Public opinion in crisis

A stable democracy depends on a sound public opinion. It is the essential basis of agreement about what is legitimate behaviour on the part of both public institutions and many of the relations of citizens to each other. It is the central common good or communities of most sorts.

The traditional notion of public opinion

Until the advent of continuous polling what was invoked by the phrase “public opinion” was a set of beliefs and attitudes that were assumed to be shared by nearly everybody in the nation concerning the grounds on which choices of public policies were to be judged and the performances of public activities to be assessed. As contexts change, depending on the degree to which different groups approve of those changes, differences emerge in many fringe situations. As long as there is a sense of community people deal with these differences mainly by agreeing to small verbal changes that accommodate certain important new demands without abandoning traditional formulae “I’m not a feminist, but…”

Public opinion in this sense was traditionally invoked by prominent public figures, politicians, journalists and intellectuals often with such phrases as “will not tolerate” or “demands” that a government do this or that. Such public protagonists assumed that their attempts to articulate the tacit understandings on which the society operated would be endorsed by the “general public” if they thought seriously about the matter. So churchmen would assume that as Christians their followers were committed to certain views, labour leaders that justice required a certain treatment of workers and business leaders that the rights of investors be respected. They would each attempt to represent such claims as reflecting a more fundamental agreement on the way the community needed to work of it was to flourish and command loyalty.

Right-thinking people accepted the blatant elitism of “opinion leaders” as natural. Most people had neither the ability nor the need to go too deeply into such matters. They could safely rely on their leaders and the traditions they exemplified. Such regimes flourished in “advanced” counties from mid-Victorian times up to the end of the Second World War, and the flood of social, economic, technological and political changes that it unleashed everywhere. The elites mostly lost their respectability and their claims to represent public opinion. Instead the Gallup polls asked individual citizens for an instant response to a set of controversial questions and tabulated the results as what public opinion in fact demanded. Voter defections threatened politicians with mathematical certainty.

Populism and polling

At the same time the new popular media displaced the old quasi-official interpreters of public opinion by celebrities who make no pretence to wisdom, much less to any responsibility to traditional institutions. It is by no means clear that the antics of the glitterati were all that serious. With the approval of their elders young people lined up for serious study, supported worthy causes. Youthful rebelliousness was probably no more prevalent than it always had been. But its prominence in the media and the impunity with which traditions were flouted by celebrities, shocked many who were conscious of the fragility of so many social bonds. Such groups lost confidence in the capacity of the mechanism of debate and compromise to preserve the integrity and stability of public opinion and were drawn towards authoritarian views of the situation, often dramatised by media “shock Jocks”.

All sides, traditional democrats, authoritarians and the impatient young were disillusioned with the weakness of the political parties with their factionalism and panicked reactions to the polls. If an underlying sense of public opinion survived in social practices, nourished on liberating changes in the treatment of women, racial minorities, children and the disabled, it served to emphasise the failures of the political institutions to face up to the strictly political problems facing all communities: global warming, overpopulation, nuclear weapons, an international financial system that increasingly made money primarily by manipulating money itself, refugees and the extinction of species. It is clear that all of these problems now pose themselves on a global scale and can be saved, if at all, only on a global scale. They call for a variety of highly specialised authorities to establish certain procedures and objectives. But such authorities will be able to enforce those procedures only through the cooperation of existing nation states.

An impossible task?

It is crucial then that public opinion in nation-states endorse the required specialised supranational authorities. Even at its best, public opinion has tended to be focussed on the nation-state in the absence of any substantive community of nations with anything like the everyday channels of communication and negotiation that link people and institutions in a national political and social network. Instead people have to rely on sporadic pieces of information and a good deal of imagination to form opinions about supranational and international problems.

Moreover, the nature of these problems is different from most domestic policy problems, where, in a stable and well-run framework of established practices, the largest differences of opinion are matters of differences about allocation of resources to accepted objectives and other matters of legitimate, relatively subjective preferences. The form it often takes is that of a collective decision about what we are prepared to pay for a selection of public goods. By contrast, the major issues listed above arise out of threats of unsustainable damage to our whole way of life, involving decisions that require curtailing our ordinary practices in the hope that others will accept similar restrictions in turn. We may be required to buy dearer electricity and other things while others continue to endanger our environment with impunity.

