Tiptoeing through the taboos of vox pop democracy

Schumpeter’s two chapters on democracy in his great book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy provide the best framework I know of articulating the things that trouble me about the current state of democracy.

The chapters assert the following propositions:

  1. Rousseau’s idea of the will of the people is an illusion for the simple reason that that will is distilled from a chaos of conflicting interests.
  2. Democracy arrives at decisions by way of a process by which factions of the political class vye for the consent of the governed.
  3. When considering politics, people are in a highly abstract world that’s usually far from their own concrete experience. They also know that their own singular vote amongst millions gives them an infinitesimal chance of influencing political outcomes. So their practical knowledge and their incentive to exercise care are both gravely diminished compared to situations where they are making decisions about their own welfare. This invites voting which is at least as much expressive as it is deliberative. In Schumpeter’s words, “In politics the typical citizen . . . argues and analyses in a way which he would readily recognise as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective”. Schumpeter draws attention to the similarities between this and the process by which advertising is addressed to manipulating the unconscious.
  4. In all things organisational, whether from the Federal Government to the local tennis club, a division of labour is necessary for the organisation to function effectively. Schumpeter puts it this way. “Collectives act almost exclusively by accepting leadership — this is the dominant mechanism of practically any collective action which is more than a reflex.”. Schumpeter thus grafts the idea of leadership onto this division of labour and perhaps he is right that one needs leadership, but one doesn’t even need anything as strong as that to make the point.  We need a division of labour. And that calls for delegation. Right now I am reliably informed that the polity is in the lengthy process of investigating how to deal with Food Derived from Reduced Lignin Lucerne Line. I’m thinking we need delegation here. Getting us all to come up with an opinion on Alan Jones show just won’t cut the mustard. Thus we have any number of agencies in our society that do this kind of stuff, or advise governments and all the rest of it. But the people remaining sovereign have the power to overrule their delegates.  That’s as it should be. But if the thing is going to function tolerably the people need to give due regard to the fact that they don’t know the details – the people we delegated the issues to know the details.

Alas as time has passed since Joseph Schumpeter shared his dyspeptic but insightful thoughts with us, two things have been exacerbating the tensions in this system.

On the one hand, our social and economic world has become much more complex with the division of labour proceeding apace. On the other the processes of democratic deliberation have been coming increasingly under the sway of infotainment. The result of this is an increasing number of no-go areas for policy.

There are memes of the right that the left dare not disturb in their lair. For instance that debt and deficits are bad. Of course debt and deficits are bad, but only if other things remain equal. Once you understand what debt and deficits might purchase, one is then in a world of abstract and difficult calculations. That, the left have judged, won’t play well for them. And so for the best part of twenty years fiscal populism has held sway. Another one that the left won’t be disturbing any time soon, at least in a serious way, is the regulation of media content.

There are memes of the left that the right dare not disturb. I suspect there are more of these. I’d include the following.

  • We should take action against ‘dumped’ imports.
  • Nuclear power is a bad bad thing.
  • Kerbside recycling is something we can do for the environment (it’s effects are negligible and for the money we spend on it we could do a lot more for the environment).

And these are just the ones that can be ideologically identified. However most of the blockers are bi-partisan blockers which is to say that both mainstream parties run a mile from them simply because they know that the rules of vox pop democracy mean that trouble can be stirred up against any government that tries to change things, no matter how bona fide protagonists of the policy are or how well credentialed the policies are. In this we can include all tax reform.

So gentle readers, I’d be interested in any comment on these observations and any additions to the list of areas in which the rules of Vox Pop Democracy prevent us from making political progress.

 

This entry was posted in Economics and public policy, History, Political theory, Politics - international, Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.
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Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
8 years ago

Hi Nick,

The import of health services would fit your list, or major changes in worker’s rights.

I am not sure this is merely due to politics as infotainment: if we wanted to reform things, we could probably first take them out of the political arena via some institution that is charged with optimising some outcome, and then let that institution take the difficult decisions we can’t take in full view. We for instance do not let politicians openly decide who gets that life-saving operation and who doesn’t. But there is still a decision to be made. This decision is taken at the local level by nurses and doctors. Also, tax reforms do still happen, but at a slow pace, and often at the local level, out of sight.

