Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Deliberative Benefits and Challenges

There are at least four classes of benefit that may arise from developing a more deliberative democracy:
  • Substantive: better policy results from a broader knowledge base, drawing on local skills and expertise to develop innovative solutions.

  • Instrumental: increased popular support, trust in government, perceived legitimacy, and sense of ownership over policy.

  • Normative: resulting policies really are more legitimate. The deliberative process upholds key democratic values, including civic respect, empowerment, autonomy, and popular sovereignty.

  • Transformative: aside from these governmental advantages, meaningful democratic participation may also influence culture and create better citizens. Over the long term, it can promote civic engagement, develop citizen capacities, and boost civic awareness and commitment to democracy and community among the citizenry.

There are also significant challenges that face any attempt to achieve meaningful deliberation, including:
  • Motivation: Self-selection is unrepresentative, given disparities in political engagement. Because people are not motivated to step forward, the State must do more to come to them – e.g. inviting randomly selected citizens to participate in a jury-like process.

  • Close-mindedness: meaningful deliberation requires that participants be willing to revise their views upon learning of new reasons and evidence. Participants should show respect for one another’s perspectives, and pursue the common good in a spirit of open inquiry. Skilled moderators and well-designed deliberative institutions may help to promote and enforce these democratic norms.

  • Culture of Competition: deliberative institutions must guard against adversarial forms of argumentation (rhetoric), which are all too familiar from other spheres of life. Special effort may be required to foster a more cooperative atmosphere.

  • Groupthink/polarization: empirical research suggests that the risk here is greatest when groups are relatively homogeneous to begin with. Hence there is a need to include diverse views and encourage constructive criticism.

  • Unequal abilities: political equality is undermined when some people are naturally more capable and confident of performing in deliberative contexts. Education should seek to alleviate such disparities in the very long term, but more immediate steps must be taken in the meantime, for those the education system has failed. At the very least, skilled moderators should take care to reign in dominant personalities during group discussions, and ensure that every participant has the opportunity to contribute meaningfully.

  • Psychological biases / systematic human irrationality: the psychological literature reveals systematic biases in human thought, e.g. confirmation bias, the salience heuristic, etc., that could undermine rational deliberation. Again, the guidance of skilled and knowledgeable moderator/facilitators may help groups to guard against common fallacies.

Any other suggestions?


  1. The type of participation that deliberative democracy requires seems to be a public good in the economic sense of that term. The implication, if the theory of public goods is correct, is that people won't provide that type of participation. Of course if the theory of public goods is incorrect, it's hard to see why there should be any sort of political system at all.

  2. There are intrinsic motivations in play here that cast doubt on such economic analyses. (Blogs are public goods too, in that sense, and they seem to flourish just fine.)

    The problem may be heightened for more demanding forms of deliberation (e.g. that take up whole working days). Citizens' Jury participants, for example, should be granted a compensatory wage for their time. But this isn't expected to be the primary motivator for participants.

    It's worth nothing that in the real world cases to date, the randomly selected individuals are usually quite happy to participate in such deliberative forums. And they tend to be even more positive about it afterwards, as many find it to be an extremely rewarding experience. (See, for example, the Jefferson Centre's account of a Citizens' Jury in Australia (2005), which positively assessed the potential for more deliberative community engagement of this sort [PDF].

  3. Still, there may be a reporting bias in such things. Afterall who would go to the trouble of arranging deliberation and then report it's failure?

    But I also agree there is probably a latent desire for deliberation out there.


  4. Richard,

    What intrinsic motivations are you speaking of? Are you saying that people will voluntarily provide public goods? That's fine, but if so, what purpose does government serve?

    Or are you saying that people are motivated to involve themselves in democracy? Certainly they are, as most people like controlling how others must live, but how is that a good thing?

  5. I was simply pointing out that people can be intrinsically motivated to pursue truth and the common good. There is nobility in the human condition. Granted, we have all sorts of more self-interested motivations in addition. But most people have a streak of idealism in them that can be teased out. At least, most people are happy enough to participate in a jury -- apparently deliberating together in good faith, no matter your cynicism.

    (I'm not sure how any of that is supposed to justify anarchy...? We're not always angels, after all.)

  6. Richard,

    Notice your shift from "There are intrinsic motivations here" to "... people can be intrinsically motivated ..." Most people, so far as I can observe, are motivated to hold opinions that they enjoy holding, rather than to pursue truth.

    I wasn't trying to justify anarchy here, just asking what purpose you think government (specifically, the power to coerce people into funding stuff) should have if you believe people are willing to provide public goods on their own.

  7. [I just fell across this comment, which was apparently meant to be posted here...]

    Hi Richard, I'd add that one of the limits to deliberative effectiveness is the process design. I'm not talking about an online forum sponsored by a government agency masquerading as deliberative democracy. No, I'm talking about formal processes like citizens' assemblies, World Cafe, etc which are facilitated to "draw out" the deliberation from its participants. In my opinion, the legitimacy of many of these events is compromised by a learning phase which is instructivist rather than constructivist in nature, which has the potential to bias the outcome.

    ps. found you through a live Technorati search feed.

    - Ron Lubensky


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