Below is a spirited exchange between me and Barry Jones on deliberative democracy which I reproduce with his permission. He won’t be participating in any online debate because as he puts it
I … confess to being a total abstainer where social media is concerned. I don’t want to get involved in something which is potentially time consuming and/or obsessive. I have time for Bach, or social media. I choose Bach.
Sounds pretty fair enough to me. The exchange didn’t get too far because Barry didn’t see my reply for some months and then took me up on getting together to discuss things. Still I think the email debate is worth recounting here.
I read your piece on deliberative democracy with keen interest. I have had a good deal of experience with deliberative polls. While I can see the value of citizens’ juries, or their analogues, in providing insights into the way people feel about particular issues (e.g. the republic) I am profoundly sceptical about the general merit of ‘sortition’ or ‘lottocracy.’
These deliberative bodies are useful with specific and rather narrow issues e.g. a jury trial, Melbourne Water, and Jim Fishkin’s pioneering work with electricity in Texas, but not in broader issues, such as settling a Budget.
But how do you get the toothpaste back into the tube? How do you persuade the existing hegemonic structures to cede power? Remember Voltaire’s comment on St Denys.
I attach a letter I sent to somebody who sent me David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections.
Many thanks for sending me Against Elections by David Van Reybrouck which I read with interest, but also deep concern.
I agree generally with his analysis (although in some cases I would have gone further) but not with his suggested remedies. Loss of faith in democracy is a growing and disturbing international trend, compounded by the rise of populism and the impact of social media. We have the same problem here, confirmed by the ANU’s Australian Election Study 1987-2016.
The situation is very serious but Van Reybrouck’s alternatives are potentially worse.
It is worth noting that if the US had direct voting for President instead of the Electoral College, Gore would have won in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Van Reybrouck does not address what I regard as the most important problem in democracy, that is, if all votes are of equal value, does this mean that all judgments are equivalent? That opinion may be more important than evidence? That we must search for simple solutions to complex problems?
I am interested – but also concerned – about the tributes printed on the back of the book and would like to see the context in which they were written. [J. M. Coetzee emailed me that he is not a supporter of sortation, despite the apparent endorsement by him on the back cover.]
Van Reybrouck works, inevitably, from his own knowledge and experience with G1000, and as a Belgian citizen/ academic/ intellectual. But Belgium is, I think, a very bad model to work from. Van Reybrouck is an enthusiast for consensus politics.
In Belgium consensus politics has been adopted to an excessive degree. I think of party representatives sitting at a round table, holding hands. Does an election change anything? Hardly at all. I can understand why Belgium could have gone for 541 days without a government. Presumably nobody noticed. Consensus is a very comfortable goal, involving not asking too many awkward questions. In Belgium the dreadful serial killings by Mark Dutroux in 1995-96 demonstrated consensus at its worst. The regional police forces would not share information because they did not want to be interfering in someone else’s jurisdiction. Belgium’s record of sexual abuse in the Catholic church was one of Europe’s worst – but police and politicians, although they knew about it, did not want to upset the apple cart. Van Reybrouck has more citations from Belgium than any other country.
Despite its superficial attraction, I am very wary of consensus politics. It is inherently collusive, and often corrupt. Most issues that engage political activity are binary and have been throughout our history. White Australia? Abolishing the death penalty? Aboriginal land rights? Same sex marriage? Effective action on climate change? Separation of church and state? Republic? Euthanasia? Funding priority for government schools? Essentially they involve Yes/ No decisions.
It could certainly be argued that the Australian political system has adopted a ‘consensus’ position on the treatment of refugees. Is that a good thing? Polling indicates that it is politically popular. I think it is despicable. There is a consensus in the major parties not to set up a Federal ICAC. This is understandable. But is it the best outcome?
Van Reybrouck advocates ‘sortition’, a very unattractive word. I don’t think it will catch on. (It might be better to call it ‘random sample democracy’ or even ‘lottocracy.’)
He quotes James Fishkin as being the reviver of the concept, which is not accurate. (James Burnheim was earlier.2 I knew and have worked with Fishkin and his mentor Peter Laslett.
Fishkin’s disciple Pam Ryan divides her time between Texas and Adelaide. I assume you know her – but if you don’t I’d be glad to arrange a meeting.
I took an active role either as Chair or Co-chair in several ‘Deliberative Polls’ in Australia – on the Republic, on a Bill of Rights for the ACT, on amending the South Australian Constitution, on Muslims in Australia, and I think there was one more, which I have forgotten.