What I would sooner point to is that we have lived through very peaceful and prosperous decades. You then get entrenched privileges of all types and people who defend those privileges. Public life gets divvied up in territories, complete with political protection. Things then need to get bad enough for the privileges to start to be recognised as detrimental to the majority, which entails a long process of counter-organisation. Then you get a reform cycle, after which the game starts anew.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

hmmm. I am trying to see your point Nick. The closest I get to seeing what you describe is the 24/7 media battle that politicians now have to be engaged in: much more than in the decades preceding the internet, politicians have to manage their media profile and have to spend lots of time spinning stories and reacting to image attacks by their opponents. This certainly reduces the quality of open debate. But the real debate was normally held behind closed doors anyway, so the quality of the open debate is not necessarily informative of the quality of the actual debate.

So does the ‘Vox Populi’ reduce the possibilities for reform and the quality of those reforms? Not so easy to say.

Mainly, I would say, the 24/7 chatter puts the government departments more in charge as their political masters simply don’t have the time to absorb the underlying issues and thus have to rely on departmental expertise to make the real decisions. The Gonski reforms and the disability reforms are a case in point: as best as I can tell, the departments are making up their content as we speak. And this might not be a bad thing, depending on the quality of the debate inside departments.

Yet, there are knock-on effects. As a result of these political pressures, the departments too will be somewhat intellectually emasculated as they too are now made more subservient to the media cycle. I truly don’t know what the balance of those effects is.

Alphonse
Alphonse
8 years ago

Road congestion pricing (even when the polity can buy the idea of latent demand)

Alphonse
Alphonse
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Yes, ideologically neutral. Might this therefore be one where an opposition leader could enter the cabinet room bearing a white flag and say “let’s do this this together – major parties plus Greens v reactionary ignorami. It’s the answer to your problems now and we’ll appreciate it being there when we wrest back the government benches from you”. The public would be so gobsmacked, they might even listen and learn. Alternatively, the bones could go into place consensually while the parties argued about hypothecation for transport expenditure, compensation for the car-dependent etc.

derrida derider
derrida derider
8 years ago

Of course the motivation and capacity for refrom is much less in peaceful and propserous times, but doesn’t this get things the wrong way around? The whole purpose of reform is to make peaceful and prosperous times – reforms are not good things in themselves but rather justified by their consequences.

For my part, I say long may reform be difficult.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
8 years ago

that is a very optimistic take! The problem is that rent-seeking activities continue unabated in peaceful times and lead to more privileges and higher inequality. So there is change, but not for the better. I am more with Nick in that it would be good to have a continuous reform mentality. The question of how to get that is not an easy one.

Rex
Rex
8 years ago

How about these for Vox Pop?
State run health and education systems
Public subsidy of private schooling
Road funding taking precedence over public transport / rail funding?
US Centric foreign policy
Obesity programs that leave Big Food revenues untouched
Cost of living knee jerk reactions. Especially fuel prices

Alphonse
Alphonse
8 years ago

Truth in sentencing / tough on crime / victims’ “rights”. It’s first revenge-based and second the delusion that higher penalties have a significant deterrent effect. Meanwhile the prisons are chocka and consuming funds that could be applied to better policing, crime prevention and early diversion. Throw in needless drug criminalisation as a further component of this seemingly inescapable law and order vox pop syndrome.

Patrick
Patrick
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

I think you are both right.

We are overly lenient on violent and sexual crime. Personally I have no fundamental objection to the death penalty nor to permanent incarceration for pedophiles and violent sex offenders, in part based on their crimes putting them insofar as I am concerned outside of my sphere of common interest and because of the recidivist rates which I understand to be unacceptably high.

However we do also lock up far too many people for minor offenses. This is the war-on-drugs disease (although it is not just about drugs, drugs are a massive part). These people often suffer considerably from the experience and frequently return a more hardened criminal with a worse drug problem.

The net return to society of this appears to be so far negative it isn’t funny.

Alphonse
Alphonse
8 years ago

NSW minister and ex-DPP prosecutor, Greg Smith, noticed the problem before attaining office. Let’s see if it is considered politic to address it. My opinion is that judicial discretion did more good than bad before Bob Carr decided to see the Libs and tabloids and raise them. He was nothing if not pragmatic.