The natural reaction to such a likely outcome is to give up on doing much about our part in reducing pollution until there is a water-tight system in place that makes it vert difficult for anybody else to get away with failing to do their share. In some cases such a stance may be justified, but in very many cases it is not. The rational decision depends on weighing a number of considerations against each other. The costs of changing to renewable power may be transitory as the changes to infrastructure are amortised and new technology becomes cheaper than the old fossil fuels. The assurance that they will suffer no disadvantage in reaction to us may makes it more attractive from their point of view to follow our example. A great deal depends on the assurances the various populations have that it is really important in the relatively short run to start reducing emissions, even at some significant but acceptable cost.

There are aspects of the situation where we have to rely on the projections of experts, in spite of considerable margins of uncertainty and the possibility that, on the one hand, present prescriptions for dealing with global warming may prove ineffectual or, on the other hand, unnecessary. We have to decide how much to gamble on such possibilities. More importantly, we have to decide the pace at which to proceed, weighing reasons for procrastination against reasons for urgency. In domestic matters, such as investing in improvements to public transport in a particular situation, where very many people are affected in predictable ways, it is very often possible for a high degree of agreement or emerge from general discussion of the costs and benefits of competing proposals. Such agreement usually takes the form of a bell curve between extremes rather than endorsement of a particular plan. It is very much a matter of what people feel is acceptable by analogy with other cases of public goods involving similar considerations. It is a matter of what people are used to paying for public goods.

Where international matters of great importance and urgency are in question no such background or process is either possible or relevant. There is no functioning community with well-established practices of discussion and agreement. In any case, the problem is radically different. It is not a question of how much we are prepared to spend to gain certain benefits, but of what we must do to avoid catastrophe. It is not a matter of what we are comfortable with, but of what we have to get right. It calls for agreement based on the best science available. But even if we accept what the experts say about that, there is still need for a specific program detailing what is to be done about particular sources of emissions and at what pace. That clearly involves political, social and economic questions on which environmental scientists are no more competent to judge than anybody else. Is there any democratic way of handling such questions?

Rethinking public opinion

I have argued in The Demarchy Manifesto: for better public policy that the crisis in public opinion mentioned earlier demands that public opinion on specific practical matters of policy needs to be better informed, better deliberated and explicitly formulated so as to deserve its role as the yardstick by which we assess politicians, and the view to which the community feels committed.

I suggested that this could be achieved by a voluntary foundation taking the initiative in setting up a public forum on a specific problem to which any individual or body could contribute a written submission drawing attention to some consideration that others should take into account in discussing possible solutions to the problem. Anybody hoping to influence others would need to appeal to considerations relating to the particular public good in question rather than to ideological beliefs and interests. Such an open discussion should clarify and interconnect the various considerations relevant to a collective decision on the matter.

However, it is to be expected that people will differ about the relative weight to be attached to different considerations. In order to draw a practical proposal from the forum a relatively small committee, statistically representative of those most directly affected by the problem in question would be charged with distilling a proposal from the considerations debated in the forum. Inevitably any particular proposal may be different from what a different group might equally well have decided, but if the process was wholly transparent and open to comment at every stage, it should be able to claim to be as good as any similarly derived competitor, and at least worth trying.

If such a process gains wide support, it should, rationally at least, be able to claim clearly superior title to represent serious pubic opinion that either traditional notions or ill-considered responses to polls.

Among the problems that it might be called on to consider is what initiatives the state should take in addressing the global problems I have mentioned.

Not that those problems can be solved at the national level, but that is where the process of evolving a solution must begin.

32 Responses

  1. “Instead the Gallup polls asked individual citizens for an instant response to a set of controversial questions and tabulated the results as what public opinion in fact demanded.”

    Reflecting on your summary, Gallup should be attributed with a large amount of guilt for the deplorable state of pubic opinion and will.

    For a prediction scientist, a poll is reasonably acceptable tool for diagnosis of the now, asking: “What is?” Diagnosis gets worse the further we venture into the past and polls fail utterly to produce reliable results for prognosis when asking people about the future: “What will (be, if …)”. Polls perform even worse for judgement of means to ends, when the question is: “What shall (be done)?”

    The root for this problem is that polls – in form of a questionnaire – the human mind acts in a completely different way than when asked to do a forecast, a prediction or to do a decision, even though these statements all look like “just” a question for the lay man. However each of these question types needs a different tool, and I agree that small deliberative groups, well stratified and intelligent citizens, will identify policies which are vastly superior to the aggregated result of any mindless instant Gallup poll.


