14 September 2010

An Instructed Minority

In the current issue of The Philosophers' Magazine, Alan Haworth contrasts the traditional UK First Past The Post electoral system with Proportional Representation, trying to understand what "Rule by the People" actually entails and if PR genuinely offers a greater opportunity for genuine democracy. In the end he doesn't really like either system, and advocates a web-driven e-voting form of Athenian Democracy, where all issues can be debated online and every citizen has the opportunity to vote directly on legislation.

However the concept of the web as a forum for constructive debate is often promoted most by those who have engaged with it the least. Unfortunately, and more often than not, the baser elements of human nature seem to be reinforced by the twin pillars on which the web (thus far) has thrived, anonymity and speed, and reactionary comments, provocative trolling and a general lack of civility have thus far been the bane of most attempts at open discussions. The interactivity promised by Web 2.0 has manifested as little more than a virtual Tea Party rally, fueled by fear and hate, poorly educated, misinformed and with atrocious spelling.

Perhaps the future promoted by Facebook, a walled garden within which no private actions exist, can curb this, indeed this is the route that Michael Birch is taking with his new political discussion start-up Jolitics, that currently requires a Facebook login to participate in the closed beta. If there is a digital paper-trail that links you to every post and comment you make online, will civility in discussion ensue? The Tea Party movement itself would suggest otherwise, as many at the rallies are proud to be interviewed and have their voices and views heard. They do not crave anonymity, they crave an audience and attention, and the respect of their peers.

This is the problem at the core of most large and open discussions, that all too often the motivation behind participation is not to solve a wider problem or to come to a mutually beneficial conclusion, it is instead to establish an internal hierarchy within the discussing group, a pecking order with each individual participant attempting to place themselves at the top. This conflict leads to polarizing and radicalizing views, not consensus, as individuals vying for power gravitate towards the margins of the extreme to distinguish themselves from their rivals.

A representative democracy attempts to circumvent this trait by placing power in the hands of a limited number of elected representatives, acting on behalf of the people. In a smaller group with well establish rules true debate should be possible, and the question thus becomes what is the best way to select such representatives to most accurately express the will of the people. Haworth examines one such examination as presented by John Stuart Mill, a strong advocate of PR:
In the relevant chapter of Representative Government he defends PR (based on the single transferable vote) on a number of grounds, but - most emphatically - on the grounds that it is the only system capable of guaranteeing a Parliament "containing the very elite of the country", and of thereby supplying a "supplement, or completing corrective, to the instincts of a democratic majority", namely an "instructed minority"
- Alan Haworth, The Philosophers' Magazine, Issue 51, p60
As an advocate of our current STV PR system, though decidedly not a utilitarian, in times past I may have been swayed by this argument. However events in the last 24 hours, as reported in the Irish Times, clearly demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt the error in Mill's thesis:
"Minister for Science Conor Lenihan is to officially launch a book exposing the “fiction of evolution”. Mr Lenihan will attend the launch of The Origin of Specious Nonsense by Dublin writer John J May in Buswell’s Hotel on Wednesday evening. According to the book’s website Mr May says evolution “cripples sanity, promotes myths and obscures reality”. He also said anyone who teaches evolution is “either ignorant or deliberately suppressing the known scientific facts. “It [evolution] is a toxic poisonous mind virus which destroys the hearts immune system against hope and common sense,” he added. Mr Lenihan said he is not launching the book as Minister for Science but rather as a TD because Mr May is a constituent of his."
Understandably this news caused some not inconsiderable consternation in what passes for our Public Sphere, and it was announced this morning that the author had withdrawn his invitation to the Minister.

Lets reflect on this for a moment. The Minister for Science believed that it was appropriate in his capacity as a public representative to launch an anti-evolution book because, in his own words, “diversity of opinion is a good thing”. No doubt in his previous role as Minister for Integration he would happily have attended a few BNP rallies for similar egalitarian reasons. A diversity of opinion is always preferable to a monoculture of the mind, but at least some token effort should be made towards quality control.

Let us hope, for all our sakes, that this is not Mill's "elite of the country".

Perhaps the best solution is to reexamine Haworth's Athenian model, allowing for wider decision making by referenda (like the Swiss model, along the lines proposed by Direct Democracy Ireland), tempered by a Council of Ministers drawn randomly from the citizenry akin to Labour's proposed Constitutional reform forum. Strict term limits (only serving once for a single term of a year, maybe two) and the randomness of selection should reduce opportunities for corruption and graft, and can anyone argue that random selection is any less valid a selection method than our current one based on hereditary membership of a small number of political dynasties?

We are a small nation, and despite (or indeed, because of) being shockingly over-represented in terms of the number of public representatives, there remains a corresponding dearth of true democracy. It is not enough to simply change the people within the system once every five years, it is the system itself that must be changed.

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