In February, I wrote a blog for Extinction Rebellion entitled Why do politicians keep making bad decisions?.
The blog was tied in with XR’s third main demand for governments “to create and be led by the decisions of citizens’ assemblies on climate and ecological justice”. XR’s point of view is, I think, that governments are, typically, not great at making decisions on the environment and it would be far better, and more democratic, if these decisions were made by randomly selected members of the public, i.e. made by Citizens’ Assemblies.
Part of my work at Sortition Foundation involves advocating for citizens’ assemblies, not just for decisions about the environment, but for all areas of public policy. Sortition Foundation doesn’t take a position on what those decisions should be (e.g. our job is not to tell people how to respond to climate change), rather we advocate around how those decisions should be made.
The blog caused a bit of a kerfuffle, with some coverage in The Times.
The basic thesis of the blog is this: the strapline for democracy is government of the people, for the people, by the people… And this is a strapline that I wholeheartedly believe in! Yet, it seems to me that the way democracy is currently configured means that the government we are getting meets none of these aspirations: it is neither of the people, by the people, nor for the people. I was interested in trying to understand why that is, and what could be done about it.
My approach was one of a mathematician: start with some basic axioms and see where those axioms, and logic, get us. My first axiom is simply that, the aim of democracy is government of the people, for the people and by the people. I interpret this to mean that we wish our system of decision making to enable decisions to be made by the people affected by those decisions, and for the benefit of those same people, and of the people as a whole.
The second axiom is this: humans have trouble making decisions that conflict with their own self-interest. This doesn’t seem too contentious to me! And I was thinking about it because I wanted to avoid writing a piece that said “democracy would be fine if our politicians weren’t such a horrible bunch”. This seems a lazy criticism to me and, moreover, it is a criticism aimed at inducing less engagement with democracy rather than more. I wanted a better, truer answer.
These two axioms, taken together, form a kind of specification for a democratic system. The first axiom tells us what we want from our democratic system; the second axiom tells us one of the problems that such a democratic system must overcome. Now the question is whether our current democratic system satisfies these axioms: i.e. it achieves the stated aim, despite the existence of the stated problem.
In the blog I sought to interrogate our current system, in which representatives are elected at regular intervals by the citizens, with representatives arranged into parties, etc. I highlighted four problems that seem to arise:
- Short-termism: decisions are made with an eye on the electoral cycle;
- Vested interests: decision makers need resources to win elections, and so make decisions that are more likely to attract support (donations) from those with resources;
- Lack of representation: again, due to the need for significant resourcing to be elected, decision makers are typically drawn from a particular stratum of society and our axiom implies that they will make decisions that benefit that stratum;
- Adversarial discourse: parliamentary debate is adversial; decision makers are not incentivized to change their mind, or to moderate their point of view in light of other people’s experience, for fear of being perceived as weak or (heaven bid) as having performed a u-turn.
All of these four problems constitute a failure of our current democratic system to achieve the aim laid out in our first axiom. What is more, each of these problems is a direct consequence of the way the problem of self-interest laid out in our second axiom interacts with our current democratic system. If we are looking for ways to improve, or upgrade, our democractic system so that it achieves our stated aim, then we should look at systems that mitigate against the problems I’ve just described.