  2. “a relatively small committee, statistically representative of those most directly affected by the problem in question would be charged with distilling a proposal from the considerations debated in the forum”

    Sorry, if I had read your book then I could probably answer this question for myself but please tell me how this small committee would be chosen; purely by lot
    with a statistical quota or would there be other factors involved?

    In theory I do very much like the idea of fostering an institution that may credibly claim to represent an informed public opinion. But the small committee sounds like a possible repository of discrediting elitism. Depending on how it’s populated.


  3. Paul

    The rationale of a claim to represent considered public opinion rests almost wholly on the public forum to which any person, group or institution can contribute and keep on contributing at any stage. Unlike in face-to-face situations, nobody gets frozen out with”You’ve had your say. Shut up and lit others have a say.” Moreover, even if a person cannot write a good letter themselves, they can always get help tom others who can. Unlike talk forums, here the smart or dominating have no advantage. So issues can get thoroughly thrashed out on the strength of the arguments, not on the number or status of people sponsoring any particular view.

    People who merely repeat what has already been said would be grouped together by the editors (subject to protest), who would also star contributions that represented a distinctive consideration. Nobody would be dismissed because they had no solution to the problem under discussion. All you need is to have something to say that appeals to considerations that others may reasonably be expected to see as relevant. Any solution as public good.

    A public good does not necessarily benefit everybody directly, but can be seen as something that enriches the range of possibilities open to members of a genuine community within the wider community. (libraries, national parks, address to info etc) The point of public goods is not “who gets what?” but “does this enrich the opportunities open to anybody who can benefit by them”. The good life is a life of opportunities, not just needs.

    That is the substance of a constructive public opinion. The trouble is that we have to face questions of priorities and resources. The old exhortation “get you priorities right” is useless. You may give general priority to health over education but in a particular situation if you look to its specifics you have to recognise that a certain educational initiative is much more urgent than anything on the heath agenda. So a discussion focussed on the general considerations may reach high degree of consensus about what they are, but we will inevitably differ about how much weight to put on different considerations.

    So I suggest we need a relatively small committee, totally transparent and open to comment, to try to distill a practical recommendation out of the discussion. I believe that the committee should be a balanced sample of those most directly and substantially affected by the problem, simply because they have the most experience in the matter and will bear the consequences, not that they are in any sense the delegates or representatives of anybody. They are charged with making a practical proposal out of the general discussion. It is only a recommendation. The fine decision rests with the legislature and executive, but they are faced with what has the best claim to be regarded as public opinion on that matter.


  4. >>The fine decision rests with the legislature and executive

    Centralist power through the back door? No way! The new world is flat.


  5. hjh

    central power

    Of course I don’t believe in orpropofse central power. I simply accept that there has to be a big change in public opinion before it is practical politics t dismantle the centralised power. In the meantime the most we can do is to work on actively constructing sound public opinion by involving people actively in facing up to real problems and putting pressure on the powers that be.

    That may not be the best approach in other circumstances. Your proposals to get a party committed to demarchic councils across the board would certainly be quicker and have a dramatic effect on public opinion if it were strong enough to command the support of a coalition. That may be conceivable in a proportional representation scheme,but not, I believe, in a two party system.


  6. John,

    >the best claim to be regarded as public opinion on that matter.

    Given that only a tiny number of people will be disposed to contribute to the debate, why do you think that the choices of the demarchic council will be viewed as representing public opinion (informed or otherwise)? In the case of the informed judgment of as statistically-representative sample this can be demonstrated empirically; not so with a voluntary demarchic council. Of course if mass publics come to endorse the choices and put pressure on politicians to act accordingly that’s another matter, but it strikes me as highly unlikely, as most people would say “who the hell are they?” (assuming they even notice them in the first place).


  7. Keith

    Getting it right

    I assume, and I know it’s a big assumption, that where it is a matter of its being important to make right choice, most people are prepared to recognise that they cannot rely on either their instinctive reactions or even their inevitably limited experience. The world as revealed by science turns out to be a much stranger place and work in much more counter-intuitive ways than we could possibly have suspected.

    It is still the case, of course, that most everyday political questions are to a large extent questions of preferences between alternatives that differ mainly in similar ways to our preferences between competing consumer goods. Think of amenities like parks, recreation facilities an aesthetic matters. The problems centre around reaching agreement about the relative value of various public goods and how much we are collectively prepared to pay for them. We take it as given that the most important needs of our contemporary lifestyle, such as an equitable and effective legal system clean water, electricity, roads etc need to be supplied reliably and economically. We assume that the choices to be made in such matters are largely marginal and that understanding the is not difficult, the sort of thing most people are well able to have a reasonable opinion about them, but for the most part have been content to leave to others, except where something affected them particularly strongly.

