what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hay, rain, Windows and democracy


A mixed bag of goodies this morning.
I did indeed do some scything yesterday morning – before the rains came yet again. And this morning also dawns wet – very unusual weather for here.
Now a moan about Microsoft and PC producers. I never expected to pay 600 euros tor a laptop boasting it had the latest Windows 7 – only to discover that it gave me Word only for 2 months (and requiring a special downloading) and that I am then expected to pay for it. By all means make us pay for the frills (as they do on cut-price flying) – but Word is so basic that it must surely be illegal to offer a PC which boasts it has Windows when it lacks Word?

The short visit I made recently to China (and the preparatory reading I did for it) opened up some interesting perspectives for me. I have never been a simplistic human rights advocate – but was appalled to read of the scale and nature of the continuing repression of those, for example, who dared to try to defend citizens against the injustices perpetrated by rapacious municipalities. However the Chinese authorities at various levels do try to take account of public opinion in various ways (they have to since they live in fear of losing their monoploy of power)– I and am a realist about how little power citizens of western democracies actually have to change things. I was brought up on the Schumpeterian diction about democracy only being a method choosing between competing elites – and that is certainly the case in American and Britain.
Last week an iconoclastic lecture was delivered in the august British Academy of Sciences by James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, which related to this issue.
I excerpt the key sections below in italics. For the full article (and paper) go here Professor Fishkin claimed that we’ve known that liberal democracy doesn’t work since 1957, when Anthony Downs published his ‘rational ignorance’ theorem. Put simply, Downs proved that there’s no point in voters taking the considerable trouble to study the issues in sufficient depth to vote intelligently as their individual vote has a negligible effect on the outcome of the election. Or, as Russell Hardin memorably put it: ‘Having the liberty to cast my vote is roughly as valuable as having the liberty to cast a vote on whether the sun will shine tomorrow.’ Even after Schumpeter’s demonstration that voting is just a way of alternating elites, we still hang on to the illusion that liberal democracy is democratic. Fishkin and his colleague Bruce Ackerman are delightfully rude about our tendency to ‘vote for the politicians with the biggest smile or the biggest handout’, and are equally scornful of computer sampling models which enable politicians to ‘learn precisely which combinations of myth and greed might work to generate the support from key voting groups.’
Fishkin’s solution to the problem of rational ignorance is random selection by lot to create temporary deliberative assemblies to debate the issue(s) on hand and vote on the outcome. Like most people working in the field (including Anthony Barnett and the present author) Fishkin thought he had invented this system (known technically as ‘sortition’) only to discover that the Athenians beat him to it 2,400 years ago The Stanford sortition experiments have demonstrated that, given balanced advocacy and careful moderation, ordinary people will take the time to study and deliberate the issues before making an informed decision (via a secret ballot). Fishkin is opposed to the pressure to consensus that afflicts the Habermasian model of deliberative democracy and also claims that his institutional design overcomes the polarising tendencies of group deliberation recently outlined by Cass Sunstein.
Step forward China - Fishkin was contacted in 2004 by the party leadership in Zegou township, Wenling City (about 300 km south of Shanghai) who had a problem prioritising infrastructure projects – they had identified thirty potential projects but only had funding for ten. Although party leaders had their own preferences they commissioned Fishkin to introduce a randomly-selected deliberative assembly (235 members), who deliberated for a day over the various projects and voted on the outcome. Although the winning priorities on the deliberative poll were very different from those of the local leadership, the results were duly implemented.
Coincidentally, I then came across a very useful booklet which has just been published exposing the way big business has intensified its penetration of EU policy-making.

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