Monday, August 10, 2009

Democratic choice

One often encounters an attitude, in writings or discussions about society, that being a (“small-d”) democrat requires adopting a “take people as they are” philosophy; i.e., an attitude that faults any questioning of people’s pre-existing attitudes, practices, desires or beliefs. Interestingly, this attitude has distinctive versions on both the right and left. On the right, it takes place in the context of market theory, specifically in the idea that outcomes from free market exchanges are not only economically more efficient (itself a challengeable claim), but are inherently more democratic than decisions made politically. On the left, it takes the form of cultural relativism – the idea that every society has the right to decide its own way of life, even if this involves practices (like female circumcision or stoning rape victims to death) that we may find morally reprehensible, by our own lights. The strong form of this attitude would claim that any attempt to educate others as to our own values is propaganda, imperialism and attempted culture-cide.

I would argue that both of these points of view are not, in fact, democratic, but actually anti-democratic, even anti-political, as well as elitist and degrading. I would argue, further, that they are in fact contrary to the way most people would evaluate their own decision-making process.

The market-theory version of the “take-’em-as-they-are” argument privileges small scale, individual decisions made by people acting in isolation, over those which the same people would make after collective deliberation, discussion and debate. Specifically, the individual decisions are considered “free”, and collective decision making considered to be in some way coerced. Some factors in real-life decision making are either ignored, or explicitly assumed away under such a rubric as “enlightened self-interest”. In particular, it dismisses or denies the fact that isolated individual decisions are likely to consider only a limited range of factors directly and obviously related to the immediate choice, whereas collective deliberation allows the opportunity to introduce broader perspectives, show how the decisions of one might have an unforeseen impact on others, and consider how each seemingly small decision contributes to broader, social outcomes.

One reason for this attitude in market theory, I am convinced, is that market theorists want to find a “once-for-all”, “magic bullet”-style solution to social problems. Democratic theory, in favoring collective decision making, does not offer this – it only offers a process: deliberate, discuss (perhaps argue), decide – which includes no guarantee that the final decision will be a good one. How much more appealing the idea of an impersonal mechanism (the market) that, if left alone (if we only don’t THINK too much), will automatically “get it right”. But this attitude, as it distrusts ANY form of collective decision making in favor of isolated, individual choice and impersonal mechanisms, is not only anti-democratic but it is actually anti-political. It is also degrading, in that is implies that people’s worst, most unreflective, selfish and egoistic sides are some how more “them” than their considered judgments. Further, it is often associated with a (degrading) assumption that people are more likely than not to mess up, if they try to make a conscious decision, which in conservative tradition goes hand-in-hand with efforts to limit popular participation in political governance, preferring to restrict it to an educated (usually wealthy) elite.

The “take-’em-as-they-are” theory is also contrary to the way most people would actually think about their decision making. If you were to say to most people, “The decisions you make when you think about a question, collect whatever information you can on it, listen to other people, and discuss it with your friends and colleagues, are likely to be better decisions than the snap judgments you make without doing these things,” this would not be a particularly controversial thesis.

One can also argue – not without pitfalls, but hard to refute in principle – that even the individual market decisions people make AFTER they have discussed, deliberated, educated themselves, or been better-educated, even constrained, as the result of collective decisions, will tend to result in greater INDIVIDUAL satisfaction in the outcomes than would have resulted from those ill-considered, a priori ones. This argument, if accepted, eliminates any conceivable utility-theoretical basis for preferring the less-considered to the more-considered choice.

“Common sense” decision making models also contradict the extreme multi-cultural leftist argument for non-interference. Most people have a reasonable amount of confidence in their own ability to weigh the evidence and make their own decisions. If you say, “You shouldn’t listen to other people, because they will lead you down a garden path, and convince you of things against your better judgment, and you will come to regret it, later,” people may say, “Yes, that could happen,” but by-and-large they will trust their own ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, and will not feel they need to do so by shutting their ears. (An exception, of course, is people with some pathological reason to deny reality, such as those who secretly fear their own position of privilege is unsupportable, and don’t want to listen to arguments that might turn this fear into an inescapable certainty.) Also, while people tend to be conservative about their own cultural values, they are not necessarily opposed totally and across the board to the idea of trying something new.

There are, of course, real difficulties in distinguishing between education and propaganda, and especially, there are real problems for democracy when “education” is presented within a political context marked by a pre-existing power disparity between the “educator” and the student. But to say that this means all attempts at education should be eschewed is itself elitist and anti-democratic – and self-contradictory. It makes no sense to say we should take people just as they are, and not try to educate them, because their opinions about how best to live their own lives should be trusted, and at the same time say they would not have sufficient wit to judge for themselves the pros and cons of contrary opinions we might express. People who adopt this attitude are expressing a basic distrust in political process, in favor of a head-in-the-sand, leave-well-enough-alone approach.

There are real moral problems, too, with adopting even mild forms of cultural relativism when the practices are extreme – slavery or genocide may be obvious examples, or, for that matter, stoning of rape victims. In these cases, despite theoretical pitfalls and slippery-slope arguments, it is morally appropriate to move beyond education and persuasion to outright coercion – if possible. Practical constraints here raise their ugly head, and the historical record for imposing morality at the point of a sword (besides predominating in examples of efforts later historians would not necessarily consider moral) has not been notably marked by practical success. In many cases, it may arguably only make matters worse. But I digress...

The imperfections of our “really existing” democracies do present problems with the idea of privileging political decision making over “invisible hand” market mechanisms, or in trying to promote culture-change by education and persuasion (let alone through coercion). The level of participation in public decision making in our societies is very low. Decisions are made by a tiny subset of the population, some elected by the people, others almost invisibly appointed to run agencies, or hired by those appointed, with broad latitude in how they implement the general directives that are set by the elected representatives. Public debate is largely moderated by privately (and elitely) owned news media, and the debaters mostly do not ultimately have a vote in the final decision making, which is often done by people far removed from any kind of democratic accountability whatsoever over their individual actions. The vast majority of the people only passively follow the debate, if at all, in the newspapers or (more likely) TV news stories, and limit their actual participation in the process to pulling the lever every 2-4 years. In the US a small majority of those eligible to vote usually don’t even do that much.

But anyway, that’s a topic for another post…

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