Better Public Services

In many areas of life we accept that experimentation, competition and replication of success will gradually lead to better results, or improved suitability to the environment. This is the basics of evolution and market efficiency.

When it comes to public services this notion meets the moral intuition that justice and fairness requires an equality of treatment, hence a universal standard of provision.

However, imposing universality prevents experimentation and can stymie adaptation to local demands, becoming a conservative break on improvement.

Some style this type of opposition as fairness vs. efficiency, but what I am concerned with is fairness vs. improvement.

While the equality of destitution is the easiest form of equality to engineer, it not the equality that most meaningfully aspire to.

How do you get experimentation, competition and replication of successful results in public services?

Having a diversity of providers that can grow and fail, as in the private sector has many attractions.

When compared with delivery by centralised bureaucracy, discrete service providers have the advantage that they have simpler chains of command with less competing priorities. They can also focus on developing their specific specialism and expertise within the organisation.

Among the problems of outsourcing to the private sector is that using public resources to pay providers who have a duty to retain part of those resources as private profit is the very definition of systemically inefficient. Money will be skimmed or the directors are not doing their legal duty.

There are also the arguments that a private sector motivations are inappropriate in many areas of public service. Prioritising greed as a motivatori does not fit well those who have a caring vocation and that introducing a financial incentive changes the values through which people judge an interactionii.

As such it makes sense to outsource to providers who do not operate for private profit i.e charities and social enterprises. In this way we retain the feature of a number of specialised, interchangeable service providers but any profits are reinvested in the organisation and service provision. Charities may also draw in additional resources to subsidise service provision, the exact opposite of what will happen if a private company is contracted.

How do we get successful service provision by community-benefit organisations?

For a market mechanism to work the customer must be able to determine which provider best satisfies their demands, and allocate resources accordingly. Without this, “bottom up” or customer allocation of resources will not produce the virtuous dynamism desired.

Similarly it is not safe to outsource any function that an organisation does not have proper understanding of in-house. Without in house knowledge you cannot know what you are buying and whether or not it is best available option.

In health care and in education it is hard for the end user to be the best judge of their own self interest. Expertise is required in the former, the latter is largely consumed by children. In these cases, and others, there is an argument for retaining the state as the customer, allocating contracts, while the citizen remains the consumer.

But the state, or more specifically the functionaries of the state, have no innate expertise. One of the state’s key roles will be to develop, retain and enhance the expertise required for it to be a effective purchaser on behalf of citizens. This is essentially means having a firm grasp on the best ways to deliver a particular service.

This requirement, combined with the dictum on outsourcing, suggests that the state should directly manage and run some service provision organisations and ideally these should be exemplar institutions that research and accumulate best practice, and indeed best personnel, from the wider service delivery system. In practice this would mean the running of flagship hospitals, schools, care homes, etc… that have a strong data gathering and research capacity.

The expertise accumulated should be used to make effective purchasing decisions, but just as important is the sharing of the expertise with the wider sector. As such state exemplar institutions should also have teaching capacity.

In this vision the state becomes a “facilitative state”, one of the concerns of which is the formation and enabling of civil society organisations. The state would create and enforce a regulatory environment combined with skills and knowledge transfer.

Designing the marketplace

Exactly what the state pays for will have a profound effect on the eventual outcomes. A classic example is the London bus contracts. Where providers are paid for how close they are to the stated timetable within six second slots and do not retain payment from or have any interest in the number of people that they carry.

Similarly, in a variety of sectors contracts could be designed not as fee per service but on outcomes, e.g. Not for performing an open heart surgery, but on the years lived (or Quality Adjusted Life Years) by a patient who presents with a heart problem. Outcomes based contracts should be possible with improved data handling.

Capitalising providers

One chief advantage held by the private sector is greater capital and more ways to access it. In many cases community-benefit organisations are not adequately capitalised to provide large scale contracts.

The creation of a state backed national bank could address this. A state bank would act as a retail bank in the market, as in China or Singapore, it could issue every citizen with a basic bank account and facilitate benefit payments, trust funds and pensions. It could also play a role in capitalising community-benefit service providers through loans. It might also be wisely limited to this type of lending.

A semi-independent bank using its deposit base to make loans for investment in public service provision would likely lead to a lower capital requirement for the state and a reduction in public borrowing. As at least part of the liability for investment in public services would be transferred to the relevant service organisations becoming, in accounting terms, an asset, rather than a liability.

