Getting the right decision democratically – by John Burnheim

Deliberative Democracy

In many areas of policy, particularly where relatively homogeneous communities deliberate about matters within their everyday experience, the informal processes of discussion in the community can, and often do, lead to changes in public opinion that in turn lead to effective political action. Witness the huge range of beneficial changes in the treatment of the disadvantaged in the past few generations. It was possible to make these changes democratically because a few advocates convinced most people to see these disabilities not as unavoidable misfortunes but as things that they could do something to overcome. That involved a wide spectrum of measures, ranging from the repeal of discriminatory laws to the provision of ramps for wheelchairs, most of which were readily understood and accepted by nearly everybody.

In such matters the ordinary processes of news and discussion generate a public opinion that promotes good decisions about what to do. These decisions are democratic because the majority of people have good reason to support them. At the other extreme we want to refuse the title of democracy to majority decisions that systematically disadvantage or even persecute certain minorities. People like me want to avoid condemning whole populations as vicious. So we tend to blame the leadership for playing on dramatised fears and false information in a situation where open discussion is suppressed. We are vindicated by the fact that nations that were guilty of horrendous evils do become decent democracies. The problem is in lack of communication and criticism.

But what of familiar situations that cannot be understood simply in terms of everyday experience, like when emissions are alleged to be accumulating disastrous consequences unless they are brought under appropriate control? It is clear that making appropriate decisions in such matters depends on open critical discussion that ensures that all relevant considerations in each particular problem are identified and correctly understood.

A typical danger in such contexts is that people who are not equipped to understand the relevant science are easily persuaded to see the problem in terms of simple familiar models that lead to dangerously wrong conclusions that are adopted by normal democratic practices. We can’t all acquire expert knowledge in such matters, and we cannot rely on the experts to choose between alternatives in many aspects of such matters. So, for example, experts may tell us the most cost-efficient way of disposing of nuclear waste, but those most affected need to have the strongest voice on the question of risks.

In the most serious decisions we have to assess a number of different and often conflicting considerations, some expert, and many variously affected minorities are involved. Getting a sound practical decision in any such problems is in the first instance a matter of getting those considerations clear and deliberating about the relations between them so as to exclude ineffectual or unacceptable proposals. After that, reaching agreement about a concrete proposal is a further step that will usually be less clear. It consists largely of negotiating compromises between proponents who put different weights on considerations all agree are relevant to some extent. I would hope that the results of the first stage would be accepted as public opinion and the best opinion available to us, at least where it is agreed that action is imperative. Most of us in nearly all matters get our opinions from others in various ways. What justifies us in accepting an opinion as our own is that we have good reason to believe that the source or it is reliable for practical purposes in the circumstances.

My view sees democracy in discussion of a shared problem as consisting in:

  1. A search for sound solutions to that problem that is completely open to participation by anybody who has something distinctive and relevant to say on the problem being discussed. It is to be expected that such openness will ensure that all relevant considerations will be brought forward and formulated in a way that is satisfactory to anybody who supports it, especially because:
  2. All submissions and comments will be posted on a well edited website, making it easy for anybody to scrutinise anything that is said and join the debate if s/he has anything to add to what others have said.
  3. All participants will be anonymous, and no claims to represent anybody or profession will be permitted. Submissions need not even represent the opinion of the writer. Individuals or groups may seek whatever assistance they need in expressing a particular consideration. Submissions will be identified by a number, enabling participants to correct misinterpretations or admit to a change of opinion.
  4. Professional editors would relegate useless post to an “also received” file, and classify and cross-reference submissions by topic. In order to make the debate more accessible they might also star key submissions. Criticisms of editorial decisions would be posted prominently.
  5. These forums would be set up by an independent foundation, run by respected public figures and financed by private donations.

Nearly everybody has access to the Internet or some person who can post on their behalf. The democratic and epistemic advantages of such a discussion over face-to-face committee meetings and hard copy submissions are obvious. Most use of the Internet in discussion is frivolous and inconsequential. Taking part in a discussion such as is envisaged here is hard work. But if the forum promises to be influential a person has a good chance of getting attention for an important consideration. A person has has a strong incentive to partithey wants to see considered.