The deliberative poll, if properly run, can be a very useful instrument for teasing out issues, resolving conflicts and raising the levels of understanding. But it all depends on what the issue is. I am profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that, for all its merits, the deliberative poll would then become a valuable instrument of government, passing and administering laws. I concede that the experiment seems to have worked well in Iceland and Ireland, and small homogeneous societies may find it useful.
I am happy with random sampling for juries or public opinion polls, but I would not choose a dentist, brain surgeon, airline pilot, engineer, meteorologist, philosopher or child minder by casting lots. Nor would I toss a coin about Budget outcomes.
Australia is mentioned in passing references to deliberative polls and some inaccurate comments on Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit, held in 2008. Van Reybrouck describes this as the calling of ‘a thousand residents for a citizens’ summit.’ Well, not quite. It would have been better to describe it as calling ‘a thousand experts to discuss problems in their areas of expertise.’ That is quite another thing. John Coetzee was there, for example, not because he was a citizen chosen by lot, but as an outstanding writer/ thinker.
He approved of the 2020 Summit more than I did. I thought there was too much consensus. Resolutions could only be adopted if there was a ‘consensus’, which in practice meant unanimity. In the Climate Change stream, which I attended, having 90% support for a proposition was not enough. A vocal minority exercises a veto, in effect.
Passing a Budget is a classic example of where a body chosen by lot would, I think, inevitably fail. An Australian Budget might have at least 3000 line items. How could/ should priorities – putting a road here, an airport there, a hospital and a school somewhere else be determined? What principles are involved?
And what happened to accountability? The buck stops, where? If you have lay people toddling in and out of the deliberative assembly for their brief exposure to running a country, why should they feel responsible if there is a failure? (They may not even remember it.)
Nature, notoriously, abhors a vacuum. With a weakened legislature, with personnel constantly changing, power will inevitable go towards entrenched groups, the bureaucracy, armed forces, profession interest groups, and corporate lobbies.
The greatest weakness in Van Reybrouck’s book is how his suggested changes could be implemented. If there is even a single sentence on this I must have missed it! He just writes that Belgium ought to try it. Then the EU ought to take it up. Is he serious?
I am sure the Americans will yearn for advice from Belgium!
Sorry to be so blunt, but I thought it was better to get it off my chest!
To fix the existing system requires a concentrated effort from those well-informed but hand-wringing citizens, many of them professionals, who can’t bring themselves to engage in the dirty business if politics. Think of Archimedes and his lever. Where is the fulcrum to be?
All the best
And my reply
Thanks for your email Barry and apologies for the delay in replying,
As I pondered your own suggestion for what you called a courage party, I started to think it should be called the “we hate the uneducated party”. If you are right that the less educated people in our society have more odious views than the educated – the professionals as you put it in your email – then I guess I’m with you. However I’m at least as sceptical of professionals as I am of the hoi polloi. After all I’m an economist – and neoclassical economics was built by professionals. They have a single counter-intuitive insight (Ricardo’s comparative advantage) and the rest is a blizzard of silly 19th Century engineering maths which makes little sense but satisfies a neurotic aesthetic about being ’scientific’.
My main reason for disagreeing with your own view is however that it seems to me that your idea for perpetuating elites in politics rests on a social order – the dominance of middle class respectability – that is starting to look as out of date as poke bonnets. When you can have the established mainstream press egging on the mob baying at 3 judges for making a determination according to law calling them ‘Enemies of the people’, when the Koch brothers can fund vast and endless campaigns of disinformation – most of it cheerily provided by professionals, and conveyed by professional journalists – I’m afraid that world of respectability, where politicians regard themselves as fundamentally constrained by some shared notion of the truth and a shared life together is dying.
Just calling for ‘courage’ within existing structures seems unimaginative and doomed to failure against the growing depredations of all those professionals who are helping themselves to millions and billions of dollars by gaming the sale of professional expertise – in finance, in health, in law, in media, IT, education and indeed in R&D itself – where as you know the growth in the number and salaries of bureaucrats is vastly outstripping growth in academia proper – whilst all the while the academic bureaucrats treat the academics like lab rats in a Skinner box and the quality of academic work continues to slide. I could go on :)
Of course I realise I’ve done more or less what you’ve done in your email to me, which is outline a whole lot of (I hope you think) reasonable objections to existing institutions where you’ve done the same for more egalitarian rules of engagement in politics. We’re coming from sufficiently different places that it would take a long time to get far. Perhaps we should meet over lunch and see if we can make any progress.
