Monday, December 18, 2006

A Democratic Taxonomy

The following explores various dimensions of democratic participation. It has two goals: to develop a helpful and comprehensive taxonomy of participatory forms, and to assess their relative merits. Suggestions are welcome on either count...

“Who” participates?

This question spans two dimensions: first, how many citizens participate, and secondly, how representative they are of the general population.

Universal participation would yield a perfect score on both scales. This is the ideal for elections, but may be impractical for more intensive forms of political activity (such as deliberation over specific policy proposals). So some forms of consultation might reasonably sacrifice breadth for depth of participation, e.g. citizens’ juries. This then raises the question: should participants be self-selecting partisans, elected politicians, or randomly selected citizens?

I recommend the latter: random sampling would allow our democracy to benefit by hearing other voices besides “the usual suspects”. Self-selection, by contrast, can have a distorting, undemocratic effect, giving disproportionate weight to vocal extremists. Elected representatives, on the other hand, are more likely to be constrained or influenced by career motivations (e.g. to preclude any perception of “flip-flopping”). The average citizen avoids these institutional barriers to open-minded, conscientious, deliberative participation.

The standard objection at this point is to claim that the average citizen lacks the capacity for good political decision-making. But the empirical data [PDF] from Deliberative Polling suggest otherwise: participants often learn a lot through the deliberative process, and those who do are also the most likely to change their mind – suggesting that the deliberative context succeeds in eliciting more informed judgments from participants.

“What” opinion: private vs. public goods

Does the democratic process ask individuals to contribute their self-interested preferences (“private goods”), or instead to vote according to their sincere opinion of the public good? Put another way: is the general will simply a matter of aggregated self-interest – the most popular option for economically “rational” agents in the political marketplace? Or does it require a distinctively civic way of thinking? Only the latter protects against exploitation and the “tyranny of the majority”.

Opinion Depth: raw or refined?

Does the general will reside in raw public opinion? Or should we instead associate democratic legitimacy with the community’s considered view, or what citizens would conclude upon informed reflection? The latter seems obviously preferable in principle, though open to abuse by external agents who seek to impose their own speculative views about others’ “true interests”. Ideally, we ought to actually inform the citizens in question, so that no such dodgy speculation is necessary.

“Where”: private vs. public sphere

Is this “refinement” to occur through private reflection or interactive, public deliberation? An advantage of open, deliberative democratic processes, as noted long ago by J.S. Mill, is that the associated norms force participants to reason in terms of the public – rather than narrowly private – interests. It also seems more likely to bring people to consider other perspectives and arguments that they would overlook or misunderstand on their own. In short, public deliberation allows us to learn from one another.

This may lead us to rethink typical consultation procedures such as individual surveys. While voting by secret ballot is of course entirely appropriate to guard against electoral coercion, we may wish to see it supplemented by more open forms of political participation, such as group deliberation. (Though this will require measures – including skilled moderation – to protect against domination by a vocal few. One possibility is to allot each member a right to equal speaking time.)

“How”: Individual aggregation vs. Collective verdict

A further issue is how to obtain output from the deliberating group. One option is to demand a verdict from them, as from a jury, which creates pressure towards building a consensus. On the one hand, this might be thought to embody the general will of the “community”, understood as more than just the sum of its parts. But it might also be worried that these pressures towards conformity will undercut dissenting minority opinions, in an illegitimate and undemocratic fashion. This problem could be alleviated, as in Deliberative Polls, by not demanding any such verdict from the group. Instead, each individual may be surveyed post-deliberation to obtain their informed opinion, and the results later aggregated in a similar process as for non-deliberative opinions.

“Why”: the role of citizens – inputs or agents?

Traditional approaches typically treat citizens merely as a source of unrefined data points that can be utilized as inputs for the government decision-makers. A very different approach would be to understand citizens as political agents in their own right, capable of participating in the decision-making process themselves – as rational subjects, and not merely input objects.

