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Democracy, Ends and Means

This extended response follows from a series of comments, #29, #30, #31 and #34, to a post from The Agitator.

To maintain a well-functioning democracy, the people must hold their representatives accountable for representing their interests, and fire them if they fail to do so; directly and via their representatives, they must demand competence and effectiveness in their executives, and fire them if they fail to demonstrate those qualities; and at the critical juncture where “the will of the people” is translated into policy, they must require honesty and fidelity in choosing apt courses of action to achieve common goals.

The present political system of the United States of America is inadequate to support this process. Competition for elected office rests primarily on candidates’ skill at mounting political campaigns, because it is all but impossible for us to form meaningful assessments of how well they do their jobs. The main reason “special interests” get their way isn’t that they can buy access and influence; it’s that “regular interest” — the feedback loop of democracy, by which government is itself governed by its citizens — is too weak and dysfunctional to perform its task.

One significant reason it fails is the conflation of ends and means. The functions of representation (identifying ends) and legislation (developing means) require quite different orientations and skill sets, yet we ask the same people to perform both, and we fail to distinguish the two in political discourse. In so doing, we relinquish transparency at the key point where these processes meet: the genesis of policy.

Representation requires discovering and delineating common goals. In a fundamentally free society where government rules “by the consent of the governed,” goals must be shared — that doesn’t mean everyone will agree with every detail, but representatives, working together, must find compromises that minimize alienation and disenfranchisement among the population. The “War on Drugs” is a glaring example of failure to grasp this fundamental prerequisite of democracy. We cannot expect to preclude the choices of some ten to fifteen percent of the adult population short of surrender to a police state; we should be looking for approaches which both users and non-users can embrace, not perpetuating an endless battle between one and the other.

Crafting legislation, on the other hand, is a problem in achieving objectives. Writing something into law does not make it so; in general, government cannot make citizens do or not do anything: it can only change the context of probable consequences in which they act. From criminal statutes (Will a “three strikes” law reduce the number of violence-prone individuals in society? Will it lead repeat offenders to conclude they have nothing to lose by leaving no witnesses?) to business regulation (SOX), law-making is a nuanced task requiring expertise in both the legal system and the “real world” as they relate to the questions at hand; the ability to perform a careful analysis of the costs, risks and benefits of alternatives; and the skill and discipline to develop pragmatic approaches based on defined objectives and constraints. It’s Systems Engineering of the most critical sort.

These two functions are interdependent, yet distinct. Each informs the other: meaningful goals cannot be set without understanding the limits of our knowledge and ability, while in developing potential solutions, new questions of value routinely arise. Nonetheless, neither the aptness of goals nor the effectiveness of solutions can be adequately discussed and evaluated when the two are conflated. Single individuals or groups can perform both functions, but their performance cannot be usefully audited when the interaction of these processes is opaque.

In political discourse we rarely confront the ways in which we differ in primary objectives — instead we pretend the goals are already understood and shared (among everyone worthy of consideration, that is) and debate means of achieving these undefined ends. As a result, we miss the opportunity to synthesize truly shared goals because we never talk about them, and we are unable to evaluate the effectiveness of implementations because we have no agreed-upon expectations against which to measure them. We become mired in controversies over methods debated as if they were principles, substituting abundant opinion for scarce knowledge. The weight of public support falls to what “sounds right” (a terrible guide for solving complex problems), while expert, informed review remains outside the “democratic loop,” though available to major stakeholders. It’s an ideal system for special interests to privatize understanding, choose a course that’s desirable for them, and then develop superficially credible rationales for a generally befuddled public.

The task of working out common goals in a diverse society is inherently difficult; it becomes impossible when deliberation is undermined by misplaced technical details outside the expertise of most people. Similarly, effective analysis of potential courses of action depends on clear, open discussion among experts which can be peer-reviewed and examined, objectively, in detail without contamination by hidden, unspoken value judgements. Then, only with both the delineation of common goals and the analysis of potential courses of action performed openly and honestly, can we audit the development of policy from these inputs and be confident that the process has not been hijacked.

I cannot presently propose a structure which might repair this broken “feedback loop of democracy” or even address the particular mode of failure described above; I only suggest that if we are serious about democracy as a real mode of self-government and not just a formal exercise, we really, really need to start looking for one.

Randy Fellmy, 17 March 2009