    In the era of post-war prosperity the operations of the market and of government were normally seen as benign, each with its natural sphere, public goods an one hand, private goods on the other. Differences in policy between major political parties were mainly matters of emphasis and their perspectives strictly national. Foreign affairs were mainly a matter of avoiding another world war and offering some small assistance to the countries of the Third World.

    The balance proved unstable, as the public sector, faced with ever increasing demands, slipped into the guise of rationing rather than assuring the supply of many goods as public goods, the private sector took many of them over in insurance schemes. The demise of the Bretton Woods agreement enabled the international money markets to dictate economic policy to national governments and destroy protection of local producers against international competition. At the same time the technological basis of consumer expectations was revealed as unsustainable on a global scale as global warming posed unprecedented problems. Existing political procedures and institutions had neither the knowledge nor the power to regulate the new global system.

    In this situation a dissatisfied and bewildered electorate blamed the political elites and was drawn ti trust reactionaries who showed themselves as ready to dismiss convention and do “whatever it takes” to restore an idealised unattainable past. I strongly believe that the only effective way to counter this dangerous dynamic is to reconstruct a sound public opinion, based on the experience of ordination citizens attempting to understand an deal with particular components of our situation. My hope is that if it becomes generally accepted that at east he more urgent of our problems. Out problems need tone and can be addressed by open public discussion, citizens will see the products of such discussion as what ought to guide their decisions.

    Even if they have no particular interest in a problem, they will realise that it may have ramified consequences and that it is important that all our issues be handled as well as possible, and that they have the assurance that people who are serious affected by the problem, having looked carefully at all the considerations that are relevant to its solution, have come up with an agreed proposal to deal with it.

    It they are seriously interested in a particular problem, they can not only make submissions about considerations the regard as important, but have easy access to whatever anybody else has to say on it, reply to criticisms, modify their position and attempt to reach commonground with others in the hope of convincing the public at large that they have dine a thorough job.

    My basic assumption is that people will come to realise that gaining a sound understanding of the major politica problems that face us is not possible on the basis of our personal preferences or our past experience. On the other hand, neither can these things be left to experts. The community as a whole and the various networks that are specially involved need to identify with the key decisions on the basis of an accessible understanding of the considerations that have gone into the decision-process. That is what makes to democratic in a positive, constructive way as public good, something to be cherished asa basis of community.

    I realise that such discussion not likely to flourish on an international scale and that specialised supranational authorities may be needed in a number of cases to inclement what needs to be done. Nevertheless we have to start with looking at what we can do at the national level and see what develops. I have made some suggestions in my book


  8. John,

    >most people are prepared to recognise that they cannot rely on either their instinctive reactions or even their inevitably limited experience. The world as revealed by science turns out to be a much stranger place.

    Yes that’s right, but people don’t accept the authority of science on the basis of self-nomination, it’s because the anointed leaders are Fellows of the Royal Society or have won the Nobel Prize (etc). The people who nominate themselves for a demarchic committee will not be screened by any such selection process and, as such, are highly unlikely to be deferred to in the forum of public opinion. The only other source of authority in a demotic age is that political representatives should enact public preferences and this can only be achieved by either of the two forms of balloting: 1) preference election; and 2) statistical representation by proportional sampling. The latter has the advantage over preference election in that it is better suited to ensure that decisions are made on the basis of informed preferences. Decision making by demarchic committee may well lead to wise outcomes but it hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of being viewed as a legitimate form of political representation.


  9. Keith

    representation versus getting it right.

    I argued that there are matters where people reasonably believe that it is more important to get a certain matter right than to base a decision on people’s preferences, while admitting that the ordinary stuff of everyday politics is mainly a matter of preferences. In getting it right what matters are facts and arguments that are relevant to understanding the issues. The program is to tackle specific problems that threaten disaster, not mere preferences.

    The process I am suggesting does not rely on any person’s judgement , but on the outcome of a critical, well-conducted discussion. It rests on the hope that sufficient people will follow the discussion to ensure that it is sufficiently well-informed and argued to be taken seriously as likely to be near enough to right for the purpose of dealing with problem where getting it right is important and urgent.

    Whether or not it is in fact possible to get such a process accepted remains to be seen. It has never been tried and before the universalisation of the internet it has never been conceivable, let alone possible. The intrusion of personalities, the time limits on speech, on numbers of speakers , the amount of paper that can be edited and circulated impose limits on participation that are now abolished. Of course, all the factual evidence points to how much people’s behaviour would have to change for it to work.

