Sunday, 28 August 2016

So long as we're not free, we need democracy

Thurber's Very Proper Gander in full flow

I like and respect many Leavers, but I’ve never shared their enthusiasm for democracy – I want liberty and prosperity, and I don’t want to trade that in just to give my stupid next-door neighbours more power over my life.

What follows isn't about the recent EU referendum although, like much discussion and debate right now, it is inevitably framed by the issues surrounding our vote to leave the EU. The quotation above is from Sam Bowman, the Executive Director of the Adam Smith Institute and it cuts to the heart of what I think will prove the dominant division in politics for the coming generations - the debate about democracy and its purposes. We will have a bickering coalition of collectivists and populists arguing that democracy is pretty much everything opposed by an equally troubled combination of technocrats and libertarians to tell us democracy is an anachronism.

In some respects, the argument for more democracy is akin to the argument for more railways - a nineteenth century solution to twenty-first century problems. yet, at the same time, we are vocal in our support for "having a say", "being consulted" - for votes, elections and polling. Public opinion, far more than evidence, ideology or reason is the driver of political decision-making - Sam Bowman's "stupid next-door neighbours" really are as important to what government's do as are the wise minds in Sam's think tank.

The advocate of democracy pipes up here - we're all equal in the eyes of the law and we all should have an equal say. This is the 'end of politics' envisioned by UKIP's Douglas Carswell:

Douglas Carswell, a British member of parliament, likens traditional politics to HMV, a chain of British record shops that went bust, in a world where people are used to calling up whatever music they want whenever they want via Spotify, a popular digital music-streaming service.

For Carswell, political systems of representative democracy are legacy systems, clunky, unresponsive, corrupt and not well-liked. We need, Carswell would argue, to embrace technology to create an iDemocracy filled with referendums, instant consultations and dispersed decision-making. It isn't democracy that is failing and out-of-date but the institutions of representative democracy - parliaments, parties, election days and preening politicians. Release democracy from these constraints and it will flourish, will once again capture Rousseau's 'general will' as the flow of information from and between people allows a fluid, data-driven iGovernment.

But is it so simple? Here's John Naughton reviewing historian Yuval Noah Harari’s new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow:

...modern society is organised round a combination of individualism, human rights, democracy and the free market. And each of these foundations is being eaten away by 21st-century science and technology. The life sciences are undermining the individualism so celebrated by the humanist tradition with research suggesting that “the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms”.

We don't have to accept Harari's argument to recognise that, as every science fiction reader will tell you, for every optimistic technological future there's a frightening dystopia. Carswell's web-enabled democracy sits at odds to Harari's world - one more like H G Wells 'Time Machine' than a happy world of progress. Using that metaphor of nineteenth century technology beloved of so many tech writers, Harari depresses us with:

“the train of progress is again pulling out of the station – and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it, you need to understand 21st century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms.”

So which is it to be, Harari's world of Morlocks and Eloi or Carswell's liberated world filled with empowered citizens actively engaged in the new democracy through a new politics? Cynics, the wise ones at least, will recognise in Harari's world the realisation of that part of post-democracy we'd call technocracy. This is government by experts informed by ever more sophisticated 'Big Data' analyses. A world where there is no ideology merely data-driven answers to questions posed by the experts. A world where, if Harari and many others are right, the expert won't even be human. Public opinion plays no role in this decision-making other than as one imput to the expert system.

What we have is Hari Seldon's psychohistory, the idea that everything can be boiled down to a set of equations - algorhithms as we'd call them today:

“It is the first lesson you must unlearn. The Seldon Plan is neither complete nor correct. Instead, it is merely the best that could be done at the time. Over a dozen generations of men have pored over these equations, worked at them, taken them apart to the last decimal place, and put them together again. They’ve done more than that. They’ve watched nearly four hundred years pass and against the predictions and equations, they’ve checked reality, and they have learned.”

Although part of me suspects Gordon Dickson's Final Encyclopaedia is a better analogy, the lesson here is that there's just too much to know, that every model is a simplification and every trawl through 'Big Data' only touches a tiny part of the potential evidence. For all its wonders, technocracy does not provide the answers - the more we know, the more we're aware of what we don't know (unless, of course, you're a macroeconomist). And technocracy without democracy gets uncomfortably close to fascism even though its advocates do not see this problem and persist with ideas like basic income, depoliticised public services, industrial strategies and the belief that the economy can be directed from a room in the central bank.

