Tuesday, September 19, 2006


The typical political quiz looks at your first-order political views: left or right, libertarian or paternalist, etc. But I'm growing increasingly convinced that this is of secondary importance, and that we should pay more attention to meta-politics, i.e. the way we think politics should be conducted. As in academia, your methods matter more than your conclusions: better to be reasonably mistaken than dogmatic if correct. At least, that's the view I'm coming to. Others might disagree. Try locating yourself according to the categories listed below:

[I'm hoping that this is an improvement on my slightly messy first attempt at identifying the important political axes.]

Meta-Political Ideals

1) Procedural liberalism vs. radicalism. Liberals share my above sentiments about the primacy of process, whereas radicals are primarily concerned with realizing their first-order objectives. (Follow link for a more thorough discussion with examples.)

2) Rationalists vs. Subjectivists. Rationalists understand (ideal) political debate as inquiry into the common good, to be guided towards consensus by the light of reason. They aim to rationally convince others of the truth. Subjectivists see politics as a mere contest of wills, all rhetoric and power plays, where the goal is simply to have your individual preferences win through.

Democracy and Power

Note that there are several questions to distinguish here. I leave aside the first-order question of what to do or legislate. Instead, we can ask the procedural questions: who should be entrusted with political power? How should they go about making decisions? And how much discretionary power should they be allowed?

3) Direct vs. Representative Democracy. Should power rest more with citizens or elected representatives?

4) Aggregative vs. Deliberative Group Decisions. Should decisions be reached by simply aggregating individuals' prior preferences, or by submitting reasons to the group's critical scrutiny and deliberation?

5) Constraints on Government. To what extent should political power be constrained, say by constitutional/civil rights, judicial oversight / separation of powers, etc.? (I guess this touches on libertarian issues.)

Have I missed anything important? It might be fun to turn this into a Go-meme, perhaps alongside the first-order "political compass". I might put that together tomorrow. In the meantime: any suggestions?

P.S. For the record, I'm a strong liberal proceduralist, rationalist, and deliberative democrat. My support for more direct democracy is conditional on its being deliberative (so probably small-scale) in nature; I favour citizens juries, but oppose merely aggregative popular referenda. I generally favour more constraints on government, but presumably these must themselves originate from a deliberative process.

Update: You can find the go-meme here. Note that I've replaced the "constraints on government" option with a general "libertarian vs. authoritarian" axis. There's also a standard Left/Right option, to indicate how favourably you view redistributive taxation and such. (Not exactly meta-political, but it could be interesting for comparative purposes.) Finally, following Jeremy's advice in comments, I've added in an option to indicate one's favoured level of decision making. I define Federalists as favouring more local-level decision-making (possibly varying from state to state), in contrast to Globalists.



  1. seem like this criteria
    1) doesnt include all options.
    2) is much easier to agree with you.

    stil maybe those are both intentional

    > I favour citizens juries

    A classic terrible idea that probably sounded really great when it was invented and still sounds great as long as you don't care at all about the result.

    It's a bit like having a lucky dip to determine who your doctor will be from a random group of people.

    I also think in its effort to reduce unfairness of one sort it actually ends up being even more unfair.

  2. No, they're not intentional. What meta-political options did I miss out? On the second point, can you suggest a more neutral way of describing the various positions? (Alternatively, if the reason its easier to agree with me is because my position really is the objectively more attractive one, then I guess there's no problem!)

    You suggest that a citizens jury "sounds great as long as you don't care at all about the result." Is there empirical evidence about bad results commonly emerging from such a deliberative process? The doctor analogy is a bit silly, because politicians don't need (or have) any specialized training. The role of a citizen-jury would be to assess some particular political issue, and anyone should be capable of this. They would be provided with the essential information, and can ask an expert panel for further facts. It's dubious whether there are any normative experts, who could better judge what ought to be done. (Perhaps moral/political philosophers? Civil servants? Surely not politicians, anyway!) The key question is who can be trusted, and a representative random sampling of diverse citizens thrown together in a civic setting seems as good an answer as any. That's why we have legal juries, after all, and they work just fine.

  3. You could include something about the size or level of government that should be making which kinds of decisions, but I'm not sure how to formulate that. Maybe it could be localized vs. globalized, but it's going to have to end up being more variable than just two options. One variable is that this is a continuum to begin with, and another is that you might be at one point on the continuum for some decisions and another for others.

    This issue isn't just about decisions within a nation but about how to interact among nations, and I'm not sure how to formulate that issue alongside this either. But I do think these are meta-political issues worth considering.

  4. > No, they're not intentional. What meta-political options did I miss out?

    For example your "Direct vs. Representative Democracy" seems to imply democracy which one might dispute.

    > can you suggest a more neutral way of describing the various positions?

    Hmm not sure... maybe your are just right!

    > Is there empirical evidence about bad results commonly emerging from such a deliberative process?

    I think it is better than direct voting - in part because if it’s non democratic nature - i.e. that some smarter people can gain more influence than democracy would attribute them usually. But it still doesn’t beat expert deliberation.

    > Because politicians don't need (or have) any specialized training.

    Maybe they SHOULD have training. Why would politics be a special industry where people DON'T need training when in other professions they do?

    >and anyone should be capable of this.

    I don’t think juries do work. I think in the US they have a fairly poor record for convicting non-murderers do them not?
    Anyway - surely we can accept that not everyone is equally capable? For example in a jury setting some people might be very good at reading people - other people may be medically unable to do it.
    It is PC but clearly untrue that everyone is equally good at this sort of thing.

    My suggestion is that one picks the best people then places very strong supervision structures that ensure their efforts are channeled in the right directions.

  5. I'm not entirely clear on what deliberative democracy is. You get a bunch of citizens together, and they become informed, engage in deliberation, and so forth - I think I get that part. But then what? Assuming that some disagreements within the group remain after deliberation, how do they take action as a single group? One of your linked posts seems to imply that they are not voting or engaging in any similar sort of aggregative procedure, so what do they do? And what is the group's output? Are they deciding whether to approve already-written bills, or writing their own bills, or dictating the broad outlines of policies to elected officials, or making non-binding suggestions, or what?

    It's also interesting that choosing representatives by lot rather than by vote means that you're engaging in "direct" rather than "representative" democracy. That's not clear from the definition of direct vs. representative.

  6. One other thing: could you write self-contained definitions of each of the scales and put them into the Go-Meme post? I'm trying to answer the meme, and it's hard to keep having to go back and look for definitions, some of which (e.g. libertarian vs. authoritarian) you don't even give. And I've been following the conversation here - I imagine that it would be even harder for someone who hadn't. Just a suggestion, to help the go-meme go.

  7. Blar, your questions highlight the possibility of many variants of deliberative democracy. I'm not sure what the ideal is; different procedures may be appropriate for different situations. I guess I'd tend to favour more open-ended deliberations, perhaps playing a consultative role which is respected and given significant (if not binding) weight by elected officials. But it could also be used at a later stage, e.g. to determine whether to enact some particular legislation. A post-deliberative vote would presumably be required in those sorts of cases. (The key difference from merely aggregative procedures is that the preferences being aggregated here are not raw inputs to the political process, but rather emerge from it.)

  8. Yeah, good idea, I'll get right on to that...


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