Down with participatory democracy
In recent days the Department for International Development and the Conservative Party have each published major policy statements on international development and aid, the former in an impressive new White Paper (pdf file) and the latter in an almost equally impressive policy paper, OneWorld Conservatism (pdf file). It’s heartening that on the overwhelmingly pressing problem of world poverty and how to alleviate it, the two main parties are so closely agreed. No sensible observer would quarrel with anything in the Conservative paper’s introduction to its list of detailed recommendations:
• If elected, a new Conservative Government will be fully committed to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income as aid
• We believe that the Department for International Development (DFID) should be here to stay. With a Conservative Government, DFID will continue to report to the Secretary of State for International Development, who will have a seat in the Cabinet. British aid will remain untied from commercial interests, and we will maintain DFID’s focus on poverty reduction
• We support and will continue to work towards the Millennium Development Goals. [Original emphases]
Not all of this will have the traditional Tory Party members and supporters out in the rural shires dancing in the fields, and much credit is due to both David Cameron and his shadow development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, for their principled commitment to bipartisanship – and for acknowledging the merits of at least one area of the Labour government’s record.
There is however one proposal in the Conservative paper which is, and should be, highly controversial:
We will establish a new MyAid fund, worth £40 million in its first year. Every taxpayer will be able to log on to the MyAid website and view details of ten ongoing DFID-funded aid programmes, and vote for which one they think should receive the extra money. The options will include programmes run directly by DFID, as well as those run by respected NGOs. The Fund will then be distributed between the ten programmes in proportion to how many votes they receive. For example, if 25 per cent of people vote for the DFID programme in Malawi, that programme would receive 25 per cent of the Fund – £10 million. Everyone who votes will be kept up to date with regular email updates about the progress of ‘their’ project.
We will consult carefully on the technical aspects of the voting system. The projects will be chosen so as to illustrate the range of activities in which DFID and NGOs are involved and the variety of countries they work in. This will increase public understanding of, interest in and support for Britain’s aid programme — and create a clear incentive for DFID to demonstrate and improve the quality and impact of its work. If this idea proves successful, we will scale it up in future years. One option would be to set the level of the fund so that it equals the total amount raised by Comic Relief.
Interesting, ingenious, carefully worked out, even cautious — but in the end misguided. We elect our MPs and governments to govern according to their own best judgements, not according to ours. They have access to expert advice, both from officials and others, politically committed and professionally neutral, and to a wealth of information which it would take any individual private citizen a lifetime to track down and absorb. We are fully entitled to monitor what they do, to try to influence them, to hold them to account, and ultimately to kick them out at election time and substitute an alternative slate of rascals. But we should not attempt to micro-manage them from day to day.
Current disillusionment with politicians — in effect all politicians, of whatever party — has been sharpened by the scandal over MPs’ expenses and by the collapse of our banking and economic systems, unfairly but inevitably blamed on the supposed failures of the incumbent government’s policies. This has led to an outbreak of proposals for substituting “the will of the people” for the judgement of politicians in day-to-day decision-making.
Some are demanding a recall system, under which an arbitrary percentage of the constituents of an MP whose conduct has displeased them would have the right to ‘recall’ the MP and force a by-election, on the pattern of some US states. As I wrote in an earlier post about current zany suggestions for constitutional reform, this would provide “a field-day for the glassy-eyed environmentalists, anti-abortionists, vegans, English flag-waggers, pacifists, single fathers, flat-earthers and other fanatics.” Others want referendums on a wide range of policy issues — most notably the Lisbon treaty, on which the refusal to hold a referendum has caused a deafening amount of noise, not least from a deeply Europhobic Tory party. There’s also currently a campaign for a Citizens’ Convention:
A Citizens’ Convention would a deliberative assembly consisting of at least 100 ordinary men and women selected from the electoral roll, just as juries are selected in the courts. The selection would be ‘semi-random’ as attempts would be made to ensure that the Convention represents all sections of society and all areas of the UK.
The role of the Citizens’ Convention would be to make a series of recommendations to Parliament for improving UK politics. In particular, we would want it to look at:
* The payments and expenses of MPs and members of the House of Lords.
* The electoral system or systems in the UK including the composition of the House of Lords.
* Greater powers for citizens to hold MPs and members of the House of Lords to account including the circumstances and method by which citizens can petition for the recall MPs and members of the House of Lords.
* The conduct of business in Parliament including the powers of the House of Commons; and of individual members of Parliament.
* The funding of political parties including the issue of caps on donations.
It could explore other areas of reform if it decided to.
(I love that parting shot.)
The campaign envisages that the Convention would be confined to making “recommendations” to parliament on all these issues (including a provision for recalling MPs), rather than having actual legislative or executive powers. But once the 100 lucky conventioneers got the bit between their teeth, who knows what powers they might demand?
The proposition that a largely random collection of ordinary citizens — chosen mainly by lot in the case of the convention, or by counting heads in the case of the MP’s recall proposal — are better placed to exercise informed and mature judgements on complex political and constitutional issues than elected ministers backed by experienced government departments, or MPs with their extensive parliamentary and other resources and in many cases their long experience and expertise, is fundamentally fatuous. It flies in the face of the Burkean doctrine that MPs should be representatives, not delegates. It ignores the reality that the great majority of sensible (and other) people would be appalled by the idea of being constantly required to pronounce on the complex and generally tedious controversies of the day, wanting nothing more than to be allowed to get on with their lives while others better qualified to make such decisions are allowed to do so. It actually encourages the pernicious populism of governments which seek to steer by reference to opinion polls, focus groups and phone-in programmes on radio and television, instead of making their own evidence- and advice-based decisions. Above all it effectively prohibits ministers from making necessary but unpopular decisions and from leading and educating public opinion instead of meekly following it.
Opposition to all suggestions for ‘participatory democracy’ infallibly invites the jeer about “the gentleman in Whitehall knows best”, generally assumed to be a self-evidently ludicrous proposition. But sometimes he does, and advises his minister accordingly. Whether the minister accepts or rejects that advice, he must answer for his decisions to parliament, and every few years to the electorate. By their fruits we shall know them. Why should the man on the Clapham omnibus be expected to possess more experience, knowledge and judgement about some multi-dimensional political issue than those whom we pay and elect to know about such things? The chances are that he has far better things to do when he gets off that bus in Clapham.
For better or worse, we have a terrible example of the actual consequences of government by public opinion and referendum. California, whose fiscal and other policies are virtually strait-jacketed by the misguided results of ‘propositions’ on which its electorate votes at election time, is calamitously broke as a direct result:
California has a budget deficit of $26.3bn (€18.85bn, £16.18bn) on revenues of just $113bn…. It has a balanced budget rule that forces it to eliminate the deficit but no agreement as to how. It has already in effect decided to selectively default — paying vendors with IOUs rather than cash….
The worst case scenario would be a default by the state which has $59bn in general debt, $8bn in bonds linked to securitised revenues such as tolls and $2bn commercial paper… … there are institutional reasons why the budget gap is proving difficult to close. Aside from the absurdity of having to balance the budget in the midst of the worst recession in half a century, California’s fiscal flexibility is diminished by other statutory restrictions, mostly imposed by state referendums known as propositions. These restrictions make it exceptionally difficult for the state to raise property taxes or cut basic education spending. About 25 per cent of revenue is, meanwhile, ringfenced. …
[‘California state ills could grow into a federal headache’, Krishna Guha in Washington, Financial Times, July 13 2009: emphasis added]
I rest my case.