On this conception, democratic participation should aim to harness local decision-making skills to assess reasons and weigh conflicting values, rather than merely serving to highlight pre-existing opinions. Citizens then actively contribute to the making of collective decisions, rather than merely being a passive, objectified “factor” that others might take into account. In other words, governments should seek to engage the public in collaboration, and not just consultation. [Cf. IAP2 Spectrum - PDF.]

A Democratic Taxonomy

We may distinguish two variations on each of three core opinion bases: (1) raw opinions, (2) individually refined opinions, and (3) deliberatively refined judgments. The first two types may concern either (a) private interests or (b) the public good. Deliberation only makes sense in pursuit of a shared public good, but it offers alternative outputs, of either: (a) aggregating individual judgments as per usual, or (b) forming a collective group verdict. Hence we have the six options:

(1a) Aggregate raw opinions on private interests
(1b) Aggregate raw opinions on the public good
(2a) Aggregate individually refined opinions on private interests
(2b) Aggregate individually refined opinions on the public good
(3a) Aggregate post-deliberative opinions on the public good
(3b) Collective verdict formed via deliberation on the public good

Finally, we may expand this by incorporating the dimension of who participates: (i) self-selected; (ii) elected representatives; (iii) randomly selected; or (iv) everyone.

This would yield 24 theoretical possibilities. But in practice we can rule out universal participation in intensive deliberation (3*iv) or even private refinement (2*iv), and there is little to be said for aggregating raw opinions of non-representative subgroups (1*i or 1*ii), thus leaving us with 16 realistic combinations.

Current consultative practice tends towards (1a-i), typically aggregating the individual opinions, often narrowly self-interested and/or minimally informed, of self-selecting groups. My claim is that it would be worth trying to shift towards more deliberative, representative, and public-minded participatory practices –- e.g. Deliberative Polls (3a-iii) and Citizens Juries (3b-iii).


  1. 1) I suggest experts are better than a random simple of people. I think there are flaws to having elite (and that those can be dealt with using incentives) but in the end corrupt is better than incompetent (so I would, for example, pick a potentially more corrupt Clinton over a less competent Bush). An incompetent group is the one who would run a serious risk of destroying everything.

    2) I agree with the civic responsibility, but I can see the capitalist argument that you may often get 'what others want' wrong.

    3) I think you always have to refine public desires. The problem is in a vote the public will do things like ask for tax cuts AND more services. Someone has to reconcile the public's contradictions.

    4) Yes public deliberation is good - ideally this would be completely open on a global scale. Where it falls over is when a nation needs to keep things secret from 'outsiders'. For example to say 'we will stay the course in Iraq' - when the politicians know full well there is a point where they would have to give up.

    5) Yes you need protection from negative strategies. One method would be to have recording of the process and consequences for those who use illegitimate tactics (such as excluding them from further deliberations). Such tools also are assisted by it being a collection of experts and not just a random sample.

    6) OK

  2. You have missed out a "when" category. Is this deliberate?

    If not, here are some brief thoughts:

    By "when" I mean, firstly, "how often does a new random sample/set of elected politicians/ get generated?" It takes time and effort to generate a new decision-making group, so one would not want to do it too often; and one might also expect a group of randomly selected citizens (for example) to perform better if they are given a continuous run of related decisions to make. On the other hand, staying too long with one group of decision-makers is likely to defeat one of the virtues of election and random sampling ie. to take a broad range of views into account.

    By "when" I mean, secondly, "for what proportion of decisions is a decision-making group asked to give an explicit recommendation." I raise this point because it may not be practical to obtain explicit recommendations for every little decision that needs to be made. I suggest that either there would be some kind of "default" group to deal with the less weighty issues; or the recommendations of the elected/randomly sampled group (call it the "active" group) might be extended analogically or deductively to yeild implicit recommendations for those issues that do not warrant explicit deliberation.

    Plausible, or pedantic?

  3. Mike, that's helpful, thanks - I'd been thinking about single decisions, but those big-picture issues are probably even more important.


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