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:
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.