The bankruptcy regime would be critical in shaping the character of this system, but at its most basic, if the state was the primary lender it would have first call on the assets in the event of a bankruptcy.

This would ensure that public service infrastructure would return to the state’s organs when a provider failed.

Er …that’s it

So in essence this a modular vision of public service provision. One which utilises market dynamics without embedding private interest. And one in which the state’s primary role becomes monitoring,facilitating and improving independent service providers. And which solves the problem of capitalisation through a dedicated bank.

iCapitalism as system that allows individual property rights harnesses greed effectively. There are powerful human motivations that are not harnessed or rewarded as effectively. This is in part because the greed is a simple motivation to design rewards for. Nurture, heroism, curiosity are not built into our institutions in the way that greed is. This is one of the most profound challenges in any thought about social engineering.

iiSandel, Areily, Neruoscience

The internet vs. Hayek

or the Road to Surfdom

Many of the key arguments for not intervening in markets comes from Hayek. One that is particularly central is sanctity of “price”.

Hayek saw economies as complex dynamic systems that were far beyond the power of a human mind to comprehend. He believed that markets act to process a vast array of complex information about preferences, resources and capacities. And that they output this information in the condensed form of “price”. Through these price signals we are able to make coherent (rational) decisions across a range of economic activities.

Interfere with these price signals and you distort the allocation of resources in ways that will necessarily lead to inefficiencies.

So, moral arguments about your life being decided by bureaucrats aside, the government does not have the capacity to process the range of inputs that go into making a “price”, and therefore does not have the capacity to make sound interventions in the economy.

This key plank of the Hayek’s argument is clearly threatened by super-computers, big data and mobile telephony. The quest for user-data is in it’s infancy, but it looks like a healthy little monster.

It is becoming increasingly possible to gather real time information on a transaction by transaction basis in the real economy. The Internet of Things will only extend this.

The question then becomes; is it possible to gather and process information better through computing than through price?

Turning to the moral argument, Hayek assumes that the only alternative to allowing markets to facilitate resource allocation is for a centralised bureaucratic state to do so instead.

Any processing system that sought to emulate the information gathering capacity of “price” would have to be ubiquitously distributed. It would be sent data from everywhere. And this provides the possibility of an alternative to such centralised bureaucracy.

The question would be what data do these end agents send? And further, what authority they have over the pattern of resource allocationi?

So as to the question of how we arrange resource use and distributions on space ship earth, we could seek to address externalities in priceii by changing the laws that structure  marketsiii .

It is law that forms the parameters of the complex systemiv. altering the parameters should produce different emergent behaviours, that is different patterns of resource use.

The more distant and radical possibility is to create an information processing system that gathers data more richly than “price” does.

And this is the essence of the institutional design challenge facing so many established institutions. From bureaucracy to journalism.

How do you create a system that best accumulates, agglomerates, the useful contributions from a distributed contributor basev?

ICT allows novel forms of co-operation. Effective co-operation wins in complex systems. Ask the game theorists.

And as to novel forms of co-operation over ICT, ask the open-source world. Unsurprisingly, software writing already has an institutional design for the age of distributed inputs.

A journalistic platform that could emulate this would end the standard model of print journalism.

A bureaucracy that could do this would be able to deal more effectively with complexity and monitoring costs.

A democracy that could do this might be worth the name.

And an economy that could do this might be both efficient and fair.

i You could simplify authority of agents within the market system as one dollar, one vote.

ii The information the market does not process, such as the value of the planet remaining habitable.

iii Restricting certain activities and transactions, or providing subsidies or other incentives is common, but a more thorough approach would be to re-examine property rights themselves, in particular, the all encompassing nature of individual property rights. This work is underway in earnest in the sphere of intellectual property.

iv While Hayek favours non-intervention, the basic parameters of a market, such as whether apples should be apples, whether I am allowed to sell the organs of my infant labour, and whether bullets are legal tender, are determined by law. Laws allow markets to provide predictability, or at least, reasonable expectation, and this is what makes them so useful for economic activity. Constraints, not freedoms, make markets.
vWe might even evolve a system through competitive selection rather than design.

A letter to Douglas Carswell

Subject: A civillised green ink idea

Dear Douglas Carswell,

You must be getting many letters of congratulations today. Congratulations. It is a deserved reward for standing for your principes, an uncertain thing in the best of times.

