purpose is the construction of necessary public goods.

    What you, in your “Calvinist” persona, see as human nature I see as the product of adversarial struggles for power. I think we have ample evidence that it is, at least in some matters, possible to do better. All that is necessary is that we accept that the ecosystem evolves according to its own various causal factors, some of which we can understand and some we can to a limited extent control if only we are generally convinced of the need to do so.


  4. Keith > seminar?

    My proposals are completely different from a university seminar, which is an exercise in exploration , in no way directed towards any conclusion, let alone a practical one.

    I realise that it has seemed so obvious to me that what I’m talking about is the standard everyday practice of consultative committees and of those directed at influencing public opinion, that nobody could possibly fail to see what I propose, which is simply to focus committees of that sort directly on public opinion rather than on political parties. It is a very simple idea, and I have explained at length my reasons for thinking it both desirable and practical.

    So I have been bewildered by the way in which you thrash around , assimilating my proposals with matters and positions that have nothing to do with them.

    It is a simple matter of fact that consultative committees do generally come up with practical conclusions based on consideration of all the factors that seem relevant to the issues, in an intellectually serious way.
    It may be that I am wrong in thinking that this kind of committee can flourish independently of the political context and achieve the status of an expression of public opinion. I give reasons for at least trying it.


  5. John,

    >But as I have shown in many of the instances I have listed, public opinion is responsive to sensible arguments on specific matters.

    I must have missed your exposition — can you remind me of any examples of public opinion being swayed by the sort of measured arguments that you are proposing?

    >[Exisiting] politics does become a matter of battling against enemies. Its proper purpose is the construction of necessary public goods.

    We are all of us (including elected politicians) aware of the problems of our current way of conducting politics and the normative case for doing it better. But if we want it to work then it should be based on evidence as to how public opinion has been shaped by balanced argument and how governments have responded to this. I’m not aware of any such evidence.

    >What you, in your “Calvinist” persona, see as human nature I see as the product of adversarial struggles for power.

    Again, what evidence do you have for a rational public, as opposed to one in which people seek to further their own interests?


  6. John,

    It is worth emphasizing that the items you list are not generally indicative of a move to greater consensus in the population overall—the old consensus positions had to break down first. Not too long ago homosexuality was illegal, and there was a very broad consensus behind that. What happens in between the collapse of the old consensus and the emergence of a new one is politics.

    Of course sometimes consensus is never found within the population. Centralization in the US has been an issue since before independence. In a very real sense the division between those who favor state-oriented policymaking and those who favor federal-level policymaking has been the defining political division in the US for over two centuries. A demarchic council will not come to consensus on this matter. This is not an issue that can be resolved by appealing to a value already held universally within the population (as was the case for the items on your list). Even where there is a moral consensus, that consensus is not necessarily without contradictions on an issue by issue basis. You can both condemn and defend abortion with equal efficacy by appealing to different values shared universally in the population. A demarchic council will not come to consensus on this matter. Until a new consensus is found we have no way of knowing whether one will be found at all on any given issue.

    It seems you want these councils to function as a surrogate for intense public debate in the population at large with the idea that if they come to a consensus where none exists in the population it would show where the future consensus will be or would be, given ideal conditions. It’s an interesting thought. And it is true that any government derived from the people will be in line with any genuine consensus in the population at large regardless of the institutional details. Yes. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that:

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

    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.

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

    Good ideas are cheap. Getting people to care about a particular good idea… now that’s the hard part.


  7. Naomi,
    A bit tangential but… you wrote:
    >” the division between those who favor state-oriented policymaking and those who favor federal-level policymaking has been the defining political division in the US for over two centuries.”
    I disagree… the state/federal dispute has merely been an excuse, or a matter of expediency for a variety of issues… when the side we favor controls the federal policy we favor state’s rights, and the reverse. People who defended “state’s rights” to maintain segregation might now defend Federal preemption to prevent state level efforts to regulate fracking or GMO labeling, Only a tiny handful of theorists ACTUALLY have consistent views on states s. federal authority.

    Bringing it back to relevance to this thread… The BULK of what passes for policy debate is opportunistic posturing or grand-standing that hides the actual underlying interests. A point I agree with John about is the value of finding a method get under the surface arguments to get at the REAL issues. I’m not convinced of his strategy, but embrace his goal.


  8. Naomi > consensus

    May I begin by endorsing wholeheartedly your final two sentences. They encapsulate a sentiment that, as purveyor of new ideas, I remind myself daily.

    Then I must correct a central misunderstanding. I thought I had made it perfectly clear that the councils I propose are entirely subsidiary to a completely open, but organised and focussed debate in which anybody can participate. The formula I use in the book is that the council’s task is to “distil” from that debate a practical conclusion. An open public debate, focussed on a very specific problem, will, I believe normally reach a general consensus about what features a solution to the problem should have. The task of getting down to practicalities inevitably involves detailed negotiation between those who bear most of the consequences of any particular concrete proposal. That sort of negotiation is possible only in relatively small groups.

