Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Democracy guarantees failure

Norm and Ophelia, in the last couple of days, have been pondering an old chestnut (I love it when those two get conceptual).

Norm says that pluralist liberalism “makes a claim of its own to moral truth, but it's a moral truth permitting those who believe in competing moral truths to live together, provided they don't try to impose these on one another by violence. Which means that liberalism has to exclude the attempts of antithetical belief systems to monopolize the public domain for themselves. If there is an air of paradox about this, I don't know how to resolve it.”

Ophelia suggests that “there is a difference between a single road to salvation, and a framework based on accepting that there isn't one (or, pluralist liberalism). …a single road to salvation, a single overriding moral truth, and certainty about whatever moral truth there might be, are all on one side of this divide, all fit into one definitional box, while a framework based on accepting that there is no such thing, and plural liberalism, and claims of universal validity, are on the other.”

But Norm isn’t convinced: “adherents of a liberal moral and political framework do also claim a moral primacy - universal validity, whatever - for… the principles inform that liberal framework. The fact that there are relevant differences between liberalism and such other belief systems… doesn't show that there isn't this feature in common between them, or resolve the particular tension I was suggesting.”

Now I’m going to weigh in. This is a longish post, and I’d be shocked if it did settle the issue (as I say, it’s not a new debate, and greater minds than mine have failed to resolve it). But my approach is to make a case for pluralist liberal democracy using as few value-based assumptions as possible – a practical rather than moral argument. In skeletal outline: political fallibility, through human error and corruption, is inescapable; failure is uncontroversially bad, whatever one’s aims; accountability and division of powers minimise failure; democracy maximises accountability and power division; and properly functioning democracy requires pluralist liberalism. I try to say as little as possible about what the broader aims of politics and of government should be.

Let’s start with the principle of human political fallibility: given any set of ideals, any set of institutions and any set of individuals, we can be sure that however those individuals exercise political power through those institutions, the result will fail to live up to those ideals. Failures may be large or small, in terms of competence or in terms of propriety, but you can count on them.

Now people of all political stripes (bar a few fanatics) would acknowledge this, and agree that such failure is bad, and solemnly pledge to do their best to reduce it in order to get closer to the ideal. But what happens when we make the fallibility principle, from the very start, a key foundation for our politics?

As the people who wield political power will fail to some extent, whatever our yardstick of success, what anti-failure mechanisms can be built in to the system? We have to reduce the motive and the opportunity for those who wield power to wield it badly. This means instituting scrutiny of their behaviour, accountability for their decisions, and checks and balances to make sure there isn’t too much power concentrated at any one point.

All of this amounts to people watching, challenging and constraining the actions of other people, to guard against their failures. But, to coin a phrase, who guards the guards? Here, we face the possibilities of: a long chain of scrutiny committees, which is impracticable and merely postpones the problem rather than solving it; simply trusting the second group, which rips up the concept of accountability as surely as simply trusting the first group; or making the second group in turn accountable to the first, which institutionalises a motive for the two groups to coalesce into one unaccountable elite interest group.

The important thing to grasp here is that there is no ideal solution: the accountability trilemma can’t be resolved by any combination of the three options. So, rather than grappling with this to no avail, what happens if we accept – as a corollary of the fallibility principle – that there is no way of achieving full, impartial accountability?

We want to maximise the thoroughness of accountability and to minimise the power of closed interest groups. The way to do is to bring everyone into the process, by means of democracy. Certainly, there can be a number of distinct formal institutions sharing day-to-day power and scrutinising each other, but the ultimate check on this structure is popular electoral power.

In one sense, the voters are not themselves accountable – but by dividing up political power equally between all, the amount of power wielded unaccountably by any individual is minimised. And in another sense, as people end up being subjected to the governmental power of those over whom they exercise electoral power, this creates another circle. Power is still shared within a closed network that is not externally accountable, with the circularity of influence that can create a separate interest group. But as the group in question happens to include everyone, that problem is de facto dissolved.

Other political systems are not based on the fallibility of those who govern; they may pay lip service to the possibility of failure and the willingness to improve, but this is not foundational. Democracy, on the other hand, openly and honestly guarantees failure, and thus can reduce it. It is premissed on a certainty that some policies will be bad enough to deserve abandonment and some governments bad enough to deserve dismissal – and it provides mechanisms for making those changes.

(Of course, these mechanisms themselves are fallible – but they’re also changeable.)

But elections – even free and fair elections – aren’t themselves enough. (Here I’m approaching what Norm and Ophelia were saying about pluralist liberalism as applied to belief systems.) For accountability to be maximally effective, we need freedom of information, and in turn freedoms of speech and association. People must be able to propose new policies, new structures and new candidates for government, to ensure that existing ones are not just judged on intrinsic merits but also weighed against alternatives: a more demanding evaluation.

It might be tempting to argue that total freedom of speech isn’t necessary here – that people could be free to discuss the effectiveness of government as measured against some established set of values without needing the right to debate those values. And if there were a failsafe method of determining the difference between methods and values – between means and ends – then that might make sense.

Consider the following list, in which each item might be thought a means to achieving the one that follows: (1) increasing the minimum wage; (2) improving the take-home pay of poor people; (3) improving their absolute financial position; (4) improving their financial position relative to the average; (5) reducing economic inequality across the population; (6) fostering greater social solidarity.

Which are mere ‘means’ and which an ‘end’? One could use (1) as a means to achieve any end from (2) to (5) while being indifferent to the higher-numbered ideas. Conversely, one could aim to achieve any end from (2) to (6) while rejecting the lower-numbered ideas as means.

As a result, it is neither practically nor conceptually possible to have free debate on government effectiveness while stifling debate on the proper purpose of government. This means that if we want to reap the failure-reducing benefits of democratic scrutiny in the domains of probity and competence, we must also take a liberal approach to pluralities of political and moral values.

Democracy is the best way to minimise government failure, and a pluralist liberal politics is necessary for democracy to endure and to operate properly.

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