The battle was bruising and referendums a rather crude and form of democracy, but victory must be sweet this morning.

However this not a red blooded celebration of victory, more a green ink tangent of which I would be interested to know your views.

I have heard you speak with great conviction about the need for democratic reform, including many measures from the golden age of constitutional democracy, such as MP recall and fully support you in this.

While many of these methods are timelessly effective they were devised long before telephones, let alone computers.

It seems these technologies, that makes a step change in communication and information sharing, offer the possibility of new solutions. Allow us to take the timeless principles of democracy and fashion new tools to put them into practice.

And while I think that wikis for green papers, periscope feeds for committees and a blockchain style ledger for public spending are laudable ideas; I was wondering about your views on what I think would be the most substantive step we could take to strengthen accountability in our political system.

A measure not discussed in classical democratic theory because it was neither possible nor relevant.

It occurs to me that much, if not the greatest part of modern government does not consist in the making of laws (our history has provided us with most of those we need) but in the allocation of resources, in spending decisions.

A short examination of Bank of England statistics shows that government spending has grown more than forty fold in real terms since the start of the century, yet we have no mechanisms to oversee this relatively new development in government.

And while one solution is to cut and cauterise this wild beast I suggest that the best solution might in fact be to put it in harness. Just as capitalism and electoral representation canal the will to power down more civilised channels, a mechanism to hold accountable spending powers might bring us as much dividend as those systems bought the 19th century.

It goes by the name of participatory budgeting, a mouthful that befits it’s status as a tool for that enemy of soveriegnty, the World Bank. But to date it has been locally focused and performed through town hall style meetings.

I was wondering what you thought of the utility and the possibility of doing something like this nationally and online. That is democratic invovlement in government spending decisions. It may sound like anarchy at first but it has many things to recommend it.

Not least that it is practicable. It would harness the wisdom of crowds, restrain pork barrel politics, and unlike the divise nature of referendums, the different opinions would add together easily.

The idea is that the government would set the budget and that voters could make some percentage adjustment.

It would be a mechanism that furthers the Anglo-saxon democratic concern over tax and spending from the Magna Carta through the American revolution. Given that it is now theoretically possible to expose the entire workings of the bureacracy to all over the web, I like to think the time has come to update the slogan “no taxation, without representation” to “no taxation without rights over allocation”.

Congratulations again, and I would be very interested to know your thoughts.

Yours sincerely

Sven Desai

P.S. When trying to find a snappy term I went for Demokhrusos, but I have no command of Greek.

That EU vote

What do I think to the EU referendum?

I deeply resent it. I deeply resent being asked to endorse either choice. The wrong question seeking to answer the wrong problem in the wrong way.

Firstly and most simply i am no fan of the big technocratic monster in Brussels. The idea that you get competent people to devise and implement policy is fine, but if it’s going to be democratic (which it should be because power corrupts and institutions institutionalise), then you need some way of feeding values to relevant technocrats. Offer me the European Parliament and I’ll say it’s like a terrier herding elephants, (many of them white elephants).

I might never leave the country if I had to get a visa to go to Europe. But it’s not a set of institutions that I feel like endorsing.

The alternative argument that, we bring back a. Sovereignty and b. Control of our borders is a chimera (the trade argument means money laundering or it’s ludicrous).

Returning Sovereignty means quitting a (messy and opaque) constitutional system and opening up the legislative system to unrestricted fiddling.

If the customer is the person who pays, increasingly the customers of our political parties are the 1% private wealthy for elections and bed hopping multi-nationals for taxes (do fundraisers have a lazy and not necessarily efficient, attraction to big cheques).

We might return sovereignty but it would not strengthen our democracy and might in fact lead to laws that are an even poorer reflection of the nation’s values. Sovereignty would be returned to the executive, not to parliament and certainly not to the people.

The immigration, refugee, euphemism, etc…

Refugee quotas are part of an international treaty that this country, when populated by people with first hand experience of war and thus more sympathy for their plight, set up. This not affected by EU membership.

Cheaper, faster planes, trains and automobiles, not to mention phones, boats and satellites equal greater movement of people. Humans have steadily evolved into larger, more complex and interdependent social groups. The most advanced areas in the world have always been the most ethnically diverse, from Thebes on.