    Inevitably, what emerges, even if it goes well, is just a proposal for action. Any such proposal is bound to be open to criticism that can be resolved ultimately only in practice. What I claim is that the proposals that emerge from this process are likely to be much better than those that emerge from the power-trading processes of current political practice. Whether I am right about that can be established only in practice. Obviously, I have an uphill battle even getting people to grasp what I am proposing, let alone putting the necessary resources into a full scale trial. My only consolation is that a few distinguished politicians, some people with a lot of experience in citizen juries and the like and a few academics think I may be right and that it’s worth trying. Making a start only requires getting enough people to engage in the forums I envisage and enough who are prepared to do the hard work of negotiations specific practical proposals to make an impression on public opinion. They will need a lot of publicity to attract attention.

    As I constantly emphasise, there is absolutely no way of resolving such broad questions as that of centralism in Federal constitutions with any finality. The range of considerations involved is so vague and open-ended and the weight that may be attached to one or other of those considerations is so context-dependent that there is nothing that can be pinned down. In practice what we do is make decisions on particular matters, such as what authority has the power to levy a certain kind of tax, and the cumulative effect of a host of such decisions is to alter the precedents in terms of which we argue about emerging cases and the conventions of hermeneutics and semantics that those cases come to exemplify.

    I strongly believe that so many issues are seen as “political” because people judge them in ideological terms as “creeping socialism” or runaway inequality”, instead of looking at the merits of proposals in relation to a particular shared problem. That is one of the reasons why public opinion is much less powerful than it should be in our collective decision-making. I urge that the first step is to take the initiative in proposing public policy away from the political parties and giving it to a suitably focussed process of public debate.

    There is not the slightest doubt that the very big changes in public morality that I look back on as I enter my ninetieth year have arisen primarily from moral debate. I think not just of sexual morality, but of racial attitudes, consideration for those suffering disabilities, the treatment of children, the particular problems of indigenous peoples, the value of cultural diversity and other areas of social behaviour. Of course, agreement on most of such matters is far from complete, but the onus has quite decisively changed. Eg “I’m not a racist, but….” My ambition is to bring about similar changes in our political culture, mainly by example.


  9. John,

    >I thought I had made it perfectly clear that the councils I propose are entirely subsidiary to a completely open, but organised and focussed debate in which anybody can participate.

    That wasn’t even clear to me who, as the editor and publisher of your new book, have read it carefully (twice), so thanks for the clarification. But it’s not at all clear to me how this will resolve any of Naomi’s five objections, absent your conviction that political differences are the product of ideology and power. For those of us who argue that politics is an attempt to civilise pre-existing cleavages this is simply not the case.

    >There is not the slightest doubt that the very big changes in public morality that I look back on as I enter my ninetieth year have arisen primarily from moral debate.

    I await your response to my earlier argument that the direction of causality is the other way round.


  10. Keith> public debate. and your awareness

    On the relations between the public forum and the council see pp13-14 point 5. the councillors “are there to comment publicly on and adjudicate between the various considerations raised in public discussion.” See also pp39-40. If readers hate what they are reading they often misread it, if one can believe the letters in the TLS.

    I admit that I could have emphasised the element of debate I hoped would emerge within public discussion itself. Talk of submissions may suggest that every intervention should be directed to the council. That was certainly not my intention. I was referring to the promise that interventions in discussion of the problem would be treated seriously. As the texts stands what it emphasises is that it is up to the open, explicit, public discussion to ensure that all the considerations relevant to the problem under deliberation are brought out clearly. That clearly supposes that contributors offer correctives to each other, if they think a certain consideration is being neglected.

    Although I think it is highly likely that public discussion focused on the specifics of the problem would tend to agreement, I was anxious not to rely on that happening.

    In regard to the direction of causation between public opinion and legislative action, in all the cases I listed legislation followed changes in public opinion. It happens, as you admit in the case of current European sentiment. Sometimes the causality is the other way, and often attempts to make it work that way fail, as in the Blair case.


  11. John,

    I’m unclear as to what you mean by “public opinion”. In the case of the reforms you list — especially minority rights, multiculturalism and wholesale levels of immigration — these were imposed on an unwilling or indifferent electorate by a tiny liberally-educated elite (many with Oxbridge PPEs), under the cover of bread and circuses. What you refer to as “current European sentiment” is the public backlash against this. You are right to use the word “sentiment” because public opinion knows, and cares, little about the distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers and is singularly poorly informed. Whilst politicians like Farage, Le Pen and Trump inflame these sentiments, in no sense did they cause them. None of this would give much hope to your aspiration for (effective) rule by the kind of rational and consensual public opinion that you hope to achieve under the influence of demarchic councils, for the five reasons that Naomi outlined (and you have yet to effectively address). The very obduracy and impermeability to the exchange of reasons demonstrated by Burnheim, Sutherland and Gat on this forum is a convincing demonstration of the impossibility of councils without power and responsibility arriving at a consensus. In terms of the different “interests” involved, the EbL (self-nominated) “council” is pretty representative of the sortition “industry”:

    Bouricius: epistemic democracy via microcosm
    Burnheim: public-sphere deliberation
    Sutherland: descriptive representation
    Gat: representation of interests
    Stone: prophylactic benefit of sortition
    Boyle: distribution by lot

    None of us are driven by an ideological agenda (although we all have an intellectual hinterland), and yet there has been no progress at all towards compromise, let alone consensus. Some of the council members simply refuse to engage with their counterparts and have even questioned their personal integrity. Meanwhile the ongoing silence of most followers of this blog would suggest that your hope for a widely-dispersed online exchange is fanciful.


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