    But it is not a matter of what people are inclined to do, but of what interpretations and inducements can be offered to get a relatively small number to do the few things that have to do to participate inboxed this particular activity in these circumstances. Its being popular requires inspiring quite a lot of people to see it as the first step towards a more cooperative society, a regime based on agreement rather than power and freedom rather than compulsion. Most people find those prospects very attractive. But although there is every reason to suppose it could be made to look inspiring, it remains a priori unlikely that people will act rationally.


  10. John,

    >a more cooperative society, a regime based on agreement rather than power and freedom rather than compulsion.

    An old (and attractive) vision that is no nearer being realized now than at any other time in it’s long history. And recent trends in politics would suggest that isn’t going to change any time soon

    >it remains a priori unlikely that people will act rationally.

    Quite. I’m more disposed to go with the grain of the crooked timbers of mankind than to base a political project on ideals of how people ought to behave. That’s why Madison’s project has been more successful than Rousseau’s.


  11. Keith


    The only motivation that a scientist normally needs is whatever is sufficient to get him or her to do the bits of work that form part of a network of interactions that modify each other in practice so as to produce and process information that links systematically with the ways real interactions develop. For many it is just that it’s what they are paid to do or happen to like doing in the way they like playing chess, or to prove they are smarter than their big sister etc. They will cheat if they can get away with it, sometimes just to show they can get away with it, and so on. All that matters from the point if view of successful inquiry is that it is in fact hard to fake what they are supposed to do and that most people realise that they can rely on the claims of investigators, because the process does work very much better than the motivations of the participants would lead us to expect.

    Of course there are various conspiracy theories that it suits some people to believe about certain branches of science being elaborate hoaxes. I know a couple of scientists who used to believe that about climate change. But they did not doubt that the data were usually correct, but just claimed that the real explanations of the data were suppressed.

    We all know that banks are run for the benefit of bankers, and that they pull off some massive swindles, but we normally expect that our bank statements will be accurate, because the procedures theat produce them have to be reliable if the system is to work at all.

    What I am suggesting is that if people focus on a specific problem and are variously motivated to articulate clearly the various practical consequences of possible ways of dealing with that particular problem, and are under pressure to reach a practical conclusion, the logic of the considerations they identify is likely to lead them to an acceptable conclusion, even though it may be unpalatable to many of them for different reasons.

    Of course, if they nearly all have the same reasons for finding the conclusion unpalatable,they are very likely to indulge in some collective self-deception to enable them to reject the conclusion, even if it is only the inevitable “we need more data”. People with different approaches may be relied on to demolish each other’s deceptions, but there is no remedy for collective self-deception. A great deal depends on the culture and the degree to which the public take the debate seriously, demanding high standards of clarity and evidence.

    The behaviour of voters and a lot of casual political discussion are not encouraging in this respect. Instead of demanding better arguments from the politicians many people fall for politicians who tell them what they want to hear, even though they can hardly fail to suspect that they are being “conned”. I blame the fact that they see themselves as forced to choose between an unacceptable regime and something that might just be better. They are not presented with an alternative that they have any reason to trust.

    My hope is that if enough ordinary people like themselves engage in presenting and arguing practical considerations that anybody must see as relevant to the problem being discussed, it will be generally accepted that these problems are serious complex. They cannot be dealt with on the basis of simplistic prejudices or preferences. If that is the case, they will then insist that those who present considerations engage seriously in getting the best solution they can. The transparency and open participation ensure that the participants cannot get away with deception.

    As far as many subcultures in modern states are concerned, that certainly does involve cultural change from a reliance on “gut feelings” that can be manipulated with fatal ease to insistence on rational procedure. It is too much to hope that such people will embrace rationality. Many will continue to believe that their opinion requires no such backing. But that will not deter them from demanding rational procedures from those who are claiming rationality. They may even come to recognise that if there is to be collective action on the problem the only way of getting the necessary agreement is to trust the collective rational process, even if only because not everybody has such sound gut feelings as theirs.


  12. John,

    The analogy between scientific and political decision making doesn’t work. The former is the domain of facts, whereas the latter is the domain of preferences. And scientists are selected according to internationally-recognised standards of merit (recognised by the public) and this principle does not apply to those involved in the development of public policy. If scientific committees were staffed by self-nominating members of the public there is no reason to think that the outcome of their deliberations would be accepted, and the same applies to the development of public policy.


