Thursday, July 05, 2007

On direct democracy and participation

There's a potentially interesting expansion in direct democracy to be unveiled today, apparently:
"Voters will be given powers to decide how ten of millions of pounds should be spent in their neighbourhood under radical plans being unveiled today.

In a potentially dramatic extension of direct democracy, councils will have to hold ballots before deciding where money should be targeted. It would mean that, for the first time, people could direct cash to areas that concern them most, such as parks, curbing antisocial behaviour, targeting drug trouble spots or cleaning up litter."
I'd expect Chris Dillow to both welcome this and suggest it doesn't go far enough.

Personally I'm sceptical about this whole wisdom of crowds thing but the other question that occurred to me was this: is there's any reason to think the crowd is fair? If you look how the 'crowd' that donates to charity [pdf] behave, for example, we find that they feel health charities are much more important than ones to do with housing. This would reflect voting patterns, which continually show health care in the top five of voter concerns. Social housing, on the other hand, doesn't even register. The reason, I'd suggest, is that while a majority of people fear illness - particularly cancer - a majority are comfortable enough to be unconcerned about the prospect of homelessness.

You could argue that this is a fairly rational result, since the average person is indeed more likely to contract cancer than become homeless, but the point is the marginal concerns seem to get squeezed here - unless the marginal concern happens to be private schooling, of course.

The analogy arguably doesn't quite fit, since with charity donations some people obviously have more 'votes' than others. But still, is there any reason to think that equal votes would overcome the problem of minority needs being neglected?

Another problem I have with Chris's advocacy of direct democracy is that it is seen almost exclusively* as an antidote to 'managerialist' politics. For example, in response to the idea that falling voter turnout shows a lack of appreciation of the democratic process and the need for active citizenship, he responds:
"No, it doesn't. It shows their lack of confidence in (managerialist?) politicians. I suspect many of these non-voters are protesters against the Iraq war, or committed greens, or are active citizens in other ways.
In what other activity would a near-halving of demand be seen as a reason to insult one's customers, rather than as a sign of one's own incompetence?"
But how do we know this particular 'fall in demand' can be explained in this way? Because the 'demand' for participation in representative democracy has coincided with a fall in demand for membership of all sorts of civic institutions - political parties, charities, friendly societies, clubs, trade unions and churches. I suppose you could argue that all of these have become more 'managerialist' and incompetent in equal measure over the years, but it seems unlikely. Could it not be that this declining willingness to participate, to join anything, reflects a more general and profound change in the 'customer' - indicated, perhaps, by the fact that we even use these terms to describe civic participation?

Nearer the truth, I suspect, is that the 'customer' is much more individualistic than he or she used to be. This explains the examples of participation Chris uses - going on demonstrations, environmentalist activity and so on. These are activities that, because of their 'single-issue' nature, people can involve themselves in without compromising their sense of individuality. People can identify with one cause - opposition to war, for example - and by-pass almost completely any sense of discomfort at being associated publicly with other policies they don't really agree with. These are also, frankly, for most people a low cost, low commitment expression of political concern.

I'm not suggesting that politicians have no share of the blame for the apathetic citizen, nor even that the rise of individualism is entirely a bad thing. But I'm afraid I do think there's a problem with the 'customer base'. Is low civic participation always the fault of the 'managerialists' and never the 'consumer'? There's a declining willingness to turn out to vote - but there's also a declining willingness to turn up for jury duty. Here, I'd argue, the customer - while they might have legitimate criticisms of both elections and trials in this country - is simply wrong to do this.

Because whatever their shortcomings, competitive elections are better than those that are not, and trials that have a jury present are better than those that don't. The crowd may disagree - in which case the crowd is mistaken. Thing is, I don't really think they do. Probably down to a more mundane truth about the 'crowd': bit damn lazy, sometimes.

*On reflection, this isn't quite right - Chris also suggests participation in direct democracy has 'procedural utility', a benefit that is, to me, more likely than it producing wise decisions.

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