There are two distinct responses to the EU referendum result. One is to reject the idea of referendums - to put Carswell's iDemocracy firmly back in its tin and screw the lid down really tightly. The other is to observe that the experts - the technocracy - were out-of-touch, unable to express their understanding other than through a patronising appeal to authority: "I'm an expert and you should therefore agree with me". The experts were not 'of the people' and, if the direction of technogical advance Harari describes is rights, future experts may not be people at all.

All this takes us back to Sam Bowman's quote where he rejects democracy in favour of "liberty and prosperity" and expresses the liberal view that his next-door neighbour (stupid or otherwise) should not have any power over his life. In some ways this libertarian viewpoint isn't set out often enough. Anyone who took an introductory course in political science will have pondered the essential conflict between freedom and democracy. Most usually this is dealt with by adopting the constitionalist view that liberties enshrined in law act as a check on the essential tyranny of democracy - the 55-45 or 52-48 problem.

By accepting liberties, whether we call them constitutional or human rights, our liberal democracy qualifies democracy and, as S E Finer put it, recognises that government is limited, society is pluralistic and that there is no "objective science of society or of morals". I take this as meaning that, when the chips are down, liberty trumps democracy. Just because you've 50% plus one behind you doesn't mean you can run me out of town on a rail. Nor, as Bowman hints, can you take decisions that damage my interests especially if they cause me harm.

The problem is that, while we nod in the direction of liberty, when faced with its realities we favour democracy. We see this in the debate around what is called "hate speech", in the French government banning the burka, and in a host of interventions designed to promote order at the expense of pleasure (because the majority disapprove of that particular pleasure). Perhaps because of its essential nature, our politics shouts more loudly about democracy than about freedom meaning that, too often, we lose the core idea of a government limited by the exercise of that freedom.

This, in a roundabout way, gets us to the problem with Sam Bowman's decision to vote to stay in the EU. As I noted at the start, we're not really concerned with the rights and wrongs of that vote but the real issue is whether the EU is liberal or technocratic. Bowman suggests the former because the institution insists on free movement of people and prevents the use of tax receipts to subsidise private business (there may be other examples but these are the two Bowman cites).

The problem is that these examples may not be the consequence of a commitment to freedom but rather a happy correlation between technocracy and liberalism. Such correlations are - as this note from Noah Smith tells us - pretty rare. Smith sets out a series of things he calls "free-market ideology" that, on reading, are all central elements of the currently dominant technocratic view - the weight of regulation's touch, the faux-privatisation of public services, public-private health systems and controlling monopolies. What matters isn't whether Smith is right but rather that he identifies the flaw in the technocratic ideal that 'Big Data' and the prophets of evidence-based policy have promised.

Bowman proposes supporting an undemocratic technocracy because, currently, it protects some freedoms he values. In the context of the recent referendum this makes sense - UK government is not significantly less technocratic except that, unlike the EU, it is more susceptible to democracy. And right now that democratic pressure is populist, it is Bowman's 'stupid next-door neighbour' demanding that something is done about the demons (and their witches) that infect our society. The result being the moral of Thurber's ' Very Proper Gander':

Anybody who you or your wife thinks is going to overthrow the government by violence must be driven out of the country.

Right now the main reason for having democracy is the scale of government and that this government does not respond to free choices made in a free market. In the UK government spends about £4 in every £10, it is a behemoth that dominates our society and economy simply because of its size. In other liberal democracies the governmental whale is even larger. We can, and rightly do, celebrate Tax Freedom Day when we start earning for ourselves not the government but this doesn't change the fact that the only brake on the desire of government to grow larger is the existence of democracy.

Until we are able to realise that those things we assume can only be provided by government - schools, roads, hospitals, drains, welfare - don't have to be provided by government, we need to keep that democracy and accept that sometimes Sam Bowman's neighbours get too much say over Sam's life. This is probably wrong but, until the case for libertarianism and a voluntary society is accepted, we really have no other way of keeping the Mr Creosote that is government from overeating.


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