  13. Keith

    science andd practical decisions

    In my last comment my point was not to compare science and practical decision, but to say that even in science, it is not the motivations of the participants that matter , but what they do, the tasks that they perform as required by their roe in the network that identifies, stores, processes and delivers information. I could have taken almost any other of the plethora of networks, ranging from games of all sorts to economic activities that are so characteristic of modern living in all its aspects.

    You repeat the view that politics is about preferences, which I admit to be the case with the sort of issues that political debate has usually concentrated since we have emerged from crude power-politics to constitutional contests decides by voting. That system, unfortunately, leads to public debate being dominated by attempts to seduce the voters rather than solve the real problems.

    It is central to what I am saying that in all our most serious collective problems preferences are hardly relevant. What matters is getting solutions to problems that may wreck our way of life if we cannot produce effective and fair solutions to them.

    what I am saying is that these problems are generated by processes we set in motion that are as inexorable as laws of nature. They are not matters of what we prefer, burt of choosing between the very limited practical options open to us in an attempt to get as good a result as we can in the circumstances. That involves certain elements that are matters of fact and predictions based on fact, but it also invokes more speculative decisions.

    If we are to deal with this situation democratucally, popular culture has to change. People have to get used to looking for what there is good reason to accept, rather than what they would like to believe. In very many important areas of life people have largely made this tradition, such as health, technology, education and economic activities. we know very well the sort of considerations we need t take into account.

    The reason is that they have to face these problems in their personal and family lives, and soon come to understand the factors that are relevant to dealing with their problems. My hope is that in giving them the opportunity to face and debate the relevant factors in matters that require collective action they will come to accept reasonable decisions of their peers when they understand that those decisions are clearly rational. They di not have to be demonstrably correct.

    Modern life depends on our being able to trust the processes that convey to us the enormous quantities of information that we need too rely on finding its way t the points in the network where it is required. The market and media and the hist if institutions that are regulated by the legal system ensure that in most routine matters in the private and civic spheres. We have to do better in the public sphere


  14. John,

    >If we are to deal with this situation democratically, popular culture has to change. People have to [long list, including] . . .

    1) Accept the anarchist deconstruction of the nation state
    2) Eschew political preferences in favour of appraisal of “the facts”
    3) Arrogate political decision making to self-selected busybodies

    I can’t see that happening any time soon, notwithstanding the exhortations from the pulpit of the Demarch in Chief. The case for stochation, by contrast:

    1) Requires no cultural change
    2) Is fully compatible with the Westphalian state
    3) Relies on a long-accepted decision system (the trial jury)
    4) Retains a formal role for elected statespersons and expert advocates
    5) Manifests the epistemic benefits of the wisdom of crowds
    6) Can be proven to be outcome-invariant between different samples
    7) Has impeccable historical provenance (the Athenian demokratia)

    If I were a gambler, I know which one I would put my money on, but then I’m with Billy Bragg:

    I don’t want to change the world
    I’m not looking for a new England


  15. keith

    three steps

    1) It’s not a matter of accepting anarchism. The powers of the nation sate are now largely illusory. No country, except to some slight degree China, has any control over the value of its currency or its imports and exports. They are all dependent on the global financial markets. Th biggest decor of international trade by far is the financial sector. No nation is in position to wage war except the US, which persists in the ridiculous belief that it can hope to achieve its aims by doing so.
    Most people, of course persist in believing that nothing much has changed because nations go through the same motions as if they still had any power.

    My positive point is that most of the various internal matters the state handles would be better handled by specialised demarchic authorities. Meanwhile we have to find ways of setting up international authorities to deal with the serious problems caused by so many of the things that nation states choose to ignore. The odds that enough people will face the facts comprehensively are vanishingly small.

    What I postulate is that if there is a clearly focussed discussion of a particular threatening problem people will see what is the case in that particular instance. If that happens moderately regularly the effect may be to avert our worst dangers, even though most people continue to believe that nothing much has changed. By all means let people go on thanking their patron saints for curing their ills, provided it doesn’t stop them taking their medicine. Ye olde Westminster can go on like the queen’s speech and “authentic ” thatch-roof houses (but central heating, of course.)

    2) People can go on cherishing illusions at a certain level and still do what has to be done. People talk to their pets, but use other means to train them..