One final thought – you’ve made a case for the kinds of things a randomly selected house might not be able to do. Could it put together a budget? I think you may have a point. The thing is that I didn’t propose that it put together a budget. I proposed that it act as an upper house with the lower house arrangements remaining as is. I think it would do that admirably, though I’m very happy for the Senate to also review the House. I see the people’s chamber asking hard questions of the lower house’s plans. Why are we cutting company tax when the evidence suggests its disproportionately expensive. Why have we cut top marginal rates? Why does the lower house want to abolish carbon pricing for a cockamamie ‘direct action’ scheme which will deplete the budget by over $10 billion per year?
Of course it’s easy to imagine that the people’s house might do other things – it could declare war on dole bludgers, bring back capital punishment – something I know is dear to your heart. I think there are a few responses to those concerns.
- Obviously I may be wrong and if there was evidence that citizens juries tended to produce pressure for the madder populist policies, I’d concede my proposal isn’t worth pursuing. Do you have good evidence that this happens?
- The evidence I’ve seen is that the process of deliberation transforms a lot of this kind of thinking – and I think in the process has hugely educative impacts on the electorate. 70% of Oregonians supported a citizens initiated referendum proposal entitled “mandatory sentencing” which sounded not very extreme on its face. The citizens’ jury split 21-3 against the proposal and this fact seems to have moved the dial on public opinion judging from the 56% “yes” vote the proposal ultimately received.
- I’d draw your attention to how powerful party discipline is now, involving politicians frequently voting against their consciences. Don’t you like my idea that where there’s a super majority of the people they can compel a secret ballot of the other chamber? Obviously open voting is essential to modern politics and party structures, which it’s naïve to want to overturn (at least without a well worked out theory of what you replace it with) but this seems to strike the right balance. It seems to me that this is even more important in America than here because in America Tea Party style activism is forcing Republicans to vote against their conscience or simply be swept away. Not much point in courage there, any more than it would have been doing any favours for black emancipation for Lincoln to have campaigned on the immediate abolition of slavery in his first presidential campaign. He would never have got the gig and he knew it.
- Hi all,
As you may know I’ve been concerned about the deteriorating quality of our democracy – what I call vox pop democracy– for a long time and have gradually come to believe that greater use of selection by lot – which we use in juries – could be a powerful way to ‘detox’ our democracy.
I gave a speech on this at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas in October last year but have now set out the case more pointedly in a series of articles in the Mandarin.
The first which goes through some of the pathologies of our democracy – like trivialisation, polarisation, the marginalisation of certain kinds of voices, the public’s sense of being manipulated – and outlines the ways in which selection by lot could heal these problems is here.
The second outlines how deliberative democracy mechanisms might be introduced into our constitution – one day – but, perhaps more importantly sketches the way in which one might start on such a journey – by establishing a ‘citizens chamber’ outside the constitution which would act as a lightning rod to identify areas in which our the policies being pursued by our elected politicians were at odds with the considered views of a group of Australians that was broadly reflective of the whole population. That article is here.
I concluded the series with this piece on how mechanisms like citizens’ juries can be used by the bureaucracy.
As someone who’s seen how politics works, I’m not naturally given to thinking that big ideas get anywhere just because they’re right. Rather the opposite. As I wrote here, lots of ideas don’t make it even if they’re low risk and have no natural enemies. In my experience, people can listen to the ideas even be impressed with them. They say how energised the ideas make them feel. And then they get back to their in-trays. And that’s pretty much it.
But sometimes there are things whose time has come borne on by the fact that firstly, things are broken and will stay broken – indeed get worse – until they are fixed and secondly that there is a straightforward way of tackling the problem once people focus on it. That happened with tariff reform which Professor Max Corden pronounced as late as 1968 was of academic interest only as, after the best part of a century supporting protectionism, Australian politicians would never depart from. By 1978 it was clear that things had to change and by 1988 it was pretty much all over with a government credibly committing to 5 percent tariffs.
I think deliberative democracy is one of those ideas, though if any politicians did champion it seriously, the evidence suggests it comes with powerful electoral rewards rather than political pain, so I’m intending to make this a substantial focus for the foreseeable future.
Naturally I’d be interested in any thoughts you had on the pieces or on ways we can start making changes happen.
- I think Barry means John Burnheim the Sydney philosopher who wrote Is Democracy Possible in 1985 and is still with us and thinking about these things at 90. ↩