So essentially greater immigration is a structural issue across the globe which it brings no profit to stem.

The biggest problem with race is always the feelings of racists but this is an emotional/cultural issue and treaty changes only affect the real issue as much as they affect emotion and culture, which is not insignificantly.

Wrong question seeking to answer the wrong problem in the wrong way.

Governance follows trade and there are many cross border problems, but smaller states generally have happier people (this may be because many are warm tax havens). So we probably need the EU and Scotland probably should have voted Yes.

But with even more certainty it can be stated EU governance needs to change. And our own could probably do with a dose of digitisation. But not more referendums with nefariously framed choices to endorse one shit heap or another.

You may know I’m going to say. Arabic numerals, it’s the only communication system Europe shares. Fiscal democracy, participatory budgeting, put the books online, call it what you like. Citizens should control the EU budget, that should be for starters. The referendum?

The referendum is the bloody juvenile government being bloody juvenile with the country in their champagne fuelled perestroika moment. And I resent it (this may be a juvenile response).

Thoughts on the clusterfuck


Throw an ink pot at the Rorschach blot, that’s what I say.

Given most of the commentary is armchair analysis more Freudian than any other type, why not, in the phrase so pertinently used after Brevik’s attack was initially attributed to Islamic extremism, be a guesser guessing.

I should note that if my reader is of the opinion that Syria is a spontaneous national uprising without foreign intervention, and that this applies to Arab spring more generally, none of what follows will make sense and you are free (and likely) to label me a paranoid conspiracy theorist.

Here are some guesses I guess.


If the UN had stopped at the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 none of this would have happened. That’s my guess.

The first gulf war rarely appears in commentary, which tends to take the Twin Towers attack ten years later as the first mover.

That aside, during the second Iraq war, sabres were frequently rattled at Syria for letting fighters and munitions, from Iran and elsewhere over the border.


There are anthropologists who conceive culture as a tool for transmitting skills that allow you to adapt to the local environment, so humans can live in diverse habitat without having to evolve physically.

Iraq has now had a generation grow up in illiterate, medieval conditions; sanitation and power having never been fully restored since the first invasion.

NYRB is the best (only) place I’ve come across for elucidating the theological ructions within Islam, which some suggest compare with the Reformationi. I’d guess that Western intervention did something to bias this debate. Not least in destroying two of the few ostensibly secular states where the discussion could be had.

A belief system full of war and destruction is compatible with a life time full of war and destruction I guessii.

Moral systems need to bend over backwards in war and religious interpretations normally define the in-group, not the motivation.

False flags and proxies

The concept of the false flag has become popular.

I guess the West has lost its political appetite and possibly the necessary military superiority (very effective kit has been sold in the region for several decades) to win a ground war. The venerable tradition of urban guerilla warfare triumphed in Iraq despite two invasions.

So now that the internet provides direct access to public opinion and indigenous “activists”, and there is an administrative disposition towards out-sourcing in the West, proxies are the ground force of choice. There have been shifts of allegiance by various groups trained and armed by various sides.

So who is working under what flag seems to be complex and changeable. The flag might be real, the flag might false, it might just have changed, it might be a flag that some turn a blind eye to now and then, it might be real but made, bought and paid for somewhere else.

Which brings us to the proxy of all proxies, the meta-proxy. ISIS.


I don’t know where ISIS gets its bullets and shells and mortars, but my guess is, from everywhereiii.

All that heavy weaponry the US sent to Iraq, they got that, what the US sent to Syria, they got that too. I can’t really hazard a guess as to how much of this was meant to happen, but a lot of people suggested the second batch would end up in the their hands and it has.

Arms from the Turks, to shoot Kurds, they got that, donations from Qatar, they got those. Munitions from the Saudi’s, less certain but it looks that way.

It seems a good guess that any state that doesn’t want an extension of American or Russian power in the region sees ISIS as a good proxy (except Iran)iv.

And I guess if you follow the pattern of mercenary wars, a la Italy in 1500s, the side that’s winning picks up soldiers.

States of chaos


It’s looked like geo-political chess (pull out a map) to take out the Persians because those uppetty titans of classical civilisation keeping taking their oil back. And states have long memories. I guess.

Syria is Iran’s conduit to the Med, to Lebanon and Hizbollah and thereby Israel.