    3) Everybody hates busybodies, because everybody hates being told they are wrong. My hope is that sooner or later they do find ways of admitting what the busybodies have been saying without admitting they are doing so: “I wasn’t really against women having a vote, just the antics of those ridiculous suffragettes”. I have no doubt that if my proposals ever get adopted, many people will rejoice that all that Demarchy nonsense has been averted and everything you postulate in your alternative 1-7 has been secured. There is an infinity of ways of describing such things to make them look how one might like them to look. That is what most present politics is about, seducing the voters. Meanwhile I’ll keep on trying to enlist the occasional busybody, in the hope of finding somebody who will start the ball rolling.


  16. John,

    If the demarchic councils are a product of the voluntary sector
    and will deal with critical issues, this would suggest a plethora of councils devoted to the same topic, as is the case with existing think tanks. This is particularly true in the case of global warming, where very significant vested interests are involved. Given that the final sortition will be based on a pool of self-nominating persons who consider themselves to be most strongly affected by the issue under consideration, one would imagine the oil industry sponsoring a large number of “volunteers” and thereby gaining a significant over-representation after the final sortition (the same would be true for environmental activists). Other powerful lobby groups might (covertly) also set up the public foundations that sponsor demarchic councils — New Democracy has already been the target of criticisms, including from some members of this blog. So which, if any, of the demarchic council(s) should be taken as representing informed public opinion and why should anyone trust them?

    The alternative ways of selecting representatives, namely:

    1) Election
    2) Appointment/nomination on merit
    3) Statistical sampling

    are less likely to suffer from these problems and that’s why (although they have their own flaws) they have greater potential of political decision making.

    >“I wasn’t really against women having a vote, just the antics of those ridiculous suffragettes”

    Given that women’s suffrage was the result of war-time service there is some merit to this view. It’s also the case that the principal beneficiaries of post-1960s feminism have been capitalist interests, both in terms of additional workers and increased spending power, so “I wasn’t really against gender equality, just the antics of those ridiculous women’s libbers” is equally plausible.


  17. Keith


    First a minor correction. Female suffrage was introduced in South Australia in 1895 and spread to all jurisdictions by 1908. The war story is very much overlayed. Australia was a leader in matters of democratic practice, mainly because of the flurry of constitutional debate connected with federation. 1900. Many of its innovations were widely adopted elsewhere, as the latest fashion.

    Anybody can set up think tank, but a comprehensive set of forums and fully public and well-edited is of an entirely different order. To duplicate it in its entirety is just a waste of time and money. If there is an attempt to restrict its scope or its openness, what rationale could there be that would hide the partiality of such limitations? The forum is necessarily unique anti is the fundamental thing.

    The demarchic councils that adjudicate the conclusions that can be drawn from the forum have no claim to uniqueness or even that elusive notion, representation of anybody, let alone everybody. They must rely on the content of their deliberations being acknowledged as cogent. It is ridiculous to expect demonstrative rigour in practical matters or to insist on all the possible scenarios being explored. Collective action is only possible in disputable matters if we can agree to act on the basis of a reasonable gamble. In the past those who needed to make such decisions relied on ceremonial auspices or astrology for authorisation. Nowadays we rely on the equally sup[erstitious counting heads. I suggest we rely on a process that should produce at least as good a result as any other we can envisage at present.


  18. John,

    >ceremonial auspices . . . counting heads

    Political decision making rights have always been the prerogative of those who wield actual power. Although this is nothing more than a tautology, I think you either overlook (or simply deplore) what is just a fact of nature. The legislative right has passed from the successful warriors (and those otherwise anointed by god) to the demos, so the best we can hope for is for the new holders of sovereign power to be as well informed as possible. Many of us on this forum argue that this can only come about via the deliberations of a representative sample. This still involves counting heads, but by cutting the number to under 1,000 the heads should reflect what everybody would think under good conditions. Note that it’s actually the right arms that are counted, as these are the ones who would otherwise have been wielding the swords.

    Demarchy presupposes the abolition of sovereign power and it’s replacement by cogent deliberations overseen by an impartial group of volunteers. But power cannot be abolished by fiat, one man’s cogency is another man’s bullshit, and we no longer have any faith in impartiality. It’s just a utopian dream.


  19. Keith


    Tautologies have the habit of slipping into shades of meaning that ate by no means tautologous, but false. There is only a weak presumption that prerogatives of power get exercised in the interests of those who own the prerogative. The nominal bearers of a prerogative are often manipulated by those who have no such prerogative, whether the holders of the prerogative be monarchs or the demos.