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6 Responses to Getting the right decision democratically – by John Burnheim

  1. paul frijters says:


    thanks for the second installment. You want “respected public figures” to watch the watchers who will judiciously and responsibly sift the dross contributions from the gems, all to inform a rational and eager public that is glued to a super-reputational website they can truly believe in.

    What you describe is pretty much how many special interest lobby-institutions describe themselves. Very private donations, very anonymous opinions billed as ‘honest opinions for concerned citizens’, and very extremely respected public figures.

    The goodwill and rationality you appeal to is in far more limited supply than you need for your arguments, John. Both of those are created, not given at birth.

    But what I do agree with is the basic observation that we need better media and that we need information sifters on complex issues.

    • john Burnheim says:

      Reply to Paul Frijters
      There is nothing special about my proposal except that everything is posted on the website and completely open to challenge on that sire or any other f forum. The necessary editing, the initial characterisation of the problem and other important aspects of the forum will also be open to challenge on it.
      The arrangements are not meant to reflect existing opinion, but to form a well-conducted debate that takes account of all the considerations anybody advances and pay attention to the evidence for what is said, not to the stars or number of those who say it. Participants are not limited to one submission but can keep on arguing as long as they have something distinctive say. Groups who have a common interest can get together to make theist case they can, but the fact that it comes from a group is irrelevant. I’ll leave the relation of experts to the forum for another post. We are talking about problems we have never faced before and about an opportunity for open discussion we have never had before.

  2. “All participants will be anonymous, and no claims to represent anybody or profession will be permitted.”
    Not sure about that. Nothing makes a poster more conscious and careful about what he/she says than the fear of public ridicule if writing something that turns out to be not fully thought through and ultimately stupid. Also, once you start getting too many contributions, I think it is reasonable to want to read first the established NGOs, even the ones you dislike just to find out what their position is.

    “but those most affected need to have the strongest voice on the question of risks.”
    There is an interesting democratic concept called quadratic voting, where a voter can pay to have more than one vote in a referendum, thus allowing those with more at stake a bigger say. One way to address the uncaring tyranny of the majority.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      We already have a simple form of quadratic voting, whereby donors to political parties are ranked by size of donation, then grouped by interest, and those interests promoted accordingly. One theory of democracy is that voters should also have some influence, but that’s understandably not popular with the quadratic voting fans.

      • JOHN BURNHEIM says:

        moz. .Forget about systems of voting. A vote is only worth the alternatives on offer. What matters is that we get a correct understanding of what can be done, not from the politicians trying to put an attractive face on what they want to do, but, at least in some crucial matters, get a serious discussion of what we need to do to avoid what we do at present having very bad consequences. It is a matter of PERSUADING PEOPLE THAT THEY MUST LOOK AT WHAT THE SITUATION REQUIRES, NOT WHAT THEY WOULD LIKE.

        • Moz of Yarramulla says:

          John, I agree with you that politics (should be/is) the art of the possible, and what we see now is politicians debating just how impossible they can get away with. But I’m also convinced that if we don’t at least allow discussion of all the governing options people will just dismiss us as ecofascists and go back to voting for the worst of all evils.

          Especially right now I think it’s important to keep pointing out that concentrated money already has too much power and one of the things we need to do is fix that.

          And I understand the limited-choice voting problem – I have commented before on your posts that 90% of Australians vote to torture refugees and destroy the Great Barrier Reef. When that’s put to them the great majority say “but other things are more important, The Greens are crazy and the rest are crazier”. Those people need both your “wake up and stop voting for plausible lies”, *and* a way to vote for sensible policies that is acceptable to them (sadly right now that means “acceptable to Rupert Murdoch’s media”).

          My personal solution is donating money to GetUp et al as well as political parties to the green of The Greens, and badgering my elected representatives. On a variety of topics, because there are so many things on which I have fringe opinions (“should the council cut down trees and shrink the local park in order to provide a temporary increase in traffic speeds”… I say no, most submissions say yes. Will we get the trees back when the speed increase disappears – hahahahaNO).

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