What will be left of Syria after this is anyone’s guess and there are suggestions the best way forward is to redraw the mapv.

But it seems that Arabs and the Persians and for that matter the Russians too, aren’t so keen. The fashion of regime change not finding favour with incumbent regimes. Why is anyone’s guess. So I guess those incumbent regimes will throw as much sand as they can find in the works. They have sand.

There is a maxim that you cannot achieve peace in a territory without co-operation of bordering states. Without all sides changing their demands, this co-operation will not be forthcoming.


So is chaos in Iraq and Syria the result of an American plan or an American incompetence, or plan that went wrong that they role with? The theory states that it is easier to extract resources from territories where there is no functioning state, no power that you have to negotiate with. You don’t need a monopoly on violence, just force to defend assets.

I guess if you had the long term stability of a state in mind, you wouldn’t disband the national army, but Rumsfeld didvi. And you might not design a constitution that called for regular periods of ethnically divided political deadlock. But I guess with their reverence for law and constitution, the US must have experts in the subject.

It’s been medieval in Iraq since 1991, but oil production has just hit a record highvii.

Ways with Kurds

The world’s largest stateless ethnic group they say. Which probably depends on how you lense various peoples in India, China and Central Africa and their respective States (35 million Kurds). But they say this, and my politics A-Level textbooks did twenty five years ago. So I guess it’s been on the agenda for a while.

So far, the Kurds have got a chunk out of Iraq, they’ve got a sliver out of Syria, but to make a functional state you unfortunately probably need a chunk of Turkey (and I guess they might want a slice of Iran).

Turkey is a NATO member, so any destabilisation and proxy war in Turkey on “spring” lines, might end up with an Article 4 invocation and we’d all have to pile in and bomb our own proxies, which would be a Kafkaesque clusterfuck of historic proportions.

Another problem is that Erdogan has been ruthless with foreign sponsored elements in the public sphere for several years.

The PKK are also a gang of commies, which means the US don’t send them kit. It would also mean that they’d probably want to nationalise the oil.

So I guess there could be a really internecine Kurdish civil war in the making between an American client in Iraq, and another, everybody else client in the PKK. But let’s hope not.

Given the Kurds are the largest stateless group of the world’s most oil rich region and live in places under-developed, excluded and with a long history of guerilla warfare, much of it has not been properly prospected for oil.

So I guess Kurdistan, when it does exist, will have huge untapped reserves, as already demonstrated in Iraqi Kurdistan. I guess it would make a lovely insecure, landlocked, corporate client state.

But for it to exist the Turks have to agree to setting up an autonomous province which they know will secede, I guess the US guessed they might take a chunk of Syria in exchange and that the US might have guessed wrong.


If you really wanted a soft target for suicide bombers and AK wielding jihadis, there would have been demos of French public protest proportions just a couple of weeks away at the climate talks. I guess it’s lucky they didn’t wait.

We are told the mastermind was also behind the attack on the train where the unfortunate jihadi found himself on the same carriage as three holidaying US soldiers, ex or serving. Of all the gin joints…

And we’re also told the French received information from a foreign intelligence service that the mastermind was still in Paris. The foreign intelligence service was even kind enough to give them his address. But I guess the horse had bolted by then.

It looks like someone knows things the French don’t. But that’s just guessing.

So ISIS dunnit. Did the Turks let them through because the French are funding the PKK? Did Big Oil buy them a ticket to foul public protest at the climate talks? Did the US pass information on too late? Syrians with fake Syrian passports? Just questions to flag up.

French in the war

What it does do is ratchet up France’s involvement in the Clusterfuck.

The French get on with the Russians and can co-ordinate militarily with them. This may help

I wouldn’t like to guess what’s in store if they choose the PKK as their proxy.


There is a general reluctance in popular commentary to recognise the military limitations of NATO and it’s individual members.

There is also reluctance to recognise an increasing multi-polarity in the world.

Without these various poles co-ordinating order cannot be reimposed.

My guess is that unless the Americans back down in their demands for regime change, they will get no co-operation in the region.

In which case it’s a long-term, economy vs. economy, grind the whole place to dust type of attritional scenario.

The region will be in a mess for generations.

So there are two ways out.

The first is a military solution, prior to which everyone [that is US, Saudi, Iran, Russia, France, Turkey, Israel, UK, Qatar, everyone with jets] has sat down, carved up the pie and shared it out. With all sides co-ordinating ISIS could be squashed in a year or two. But my guess is that an asteroid strike is more likely.

