True democracy is not just about taking part

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Our leaders blog, twitter and consult focus groups. But these developments do not make society better governed.

Like most people, I want to eat rich desserts, but do not want to get fat. I want to enjoy a secure retirement, but I do not want to save towards it. I want lower taxes, and I also want better public services. Of course I do. It would be odd if I did not. Irrationality does not lie in wanting inconsistent things. Irrationality is being unwilling to make choices between inconsistent things.

There was a time when crowds would wait for hours for a once in a lifetime opportunity to see and hear William Gladstone. But technology has steadily increased possibilities for the public to participate in the political process. It has not, however, created a corresponding increase in the time the public wants to devote to the political process. If anything, the opposite: by offering so many other ways to spend leisure time and by spreading prosperity, the modern age has reduced the intensity of public commitment to politics.

Many people take the view that more avenues for participation make democracy more real. They are excited by the opportunities offered by the internet: Barack Obama was elected after a campaign that made extensive use of computers and mobile phones. Our leaders blog and twitter, receive online petitions and e-mails, consult focus groups and monitor opinion polls. If the measure of democracy is the frequency of communication between politicians and their voters, then society is steadily becoming more democratic.

But these developments do not make society better governed. If these methods of participation are extensive, they are also superficial. If democracy is about delivering what the electorate wants, it is not clear that policies that respond to every angry headline in the Daily Mail achieve that result. Popular esteem for politicians and public approval of political decisions have declined, not increased. When Winston Churchill was advised to keep his ear to the ground, he commented that the public would not have much respect for leaders observed in that position. Politicians planning appearances on YouTube might reflect on his advice.

California is not only the centre of many of these new technologies. With regular plebiscites and recalls, it is a pioneer of models of extended popular participation in the democratic process. It is also a model of dysfunctional democratic governance. The state’s budget crisis goes back to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. Asked whether they wanted lower property taxes, or not, voters quite reasonably decided they did. Voters also want to use more electricity but do not want more power stations. They want to reduce carbon emissions but also want to drive their cars. If you ask people simple questions that can be answered yes or no, you will get honest answers. But there is not the slightest reason why these answers should add up to a coherent policy programme, and typically they do not. Mature democracies have found ways round this dilemma. There is a big difference between expressing wants and opinions, and taking responsibility for decisions. Experiments in what is now called deliberative democracy show that when you give participants extensive information, and ask them to review alternative policy options, most people are conscientious and sensible in their approach. Political parties used to encourage this form of participation, by involving their members in policy discussions. But fewer and fewer people have time or inclination for this demanding activity, and the membership of political parties has withered to a small and depressing collection of ideologues and careerists.

Another concept of democracy invites voters to appoint people they trust to make decisions on their behalf. Two centuries ago, Edmund Burke explained to the electors of Bristol that he would be their representative, not their delegate. He would not seek to mirror or parrot their opinions, but would apply his own best judgment to the issues before him. Even if the technology had been available, we may assume he would not have twittered or consulted focus groups. It is unlikely that the results of introducing these technologies would have caused him to take a different view.

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