Changing the game – By John Burnheim

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.

This entry was posted in Democracy. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Changing the game – By John Burnheim

  1. David says:

    Would you mind providing an example of these untried forums that lead to improved results? Because either my reading comprehension skills are severely deficient or this argument boils down to: “People didn’t like my ideas”.

  2. Jphn Burnheim says:

    To David. I’mnever claiming to prove anything in these matters, merely to make suggestions and supply some of my reasons for making those suggestions. Don’t think anything stronger can be adduced by anybody . All the concepts in terms of which we can discuss these matters are very slippery, and mist be tested in practice before we can assess them with any confidence. I propose to relate my untried suggestion to a number of background considerations, which may help.
    What I am suggesting not only has never been tried before, but was inconceivable until a few years ago

  3. Hi John, I liked this part of what you wrote:

    [We need 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.

    That said, I think your language needs work. Part of the reason why the “sweeping policies” of the past failed was because we (the collective we) thought that systems had a deterministic “cause”. That is, a solution was just a matter of finding the right lever and pulling to produce the desired output.

    We now know that systems aren’t like that. Most systems have built in inertia to absorb shocks to a degree. Even if you successfully nudge the system into a new equilibrium there’s no guarantee that the results will be the ones that you want. Path dependency means that solutions aren’t necessarily transferable either.

    For example, let’s say the goal was to stop alcohol abuse. Great, let’s impose Prohibition. Now we have a whole black market system flowing around the judicial ban, and the system remains elastic. That is, when the Prohibition is removed, everything roughly returns to how it was. So it’s not a successful change. Nor, in fact, would you be able to find a singular “cause”.

    If we were to implement your forum idea, you have to bootstrap somehow. Gather evidence and convince people about how your way of doing things will be more effective than business-as-usual politics for a start. While facts and evidence are rarely enough to win an argument on their own, it sure does to help to have them on your side.

  4. paul frijters says:

    I’m with David. I fail to see what you are trying to say here even though I am motivated to understand it. Perhaps you can talk us through a hypothetical example of what you envisage, ie, a scenario of what you envisage your forum to do and to lead to?

  5. paul frijters says:

    This should be interesting for you: a Belgium initiative first starting in 2011, now also active in the Netherlands, of selecting citizens by lottery who then discuss what should be improved locally, leading to committees to actually help do this.
    [unfortunately, only in Dutch…]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.