The second is that everyone leaves ISIS alone and their theology gradually moderates for more civilised climes, which is plausible over the fifty to seventy years that it will take them to get literate, de-traumatised and stable. But that’s bat shit too.

So the third, which is an attritional continuation of mayhem, offers no way out for the people of Syria, but seems most likely. I guess it might take twenty years to carve a chunk out of Turkey and Iran.

But this is not a war that the US has to win in order to further its interests, it just has to prolong it.

For a guess at how long it will take to put humpty dumpty back together, you could look at African states that were the venue for foreign sponsored civil-wars in the cold war e.g Angola, etc..

The only other hope, and perhaps the best over the time period this will take to stablise, is that someone makes a leap in energy generation technology, be it toruses or Tewariviii and oil becomes strategically irrelevant, everyone loses interest, packs up and goes home.

But in the meantime, the main end pursued by all players is to keep the end out of sight. This one will run and run.



iiA man of good fighting age in Iraq 17-24, would have spent his entire life in conditions of civil war at this point.

iv If every foreign power with an interest in the clusterfuck has made successful attempts to infiltrate ISIS, which I guess they have, how much of ISIS’ military and strategic capacity is actually coming from foreign special forces under cover? I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess.

vIraq is already more or less in three pieces, Kurdish, Gulf emirate, and a mess

vi Rumsfled and Cheney do have previous in America’s biggest documented political scandal, Watergate, so we know we have two eggs of nefarious disposition in the foundations.

What’s wrong with deliberative democracy?

Nothing really, it’s a great program. However, it also seems clear that unless there are institutional changes to alter incentives for politicians, civil servants and the wider public, it is window dressing an archaic system.

As I understand it (which is not in any depth), deliberative democracy holds that political decisions and legislation should arise from, be underpinned by, and derive their legitimacy from a process of deliberation. Rather than adversarial voting.

This is essentially how one dimension of the machinery of Parliament is meant to work.

According to advocates of non-elitist deliberative democracy, more citizens, institutions and organisations should be able to feed into this deliberative process with an equal voice.

Thus far, all motherhood and apple pie. It is fairly well evidenced that deliberating with people of opposing views increases tolerance and understanding, it is less well evidenced that this leads to better decision making. Although there is wealth of research into how to structure deliberation to improve the outcomes.

However as a substantive political programme, to update our democracy, re-engage citizens and to control, direct and hold accountable the powers of our society, deliberative democracy suffers from a number of obstacles.

Some are, I would like to say practical, but I probably mean theoretical, relating to the structure of electoral representation and parliamentary democracy, some are philosophical relating to nature of people and politics.

The problems philosophical

I’ll take the philosophical first to make the obvious point that deliberative democracy is unlikely to work as a pure and ubiquitous system in which all decisions are agreed following deliberation.

There is always a problem in politics with what Weber called “irreducibly competing ideals”. e.g. Freedom and security, or possibly freedom, security and majority rule.

There will always be a group of people that think x is more important than y, and another that think y more important than x, and still more groups that think z, which is that x and y are pretty irrelevant.

Deliberative democracy would work wonderfully in the Hegelian state where all humanity’s values are united and expressed through culturally directed institutions, and it would work wonderfully if we were far-sighted, rational beings possessed of perfect information and unchanging preference.

As to science. For science to be arbiter it requires a hypothesis, and as such assumes a prior set of values. You can prove that migrant labour boosts taxes and profits, or that closing roads reduces traffic, or that publishing salaries leads to salary rises, but you cannot scientifically prove that you have the right value among competing priorities.

Science can only ever prove that you have an effective way to advance a particular value.

Perhaps one of hardest cognitive biases to overcome, is that “right” and “good” are not things that can be derived experimentation on nature, they are not universal laws. They are social constructs.

And while we may have rational capacities, our cultural and social experience would appear to shape our premises, determining what we think logical.

Group membership is one the few fundamental values for a social animal. In rational choice theory terms, it may be rational to adhere to group values and narratives, even if they are irrational.

If this is correct, political tribalism is endemic if the level of transmission falls short of the Hegelian state.

So, we cannot objectively derive right and we will not all agree.

