Most contemporary discussions of how to improve politics focus on problems of representation and power. When I come along and want to thrust getting better decisions into the forefront and claiming that a certain sort of untried forum could get improved results even without changing present forms of power or representation, the natural reaction is to conclude that I just don’t understand the political and social realities.
My key point in reply is that people can only realistically choose to do what they know how to do. Otherwise they fail or, worse still, deceive themselves into thinking they have succeeded, or would have succeeded if evil or stupid people hadn’t wrecked it. Authorities can only order people to do what they know how to do. Otherwise those people pretend to do what is required, or, perhaps unwittingly, wreck it.
One of the basic problems in democratic practice is that we are programmed to see dealing with social and political problems in terms of a few simple means: forbid it if it’s bad, encourage it if it’s good. In both cases what happens are attempts to change the behaviour of certain types of individuals or organisations. In some matters those approaches work, but in many they don’t, especially when the problem is caused by systemic factors, not the behaviour of individuals, or groups, or by the cumulative effects of activities that are negligible on the small scale, but fatal on a large scale. This last is now the case with almost all our serious problems. Our complex, rapidly changing activities generate such problems wholesale and in unpredictable varieties.
The last century suffered horribly from attempts to deal with its problems in terms of sweeping policies ranging from totalitarian to libertarian oversimplifications of wrongly identified and diagnosed problems. Those ideologies all concentrated on finding a form of social organisation that could cure all their ills. These ideologies evoked a religious enthusiasm, but they had to fail because understanding and dealing with their problems was a much more complex and diverse reality than they allowed or imagined.
I think people are ready to look at our important problems in terms of specific causes, not capitalism, but a specific kind of transactions, not war, but solving specific conflicts that lead to war, and so on. It’s unexciting and even hopeless, because we all know that we are never going to solve many of those problems, even in theory, let alone in practice. So many people refuse to waste time on them and devote their energies to activities where there is a possibility of doing some good. The prospect of a forum such as I advocates achieving anything is negligible unless a substantial selection of people are prepared to wark hard at it. But such people are likely to have firm opinions about the matter. They will want to win, not compromise.
My answer is that I hope that the people who are willing to put serious work into such a specific forum will be concerned for the enterprise to succeed. So, while in theoretical views, assumptions and aspirations they well not reach anything kike agreement, they should recognise that getting agreement to try an acceptable proposal is what matters. They will have to agree about the sort of considerations that are relevant to such a decision, but they are almost certain to want to place different weight on many of those considerations, particularly about the risks hidden in the future. The only way of finding out what will succeed in the future is to carry out a specific plan that will at least give us a better understanding if we can pinpoint why it failed. They must earn the public trust that they are experimenting responsibly, not dogmatising.
Not every problem is solvable even in theory, let alone in practice. Sometimes this is because an assumption that seems inescapable stands in the way. There are many examples of such obstacles in the history of science, as well as in other contexts. When it is suggested that abandoning or modifying that assumption could open the way to a solution, the suggestion is rejected, because what such a suggestion does is refuse to accept what was part of the problem. In the sort of conservative subcultures which tend to see almost all changes as part of a process of decay, it is almost impossible to convince people that any entrenched assumption needs to be abandoned. Such misgivings can be very plausible, because the emerging effects of a change will almost certainly have some undesirable aspects that are readily recognisable, while an understanding of their more desirable aspects becomes possible only as new ways of thinking emerge in a new context.
The only peaceable and honest way out of this refusal of change is thorough discussion that is limited to a particular problem, but encourages those who reject some entrenched assumption in the way the problem is generally understood to insist on having their arguments properly discussed. This sort of discussion must precede or at least abstract from political power and privileged interests.
Don’t just assume that can’t be done. Where doing nothing is not a serious option, ther public will need a reliable source of advice about what can be done.