Paradox of representation

Here’s qmonkey asking a good Q and tentatively offering an answer:

“I want the best and smartest people for the job! Then have their appointment vetted by my elected representatives… who don’t need to be gifted at anything else, other than successfully representing the views of their constituents.”


Populism, participation and democracy

Over at the Democratic Society blog, Anthony has written a very good post on the balance between decisions that have a democratic flavour to them (in the crudest sense of the word – decisions that reflect the broad stated will of those who express a view) and the need for high-quality decisionmaking.

Why is representative democracy the ‘least worst’ option?

Democracy is the worst form of government except all the other forms that have been tried from time to time – Winston Churchill

Funny aphorisms have a habit of making a case better than any footnoted essay, and Churchill’s view remains the most quoted argument I’ve seen in the defence of liberal democracy. But what is the basis for this argument?

The notion of representative democracy is often open to challenge from other forms. Most of us are attracted to the democracy because of it’s fairness. But fair and incompetent would not be acceptable, would it?

James Surowiecki’s ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ thesis, for instance, questions the quality of decision-making that individual humans make in comparison to a popular distributed wisdom. And while Surowiecki’s view (and similarly, that of many pro-market advocates) can be tested in certain spheres, I think that we can all agree that many of the decisions that we have taken on our behalf by governmental bodies require judgements that are a good deal more qualitative.

About eighteen months ago,* I was listening to a debate about Tony Blair’s premiership.

Alongside The Guardian’s Tim Garton-Ash, a former Labour MP called Tony McWalter was on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (with John Humphries in the chair) debating whether politicians should be ‘fighting the forces of evil’, (both discussants agreed that they should).

McWalter’s objection was to the means by which such decisions were reached. Tony Blair, he argued…

“…has a sense of mission that excludes him from taking advice or understanding that moral wisdom is distributed. He doesn’t ask for advice very much.”

“The PM ….doesn’t understand the notion of argument. He has a conviction and he tries to see that conviction through. And that has all sorts of major consequences. His concept of democracy [that Tony Blair discussed with John Humphreys on an extended interview earlier in the week] is that ‘we can can get rid of the government’. He doesn’t understand that democracy is about distributed democracy and that moral wisdom is distributed just as scientific wisdom is. And what he has to understand is that the horrible disfigurement of our constitution – that has an office that is so authoritarian – has got to be broken up and replaced by a system in wich the PM is ‘primus inter pares’ – the first among equals.”

He goes on to say:

“The sheer authoritarianism of Tony Blair’s approach ultimately results in bad government. That is the real problem we’ve got. “

JH: “So what we want is someone with strong moral views, but someone who be tempered by, and will listen to the advice of others?… so there needs to be someone whispering in his ear?”

TMcW: “not whispering in his ear, no. Parliament shouts at him regularly but he absents himself from debates when he should be listening to the representatives of the people. I’ve talked about the PM needing a philosophy. What he needs to do is to read Tom Paine, because Tom Paine says that we need representative democracy.

We don’t just need to get rid of people when we are fed up with them. We need constant contact between the representatives of the people and those who run the country. And Tony Blair has insulated himself hugely from those who represent the people in this country. We need a restoration of a truly representative democracy.”

I think that the term ‘distributed moral wisdom’ is at least as powerful as Churchill’s quip. Not as snappy or funny perhaps, but it makes the case for democracy in terms of it being the best way to make decisions – taking pragmatism, morality and expertise into consideration. But as an idea, it’s one that needs fleshing out.

*This went out on the 24th February, 2007 just after 8.30am. It’s a quick transcription that I did using the BBC’s ‘Listen Again’ and it cuts a few corners, but I’m confident that I’ve not altered any of McWalters’ meaning here

Do voters choose their representatives wisely?

Here’s a really good post that superimposes the work of Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill onto the John Sergeant / Strictly Come Dancing débâcle.

Chris asks:

  • Do we necessarily pick the best people as elected representatives?
  • Is this a bad thing?

Chris concludes that it shouldn’t be a bad thing, but that our current managerialist democratic institutions really don’t help.

It all reminds me of the similar question, do we generally elect the brightest people as leaders? It also casts some light upon the questions that political parties ask themselves when they are choosing candidates. In a high profile election, do they choose someone who may not necessarily have the best virtues as a representative, instead, preferring somebody who can use their personal charm to misdirect public attention away from policy issues?

I acknowledge that this is an overstated comparison, but no-one could argue that Boris Johnson’s personal popularity (not least for his bumbling demeanour and his ‘I’ve been a naughty boy’ evasions on private matters) didn’t have some bearing on his victory in the London mayoral elections? Was Boris’ popularity – at least in part – similar to that of John Sargeant?