    Both are easily seduced by those who tell them what they want to hear. Many, perhaps most. people find getting political decisions right a bore. So they are delighted to be offered an exciting story, or sometimes just a comfortable one, even if it bears little relation to facts or logic. Group psychology assures them they are right.

    I postulate that we now have sufficient formal an informal education to be aware of the danger and aware also that the only remedy is sustained, well-focussed critical discussion involving the whole range of those who have something to say on some aspect of the matter, especially where it is a question of accepting constraints on our own behaviour.

    A genuinely rational decision process may not work, probably won’t even be tried. Make-belive is so much more powerful.


  20. John,

    >We are aware that the only remedy is sustained discussion.
    >A genuinely rational decision process . . . probably won’t even be tried.

    So who are “we”? Philosophy professors? Contributors to this blog? If “we” are the demos or the existing power holders then your two statements contradict each other.


  21. Keith, it is neither of the two you listed. It is all those who are affected by an unsatisfactory issue of collective interest and who have the energy and capability to define a problem, propose some solution, identify and quantify its desired effects and detrimental consequences. The demos comes in when a proposed solution is sufficiently advanced to be decided upon by a demarchic committee, and for efficiency reasons a stratified foresight-weighted sample from it.


  22. Keith


    I mean pretty well everybody in a community with secondary education. But note that I say the only way, not necessarily one that is available to them in practice. In fact the majority probably believe that there is no prospect of solving political problems by rational discussion, even though they think most others can be solved. Reality haas opened up to rational investigation by tackling specific problems and building on them.

    And they are right, I think, to be sceptical in the absence of any instutionalised examples of how a rational discussion might work in political practice. I have a suggestion that might work. And I’m very conscious of how quickly things can change. Modern medicinal treatment of diseases based on biochemistry is not quite as old as I am, but it has largely displaced the superstitious nostrums that prevailed up till then.

    Of course, politics is a much harder nut to crack. There are no objective ways of identifying or quantifying many of the key factors; So there is no adequate scientific base. We have to construct bases of agreement. But that is something we do all the time in developing languages and other conventions. Again politics is infested with emotions like patriotic absolutism and religious fanaticism that have usually prevailed in the past over even rational self-interest. But maybe a well grounded fear of what will happen if we do not act effectively can provide adequate counter-motivation.

    My suggestions are only a first step. They are not the comprehensive cure-all that political ideologies offer. But pragmatism must surely win in the long run, though perhaps not quickly enough.


  23. Who are “we”

    HJH:>All who have the energy and capability to define a problem, propose some solution, identify and quantify its desired effects . . . The demos comes in when a proposed solution is sufficiently advanced

    JB:>I mean pretty well everybody in a community with secondary education

    There appear to be serious differences between the Austrian and Australian schools of demarchy. The former is elitist and optimistic, whereas the latter is democratic and — judging by “In fact the majority probably believe that there is no prospect of solving political problems by rational discussion” — profoundly pessimistic. Stochation, by contrast is both democratic and optimistic as the allotted sample represents what the plurality of citizens would think under good conditions.


  24. Keith,

    would you kindly explain why “those who the energy and capability to define a problem, propose some solution, identify and quantify its desired effects” cannot also be “pretty well everybody in a community with secondary education.”

    Thank you.


  25. HJH,

    “Those with the energy and capability” are a tiny subset of “pretty well everybody”; ditto with a “stratified foresight-weighted sample” of the demos. Added to that, John’s demarchic councils have no statutory role, all they can do is nudge politicians in their preferred direction via their indirect influence on electors.


  26. At least for Austria, your theory doesn’t hold up to a available data. . Our pre-decision surveys show that is just those with unfinished education who are far less likely to participate in the political process. For Austria the participation is 45% for below secondary education, and 85% above.. for below secondary education, and 85% above. wenn ich ins Petunien secondary Skool College, ein University@Kirchen aber in significant .


  27. Apologies.

    The variation is ignite insignificant for all grades starting from secondary, whether college education diploma, our university degree.


  28. My point is merely that it is a small minority, whereas the “we” in democracy is generally viewed as all citizens. Demarchy appears to be pessimistic regarding the political potential of the “we” in the latter sense.


  29. Why would you call 85% participating a minority?


  30. Because “those who have the energy and capability to define a problem [etc]” do not constitute 85% of the demos, they are a tiny minority, irrespective of their level of education.


  31. Proof being …?


  32. I think we are talking past each other — itself an indication of the huge gap between the advocates of demarchy and stochation.


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