The problems technical

And so the deliberative democrat says precisely, we cannot all agree, the best thing we can do is sit down and talk about it and melange competing values into various effective policies.

There’ll still be some voting and some skull cracking, but it will be directed by the more evolved and considered opinion of a greater number and wider range of voices. We can still smell that pastry baking.

So how do we bring that apple pie to the table?

I would argue that to make our democracy more deliberative, the best course of action is not to focus on creating deliberative institutions, but to change electoral representation to make decision makers more responsive to citizens. The way up, is via the stairs not through the ceiling.

Essentially one of the reasons for the disengagement with voting and political parties is that people perceive that their influence is weak to non-existent and that the channels of communication are, relative what they enjoy in other areas, slow and opaque.

The reason most people don’t engage in a deliberative political process is in essence the same as the reason why they don’t throw ice cubes at the sun. It’s not causally effective.

Under the current system, where a popular vote gets you five years of power, and there is no accountability for statements made to secure those votes, there is every incentive to distort public debate and little to listen once in power.

There may be valid enabling work to be done, but attempting to design deliberative institutions that plug into government within the current system is likely to produce far more heat and light than movement.

And the enduring problem of western parliamentary democracy, that every corporate interest can resource a professional lobby but not every citizen interest can, still applies. MPs meet with lobby groups every day and the voters every five years.

So deliberative democracy is left with a Munchausen scenario in that if only there were more politically engaged groups they could have more influence and thus encourage more participation.

Deck chairs on the titanic.

Minority sports

But perhaps the biggest problem with deliberative democracy as a substantive program is that politics is a minority passtime. It is of great interest to people with an interest in politics, but there are a more people that think z.

Explicitly designing the system to be necessarily deliberative is designing a system for a minority interest. Without some form of priest caste justification it smacks of the political class offering the old popular solution, that everyone should be more like them (this much suggested solution occurs in all quarters).

One of the great advantages of electoral selection, is that it brings some accountability and constraint to power in a non-onerous and low engagement way.

Deliberative institutions

Yet one of the key insights that deliberative democracy uncovers is the absence of any institution where the public debates value. In most prior human societies there has been some institution where communities meet to discuss and reaffirm values, this was one function of the church. But a common feature of most religious institutions that is that they formally declare themselves apart from or above, politics. The focus of discussion is not a deliberation of uncertain political values, but an affirmation and reproduction of codified moral and social values.

Turning back to the idea of deliberative political institutions, there is a question of design. Much of the focus of deliberative democracy, and my own pet reform, participatory budgeting, focuses on community meetings. This in some ways harks back to a Paineite utopia of business done by the community under a tree.

Mass-society made community deliberation an unworkable form of government by the 1700s (or even the 13th century) and parliamentary government and electoral representation are mechanisms created to address this. To attempt to re-create a face-to-face community democracy in a nation-state is a dead end.

There is also extensive research in social psychology and behavioural economics that suggests public discussions are anything but democratic. And this poses complex technical questions related to the design of any deliberative institution or system (beyond a statement of principles). While there is excellent work on this in academia and the open source software movement, if a deliberative system is not carefully designed it might swiftly become and easily distortable echo-chamber.

Old ideas are lenses not recipes.

The community-hall ideal of deliberative democracy is a symptom of attempting to read solutions from text books and classics. So many democracy reformers still harp on about 18th century proposals for proportional representation, MP recall, citizen proposed legislation and the like. They are all good ideas, classics, but they are not the most substantive response to the changes of the modern world.

Classical Democratic theory, of the Greeks and Scandinavians, was principally concerned with laws. And deliberation is necessary to legislation. But authoring legislation is complex and difficult and requires skill. This one of the strengths of representation.

It also makes legislation a difficult area in which to introduce direct democracy.

Indeed there is a lot to be said for constitutional government and for the most part, we have enough laws. Many political storms are brought about not because the legislation in an area is absent, but that because it is not properly enforced or implemented.

Further democratising the legislative process will not in the end bring government under control. It is an important element but in some ways misses the true target. Given the size and scope of the modern state, to make modern government accountable it is necessary to have greater scrutiny of the implementation , resourcing and execution of policies.

Questions of resourcing and control of state services were not part of classical theory, largely because services and surpluses were meagre, but modern democracy has been concerned by this, and has expressed this through concern with taxation.

As to what reforms I think are best to control modern government, more on that in the next piece.